SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT
Seeing the destruction and hearing of the loss of life in Beirut following the recent massive explosion in the docks area of the city, it seemed yet another blow to a once beautiful city. With the arrival of President Macron of France to view the damage a few days later, I was reminded of French involvement in Lebanon and of the ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’ of May 1916.
The secret ‘Agreement’, had no force in law, but they were proposals which Sykes and Picot believed represented the territorial ambitions of their political masters. Both men were at best ‘middle ranking’ diplomats with an interest in the Middle East, but neither had any great knowledge of the wider political, religious and tribal issues of the region.
Francois Georges-Picot was trained as a lawyer and worked in the French Court of Appeal but in 1895 joined the French Diplomatic Service. He had postings to Copenhagen and Beijing before being appointed Consul-General in Beirut shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914. Despite being a career diplomat he was a member of the French colonial party and an advocate for a French mandate for Syria and Lebanon.
Mark Sykes was the heir to a vast estate in Yorkshire. His father Sir Tatton Sykes was 48 when he married Christina-Anne Jessica Cavendish who was 18. The couple had little in common and Sir Tatton it is alleged was somehow forced into the marriage by his mother in law who apparently threatened him with some sort of scandal. The couple soon separated, she living in London, and Sir Tatton at Sledmere House on his estate in Yorkshire. She took her pleasures elsewhere and became known as ‘The Lady in Satin Tights’ and developed a taste for gambling and alcohol. When her gambling debts exceeded £120,000, Sir Tatton disowned her, publishing a notice in the newspapers disavowing any future debts.
Mark Sykes shared his time as a boy between his parents and following the diagnosis of a lung disease as an eight year old Mark’s parents were advised that he should spend at least three months a year in a hot dry climate. His father travelled to the Middle East annually and took his son with him.
Mark arrived at Jesus College Cambridge with his personal tutor and servant but spent most of his time on ‘revelling, riding and port’ and a professor noted that he had ‘the greatest capacity for not learning’ he had ever encountered. His story brings to mind that of Sebastian Flyte in ’Brideshead Revisited‘. His journeys to the Ottoman Empire continued and he would be seen around Cambridge in what was described as bizarre Arab headgear smoking Turkish cigarettes and sharing elaborate stories of ‘adventure in the alleys of Constantinople’. Mark’s relationship with his father was always ‘difficult’. When Sir Tatton discovered that Mark was responsible for the coachman’s daughter’s pregnancy, in a fit of rage, he hung his son’s favourite terriers from a tree.
Although Mark Sykes failed to finish his degree at Cambridge he did publish a book in 1900 ‘Through Five Turkish Provinces’ and another in 1915 ‘ The Caliphs Last Heritage- A short history of the Turkish Empire’ He was Commissioned into The Green Howards and fought in the Boer War. From 1905-1906 he served as Honorary Attaché in Constantinople and in 1913 he inherited the estate in Yorkshire becoming the 8th Baronet.
In 1911 he was elected to Parliament as the member for Hull Central and spoke on issues relating to the Middle East so frequently that he was known as the Mad Mullah. He was described, unlike T E Lawrence, as ‘not a single minded advocate of the Arab cause’. His interests and sympathies also included the Armenians, Jews and Turks.
In 1914 he was Lt.Colonel in the 5th Green Howards, but he worked in the Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office on the Committee advising the Cabinet on Middle East Affairs. It was Sir Mark who in early October 1915 briefed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith and the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey over a map in Downing Street as to what he proposed. He is reported as having said ‘I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk’.
The discussions on the proposals began in the French Embassy in London on November 23rd 1915 and continued until January 3rd 1916. It is worth noting that in October 1915 Sir Henry McMahon, Britain’s representative in Egypt sent a message to Hussain bin Ali encouraging him to believe that if he joined the fight against the Turks, London would back his ambition to create an independent Arab state. This would include the Arabian Peninsula as well as Iraq, Syria and Palestine. This agreement was not a priority in their discussions and the territorial ambitions of their political masters were paramount
In simple terms the area north of the line proposed by Mark Sykes would be under French control, and the area to the South, would be under British control. There were two notable exceptions. Palestine was to be under International Control and Armenia was allocated to Czarist Russia. Other areas of modern Turkey were allocated to the Italians.
Despite being Allies on the Western Front, France and Britain were fierce rivals in the Middle East. Britain with Sykes/Picot was able to secure a buffer to the East of the Suez Canal, a vital economic and military shortcut to India and the rest of the Eastern Empire. It also provided a land bridge from the Mediterranean to the oil fields of Iraq.
Influence over Palestine would enable those in the British Government to address Zionist aspirations for a Jewish homeland. This was confirmed in November 1917 by the ‘Balfour Declaration’ which supported ‘the establishment in Palestine of a home for the Jewish people’. Despite some platitudes it ignored the fact that at the time 90% of the land was occupied by Arabs.
It did not take long for the Sykes/Picot proposals to be severely criticised by both the British and French Governments. Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 the new Bolshevik government in Petrograd released the text of the document to reveal British and French duplicity.
Sir Mark Sykes did not live long enough to witness the chaos his proposals would cause in the Middle East. He died in Paris in 1919 of the ‘Spanish Flu’. Picot lived until 1951, long enough to see in 1941 the British invasion of Lebanon and Syria to prevent the Germans from moving towards India, but not long enough to see his great nephew Valery Giscard d’Estaing becoming President of France.
The Egyptian President Nasser referred to the agreement as ‘a dagger in the heart of the Arab World’ and when Islamic State fighters poured into Syria from Iraq in 2014 they proclaimed ‘We have broken Sykes Picot’.
The Man Who Created The Middle East by Christopher Simon Sykes
Our Bloody Legacy To A Tortured Region by Patrick Bishop