Outliving the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

How Sykes-Picot changed the Middle East and international diplomacy?

The original Sykes-Picot map (1916).


The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is one of the few treaties whose consequences still impress the lives of many people today. The Middle East as we know it was shaped by this agreement, both geographically and nationalistically, to the extent that several subsequent events are pertinent to the decisions of the two parties that signed this agreement.

The consequences and aftermath of the Sykes-Picot Agreement are divided into three sections. The first section deals with the partition of geography in the Middle East: the creation and formation of the new Arab states in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Arabia. The second section regards the rise of Pan-Arabism and Arab national movements in the region, which have taken a strict shape in today’s sphere of international relations 100 years later. The third section pertains to the effects the Sykes-Picot Agreement has had on international diplomacy, principally the shift to treaty publicity and transparency in transnational collaboration.

Historical Background

During World War I, the great powers of Europe: France and Great Britain, decided – after years of eagerness – to dismember the Ottoman Empire, which had become decrepit throughout the years of cross-country aggression and internal political conflicts. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was already in talks in 1915 between France and Great Britain, with the accord of Russia. Dictating the dismemberment of the lands of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, the British representative, Sir Mark Sykes, and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, drew a map of a new, post-Ottoman Middle East.

In the same time frame in which the talks between Sykes and Picot were afoot, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, was also in talks with Henry McMahon, planning the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. An independent Arab state in the Middle East was accorded to Sharif Hussein on paper but never ratified. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, in addition, was far from appeasing to the Arabs and their interests. It partitioned the Arab provinces outside the Arab Peninsula into two British- and French-controlled regions.

With the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe,” nearing inevitable disintegration, the British Empire aimed to secure its interests in the Middle East, as well as have guaranteed access to the Mediterranean. In short, the Agreement accords the lands of southern Palestine, Jordan, southern Iraq, in addition to the ports of Haifa and Acre to the British, while giving France administrative control over Lebanon, Syria, northern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey (Grey & Cambon, 1916).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is met with harsh criticism from the Arabs and the international community, as it negates the British promises to the Arabs in 1916 and establishes a colonial administration over Arab mandate states in the Middle East.

State-Building in the Middle East

To appease the interests of every party involved, the lands of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Arabia were divided into mandate states and accorded to France and Britain. The partition was geographic in reality, but not in essence. The true intentions of the achieved geographic partition in the Levant and Mesopotamia were fueled by economic factors, pertinent to the national interests of both the British Empire and France. Therefore, the artificiality of the newfound states after Sykes-Picot pertains to economic interests, among others – not including the region’s own.

Turbeen (1987) states that the Sykes-Picot agreement is theft of the Arab victory over the Ottoman rule and is a negation to the promises given to Sharif Hussein [by Britain]. The Ottoman states in the Arab East became Arab states under foreign control by the British and the French, without an iota of consideration toward the natives’ or the state’s national interest (pp. 147-149). The amendments and modifications that ensued the original Sykes-Picot Agreement are good examples of both the British and the French putting their own national interests before their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East. The borders between the Levant states were established according to the negotiations of the foreign states [the British Empire and France] and their national interests.

Mosul (al-Mawsil), for example, was contained in the French influence zone, according to Sykes-Picot. However, after its takeover by Britain, and their greed in Mosul oil, France was asked to amend the agreement to become in good terms with the economic interests of the British Empire. In Syria, the French occupation looked to divide the Syrian unity and shatter it from the inside, thus dividing Syria into four micro-states, fully detached from one another. (Turbeen, 1987, pp. 150-151).

The British takeover of the Arab provinces proved to be preserving self-interest for Britain, and so was the case for France, making the putative artificiality of the states “invoked to justify the colonial administration of the territory” (Bâli, 2016, p. 118).

It is also important to note that the British and French “were dividing amongst themselves lands that Sharif Hussein was claiming for the future Arab kingdom” (Rogan, 2015, p. 101). Sharif Hussein bin Ali was in talks with Sir Henry McMahon for four months, concluded by a promise to Hussein to establish an “Arab kingdom.” However, Hussein did not want to upset the alliance between Britain and France or drive a wedge between the empires, and so made geographical compromises. For example, he gave up the inclusion of British-occupied vilayets in Iraq for a sum paid for the “period of occupation.” He also struggled – but conceded – to give Syria to France. Rogan (2015) states:

French claims to Syria were harder for the emir to accept. The Syrian provinces, he insisted, were “purely Arab” and could not be excluded from the Arab kingdom. Yet in the course of their exchange, Sharif Hussein conceded he wished to avoid what may possibly injure the alliance of Great Britain and France and the agreement made between them during the present wars and calamities. (p. 101).

