One hundred years ago, Britain and France concluded a secret agreement to carve up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, Arabs were promised tacit approval for independence if they sided with the Allies. This agreement became the basis for the future League of Nations mandates given to Britain and France. In the decades that followed, the Middle East was marred by weakness and division.
We take a closer look at five countries that were most impacted by this agreement: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. We also look at the Kurdish issue through the prism of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Gulf News columnists take a closer look at the Sykes-Picot agreement and discuss its relevance in modern Arab history.
A series of coups and counter-coups stemming from the Sykes-Picot Agreement rocked the young republic throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and the political turmoil shows no signs of abating
By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News
The modern Syrian state was born out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The land itself is much older, dating back thousands of years. The republic was created in 1932 while its modern borders were altered numerous times, most notably in 1920 when modern Lebanon was carved out of the Syrian motherland. In 1939, Turkey seized land in the Syrian north while in 1967 Israel occupied the Syrian Golan, slightly shrinking the Sykes-Picot boundaries.
The French rumbled into Damascus and imposed martial rule, dividing Syria into border-free mini-states. The first centered Damascus proper and included Homs and Hama in central Syria; the second in Aleppo encompassing the Deir ez-Zour province along the Euphrates. Two mini-sectarian states were also created, one for the Druze in the Syrian South and one for the Alawites along the Syrian coast, with its capital in the port city of Latakia. In 1925, the first two were merged into the State of Syria while the Alawite State and Druze State remained autonomous until 1936 when they were re-incorporated at the insistence of then-President Hashem Al Atasi.
The French gave the country its present form, marking the frontiers between Syria and British Mandate Palestine on one front, and with and the newly created State of Greater Lebanon, on another. Another border was drawn up with the newly created emirate of Transjordan in April 1921. The Lebanese enclave was carved out of the Syrian motherland and given independent status in the summer of 1920.
Syrians took up arms against the French in 1925 then resorted to statesmanship to declare their republic in 1932 and to achieve independence in 1946. In 1944 and 1945 Syria was a co-founder of both the Arab League and United Nations respectively. A national army was created in the summer of 1947. The urban notables who emerged to run the state were wealthy, stemming from the landed notability, and trained in gentleman politics. They authored Syria’s first republican constitution, preventing an incumbent president from serving for more than one term in office, and supervised free parliamentary elections in 1936, 1943, and 1947.
Syrian countryside however, lagged in backwardness and poverty, becoming breeding ground for populist and leftist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Baath Party, and the Communist Party. The Palestine War of 1948 tore the young republic into pieces, sowing discord within its social and political structure, and it led to the first military coup in March 1949, staged by the US-backed Army Commander, General Hosni Al-Zai’im.
Al Za’im triggered a series of coups and counter-coups that rocked the young republic throughout the 1950s and 1960s; until Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, who had become a household name in Damascus after the Suez War, merged Syria and Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). It was supposed to last for 100 years, but came crashing 43 months later — also by coup — in September 1961.
The UAR was not the last attempt to reshape the borders of Sykes-Picot and the post-First World War settlements. Unlike all other endeavours however, a century later, these borders are still standing tall across the Fertile Crescent.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).
Political entity endured, but Taif Accords remains in limbo
By Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer
Lebanon existed for thousands of years, the home of Phoenicians that confronted the Roman empire, succeeded by Christian, Muslim and Druze communities that established deep roots with the land even if, regrettably, all fell back on religious divides. More recently, Maronites and Druze established contact with European powers that influenced them. What united various groups was foreign occupation that, in the case of the Ottomans, lasted from 1516 to 1918.
For many, Lebanon is a deeply troubled state, and while the 1916 Anglo-French conspiracy, carefully hatched by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot divided up the Middle Eastern parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire into Arab statelets that would, preferably, be controlled by Britain and France, Lebanon managed to outwit those that haunted it ever since.
Sykes-Picot granted Britain the right to administer Syria after it captured the Levant from the Ottomans in 1918, London’s man in Damascus — the Arab Revolt’s Faisal Bin Hussain — wanted a truly independent Syrian state that included Palestine, Transjordan, and Lebanon.
