The Sykes-Picot Agreement -Who’s to blame?

This Thursday, May 19, will mark one hundred years since the concluding of an agreement signed in secret by the three Entente Powers in the First World War. Britain, France and Czarist Russia, anticipating victory and the final demise of the Ottoman Empire, drew up a document carving up the Ottoman domains and divvying them up amongst themselves.


Colonel Sykes

When the victorious Bolsheviks made the agreement public after the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was something of an embarrassment for the British and French governments. Nevertheless, they went ahead with their plans, and the post-war Treaty of Sevres was an attempt to implement the provisions determined by Mr Sykes and M. Picot.

There is a debate going on in Western media at present over the extent to which those two gentlemen are to blame for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. There seems to be a significant body of opinion on the affirmative side, arguing that the post-WWI division of Ottoman territory was based on self-interest, without regard for on-the-ground realities. The result, they say, was the current national borders that pay little or no attention to the ethnic and religious composition of the local people. This is one of the key wrongs that the ISIS/Daesh people claim they want to set right.

On their part, the opposition play down the importance of Sykes-Picot on the grounds that: A. It was never fully implemented; B. Messrs Sykes and Picot didn’t really know what they were doing; and C. Hatreds and conflicts in the region go back millennia. Implicit in this position is the argument that the Western allies should not be held responsible for Middle Eastern chaos.

So who’s right? As usual, there are elements of truth on both sides, but neither adhere to the legal principle of ‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’


Monsieur Picot

First of all, there can be little doubt that Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, Baronet, and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot were acting on the authority of their respective governments. You can’t weasel your way out of that, guys.

Second, while it is true that the Sykes-Picot agreement was not implemented in full, it wasn’t for want of trying by the French and British governments. The 1918 Mudros Armistice that ended WWI hostilities was followed by occupation of the Ottoman capital Istanbul, and military invasion of Izmir and the Anatolian Aegean region by Greece. The 1920 San Remo Conference and the subsequent Treaty of Sevres pretty much followed the Sykes-Picot formula.

The fly in the ointment was Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later Atatürk, who led his Turkish nationalist forces to victory, expelling the Greek army from Anatolia, liberating Istanbul from enemy occupation, and establishing the Republic of Turkey. The 1924 Treaty of Lausanne obliged the 1915 conspirators to except the Anatolian heartland from their plans. Nevertheless, boundaries in the rest of the Middle East were redrawn more or less according to Sykes-Picot. Britain and France got their imperial ‘spheres of influence’, established puppet local governments, and laid the groundwork for the Zionist state of Israel – the main stumbling block to peace in the region.


The fly in the ointment

As for the claim (said to have been uttered by US President Obama) that regional hatreds and conflicts ‘date back millennia’, this is, at best, a blurring of the truth with ambiguous words. It may be that Biblical conflicts were fought two thousand years ago – but the Pax Romana enforced a peace that lasted pretty much until the oil age that began around the beginning of the 20th century. The creation of Israel in 1947 established a Jewish state that had not existed in any form for 1,815 years. Various Islamic empires controlled the Middle East, North Africa and even Spain for much of the time from the 7th century to the 20th. Admittedly control was established initially by conquest, but thereafter, citizens were allowed to follow their own religions and speak their own languages. The current mix of religions and cultures in the Middle East is surely testament to this.

Of course, it is unfair to lay the blame for present conflicts on two imperial civil servants. Debate over the role of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is surely a red herring. Blame clearly rests with the imperial governments of Britain, France and Russia, who used their military and economic power to force their will on helpless and trusting people – and the emergent United States Empire that continued (and continues) that legacy into the 21st century.


8 thoughts on “The Sykes-Picot Agreement -Who’s to blame?

  1. Your question can be answered “Firstly, British imperialism was to blame”. Sykes-Picot Agreement was (actually not “was”, still it is standing agreement for western imperialism) an agreement which signed between Britain and France with the assent of Czarist Russia. The sign date is important actually; the sign date of agreement was two days later defeating of British troops at Siege of Kut by Ottoman Army.

    Already, nearly one year later at 1917, the one who announced this agreement to the world public was Lenin.

    “Secondly French imperialism was to blame.” Because the French imperialism was racing British imperialism as always.

    Thirdly, Ottoman Empire’ Sultans were to blame.(maybe they should have been at the first at sociologically at the list of blaming) Because they didn’t care the public, they made the country to open every attack both inside and outside. When they lived into many wealth, the public was starving, as same as every empire.

    But I think still, British imperialism was the top of the list. At the intelligence operations documents of Turkish Independence War, there are the British intelligence people behind the nearly 50 associations and community (Turks, Kurds, Armenian) which supported and established by British intelligence at then almost every city in Anatolia(mainly Istanbul, and eastern Anatolia).

    Besides, the acts of British imperialism was the reason of the Greeks’ hatred against the Turks. If we examine thoroughly to the documents, British intelligence wasn’t providing intelligence against only Turkish army, they were watching Russians movements from the Turkey. At this point, we can understand well the answer of the question “why Soviet Socialists made the arms aid to Turkish troops at Turkish Independence War?”

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and informative feedback. I had wondered why Soviet Russia helped out in the Independence War. By the way, do you think ‘Independence’ is a good translation of ‘Kurtuluş’? Personally, I prefer ‘Liberation’.

      • Yes, I think “independence” is much more proper for this war. Because, this war was not against only imperialists, at the same time this war was against Ottoman Empire which has cruelty management for almost Anatolian people, including every nation Turks, Kurds, Cherkes or etc. Already while Ataturk was saying “full independence”, he expressed this “full independence” for every area, so, domestic and foreign policy, as economic, justice, as cultural and military areas. Any of them all these didn’t belong to these nations. Every one of them belonged to empire. Already Ottoman was a Turcophobe empire after the first three sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

        But of course, your English is much more good than this extraterrestrial, naturally:) Maybe “libaration” word is much proper. However, “independence” word’s sound is also cool, isn’t it 😉

  2. First of all, it is good to recognize that there is no one factor responsible for troubles in the Middle East. Its borders are among a myriad of other contributors to the problems created by foreigners and locals alike.

    The West’s part of the blame, or whatever one may call it, starts not with a specific agreement, but with the lack of understanding of the Middle East. But judging the quality of the achieved results depends on the perspective. Is it of indigenous humans, or is it of national interests of foreign actors who won the power to decide?

    I think that dividing a region ruled by an opponent who lost, according to interests, is what any influential power(s) would do, especially upon winning a war as important as WW1 was. On the other hand, not being able, or willing, to more sensibly account for local identities, while at the same time betraying a promise made to locals who proved to be good allies, is where the West went wrong at the time. But this is not so surprising either. Western knowledge of the region was far less profound than it is now, and the region itself was indeed (in parts) significant for trade and providing access to an important colony. It was yet to be discovered as the big oil reservoir requiring a more sophisticated kind of approach. That approach was allowing or tolerating autocratic regimes coming to power while retaining and applying influence where and when it mattered. Undeniably, it was counterproductive at times, but it worked well enough in the long run, as far as Western interests were concerned. The growing margin for error enjoyed by the West due to its overwhelming power on all levels made such management not only possible, but also quite convenient.

    Today the West is more powerful than ever, despite some appearances of fracturing alliances and rise of its opponents. That means it has unprecedented both capabilities and margin for error. It also has priorities developing in other regions, partly related to the appearances I have mentioned. I believe it will focus its attention elsewhere once it creates convenient conditions for temporarily leaving North Africa and the Middle East. (I actually wrote a few short thoughts regarding that here )

    After all, these are not the only regions that were dealt with according to the interests, capabilities and knowledge pertaining to each period, with tumultuous transitions from one to the next. It will be that way in the future too and therefore I doubt any enduring solutions are possible.

    In the end, I guess that blaming human nature in general would not be less appropriate than blaming individual members of a particular society. And does any of it help?

    • Thanks for the detailed comments. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble. A few points I’d like to make:
      1. ‘Locals’ had very little say in the post-WWI division of the Middle East. Autocratic regimes were in fact created by Western interests, rather than being merely allowed or tolerated, eg the ‘Shah’ of Persia/Iran, and the Saudi ‘royal’ family. More recently, Mubarak and Sisi in Egypt.
      2. You acknowledge, but make light of, British betrayal of promises made to Arab nationalists who supported their war effort against the Ottoman Empire. It was not mere lack of understanding, but a deliberate and cynical decision.
      3. The British navy’s conversion to oil was well on the way prior to WWI, and the main source was Persia/Iran.
      4. Probably your most salient point is that the West’s ‘overwhelming power’ allowed it to do what it wanted for its own interests in this region. Well, might is right, I guess, but doesn’t justify a place on the moral high ground.
      5. The ‘West’ of WWI has morphed into the USA – and I’m not sure I agree that they are more powerful than ever. I think they are increasingly struggling in a world reluctant to let them have their own way. Certainly you are right, though, in saying that other regions that suffered from Western/US intervention and meddling: Central and Southern America, of course, and Indonesia, for example.

    • Yes. Where would the great economies of the world be without the resources of the countries they have conquered or brought under their control, one way or another?

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