The colonial architecture was built on the economic factors and capitalist interests of Britain and France in the region. Ancient resources, like rivers and seas, and modern ones, like oil and gas potential, in addition to the value of ports and harbors, were key to designing the Sykes-Picot map. (Ṭarābulsī, 2016, p. 13).

The fact that Britain initiated two parallel discussions regarding the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire was enough evidence that they had not taken into consideration the region’s interests. This is unapologetically mentioned in the correspondence between Sir Edward Grey and Paul Cambon, in which the Sykes-Picot Agreement is stated in full. The correspondence dictates that Britain and France “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” (Grey & Cambon, 1916).

Britain overtly tried to agitate the Arab regions to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and attain independence via an Arab kingdom and helped them achieve that goal. However, the true intentions of helping Arabs gain independence from the Ottomans was for Britain to seize control and covertly colonize the Middle East, with France. Ottaway (2015) notes that “France and Britain had no experience with state-building overseas – colonization was about control, pacification, and low-cost administration, not about state-building” (p. 5).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was considerate and solicitous to the interests of the colonial powers of Europe. Promises given to the Arab provinces and Sharif Hussein bin Ali were negated for the purpose of expanding the gains of Britain. Kitching (2016) notes that “the division was based on desires rather than practicalities. Ethnic groups, traditional hostilities, and deep-rooted religious tensions were ignored.” (p. 20).

This disregard for not only regional interests but also different types of schisms and multiplicity of ethnic, religious, and national groups in the Arab provinces, whose borders included uncountable and multi-integrated diverse backgrounds resulted in an even bigger challenge to the region. Bâli (2016) notes: “Where state partition has been applied as a “solution” to intractable conflicts, the strategy has “generated enduring inter-state rivalries, chronic state fragility and reproduced the same ethnic inequalities that led to partitioning in the first place” (p. 118).

Pan-Arabism and the Rise of Nationalism

As talks between Britain, France, and Russia took place, correspondence between Britain and the Arabs, represented by Sir Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali, promised an independent Arab state in the Middle East (McMahon & Hussein, 1916), supported by Britain. However, zealousness expressed by Sharif Hussein quickly faded away after the Sykes-Picot Agreement was disclosed by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917.

Not having foreseen this, Hussein was in a state of shock, and quickly asked for an explanation from Great Britain. The Bassett Letter, dated February 1918 from the British government to King Hussain, assured him that the mention of the secret agreement is yet another instance of Turkish trickery. However, the letter did not “admit or deny the authenticity of the Petrograd disclosures, but gave a misleading presentation of the character and scope of the Agreement.” (Antonius, 1938, p. 257). The letter put Hussain’s mind at ease that the Allies supported the Arab interests.

Along with the disclosure of the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement created a shockwave among the Arabs, especially due to the fact that the Balfour Declaration implied “a denial of Arab political freedom in Palestine.” This instance provoked a wave of protest on the part of the Arab leaders in Cairo. According to Antonius (1938), the British authorities there, “aided by strict censorship and active propaganda service, had much to do to allay Arab apprehensions and prevent a collapse of the Revolt.” (p. 267).

After the disclosure of the secret Agreement concocted by the British with the Zionists and the French, vis-à-vis the disposal of the Arab provinces and newfound, “liberated” states in the Levant and Mesopotamia, Arabs started to formulate an increased form of resentment to foreign involvement and control by the European powers. After the Hashemite family set roots in establishing an Arab rule in different parts of the region, “their grip on power was being challenged” by tribal leadership and national movements, especially in Hejaz. (Kitching, 2016, p. 21). Rogan (2015) notes that in Egypt, “political elites knew precisely what they wanted. After thirty-six years of British occupation, they wanted Egypt’s total independence.” However, the British distributed their military power where protestors expressed their resentment of British occupation. The Egyptians accused Britain of “using live fire against demonstrators, burning villages, and even committing rape.” (p. 103).

