A day in May 2016 will mark the centenary of the famous, or notorious, Sykes-Picot agreement – but what day is the subject of some disagreement. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the agreement dates from May 9, 1916; an on-line legal site asserts that it was signed on May 16; the magazine Foreign Affairs offers us May 17; the on-line site history.com favours May 19; the Jewish Virtual Library maintains that it came into existence on May 23.
Putting the fine detail to one side, the fact remains that during the First World War the so-called Triple Alliance (Britain, France and Imperial Russia), fighting the German-Austro-Hungarian-Turkish alliance, conspired together to dismember Turkey’s Ottoman Empire at the first opportunity. Discussions began in November 1915, and the final agreement took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France.
What was the Sykes-Picot agreement? In essence it was an understanding to carve up the vast areas of the Middle East then under the control of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence – some to be under their direct rule, some to be administered by Arab governments but subject to British or French tutelage.
But oh, perfidious Albion! For at precisely the time that Britain and France, with Russian connivance, were planning the dismemberment and redistribution of the Ottoman Empire, Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, was in correspondence with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, concerning the future political status of the Ottoman territories. In short, it was a classic double-cross. The Arab world was seeking its independence from the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, and in the exchange of letters Britain proposed a deal. If the Arabs, led by Hussein bin Ali, rose against Turkey – which together with Germany was fighting Britain and its allies – Britain agreed to recognize Arab independence after the war “in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sharif of Mecca”.
Of course, when the Arab revolt duly began with British military and financial support on June 10, 1916 – the campaign master-minded by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) – nothing was known by the Arabs about the Sykes-Picot agreement, nor its plan to slice up the Middle East and share it out between Britain and France.
When Lawrence learned of Sykes-Picot he was furious. He drove the Arabs he led into a desperate race to capture Damascus and declare an independent Arab state before the British Army could get there. That manoeuvre failed, and after Damascus was captured by combined British and Arab forces, Britain insisted that Sykes-Picot was to prevail over promises to bin Ali.
Lawrence’s guilt about the broken promises to the Arabs led him to reject all honors, give up his rank, and join the Royal Air Force in 1922 under an assumed name, as an aircraftman second class.
As events transpired, not only were Britain’s promises to bin Ali a dead letter, but so too were the details of the Sykes-Picot agreement, for it never came to fruition as originally conceived. It was revised on a number of occasions. For example, the borders of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey were settled by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, concluded after the Allied powers lost the war in Asia Minor. And at the San Remo Conference of the League of Nations in 1920, it was only the underlying strategy, not the detail, of Sykes-Picot that was set in place. The significance of San Remo is that the Sykes-Picot agreement ceased to be a secret deal between two imperial powers, but its basic premise became the internationally approved and endorsed foundation of governance in the Middle East.
The Sykes-Picot agreement did not quite envisage the Mandate system, established by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, but the underlying presumptions of the Mandate and the agreement are in accord. Article 22 referred to territories which, after the war, were no longer under their previous ruler, but whose peoples were not considered “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. The article called for the governance of such peoples to be “entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility”.
The process of establishing the Mandates consisted of two phases: the formal removal of sovereignty from the state previously controlling the territory, and the transfer of mandatory powers to an “advanced nation”. It was under these Sykes-Picot inspired provisions that in July 1922 the huge area then designated as Palestine passed into the control of Great Britain, which was charged with establishing a national home for the Jewish people therein. Fifty-one member countries – the entire League of Nations – unanimously declared on July 24, 1922: “…recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
It had been agreed in the Cairo Conference of March 1921, convened by Britain’s Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, that Transjordan would be added to Britain’s Palestine mandate on condition that the Jewish national home provisions would not apply there. Britain presented this done deal to the League and so, just two months after granting Britain the Palestine mandate, the League of Nations consented to Britain declaring that the provisions for setting up a Jewish national home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River. Consequently three-quarters of the territory included in the Mandate eventually became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The subsequent history of the British Mandate is well-known. Britain failed to reconcile Arab leaders to its commitment under the Mandate, opposition flared into open revolt, armed clashes between Arabs and Jews proliferated, and British troops were pulled further and further in what amounted to open warfare against both sides. Under pressure Britain virtually reneged on its Mandate commitment. Far from facilitating a Jewish national home. the White Papers of 1930 and 1939 restricted immigration and the acquisition of land by Jews. On November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution to partition Palestine . Britain announced the termination of its Mandate, to take effect on May 15, 1948. On May 14 the State of Israel was proclaimed.
A strange symbiosis seems to exist between the Sykes-Picot agreement and Israel’s Independence Day, even as regards the exact anniversary of each event. For Israel’s Independence Day, which occurred on Iyyar 5 according to the Hebrew calendar, shifts around the common calendar year by year. In 2016 it will be celebrated not on May 14, but on May 16 – within touching distance of the Sykes-Picot centenary, whichever of its dates one happens to favour.