Lines in the sand that divided the Arab world


A secret agreement crafted 100 years ago by two British and French diplomats helped define the future boundaries of the Arab nation states

A short introduction into the history of the Sykes-Picot agreement and its impact on the geopolitics of the Arab world.

One hundred years ago this month, in the middle of the First World War, a secret agreement was concluded between Britain and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire, which has had a terrible effect on the Arab world right up today.


The two junior diplomats, Mark Sykes on behalf of Britain and François Georges-Picot for France, divided the Arab lands into two spheres of influence: Area A for France, including Syria and Lebanon and Area B for Britain including Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. In those areas, Britain and France were to be allowed to establish whatever such direct or indirect governments or control as they desired.


The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement had to be secret because it went completely against the promises given to the Hashemite leader Hussain Bin Ali, the Emir of Makkah, that Arabs would eventually receive independence if they supported the Allies against the Ottomans.


This came even as Emir Hussain mustered Arab forces to fight alongside the British for the next two years and help achieve the end of Ottoman rule over the Arab Middle East.


The Sykes-Picot agreement became public knowledge when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and found copies of the “treacherous” documents which they revealed to the world, and proved to the Arabs the duplicity of their “allies”.


Born of western imperialism and colonialism, the Sykes-Picot agreement became the basis of the UN mandates after the end of the war, and helped define the future boundaries of the Arab nation states that remained under British or French colonial rule, which in turn became a key factor behind the rise of military dictatorships in the 1950s and 1960s.


Throughout the decades, the Sykes-Picot agreement has served as a constant reminder to Arabs of continued western meddling in their affairs.


It also set the region on a turbulent course of misery and conflict. The legacy of Sykes-Picot can be felt today in several countries – including Iraq, Syria and most terribly, Palestine. Moreover, as western powers are again involved in Syria, memories of Sykes-Picot and its betrayals shape Arab fears that the West is still not finished with interfering in the region.

A century of war and division

100 years after two British and French diplomats divided the Arabs into spheres of influence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement remains a pugnacious but dominant reality of the Middle East.


When British diplomat, Mark Sykes, succumbed to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, at the age of 39, another diplomat, Harold Nicolson, described his influence on the Middle East region as follows:


 “It was due to his endless push and perseverance, to his enthusiasm and faith, that Arab nationalism and Zionism became two of the most successful of our war causes.”


Retrospectively, we know that Nicolson spoke too soon. The breed of ‘Arab nationalism’ he was referencing in 1919 was fundamentally different from the nationalist movements that gripped several Arab countries in the 1950s and 60s. A rally cry for the Arab nationalism in those later years was liberation and sovereignty from western colonialism and their local allies.


Sykes’ contribution to the rise of Zionism did not promote much stability either. The Zionist project transformed into the State of Israel, itself established on the ruins of Palestine in 1948. Since then, Zionism and Arab nationalism have been in constant conflict, resulting in deplorable wars and seemingly perpetual bloodletting.


However, Sykes’ lasting contribution to the Arab region was his major role in the signing of The Sykes-Picot Agreement, also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, one hundred years ago. That infamous treaty between Britain and France, which was negotiated with the consent of Russia, has shaped the Middle East’s geopolitics for an entire century.


Throughout the years, challenges to the status quo imposed by Sykes-Picot failed to fundamentally alter its arbitrarily-sketched borders, which divided the Arabs into ‘spheres of influence’ to be administered and controlled by Western powers.


Yet, with the recent rise of Daesh and the establishment of their own version of equally arbitrary borders encompassing large swathes of Syria and Iraq as of 2014, and the current discussion of dividing Syria into a federation, Sykes-Picot’s persisting legacy could possibly be dithering under the pressures of new, violent circumstances.


What is Sykes-Picot – A timeline of war


  • The First World War broke out in July 1914. Major European powers fell into two camps: the Allies, consisting mainly of Britain, France and Russia, versus the Central Powers -- Germany and Austria-Hungry.

  • The Ottoman Empire soon joined the war, siding with Germany, partly because it was aware that the Allies’ ambitions sought to control all Ottoman territories, which included the Arab regions of Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt and North Africa.

  • March 1915: Britain signed a secret agreement with Russia, which would allow the latter to annex the Ottoman capital and seize control of other strategic regions and waterways.

  • November 1915: Britain and France began negotiations in earnest, aimed at dividing the territorial inheritance of the Ottoman Empire should the war conclude in their favor. Russia was made aware of the agreement, and assented to its provisions.


Thus, a map that was marked with straight lines by a chinagraph-pencil had largely determined the fate of the Arabs, dividing them in accordance with various haphazard assumptions of tribal and sectarian lines.


