October 23, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part Two

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire during the fighting of World War I, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashimites -- then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France negotiated this second agreement. They met several times in late 1915 and early 1916; both parties and Russia (then under the Czar) signed the resulting document on May 9, 1916. The agreement led to the division of Ottoman territories outside Turkey proper, including the areas that are now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, and portions of Saudi Arabia. The area was divided into “sphere of influence” between Britain and France, with Russia gaining guaranteed access to the Mediterranean Sea from its ports on the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits.

There can be little doubt that Sykes knew that he was negotiating points in contradiction of existing British foreign policy. At this time, Sykes was serving as the Under-Secretary of the War Cabinet, a position that certainly would have allowed him access to the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence of 1915. The provisions were in direct conflict with pledges already given by the British to Sharif Husayn.

The major provisions of Sykes-Picot Agreement were:

  • Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast;
  • France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia's share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakir, and Mosul;
  • Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Akka (Acre);
  • Between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence;
  • Alexandretta (Iskenderun) should be a free port; and
  • Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime.
Following the successful overthrow of the Czar in 1917, the Russians withdrew from the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Arabs, including Sharif Husayn and his sons ‘Abdullah and Faysal – the two leader who preceded British troops into Damascus and Aleppo – learned of the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the Russians publicized it to embarrass the Western governments, were justifiably angered.

Although the provisions were somewhat modified by the San Remo Conference of 1920-1922, the Arabs never fully received what they were promised. Many observers attribute much of the political instability in the Middle East today to the series of conflicting promises made by the British and resultant compromises.