This is the story of the secret deal between the British and French, concluded in May 1916, which aimed to carve up the Middle East in ways that most benefited the two European powers.
Modern world history has been heavily influenced by events in the Middle East, whose strategic importance has been magnified by both a global dependence on oil and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A hundred years ago, World War I saw Britain, France and Russia locked in combat with Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans. As the war in Europe fought itself almost to a standstill, Britain cast a strategic eye towards key areas of the Ottoman Empire. Should the allies be victorious, it would be important to claim the most strategically valuable territory – Greater Syria and Mesopotamia – particularly in relation to the French.
The prime minister, Herbert Asquith, turned to a young British politician, Sir Mark Sykes, who’d become chief government adviser on the “Near East”. In late 1915 and early 1916, he and the French lawyer-turned-diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, would negotiate the terms of a secret agreement with potentially far-reaching consequences.
But this is also a story of intrigue and double-dealing.
At the same time as the British were negotiating with the French, they also made promises to two other separate interest groups – and these three deals all seemed to contradict one another. They promised to support the Arab Hashemite leader, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in his effort to create a united Greater Arabia; and also the international Jewish lobby in its goal of establishing a homeland in Palestine.
Sykes-Picot’s borders were never actually put in place but the agreement did form the basis of future negotiations. As well as proposing areas of direct British and French rule, it also mapped out other areas of “protection” and, ultimately, the post-Ottoman Middle East closely resembled the “spheres of influence” that it created. Within five years of the deal, the Treaty of Sevres and the Cairo Conference would draw the national boundaries of modern-day states which have been plagued by wars and revolutions ever since.
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