THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT, 1916
WWI ultimately pitched the Russians, British and French against an alliance of Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman armies in a struggle which lasted four years and resulted in shocking losses on all sides. It also led to the partial redrawing of the map of Europe and signaled the final demise of the Ottoman Empire. British and French schemes for the post-WWI future of the Middle East were characterized by the two sides’ competing long-term strategic interests as well as by their wartime alliance against the Ottomans. Both sides recognized in the ascendance of an organized Arab nationalist movement an opportunity to galvanize local forces and bring about an effective revolt against the Ottomans. They also saw an alliance with accommodating and yet legitimate Arab leaders as essential to maintaining their regional interests in a post- Ottoman era. The Hussein-MacMahon correspondence (1915-16), conducted between the British Government, through Sir Henry MacMahon, and the Hashemite leader Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali of Mecca, saw Britain confer upon Hussein legitimacy as the political leader of the Arab people. The British vowed to, “recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions demanded by the Sharif...”1 In return, Hussein committed his Arab forces to revolt against the Ottomans in accordance with British plans and together with their forces. However, even as the Arabs prepared for the promised revolt (begun in June 1916) the British and French were conducting the secret negotiations that led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Ignoring their pledges, the British - represented by the orientalist Sir Mark Sykes - sought to consolidate their control of a land ‘bridge’ stretching from Iraq and the Persian Gulf, to the Mediterranean via Palestine. The French - represented by their Beirut Consul General Charles Picot - opposed granting Britain such powerful leverage in the region without themselves retaining commensurate influence. The compromise formula reached by the two rivals, and endorsed by their mutual ally Russia, whereby Palestine would be ‘shared’ according to spheres of influence and a ‘condominium’ arrangement, with both parties respecting each other’s vital assets and interests therein, was never to eventuate. Six months after Sharif Hussein led the Arab Revolt, as part of which he declared Arab independence from Ottoman rule, British forces took control of southern Palestine and proceeded towards Jerusalem. British Prime Minister Lloyd George declared, “the French will have to accept our protectorate; we shall be there by conquest and shall remain.”2 By December 1917 Jerusalem was in British hands and both the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence and the Sykes-Picot agreement were in tatters. In the meantime, the British had stepped up their contact with the Zionist leadership, pledging their support for a Jewish national home in Palestine in November 1917 (the Balfour Declaration).3 The betrayal felt by the Palestinians, along with much of the Arab World, the reemergence of the bitter power rivalry between France and Britain in the post-war years, and the gains afforded the Zionist movement under British policy, were to become the defining factors in regional tensions between 1918 and 1920. The clash of British and French interests initially disrupted the nascent Palestinian national movement, with the appeal of union within a ‘Greater Syria’ - under French influence (1918-20) - seeming the most practical and immediate means of achieving liberation and thwarting Britain’s pro-Zionist policies. However, many within the Palestinian leadership had emerged from the bitter experience of betrayal with a strong suspicion of both British and French intentions. Their fears were confirmed when, in 1920, French forces took Damascus, expelling Syria’s leadership and placing the nation under their direct rule. With British military rule over Palestine and French rule over Syria, any remaining hope that either of the two powers considered Arab independence favorably evaporated. The third Palestinian Arab Conference, meeting in Haifa in 1920, called for the “independence of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon - each alone.