The Sykes-Picot Agreement
In 2016, the territory along the borders between Syria and Iraq is the scene of civil war, the heart of a fight against so-called Islamic State and a refugee crisis that has displaced millions. Those borders were first drawn up in the midst of the First World War, one hundred years before.
In the midst of the First World War, Syria was part of the vast Ottoman Empire. Anticipating the defeat of this great empire—which had sided with the Germans—representatives of Britain and France met in secret to discuss how they might manage the breakup of its territory.
Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot believed that the best solution was to split the Middle East into two “spheres of influence” controlled by Britain and France. Signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement set out that Syria and Lebanon would exist after the war under French influence, while the British would maintain control over Iraq and Transjordan.
When news of the settlement was leaked in 1917 by the new Bolshevik government in Russia, Arab nationalists considered it a betrayal. They argued that it contradicted a promise that Britain had made of future independence for the region in exchange for Arabs’ support in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the Sykes-Picot agreement allowed Britain and France control over the administrations within their “spheres of influence.”
After the war, the modified terms of the agreement were ratified by the League of Nations in 1922. It continues to shape the history of the Middle East to this day.
‘Text of the Sykes-Picot Agreement’, WWI Document Archive
‘An Unlikely King: Hossein in War and Peace,’ The Nation