In Syria, the British installed Faisal, the son of Hussein bin Ali, in recognition of his and his father’s help to defeat the Ottoman rule in the region. However, “Faisal wanted a truly independent Syrian state that included Palestine and Transjordan, and so did the Syrian nationalists who were well represented in the parliament elected in 1919” (Ottaway, 2015, p. 7). Faisal’s state, alongside his opposition, would turn out to be fatal for his rule. Rogan (2015) also notes, regarding the Syrian nationalist movement under French rule:

On November 1, 1919, the British withdrew their army from Syria and handed the country over to French military rule. The Syrian General Congress, an elected body convened by Faisal’s supporters with representatives from the different regions of Greater Syria, responded on March 8, 1920 by declaring the independence of Syria with Faisal as their king. (p. 104).

The British government supported Hussein bin Ali at the time of their exchanged correspondence in 1916, allowing Hussein to envisage an independent Arab state where Ottomans ruled for centuries. As soon as the Ottoman grip had weakened, “nationalists gained prominence in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, among others.” (Ottaway, 2015, p. 4). This envision for an independent Arab state made Hussein not only vehement to achieve the outcome, but it also stirred the spirit of nationalism among Arabs.

In addition to the hollowness left by Britain and France in the Levant, pertinent to the Arabs, a prominent feature of British disregard for nationalism and independence was the question of an independent Kurdish state. The British had enough power to repress the opposition and maintain control “but did not have the time or capacity to build a functioning political system, institutions, and a common identity.” (Ottaway, 2015, p. 5).

Britain promised the Arabs in Iraq a form of self-government, supported and recognized by the Allies. However, standing witness to the occurrences and nationalist events in Egypt and Syria, “the Iraqis grew increasingly suspicious as the months passed without any tangible progress toward the promised self-government.” (Rogan, 2015, p. 105). In the San Remo conference, Iraq was given to Britain as a mandate, which confirmed the Iraqis’ concerns about the truth of self-government. Rogan states that:

At the end of June 1920, Iraq erupted in nationwide rebellion against British rule. Disciplined and well-organized, the insurgency threatened the British in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. (p. 105).

The effects of Sykes-Picot go beyond simply geographic or demographic awareness of the Allies. Britain and France were only considerate of their own national interests, and not a stable post-Ottoman Middle East. The map drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot was evidently a way to secure and attain economic and imperial expansion at the expense of the indigenous interests in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Pan-Arabism in the Middle East took another shape after the ratification – or rather, semi-ratification – of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Instead of a united Arab front under one independent Arab state, as promised by Great Britain, Arabs in the dismantled lands of the region found themselves fighting off British expansionism, and thus formulating new nationalist ideologies pertinent to each’s different case.

Effect on Diplomacy and Transparency

The disclosure of the Sykes-Picot Agreement spurred international bitterness toward secret treaties between states, alongside other treaties published by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Great Britain and France together disclosed the Sykes-Picot Agreement with Russia, seeing as the question of the Holy Places in Palestine was pertinent to the tsarist empire. After the Bolshevik revolution, however, the tsarist files, including copies of secret treaties between the Allies, were disclosed to the public.

Trotsky, who led the project of disclosing the secret files, “understood the impact that disclosure could have, since the treaty, despite its contemplation of statehood, showed France and Britain as duplicitous in relation to the Arabs. Trotsky published a summary of the Sykes-Picot text in the government newspaper Izvestiia under the headline ‘Secret Diplomacy and the Question of Palestine’.” (Quigley, 2017, p. 257). Public opinion, Quigley states, was shocked, “because the major powers had promised one thing in public while they agreed to something else in private.” (p. 259).

The international community then believed that transparency and publicity of treaties and agreements were key to improving international order, where it is “governed by law rather than power politics.” (Donaldson, 2017, p. 575). With the creation of the League of Nations, the United States, headed by President Woodrow Wilson, put the subject of transparency in diplomacy in the forefront, stressing the importance in the Covenant of the League of Nations:

Every treaty or international engagement entered into hereafter by any Member of the League shall be forthwith registered with the Secretariat and shall as soon as possible be published by it. No such treaty or international engagement shall be binding until so registered.   (Article 18, League of Nations Covenant, 1919).

Woodrow Wilson reacted with a fierce stance on the disclosed treaties. He was already critical of the imperialist powers of Europe “for the control they exercised outside Europe, and the Bolshevik revelations gave him additional evidence of Europe’s misdeeds.” (Quigley, 2017, p. 260). In his speech to the U.S. Congress in 1918, Wilson started by stressing the importance of transparency and open diplomacy:

Open covenants of peace openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view. (Point I).

