The Division of the Ottoman Empire

On May 16, 1916, French and British diplomats put the finishing touches on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up the terminated Ottoman state into territorial zones controlled by the British, French, and Russians.

Negotiators George Picot of France and Sir Mark Sykes of Britain drafted the original document from November 1915 to February 1916, but Sir Edward Grey of Britain and M. Paul Cambon of France hammered out the portion that detailed the fate of the Arabs and their place in the British and French empires. The British aimed to carve up Arabian land that could bridge its European and Asian territories, allowing easy transportation from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and thus the crown jewel of the empire, India. The British further desired a French buffer zone between themselves and Russia, and wanted Palestine controlled by international forces to prevent a French takeover. France wanted a land bridge to Persia and the Mosul oil fields, as well as control of the Mediterranean coast and southern Turkey.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement reflected the British and French policy of partition adopted during World War I aiming to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. While they previously wished to maintain the “sick man of Europe” to recover debts, the war provided an opportunity to gain strategic advantages and vast amounts of territory and resources. The Agreement also exemplified the British policy of making assurances concerning Arabs it never intended to keep. It hints at preparing Arabia for one independent state, an empty promise already made by the British government to the Sharif of Mecca as justification for the ensuing land grab; the Anglo-French section begins by declaring: “France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and uphold an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States.”

Of course, the rest of the document made it plain the aim was actually to increase European imperialism in the region, as the powers outlined their right to “establish direct or indirect administration or control as they may desire” in their zones. Rights were given in the form of “priority of enterprises” such as commerce and shipping, control over ports, management of water, restrictions on railroad construction, freedom of troop transportation and goods movement, management of tariffs and custom barriers, control of weapons, and a ban on granting any other imperialist nation power in the Middle East. In the weak guise of fulfilling Arab hopes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement declared the heart of the Ottoman Empire belonged to France and Britain. The Arabs were outraged when the document was leaked by the Russians.

This was not a formal treaty, but rather a policy statement: a simple clarification of France and Britain’s goals and an arrangement that could satisfy both while keeping the other in check. Sir Mark Sykes was not even an official diplomat (he was a Member of Parliament), and while the negotiators had the backing of their respective governments, national leaders did not sign it. Its intended secrecy and the later embarrassment over its exposure suggests it was never meant to be anything more than a quiet, unofficial plan between two untrusting allies.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement changed the face of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire disappeared, replaced by European-controlled spheres of influence. Britain gained territory in the modern regions of Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and benefited more from their acquisitions than did the French. France occupied Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey. Palestine was placed under international rule.

The spheres of influence were later the basis for the mandate system, wherein a foreign nation developed (occupied) another until self-government was possible (yet in practice never granted). The development of the mandate system in the early 1920s would lead to the creation of the Middle East’s modern-day national borders, most determined without much consideration of the religious and ethnic animosities that would be suddenly thrown into a country together. However, the fight for Arabian independence would be long and hard, as foreign occupation would continue for decades after the borders were drawn.

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