Blue, Red and Brown - Dividing the loot


Negotiating on behalf of Britain was Mark Sykes, and representing France, François Georges-Picot. The diplomats resolved that once the Ottomans are soundly defeated, France would receive areas marked (a), which include:


  • The region of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, including Mosul, most of Syria and Lebanon.


Area (b) was marked as British-controlled territories, which included:


  • Jordan, southern Iraq, Haifa and Acre in Palestine and a coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan.


Russia on the other hand, would be granted,


  • Istanbul, Armenia and strategic Turkish Straits.



The improvised map consisted of lines but also colors, along with language that attested to the fact that the two countries viewed the Arab region on purely materialistic terms, without paying the slightest attention to the possible repercussions of slicing up entire civilisations with multifarious history of co-operation and conflict.


The agreement partly read:


“… in the blue area France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.”


The brown area, however was designated as an international administration, nature of which be decided upon after further consultation between Britain, France and Russia.


The Sykes-Picot negotiations concluded in March 1916 and was official, although secretly signed on May 19, 1916.


But why a secret? – Legacy of betrayal


The First World War concluded on November 11, 1918, after which the division of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest.


British and French mandates were extended over divided Arab entities, while Palestine was granted to the Zionist movement over which a Jewish state was established three decades later.


The agreement which was thoroughly designed to meet western colonial interests, left behind a legacy of division, turmoil and war.


While the status quo it has created guaranteed the hegemony of western countries over the fate of the Middle East, it failed to guarantee any degree of political stability or engender economic equality.


The Sykes-Picot Agreement took place in secret for a specific reason: it stood at complete odds with promises made to the Arabs during the Great War. The Arab leadership under the command of Sharif Hussain were promised complete independence following the war, in exchange for supporting the Allies against the Ottomans.


It took many years and successive rebellions for Arab countries to gain their independence. Conflict between the Arabs and colonial powers resulted in the rise of Arab nationalism which was born in the midst of extremely violent and hostile environments, or more accurately, as an outcome of them.


Arab nationalism may have succeeded in maintaining a semblance of an Arab identity but failed to develop a sustainable and unified retort to western colonialism.


When Palestine, which was promised by Britain as a national home for the Jews as early as November 1917, became Israel, hosting mostly European colonists, the fate of the Arab region east of the Mediterranean was sealed as the ground of perpetual conflict and antagonism.


It is there in particular that the terrible legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is mostly felt, in all of its violence, shortsightedness and political unscrupulousness.



100 years after two British and French diplomats divided the Arabs into spheres of influence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement remains a pugnacious but dominant reality of the Middle East.


Five years after Syria descended into a violent civil war, the marks of Sykes-Picot are once more being felt as France, Britain, Russia, and now the United States are considering what US Secretary of State John Kerry recently termed ‘Plan B’ – dividing Syria based on sectarian lines, likely in accordance with a new Western interpretation of ‘spheres of influence.’


The same logic is also being applied to Libya, which until recently was essentially ruled by three governments and multiple militia.


Of course, the infamous agreement didn’t solely determine everyday political reality of the Arab world. Much can be said of the region’s own dynamics – internal conflicts, revolutions and divisions – but it has certainly initiated a grim course for a future that is predicated on disunion, not harmony, conflict, not peace.


Indeed, the Sykes-Picot map might have been a crude vision drawn hastily during a global war, but since then it has become the main frame of reference that the West uses to redraw the Arab world, and to “control (it) as they desire and as they may see fit.”


– Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of His books include ‘Searching Jenin’, ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada’ and his latest ‘My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story’. His website is:




  • February 13, 1878

    Sultan Abdul Hamid II dissolves the Ottoman parliament. Pursues a strong centralising policy. Pan-Islamism emphasised to curb nationalist ideas in the empire.

  • May 13-July 24, 1908

    Uprising in Macedonia by nationalist reform group the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), known as the Young Turks, demand restoration of the Ottoman parliament to curb autocracy.

  • July 24, 1908

    Abdul Hamid restores parliament in response to Young Turk pressure.

  • September 01, 1908

    Hejaz railway is completed. Direct link between Madina and Damascus, facilitates Ottoman enlarged presence in Arabia, which provokes nationalist sentiment.

  • April 13-24, 1909

    Counter revolution by soldiers against Young Turks, suppressed easily.

  • April 27, 1909

    Abdul Hamid dethroned by the Young Turks, brother Sultan Mehmed V is made a figurehead for Young Turk rule. Young Turks follow a policy of centralisation which alienates the other ethnic groups of the empire against perceived Turkish encroachment.