In 1919, London conceded at the Paris Peace Conference both Levantine entities to France that moved quickly and, aware of Hashemite progress, settled on creating Greater Lebanon. Whether the chief reason for General Henri Gouraud, the military commander who proclaimed the establishment of the state within its current boundaries, was the result of any sympathies he felt towards the Lebanese was impossible to know. In the event, the Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoayek and two Christian intellectuals, Bulos Nujaym and Albert Naccache, both of whom attended the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference that determined the post-War environment, heavily influenced Gouraud. Lebanese voices were also heard because of the consequences of the Ottoman embargo during the war that led to a famine in which 200,000 died in Mount Lebanon alone, particularly in the districts of Byblos, Batroun and Tripoli, nearly half of the population at the time.
Syria exploded in an anti-French uprising but Lebanon held together until 1958 when it skirted with a first major constitutional crisis that took on confessional characters at a time when the Nasser phenomenon mobilised the Arab world. The long anticipated civil war came in 1975, accelerated by the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that poured Palestinian refugees in the fragile country, even if latent domestic schisms were inherently present.
Sykes-Picot imposed a French Mandate but expanded Lebanon’s borders too—then primarily populated by Maronites and Druze—to include Syria’s Beqaa Valley. Lebanon gained sovereignty, but its fundamental error was to settle on Consociationalism, a political system in which power is shared along confessional lines that Sykes-Picot encouraged because its authors believed that Arabs were not ready to adopt democracy.
Detractors concluded that Lebanon was a hollow state bordering on fiction, but that reflected ignorance, and while the civil war failed to resolve key problems associated with confessionalism, the country survived even if the Taif Accords were not implemented.
In 2014, the Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Junblatt told the British journalist Robert Fisk that “Sykes-Picot” was dead, and while that could be an accurate reading, Lebanon exists today largely because of the secret accord. Every effort to redraw the country’s map, including a civil war whose consequences linger, failed to alter that reality and it may just be that Lebanon stands as Sykes-Picot’s only success, notwithstanding Junblatt’s profession.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.
The decisions of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot have allowed the Zionists to dominate the Palestinians right up to the present day, causing untold suffering and misery
By Francis Matthew, Editor at Large
The secret agreement between Britain and France in 1916 proposed an "international administration" for Palestine, which was supposed to be run by Britain and France, as well as Russia, which as an Orthodox Christian imperial power retained some interests over the Christian sites in Jerusalem. However, the Russian revolution toppled the tsar and the revolutionaries revealed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to an astonished Middle East, and the new Russian government lost any claim to rule Palestine.
On the ground, First World War military considerations dominated as the Ottoman armies were defeated by the British with the help of their Arab allies. So regardless of any agreement, the British conquered Palestine along with all of Greater Syria, and General Allenby and his successors ran a military government in Palestine from 1917, and the British continued to administer Palestine directly until they were granted a mandate in 1923 from the League of Nations which continued until 1948.
The British had looked favourably at the Zionist agenda ever since 1915 when the British Home Secretary Herbert Samuel in the British Cabinet had supported the idea of establishing a British protectorate over Palestine, and creating a government based on “some kind of Council to be established by the Jews”.
In 1916 Samuel met Sykes as he was preparing for his discussions with the French and Russians to create what became the Sykes-Picot Agreement later that year. Samuel suggested excluding Hebron and all land east of the Jordan from what he proposed to give the Jewish state. Sykes commented that this proposal meant that “the Mosque of Omar [in occupied Jerusalem] becomes the only matter of vital importance to discuss with them [the Arabs] and further does away with any contact with the bedouins, who never cross the river except on business. I imagine that the principal object of Zionism is the realisation of the ideal of an existing centre of nationality rather than boundaries or extent of territory”.
Mainstream British policy was finally defined by the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” This betrayed the British promises given to the Arab leader, Sharif Hussain of Makkah, to seek Arab government of the territories liberated from the Ottomans.
At the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War, Balfour himself thought that the acceptance of the League of Nation mandates ended the effectiveness of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and put French and British rule of their territories on a different legal footing that did not allow for any annexation, trade preferences, or other advantages. In addition, any lingering French hopes of being involved in Palestine under the international element of the Sykes-Picot agreement gave way to British authority on the ground.
Under the British administered mandate in Palestine, the Zionists worked steadily to strengthen their position year by year, initially helped by their sympathiser Herbert Samuel who was appointed British High Commissioner to Palestine from 1920 to 1925 giving him administrative authority over the newly mandated territory which he used to the favour of the incoming Jews.
