The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement has long been regarded as a watershed – a pivotal episode in the history of the Middle East with far-reaching implications for international law and politics. A product of intense diplomacy between Britain and France at the height of the First World War, this secret agreement was intended to pave the way for the final dissolution of Ottoman power in the region.
For centuries the Ottoman Empire had controlled most of southwestern Asia. To some extent, this was due to the dexterity of its diplomats and the temerity of its administrators. However, during the empire’s last decades, it was mainly due to the fact that Europe’s great powers typically regarded a weak but relatively stable Ottoman state as expedient – either to further their own interests or to bolster the continental balance of power.
By late 1915, roughly a year after Istanbul’s entry into the war as a Central Power, it had become clear to many in the West that the Great War had made the Ottoman Empire’s preservation all but impossible, at least in the far-flung and overstretched form in which it continued to exist. An agreement prepared by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in early 1916 was to settle the matter once and for all.
Pursuant to the text of the agreement, as well as the map that accompanied it, Britain was to exercise a considerable degree of formal authority over the areas around Baghdad, Basra, and Kuwait, as well as Haifa, Acre, and additional territory on the Persian Gulf. Other areas that would eventually find their way into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as large swathes of what is now Jordan, would also fall within Britain’s sphere of influence. For its part, France was to enjoy formal authority over Lebanon, modern Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and vast tracts of what ultimately became southern, eastern, and southeastern Turkey. It would also project significant influence over the remainder of Syria and present-day Iraqi Kurdistan. Interestingly, an “international administration” was to be established for Palestine. Other clauses in the agreement concerned customs tariffs, the construction, ownership, and operation of railways, and the status of Haifa and Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun) as “free ports” for France and Britain respectively.
Since the agreement spoke of “an independent Arab state or a confederation of Arab states” for areas not under formal British or French authority in addition to specifying areas in which London and Paris would “establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire,” the agreement has sometimes been deemed to be in nominal conformity with previous (and subsequent) pledges of autonomy and sovereignty to the Arab peoples of the Ottoman Empire. In reality, though, it was always understood that such “independence”, should it ever truly be granted, would be tightly circumscribed, and that much of the actual work of administration would be placed in the hands of European “advisors” and “functionaries.” After all, not only was the agreement prepared clandestinely, with no direct involvement on the part of Arab or other “local” officials, but it ran counter to promises of independence that had been made to Sharif Hussein bin Ali in return for Arab support of the Allied war effort against the Ottomans.
The agreement had been made with the knowledge and acquiescence of Russia, which, as a kind of incidental party, had also been promised power in Armenia and portions of northern Kurdistan. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsarist regime in late 1917, one of their first significant international acts was to publish the text of the agreement in Pravda and Izvestia. This went a long way to delegitimating the agreement. However, much of the underlying logic – placing predominantly Arab and Kurdish territories detached from the Ottoman Empire under British and French control – found expression in the League of Nations Mandates System. As Susan Pedersen has recently reminded us, the Mandates System blurred the (always porous) line between formal and informal domination, ensuring that most of the territories Sykes and Picot had discussed would be governed through a combination of foreign administration (Britain would administer Palestine, Mesopotamia/Iraq, and Transjordan, while France would administer Syria and Lebanon) and international supervision (the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission would do most of the heavy lifting in this regard).
The deal that was struck in 1916 between Sykes and Picot – two men whose lives and careers are emblematic of a period in which European imperialism was undergoing significant internationalization and institutionalization – has been subject to extensive examination over the course of the past century. Indeed, arguably no other instrument prepared with a view to reconfiguring the law and politics of the Middle East has been ascribed the same kind of symbolic power.
For advocates of pan-Arabism, the agreement has always been an illustration of the hypocrisy of European policymaking – a sad reminder of the unity and prosperity that might have characterized the Arab world had the British and French kept their word and not had recourse to their usual divide-and-conquer tactics. If it wasn’t clear already, many now argue, the Syrian Civil War has made it all too apparent that some Arab states are little more than products of a colonialist imagination that knew remarkably little (and cared even less) about the forces and dynamics it sought to manipulate.
For many Palestinians, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, with its promise of a “national home” for the Jewish people, is the best possible evidence that whatever limited benefits may (or may not) have followed from “international administration” of the territory would never have precluded British support for Zionism. (Interestingly, Sykes appears to have been involved in fashioning the policy behind the Balfour Declaration.) More generally, willingness to partition the Middle East in accordance with fundamentally European concerns is viewed as a key reason for the creation of the State of Israel, the concomitant displacement of Palestinians, and the decades of conflict and occupation that have followed.
For Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, the agreement is one in a long series of legal instruments that have betrayed their national and international aspirations. Interestingly, it has also sometimes been understood to embody the sort of “statist” rationality against which Kurdish transnational movements, with their insistence upon complex confederal arrangements that criss-cross the Middle East’s artificial boundaries, have made a point of mobilizing.
For Islamists of various stripes, the “nation-states” that the Sykes-Picot Agreement eventually made possible, even inevitable, pose a direct and significant threat to the integrity and ideological primacy of the ummah, or “community of believers”. The so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, for instance, regularly denounces the agreement in line with its goal to redraw the map of the Middle East in one fell swoop – a goal that it seeks to realize through a combination of war, pillage, genocide, mass rape, and forced conversion.
The world today is to a significant degree the product of the fantasies and ambitions of Sykes, Picot, and countless other agents of empire. It is also the product of innumerable groups and individuals who have invoked the Sykes-Picot Agreement in order to secure recognition for their own projects. Far from being “dead”, as so many now claim, the agreement is more “alive” than ever. Zombie-like, it refuses to leave our midst, its grip on reality becoming more tenuous and surreal with every passing moment, the map it continues to offer us corresponding less and less adequately to the territory it was originally designed to reshape and represent.
Headline image credit: MPK1-426 Sykes Picot Agreement Map signed 8 May 1916 by Royal Geographical Society. UK National Archives. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons