Sykes-Picot Agreement

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SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT (in official terminology, the 1916 Asia Minor Agreement ), secret agreement reached during World War i between the British and French governments pertaining to the partition of the Ottoman Empire among the Allied Powers. The terms were specified in a letter dated May 9, 1916, which Paul Cambon, the French ambassador in London, addressed to Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary. It was ratified in a letter from Grey to Cambon on May 16. Russia was also privy to the discussions and consented to the terms. The agreement became official in an exchange of notes among the three Allied Powers on April 26 and May 23, 1916. In a subsequent stage Italy, too, gave her consent and the notes, which had been exchanged between April 10 and September 27, 1917, and were confirmed in the Treaty of St. Jean de Maurienne.


When Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, had reached a crucial stage in his negotiations with Sharif Hussein of Mecca (see *Israel State of: Historical Survey), Grey expressed concern that the advocated support of Arab demands on Syria would create the impression in France that the British merely intended to establish their own interests at the expense of the French. "Our primary and vital object," he emphasized, "is not to secure a new sphere of British influence, but to get the Arabs on our side."

An agreement with France was indispensable to avoid the impression that Britain had acted in bad faith. France regarded Syria as a dependency, and a separate arrangement with the sharif without France's participation could have had a chilling effect on the cordiality of the entente. Grey therefore suggested that Paris send a competent representative to discuss the matter.

The first round of discussions took place in London on November 23, 1915. The French government was represented by François-Georges Picot, a professional diplomat with extensive experience in the Levant, who before the war had been consul-general in Beirut. The British delegation was led by Sir Arthur Nicolson. Picot was uncompromising; he insisted that Syria was a purely French possession, and by Syria he meant the region bounded by the Taurus ridges in the north and the Egyptian frontier on the south.

The second round of discussions took place on December 21. The British were represented by Sir Mark *Sykes, a leading expert on the East. This time Picot was in a more accommodating mood. Having juxtaposed the desiderata of all the parties concerned, the British, the French, and the Arabs, the two statesmen worked out a compromise solution.

Terms of the Agreement

It was agreed that France was to exercise direct control over Cilicia, the coastal strip of Syria, the Lebanon, and the greater part of Galilee, up to the line stretching from north of Acre to the northwest corner of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), referred to as the "blue zone." East of that zone, in the Syrian hinterland, an Arab state was to be created under French protection (Area "a"). Britain was to exercise control over southern Mesopotamia (the "red zone"), the territory around the Acre-Haifa bay in the Mediterranean, with rights to build a railway from there to Baghdad. The territory east of the Jordan River and the Negev, south of the line stretching from Gaza to the Dead Sea, was allocated to an Arab state under British protection (Area "b"). South of France's "blue zone," in the area covering the Sanjak of Jerusalem, and extending southwards toward the line running approximately from Gaza to the Dead Sea, was to be a "brown zone" under international administration.


In the years that followed, the Sykes-Picot Agreement became the target of bitter criticism, both in France and in England. Lloyd George referred to it as an "egregious" and a "foolish" document. He was particularly indignant that Palestine was inconsiderately mutilated. As seen from the perspective of 1917 this was, perhaps, true, but in the winter of 1915–16, when negotiations were in full swing, the strategic importance of Palestine had not yet been fully appreciated in British official circles. The overriding aim was to make an Arab uprising possible, and this hinged on French concessions to Arab demands in the Syrian hinterland. Nor could military operations on the eastern front take place without French concurrence. Without a British offensive, there could have been no Arab revolt, and without the Sykes-Picot Agreement there would have been no British offensive. The compromise solution with the French was the price that the British had to pay. The true progenitor of the Sykes-Picot Agreement was the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.

From this point of view Arab criticism is even less justified. The two negotiations showed meticulous consideration for Arab interests and blended it with healthy realism. The power vacuum created by the destruction of the Ottoman Empire had to be filled by a new authority; the alternative was chaos. Absolute independence for the Arabs would have invited anarchy or an outside invasion. There was no material incompatibility between the agreement and the pledges made to Sharif Hussein.

The Agreement and Zionism

During the discussions Sykes and Picot took note that the Jews throughout the world have "a conscientious and sentimental interest" in the future of the country. Zionist aspirations were passed over. This lapse was severely criticized by William R. Hall, head of the Intelligence Department of the British Admiralty. He pointed out that the Jews have "a strong material, and a very strong political interest in the future of the country and that in the Brown area the question of Zionism… [ought] to be considered."

It took Sykes several months to appreciate the fact that he had committed a blunder. The growing awareness of Germany's ambition to dominate the Middle East was the decisive factor that prompted him to embrace the concept of a British-controlled

Palestine. A condominium with France in Palestine was fraught with danger, since the very principle of an international regime left the door open to Germany. Hence, as the historian Sir Charles Webster put it, "a situation had to be created in which the worst features of the Sykes-Picot Agreement could be got rid of without breaking faith… In these circumstances Dr. Weizmann's offer was an attractive one." Herein lay the raison d'être of the alliance with British Zionism. It provided a way to outmaneuver the French without a breach of faith, and was a useful card at the future peace conference to play against any move by Germany.

The agreement was officially abrogated by the Allies at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, when the Mandate for Palestine was conferred upon Britain.


L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration (1961), 237–69, index; E. Kedourie, England and the Middle East (1956), 29–66, 102–41; J. Nevakivi, Britain, France and the Arab Middle East (1969), 35–44, index; C. Sykes, Two Studies in Virtue (1953), index; H.F. Frischwasser-Ra'ana, The Frontiers of a Nation (1955), 5–73; I. Friedman, The Question of Palestine, 19141918. British-Jewish-Arab Relations (1973, 19922), 97–118; idem, Palestine: A Twice Promised Land? The British, the Arabs and Zionism, 19151920 (2000), 47–60.

[Isaiah Friedman (2nd ed.)]