Making sense of Sykes-Picot

One hundred years ago today, two diplomats signed a secret agreement that has come to define the modern Middle East. While it may not have set the national borders we know today, the clandestine pact between European powers became the ultimate symbol for the kind of imperial fiddling that created a legacy of chaos in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulf States.

By 1915 it was clear that the Ottoman Empire was sure to fall apart, even as they continued to fight alongside Germany and Austria in World War I. The crumbling empire was referred to as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and had been in decline for centuries, having lost much of its territory since its peak in the 17th Century. Britain, France, and Russia –all allies in the war and imperial powers in their own right, belonging to the so called “Triple Entente” — long hungered after the Ottoman Empire’s vast holdings that spanned across the entire Anatolian Peninsula, much of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant.

Confident of victory in WWI, the question was how the Triple Entente would divide the spoils. Britain had already sealed one secret treaty with Russia, ceding control of Istanbul and the strategically important Dardanelles straight, which controlled passage from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, in return for a free hand in the rest of the Empire. This meant that Britain still had to settle plans with its other ally, France, on how to divvy up the rest.

Two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes of the United Kingdom and Francois Georges-Picot of France, spent five months in negotiations before signing an agreement on 16 May, 1916. Britain was primarily interested in bolstering its trade routes to India through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal, while France wanted to protect longstanding economic and cultural ties to the Levant.

The final agreement stipulated that Britain should control the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the strategic ports of Haifa and Acre, southern and central Mesopotamia, and what is now Jordan. France was allocated Syria, Lebanon, northern Mesopotamia, and southeastern Anatolia.

The agreement remained a secret, however, because it completely bypassed local powers in the region, and even betrayed promises made to of local allies actively fighting the Ottomans. A year later in 1917, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, made the agreement public after discovering it in the files of the Tsarist government he had just overthrown. Lenin largely achieved his objective: revealing the duplicity, moral scrupulousness, and imperial scheming of the two largest imperial powers, both of which had already carved up most of the world into colonies and spheres of economic and political influence.

Although Britain and France were embarrassed and the agreement didn’t fully resolve the post war order in the Middle East, they were to remain at the principal actors in future negotiations, and were arguably the even more powerful now that Russia had been weakened by its internal revolution in October 1917. The underlying dynamic of Sykes-Picot–European powers drawing arbitrary borders across regions they hardly understood–was to remain throughout subsequent treaties that created the modern nations of the Middle East. 

Historian and journalist Nick Danforth is skeptical, looking at subsequent developments with a series of maps in this interesting article. For some perspective, perhaps one might consider the challenges of introducing firm borders into an ethnically and religiously diverse area. All it takes is a simple look at Europe to see how bloody the imposition of a state system can be: how many millions of lives were lost as borders emerged and were redrawn across Europe since the modern nation state system emerged in 1648? Three-hundred years of wars, culminating in the most catastrophic horrors the world has ever seen, surely indicates that it’s no easy task to build borders.

Not all European plans for the region were successful, as in the case of the Treaty of Sèvres which failed to enforce its mandate of Kurdish and Armenian states in Anatolia. But European plans to dominate weaker Arab areas in the former Ottoman Empire largely proceeded according to the Sykes-Picot framework, which is why people from the Islamic State to Western academics and media point to it as the root cause of dysfunction, political chaos and economic malaise in the Middle East.