By Kawthar Guediri
Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1916, expecting the imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and in order to expand their spheres of influence in the Middle East, the United Kingdom and France concluded a secret agreement with the assent of Tsarist Russia.
This accord known as the Sykes-Picot agreement – after the negotiators, Francois Georges-Picot (the French Consul in Beirut before WWI) and Sir Mark Sykes (a diplomatic adviser and member of the British Conservative Party) – defined the partition and dismemberment of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the future zones of control of each country.
It was so secret in fact, that the Arabs themselves were never made aware of it until the Bolsheviks discovered the deed after the fall of the Tzar, and published the text of the agreement in 1917 which of course added to its infamy.
Since then, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has become in the Middle East the symbol of imperialism and arbitrary partition.
While the accords did indeed constitute a major event, deconstructing the belief that Sykes-Picot is the turning point in the Middle East’s modern history is a necessary step in understanding the processes of separation and partition; processes that have not ceased to replicate themselves for a century.
The McMahon-Hussein correspondence enabled Britain to negotiate with the Arab territories lying outside its scope, following a logic of ethno-religious separation. In accordance with France’s interests, it excluded the non-Muslim Arabs from the territories it was ready to recognise as Arab, and independent.
This said, neither document should be regarded outside its context of a result of dynamics present in the region a long time before WWI.
The road to Sykes-Picot
Since the beginning of the 19th century, western presence had been growing in the Ottoman Empire. A web of influence was established the development of missionary schools, cultural societies, the use of foreign languages particularly French in administrative matters but also in the means of colonisation: France was ruling over Algeria where it implemented a divide and rule policy and Britain had seized Aden.
Furthermore, France and Russia had both ordained themselves as protectors of the Catholic and Orthodox populations of the Empire.
This presence grew further in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The Ottoman Empire was in debt and had to rely on financial deals with foreign powers to stay afloat, which brought bankers and financiers to the centre of affairs.
Parallel to that, France and Britain started working twice as hard in order to install exclusive control over portions of the Empire’s Arab provinces. By the end of the century, both powers had expanded their empires even further, Britain was controlling Egypt and Cyprus, and France had set a protectorate in Tunisia (Morrocco was to follow in 1912).
The alliance between Germany and the Empire was materialising in the Ottoman railway project. However, the railway’s extension projects in the beginning of the 20th century cast a shadow over Britain and France, which were both most anxious to defend their interests.
As a result, the railways became the subject of fierce competition to decide who would take control of its various parts. Each power negotiated for exclusive right of passage through its zones of interest: Syria and Lebanon for France; Mesopotamia and Palestine for Britain. Both powers eventually understood that they had to negotiate together to present a common front. Britain went so far as to prevent the Empire from connecting the Hedjaz to Aqaba, asking that the Sinai be part of Egypt and not Palestine in order not to risk the Suez Canal.
By 1911, Italy decided it wanted its own share, and attacked the Empire in order to seize Libya. The Empire’s defeats in Libya and in the Balkans were regarded by France and Britain as proof of the Empire’s demise, so from 1912, they started negotiating the future of Syria.
On the eve of WWI, and the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the Empire was the scene of a game of economic partition and cultural and religious spheres of influence.
The war and the Ottoman alliance with Germany would eventually provide France and Britain with the opportunity to oust the other contenders, and politically formalise an ongoing situation and negotiations that had begun a long time before.
The Sykes-Picot agreement was signed on May 16, 1916, using the jargon of independence and protection. It allocated the control of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to France, and the coastal strip between the sea and the Jordan River (Palestine), today’s Jordan, southern Iraq, Egypt and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre, to the United Kingdom.
Jerusalem was intended to become an international zone. Under the agreement, both powers would have (in its sphere of influence) “priority over right of business and local loans” […] AND, “shall alone supply advisers or foreign civil servants at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states”.
Although both the Sheikh of Mecca and the British government had parted without a strict agreement, the partner for the Sheikh and the Arabs was intended to be Britain, not France.
As such, the Sykes-Picot agreement introduced a third party on the diplomatic scene, even though the Sheikh had stipulated in his latest exchanges with McMahon that he was strongly opposed to giving up any part of the territory to France, or any other power.
Whereas the terms of Sheikh Hussein seemed clear concerning the Arab territory, which he considered as a whole, the Sykes-Picot agreement envisaged the dividing up and the partition of that territory, even if it was to lead eventually – as stated in the text – to the independence of the Arabs.
These agreements could hardly mask the British government’s bad faith in its negotiation with the Arabs and above all its colonial aims in the Middle East.
The question over the incompatibility of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the Sykes-Picot agreement has been raised by numerous scholars, and the debate it has provoked is far from over.
Seen from the Arab perspective, these secret agreements were inconsistent with the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. as the Arabs had no idea that Britain had been in discussions with France regarding the Ottoman Empire’s territories since the 1900s. British officials, however, maintained that there was no contradiction between the two agreements, at least in their public communications.
Contradictions and incompatibility?
Nevertheless, this inconsistency was raised and used within the British government soon after the signature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as is attested to by a note written by William Ormsby Gore in the Eastern Report dated May 31st 1917:
French intentions in Syria are surely incompatible with the war aims of the Allies as defined by the Russian government.
If self-determination of nationalities is to be the principle, the interference of France in the selection of advisers by the Arab government and the suggestion by France of the Emirs to be selected by the Arabs in Mosul, Aleppo, and Damascus would seem utterly incompatible with our ideas of liberating the Arab nation and of establishing a free and independent Arab State.
The British government, in authorising the letters by Sir Henry McMahon despatched to King Hussein before the outbreak of the revolt, would seem to raise a doubt as to whether our pledges to King Hussein as head of the Arab nation are consistent with French intentions to make not only Syria but Upper Mesopotamia another Tunis.
If our support of King Hussein and the other Arabian leaders of less distinguished origin and prestige means anything, it means that we are prepared to recognise the full sovereign independence of the Arabs of Arabia and Syria.
It seems to be the moment to acquaint the French government with our detailed pledges to King Hussein, and to make it clear to the latter whether he or someone else is to be the ruler of Damascus, which is the only possible capital for an Arab State, which could command the obedience of the other Arabian Emirs.
Whether the British government really believed the pledges to be incompatible and contrary to the self-determination principle or whether Gore’s comment was mainly aimed at finding a tool to disregard the agreement with the French and thus deny them future war spoils, is not an essential question for us here.
However, what it says is that there was sufficient doubt, right from their inception. This did not go unnoticed among the Arab nationalists who feared Britain’s betrayal and thus demanded clarifications as soon as they heard the news.
Be that as it may, while the Hashemites and Arab nationalist groups based in Syria were fighting for future independence and sovereignty, preparing for the end of the empire, Britain and France were drawing lines on maps therefore partitioning and dividing the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire.
Kawthar Guediri holds a PhD in Middle East politics. She works on issues related to colonialism, nationalism, separation and partition the Middle East and collaborates with Assafir Al-Arabi. She is the scientific coordinator of Common state-State Commun research project.
The New Arab