The Palestinians have been forced to live for a hundred years with this particularly savage legacy of the decisions of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, as the effects of the mandate government allowed the Zionists to take control and dominate the Palestinians right up to the present day, causing untold suffering and misery.
Francis Matthew is the Editor at Large of Gulf News, where he was also editor from 1995 to 2005. He has been a reporter and commentator in the Gulf since the 1980s.
While regional events have challenged the kingdom, its leaders have managed to press ahead with political reforms under difficult geopolitical circumstances
By Osama Al Sharif, Special to Gulf News
Of all the Arab countries that were created following the secret colonial understanding between Great Britain and France in 1916, better known Sykes-Picot Agreement, Jordan is the only country that can claim to offer a counter historical narrative. It was also 100 years ago that Sharif Hussain Bin Ali, Emir of Makkah and great grandfather of present-day King Abdullah II, launched what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. Jordan is celebrating the centenary of this event. The British reneged on commitments to Sharif Hussain to carve out a unified Arab state in the Levant and Arabia following the First World War and the defeat of the Ottomans.
King Abdullah I, who ruled until his assassination in 1951, set the foundations of an Arab state in the impoverished desert kingdom. He created an independent legislature, a small but disciplined army, and a budding democracy. In 1950 and following the great debacle in Palestine of 1948, he oversaw the unification of the East and West banks of Jordan.
His son King Talal ruled for a short time, but his most important achievement was the passing of a modern constitution in 1952, that underlined the separation of powers and defined the role of the monarchy. When he abdicated in 1952, his young son Hussain became king. It was to be a long and prosperous phase in the life of the kingdom. But the early days of his rule were marred by regional turmoil, the rise of Nasserism (linked to Egypt’s Jamal Abdul Nasser) and Arab-Israeli wars over Palestine.
King Hussain survived many assassination attempts during his early reign, in addition to threats to unseat him by his Arab neighbours. He forged a strong alliance with the US in the late 1950s, a bond that survives till today. While his greatest regret, until his death, was the loss of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, his 47-year-rule is viewed by the majority of Jordanians as the most thriving chapter in the kingdom’s history.
His relationship with the Palestinians and the Palestine question is a controversial one. He expelled the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from Jordan in 1970 following a bloody civil war, and later in 1973 was forced to recognize it as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. But the bond between Jordan and the Palestinians, who make up a sizable portion of the population, remains steadfast.
Hussain’s most important political achievement was to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, ending decades of hostility but most importantly burying the notion that Jordan was an alternative homeland for the Palestinians. His death in 1999, after a bout with cancer, signalled a new chapter in the life of the kingdom.His son King Abdullah II proved critics wrong. He was not groomed to rule, but soon pushed on with his view over the course Jordan should take in the new millennium. While regional events have challenged the kingdom, he was able to oversee some political reforms under difficult geopolitical circumstances that had exacerbated economic difficulties. Today, he has become instrumental in the fight against Daesh. And while pundits debate if the old Sykes-Picot borders will change again, Jordan appears immune to such scenarios -- for now.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Starting with colonial politics over oil to Saddam’s expansionist policies to the US invasion, all of Iraq’s problem can be traced to the ill-conceived Sykes-Picot Agreement
By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News
Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Mosul in northern Iraq went to colonial France while Baghdad went to Great Britain. At the San Remo Conference of April 1920, Iraq was mandated fully to the British, and so was Palestine, while Syria and Lebanon went to colonial France. The city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris river remained a topic of much debate, although oil there had not yet been discovered. The French and British hammered out a special arrangement, granting 25 per cent of Iraqi oil, along with favourable transfer terms to the French, in exchange for Paris’ relinquishing of Mosul to British Mandate Iraq.
In the summer of 1920, a revolt broke out against the British in Iraq, namely along the lower and middle Euphrates and in the north, led by Iraqi Kurds. By October, the revolt had been crushed and in August 1921, the British gave Iraq its first king, Faisal I, the ex-monarch of Syria who had been expelled by French ambitions 11 months earlier. He ran the country until his death in 1933 and the Iraqi throne went first to his son and then to grandson King Faisal II in 1939.
