Last year, the spiritual mentor of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, gave a sermon in the Great Mosque in Mosul. The advance of Daesh will not stop, he proclaimed, “until we hit the last nail into the coffin of Sykes-Picot”.
He was referring to the secret agreement, concluded 100 years ago this week by the Conservative MP, Sir Mark Sykes and his French opposite number, Francois Georges-Picot, to divide the Middle East after the First World War. It started the process whereby the Arab world would be sectioned into nation states and areas of colonial influence. In al-Baghdadi’s world-view, today’s borders are artificial – as Daesh has demonstrated by controlling large areas of Syria and Iraq.
With Turkey’s entry into the war on Germany’s side in November 1914, British politicians immediately began to think about its inevitable defeat and the dismemberment of its vast empire. Sir Herbert Samuel, the first Jew to serve in a British cabinet, mooted to Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary, the idea of a state being granted to the Jews. But he counselled caution, advising that this should be done gradually. He wanted to avoid confrontation with the Arab world. In January 1915, he submitted a memorandum to his cabinet colleagues arguing that “to attempt to realise the aspiration of a Jewish state one century too soon might well throw back its actual realisation for many centuries more”.
In parallel with Sir Herbert’s initiative, the British started an exchange of views with Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the founder of the Hashemite dynasty. Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, corresponded with Hussein and, as with the Zionists, promises were made, couched in ambiguous language. Both sides were strung along by the British in the hope of securing independent states, but the price to be paid was support for the British war effort. The aged Hussein, who believed that British diplomats were men of honour and integrity, eventually assembled a guerrilla force of 20,000 men from the desert and hill tribes.
At the beginning of 1916, the conflict had run into a war of attrition on the Western Front with no victory in sight – and instead the distinct possibility of defeat loomed.
The British began to look for a means of soliciting American support. The British Foreign Office was particularly worried about pro-German sentiments among US Jews. Many were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had experienced antisemitism. They hated the Tsar and hoped that the Germans would prove victorious on the battlefield. As Sir Mark Sykes, the leading British negotiator in the Middle East arena, commented in a telegram to the Foreign Office: “with Great Jewry against us, there is no positive chance in getting the thing through”.
In addition to promises to Jews and Arabs, the British began to prepare secret guidelines about their real intentions after the war – to divide the Middle East between themselves and the French.
At the heart of the Sykes-Picot vision were two nominally independent Arab states or a confederation. The northern state would be within the French sphere of influence, the southern one under the British. Abutting them were two areas where Britain and France would exert direct control. The French zone consisted of the Syrian coast, Lebanon, the greater part of Galilee and northern Iraq. The British zone was designated as southern Iraq, the ports of Haifa and Acre, and access to the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris. A shrunken Palestine was to be placed under the protection of the international powers. The writer Leonard Stein later referred to it as “a wantonly mutilated Palestine”. Russia was later awarded Armenia, the Turkish Straits and Istanbul. Italy similarly gained territory in Turkish Anatolia.
This dissection of the Ottoman Empire by Sykes and Picot was never communicated to either the Zionists or the Hashemites.
C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian and a Zionist sympathiser, discovered the broad outline of the plan by sheer chance in conversation with a French journalist in April 1917. Chaim Weizmann confronted Sir Herbert, who refused to divulge any details because he had been a member of the cabinet at the time.
The outline was finally revealed to Weizmann by Lord Robert Cecil, acting Foreign Secretary. An angry Harry Sacher, a leading British Zionist, wrote to Weizmann: “We have been lied to and deceived all along and I shall never forgive the gentry…who have done this.”
Hussein also began to get a whiff of the deception. Sykes met him and was convincingly vague about the details. He spoke about an Anglo-French presence that would solely support the new Arab states in their infancy.
Hussein was appeased, but not satisfied. His son, Faisal, too, remained sceptical and suspicious.
British officials in Jeddah had been kept in the dark about the Sykes-Picot agreement while it also negated promises that Lawrence of Arabia had made to the Arabs.
The Zionists, while appalled at British conduct, could not afford to fall out publicly, but it did make them determined to secure a guarantee in writing – which came to pass in the form of the Balfour Declaration.
Following the end of the war, British politicians and civil servants tried to row back from their commitments in the Declaration. Balfour’s successor as Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, stressed the part of the document that stated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
As history records, the Sykes-Picot agreement served as the template for the British and French Mandates in the Middle East in the 1920s.
Contrary to expectations, it was Russia that collapsed while Turkey was saved by Ataturk. Within a few weeks of taking power, the Bolsheviks published the full text of the agreement in Pravda and Izvestia.
British diplomats had to quickly find convincing explanations for their actions.
In explaining the Balfour Declaration to Prince Faisal, Sykes wrote: “I know that the Arabs despise, condemn and hate the Jews, but passion is the ruin of princes and peoples… those who have persecuted or condemned the Jews could tell you the tale.”
He concluded that, contrary to the popular perception, the Jews were “universal, all powerful and cannot be put down”. A perplexed Faisal responded that he never despised anyone because of their religion, but would welcome “any good understanding with the Jews”.
Sykes subsequently became a supporter of Zionism. Shortly before his early death at the age of 39, a victim of the flu pandemic, he wrote to early Zionist pioneer Nahum Sokolow: “Your cause has about it an enduring quality which mocks at time. When all the temporal things the world now holds are as dead and forgotten as the curled and scented kings of Babylon who dragged your forefathers into captivity, there will still be Jews and so long as there are Jews, there must be Zionism.” Were these Sykes’ real feelings or merely the pragmatism of a Whitehall mandarin?
Jack Straw and William Hague, two recent foreign secretaries, have both said that, in hindsight, this was not Britain’s finest hour. Sir Mark Sykes served the British Crown in its hour of need during the First World War and British interests were always paramount. A century on, both Israel and the Arab world are living with its consequences.
Jewish Chronicle 19 May 2016