THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT, 1916

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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.