  • May 1909 to 1910

    Hauran Druze uprising in south-western Syria due to unwillingness to pay Ottoman taxes and engage in conscription, violently suppressed, founders executed. Nationalist sentiment rises.

  • Oct 8, 1912 – May 30, 1913

    First Balkans war: Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria force the Ottomans out of their remaining European territories. This shows weakness of Ottoman Empire.

  • June 18-23, 1913

    The Arab Congress: Twenty-three Arab nationalists meet in Paris to discuss Arabic autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Though unsuccessful the meeting demonstrates the trend of the time. Sponsored by Al Fatat, an illegal independence group.

  • October 29, 1914

    The Ottoman Empire bombards the Russian Black Sea ports, joining the war.

  • March 18, 1915

    The Constantinople Agreement: Secret agreement between Russia, Britain and France. Russia to gain Constantinople and the Gallipoli straits in exchange for recognising British and French influence in Middle East. Overthrow of the Tsar and Russia’s withdrawal from the war renders invalid.

  • July 14, 1915 - Jan 30, 1916

    The McMahon-Hussain correspondence: Correspondence between Hussain Bin Ali, Sharif of Makkah and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt. McMahon promises the foundation of an Arab state in exchange for support against the Ottomans.

  • May 9, 1916

    Britain and France reach a secret accord, the Sykes-Picot agreement, on division of the Arabic lands in the Ottoman Empire. France would control Syria and Libya and Britain would control Iraq. Palestine would be placed under international administration. Agreement is later published by the Soviet Russian government (November 23rd 1917) after its claims to the former Empire are rejected.

  • June 10, 1916

    Arab revolt is declared by Hussain Bin Ali.

  • November 2, 1917

    The Balfour Declaration is made in support of a Jewish national home being established in Palestine. It is made by UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild. It is later incorporated into the Sevres peace treaty and the Mandate for Palestine.

  • January 8, 1918

    US President Woodrow Wilson promises autonomous development to non-Turkish Ottoman territories.

  • October 30, 1918

    Damascus falls to the British-backed army of Emir Faisal Bin Hussain, son of Hussain Bin Ali.

  • November 7, 1918

    Anglo-French declaration promising locally-elected governments in Ottoman Syria, Iraq and other territories.

  • January 1919

    Emir Faisal presents his case for Arab independence to the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace Conference but is rejected.

  • March 8, 1920

    Syrian National Congress declares the establishment of the Kingdom of Syria under Faisal. Britain and France protest.

  • April 19-26, 1920

    San Remo Conference: France is given the Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. Syria protests. Britain is given the Mandate of Iraq and the Mandate of Palestine.

  • April 25-26, 1920

    Anglo-French oil agreement at San Remo gives France a 25 percent share in Iraqi oil in exchange for Mosul being included within Iraqi territory.

  • May-October 1920

    Iraq rebels against British rule. It is violently suppressed. Mandate of Iraq discarded in favour of establishing, under similar conditions, a kingdom of Iraq allied with Britain in an attempt to appease Iraqis.

  • July 24, 1920

    Battle of Maysalun: France defeats Syrian forces, Damascus is occupied on the 25th and King Faisal ejected from Syria. French forces would not leave Syria and Lebanon completely until 1946.

  • August 10, 1920

    Sevres peace treaty, follow through of the San Remo Conference, is signed by the defeated powers. Ottoman Empire cedes all non-Turkish territory. This legitimises the British mandates of Palestine and Iraq and the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon.

  • April 01, 1921

    Abdullah Bin Hussain, brother of Faisal, is made Emir of Transjordan under British Protectorate, a region comprising territory formerly from Syria and the Kingdom of Hejaz ruled by Abdullah’s father Hussain Bin Ali. Transjordan becomes independent on March 22, 1946 and Abdullah is crowned king. (Renamed Jordan April 24th 1950).

  • August 23, 1921

    Kingdom of Iraq under British Administration is established, former king of Syria Faisal is brought in to rule. Gains independence 1932.

  • November 1, 1922

    The Ottoman Empire officially ceases to exist.

  • July 24, 1923

    Treaty of Lausanne recognises the boundaries of modern Turkey.

  • September 29, 1923

    British Mandate for Palestine’s existence is formalised by the League of Nations. (Ends May 15, 1948).

  • May 14, 1948

    Foundation of the state of Israel is declared.

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  • Britain signed a secret agreement with Russia, which would allow the latter to annex the Ottoman capital and seize control of other strategic regions and waterways.

  • Britain and France began negotiations in earnest, aimed at dividing the territorial inheritance of the Ottoman Empire should the war conclude in their favor. Russia was made aware of the agreement, and assented to its provisions.