Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sykes-Picot Agreement is ratified (1916)

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Today is the anniversary of the Islamic State’s least-favorite arbitrarily-drawn line on a map, the Iraq-Syria boundary delineated by the Sykes-Picot agreement. The occasion seems quite a bit less momentous now than it did during the heyday of IS’s “caliphate,” when its open contempt for the boundary hastily scribbled on a map by British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot back in 1916 spawned countless thinkpieces either lamenting the allegedly shoddy work those two did or defending it against extremist (and some not-so-extremist) criticism. Now that IS isn’t really A Thing anymore, or at least its “caliphate” isn’t, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has faded back somewhat into what I think is an appropriate level of obscurity.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the outcome of a series of negotiations that began in early 1915 over what sort of geopolitical order ought to emerge from World War I. If this seems a little presumptuous, given that World War I had only started in 1914 and wouldn’t end until 1918, that’s because it was. Recall that there were a fair number of Very Serious People in Europe who predicted confidently that the war would be over, one way or another, by December 1914. They’d already missed that deadline by this point, but the reality that Europe was in for another three-plus years of brutal trench warfare simply didn’t occur to leaders on either side of the conflict. The Allies hadn’t even landed at Gallipoli yet, and they were convinced that their planned operation in the Dardanelles would be a hammer blow that would capture Istanbul, secure the Mediterranean supply route to Russia, bring Bulgaria into the war on the Allied side, and go a long way toward knocking the Ottomans out of the war altogether. If you were an Allied leader and you assumed Gallipoli wouldn’t go disastrously wrong, then it was definitely not too soon to start talking about parceling out the remains of the soon-to-be defunct Ottoman Empire.

These discussions started with France, Russia, and the UK, along with Italy, claiming post-war spheres of influence. Russia wanted control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, France wanted Syria, the UK wanted Iraq, and so forth. When Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner for Egypt, started negotiating with Sharif Hussein of Mecca to encourage the latter to lead an Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, a new element entered the debate in the form of Hussein’s demand for a unified Arab kingdom under his rule. Britain, knowing full well that this future Arab kingdom Hussein wanted included Syria, simply strung him along while entering into negotiations with France about where exactly the boundary would be drawn between the post-war French colony and whatever kingdom Britain would actually offer the Arabs. Those talks began in November 1915 with Picot involved; Sykes was appointed as the British negotiator in late December, and the two spent several days in daily contact before concluding their arrangement in early January 1916. The deal then worked its way through the French and British governments until both ratified it in mid-May of that year.

The main feature of the Sykes-Picot agreement was its division between what would become French Syria (and Lebanon, eventually) and the rest of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab domains, which would go to Hussein via Britain. It is a very simple, and really pretty silly, thing—so silly, in fact, that the legend goes that Sykes simply looked at his map and proposed drawing a straight line from the e in “Acre” to the K in “Kirkuk.” That’s not exactly the line that they drew, but it’s close enough to make the story a credible entry in the tales of bored European diplomats carving up the world without the slightest local knowledge and with even less curiosity. It’s easy to see why they drew the line there, since this border ran right through the middle of the Syrian desert. To a European bureaucrat in the early 20th century, that must have seemed like an impenetrable geographic barrier. But Arab Bedouin had been penetrating it quite regularly for millennia by this point, and it’s the porousness of the border they created that has come to define Sykes’ and Picot’s failure in recent years.

The flurry of debate over their deal does make me wonder how Sykes and Picot would be to know that their most lasting contribution to history is more or less a line they drew on a map, probably without giving it very much thought, that is now blamed for a considerable percentage of the dysfunction of the modern Middle East. For one thing, some of that blame isn’t entirely fair. When most people talk about “Sykes-Picot” today they’re really using it as shorthand for the whole host of post-World War I agreements that were drawn up among the victorious European allies that arranged for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many of which actually changed what Sykes and Picot were trying to do. In fact, the post-war settlement they envisioned was supposed to look something like this:

Here’s the text of the agreement if you’re interested.

You don’t see it on that map, but based on some of those early negotiations with Russia and Italy, Russia was also supposed to get control of Istanbul while Italy was supposed to get much of southern Anatolia and Greece would have controlled the western Anatolian coast. The Hashemites were going to keep ruling the Hejaz (western Arabia) while the Saud family ruled the Nejd (central Arabia).

A lot of this stuff, obviously, never happened. The Russian Revolution and Lenin’s withdrawal from the war meant that none of the territory promised to Russia would actually come under Russian control (the Bolsheviks also did their best to screw Britain and France by publishing this “secret” agreement in their Pravda newspaper). The nationalist victory in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) meant that Anatolia would not be divvied up among the Europeans and would instead become the new Republic of Turkey. The Saudi conquest of the Hejaz created the nation of Saudi Arabia and left it to Britain to provide the Hashemites with two consolation prizes in the form of Iraq and the Transjordan. When oil was found near Mosul Britain renegotiated (somewhat forcibly) their arrangement with France to include that city in their zone of influence. Palestine never became the international zone this agreement envisioned, and instead it became another British mandate before, well, you know. And the distinction between areas of “rule” and areas of “protection” was lost in several places—particularly within the French Mandate, which functioned more or less as a colony until World War II made that status untenable.

Then you have to consider how much of the modern crises facing this region stem simply from inadequate borders. Yes, it matters that the Syria-Iraq border has proven to be porous in large part because it divided a region that was historically dominated by Sunni Bedouin tribes. But Iraq and Syria aren’t failed states because their shared border is badly conceived. They’re failed states because of the depredations of the colonial mandate period that followed World War I and the depredations of the totalitarian dictatorships that followed and were made possible by the colonial period. Sykes and Picot were a part of a colonial machinery that did a tremendous amount of damage to the Middle East, but they and their agreement shouldn’t get the lion’s share of the blame for what’s happened since. There were too many subsequent failures to blame the current state of affairs just on the sloppy work of these two diplomats.