Hudson (1925) purports that Article 18 of the Covenant “constitutes a striking innovation.” He continues, “No precedents for it existed.” (p. 276). Therefore, the disclosure of the secret treaties not only exposed the imperialist politics and perfidy. The duplicity in Britain and France’s correspondence regarding the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire was a focal point in the subsequent years of international relations.

The effect of the disclosure of the secret treaties and files in 1917 led to a major change in the diplomatic procedures. The Covenant of the League of Nations marks the beginning of a new international law forbidding secret treaties. Donaldson (2017) notes that “aspects of Article 18 were carried over into Article 102 of the UN Charter, which in turn was echoed in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT).” (p. 576).

This shift in diplomacy practice and the change toward more open diplomacy with a transparent, publicly-accessible treaty registration system was an indirect outcome to what Trotsky wanted. Albeit secondary, the disclosure of secret files by the Bolsheviks led the union of world states to adopt – or rather adapt to – an open-book political era, leading to what today the United Nations Charter recognizes as the international law of transparent diplomacy.


The Sykes-Picot Agreement is one of the most important agreements and events in understanding and assessing today’s Middle East. The consequences of the Sykes-Picot Agreement spanned the Middle East particularly but also affected worldwide diplomacy, as well as birthed new forms of nationalism among the newfound states. These consequences can be concentrated into three main points: (1) the geographic, (2) the nationalist, and (3) the diplomatic. These categories can help us understand how Sykes-Picot changed the Middle East. The first category offers an explanation from the geographic viewpoint; the partition of the Arab provinces was done to appease the economic and administrative interests and needs of the Allies. The second category explains the aftermath of Sykes-Picot from an ideological viewpoint; the partition of the intrinsically diverse region led to even more challenging schisms in religion, ethnicity, and state-nationalism, thus worsening the problem instead of resolving it. The third category can tell us how Sykes-Picot, alongside other secret treaties disclosed by the Bolsheviks in 1917, changed international diplomacy and led to the formation of a new transparent system of treaties and agreements.

While all arguments suggest that the Sykes-Picot Agreement marked an era of diplomatic duplicity and disloyalty by imperialist Great Britain and France, the only argument that can explain the outcome of Sykes-Picot is Britain and France’s attempt at state-building. The imperialist powers sought their own interests, whether economic or administrative, first and foremost. The idea of helping Arabs achieve independence over the Ottoman Empire was secondary, as well as the creation of a stable, post-Ottoman Middle East. This outcome of the agreement was sought after and intended, rather than foreseen.

Reference List

  • Antonius, G. (1938). The Arab awakening: The story of the Arab national movement. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

  • Bâli, A. (2016). Sykes-Picot and “artificial” states. AJIL Unbound, 110, 115-119.

  • Donaldson, M. (2017). The survival of the secret treaty: Publicity, secrecy, and legality in the international order. American Journal of International Law, 111(3), 575-627.

  • Hudson, M. (1925). The registration and publication of treaties. The American Journal of International Law, 19(2), 273-292.

  • Kitching, P. (2016). The Sykes-Picot agreement and lines in the sand. Historian, (128), 18-22.

  • League of Nations. (1919). The Covenant of the League of Nations. Montreal: A.T. Chapman.

  • McMahon, H., and Hussein, Ali. (n.d.). The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence 1915-1916 [Correspondence].

  • Ottaway, M. (2015). Learning from Sykes-Picot. Middle East Program Occasional Paper Series. Washington, DC: Wilson Center.‏

  • Quigley, J. (2017). Leon Trotsky and the prohibition against secret treaties. Journal of the History of International Law, 19(2), 246-273.‏

  • Rogan, E. (2015). A century after Sykes-Picot. The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 19.

  • Ṭarābulsī, F. (2016, Spring). Miʾiawīaẗu Sāīks Bīkū: Al-Harāʾīṭ Wāltārīẖ [The centenary of Sykes-Picot: Maps and history]. Bidayat Magazine, (14), 4-13.

  • Turbeen, A. (1987). Al-taǧziʾiaẗu al-ʿarabīah kaīfa taḥaqaqat tārīẖīan [The Arab partition: How it happened historically]. Markazu dirāsātu al-wiḥdaẗi al-ʿarabīā [Center for Arab Unity Studies].

  • Wilson, W. (1918, January 8). President Wilson's Fourteen Points [Speech].

  • World War I Document Archive. Sykes-Picot Agreement. (1915).

Copyright © 2021 by Tarek Gara. All Rights Reserved.

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