The hallmark of Iraq’s foreign policy in the pre-Saddam era was the Baghdad Pact, an alliance of pro-western states against the rising threat of Soviet communism. It was created in 1955 between Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Great Britain, and of course, Iraq, with headquarters in Baghdad. This treaty put Baghdad at dagger’s end with Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser who accused its king Faisal II, and premier Nouri Al Saeed, of being “agents of imperialism”.
Saddam Hussain started his era as a friend of the world powers. He signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and relied on Soviet advisers and experts. Iraq had extensive economic ties with France, West Germany, and the United States. In 1980, Saddam declared war against Iran, promising to stop the spread of Khomeinism. He was supported by the US and several Gulf countries. The war continued for eight years, resulting in the death of around 1.7 million people.
To raise money for post-war reconstruction, Saddam pushed oil-exporting countries to raise oil prices by cutting back oil production. Kuwait refused, and Saddam invaded and occupied the country on August 2, 1990, declaring it the 19th province of Iraq, thereby sparking the famous international crisis. Six months later, an international military coalition led by the US expelled the Iraqi Army from Kuwait and destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure.
In the aftermath of the Second Gulf War, Iraq agreed to abandon all chemical and biological weapons and allow UN observers to inspect sites inside Iraq. Sanctions were imposed on Iraq and oil exports were blocked, greatly damaging the country’s economy and infrastructure. UN organisations estimated between 500,000 and 1.2 million deaths were caused by the sanctions, most under the age of 5.
Former president George H. W. Bush’s successor Bill Clinton maintained economic sanctions on Iraq and in 1998, in response to Saddam’s expelling of the UN inspectors. At the turn of the 21st century, Saddam was accused of developing WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), and of having ties to Al Qaida and the 9/11 attacks. In January 2002, US president George W. Bush said that Iraq was part of an “axis of evil”. It must be destroyed, he added. A year later, after three weeks of fighting against the Anglo-American armies in April 2003, and less than a century after the creation of modern Iraq, Baghdad fell once more to the invading forces.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).
With the Middle East in upheaval, many believe that the US and Russia could be instrumental in creating an independent Kurdish entity, but history has shown world powers to be fickle in their decisions
By Fadi Esber, Special to Gulf News
The terms ‘Kurds’ and ‘Kurdistan’ were not part of the language of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The provisions of the Franco-British plan placed the Kurdish population of Anatolia and Mesopotamia across the French and Russian pieces of the Ottoman pie. The Kurdish-populated areas of southeastern Anatolia were promised to Czarist Russia, in addition to the defeated Sultan’s Armenian provinces. France would control the cities of Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakir, and Mosul; all dotted with Kurdish communities living in or around them. Only an independent Arab state (or states) under western tutelage was then dreamed up by the allied diplomats, never an autonomous Kurdistan.
Four years after Mark Sykes and Georges Picot drew their lines, the allied powers convened in the Conference of San Remo (April 1920) to discuss the fate of a now defeated Ottoman Empire. The new Soviet regime in Russia was notably absent from the negotiations. In San Remo, France and Britain revised the contours of their earlier plan. The mandate system replaced the planned independent Arab state(s), and Mosul was handed to Britain, henceforth becoming an Iraqi city; in exchange, France received a 25 per cent share of Iraqi oil. The allies also devised, for the first time, a blueprint for a European-style Kurdish nation state in southeastern Anatolia.
In August 1920, representatives of the Ottoman sultan signed the Treaty of Sevres, yielding to the provisions of San Remo. The Ottoman Empire was abolished, most of Anatolia fell under military occupation, and an autonomous Kurdistan was defined under articles 62, 63, and 64 to extend from the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq, up to the borders of ‘Greater Armenia’. The League of Nations would recognise the entity within a year, following a plebiscite. The treaty also allowed for another plebiscite to take place in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, including in the Mosul province, on whether to join the Kurdish nation state. Unlike the peoples of Franco-British mandated Syria and Iraq, the Kurds had been granted a mandate-free Wilsonian right of ‘self-determination’.
The Ottoman Sultanate however, soon fell to the Kemalist revolution, and the nationalist government in Ankara rejected the ‘humiliation’ of Sevres. The revisionist forces led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) soon routed the allied forces from most of Anatolia. France, Britain, and Italy accepted the new reality and renegotiated the post-war settlement with the new rulers of Turkey.
In the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the allies sacrificed autonomous Kurdistan, Greater Armenia, and any spheres of influence in Anatolia. In exchange, Ataturk renounced any Turkish claims in North Africa and Arab Asia. Five years after the guns of the Great War fell silent in Europe, a settlement had finally emerged in the Middle East. The boundaries of Turkey established in Lausanne (apart from the addition of Hatay in 1939) remain unchanged today.
In 1925, the Kurds of eastern Anatolia broke in revolt. The ‘Zaza rebellion’, however, was quickly and brutally crushed by the Kemalist regime, and its leader, Shaikh Saeed, was hanged. The rest of the 20th century saw repeated Kurdish risings in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurdish national aspirations also became a favourite tool in the geopolitical machinations of the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The result, however, was always one; thousands of Kurds lost their lives, and an independent Kurdistan never came to be.
Today, with the Middle East in upheaval, many believe that an independent Kurdish entity (or entities) will soon emerge with the blessing, if not the direct involvement, of Russia and the US. History, nonetheless, teaches us that what great powers promise with the stroke of a pen, could be undone just as easily.
Fadi Esber is a research associate at the Damascus History Foundation, an online project aimed at collecting and protecting the endangered archives of the Syrian capital.
At the turn of the 20th century, Syria was part of an old and ailing Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the people of Syria for 400 years. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, a Hashemite kingdom was erected in Damascus, run by Emir Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussain, the emir of Makkah and commander of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. It created modern state institutions, along with Arabic schools and an Arabic Faculty of Medicine (later renamed Damascus University), in addition to a modern parliament. The Faisal government was short-lived from 1918 to 1920. French forces, having landed on the Syrian coast shortly after the Ottomans left, began marching on Damascus in the summer of 1920. They were grabbing colonial France’s share of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. A legendary battle followed between the young Syrian Army and invading French troops, creating the cornerstone of national myth and pride for the young nation. The Syrian Army was crushed, its commander killed in combat.
Lebanon survived, become a republic under French supervision on August 24, 1920, promulgated a constitution on May 23, 1926, and elected a president—Charles Debbas—that same year. The French mandate was terminated with independence in 1943, and while the Sykes-Picot division of the Levant into two states did not stabilise Syria because the Sunni population opposed decentralisation, France managed to muck everything up by further dividing that hapless country into various statelets grouped within a federation that lasted until 1924. Nationalist elements, led by French-educated intellectual voices—ironically both Christian as well as Muslim—rejected the Mandate and fought for independence.
The following decades of British government saw Jewish colonies and Zionist aspirations steadily advance until the shattering moment in 1948 when the British finally abandoned their mandate with little political preparation for any orderly handover. The Israelis then unilaterally declared their state of Israel, and fought their way to establish as large boundaries as they could. In a few months they evicted more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, and started the decades of brutal Israeli occupation which have lasted to this day.
Still the Hashemite dynasty, who ruled Syria briefly in the 1920s, Iraq for about four decades, until the military coup of 1958, and Jordan from 1921 until today, derive their legitimacy from the Great Arab Revolt and the fact that they trace their lineage directly to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). As political turmoil engulfed Syria and Iraq between the two great wars, the small emirate of TransJordan survived against all odds. Ruled by Sharif Hussain’s son Abdullah I, the emirate evolved from being a British protectorate into an independent kingdom in 1946.
Nasserism swept Iraq after the Suez Canal War, triggering anti-monarchy demonstrations that were met with suppression, arrests, and the declaration of martial law in December 1956. King Faisal II joined a pact with his Jordanian, Saudi, and Moroccan counterpart to stand up to Nasser, promoting “conservatism” as opposed to the Egyptian leader’s “radicalism”. It was short-lived and collapsed with the bloody revolution of July 1958, when the entire Hashemite family was wiped out by a group of Nasserist Iraqi officers commanded by Abdul Karim Qasim. King Faisal II was shot dead along with his mother, uncle, and prime minister, Nouri Al Saeed. A pro-Nasser dictatorship was erected and it lasted non-stop until the downfall of Saddam in 2003. Qasim too was shot and killed, triggering a series of coups and counter-coups that accumulated with Saddam Hussain’s seizure of power in July 1979.