When Europe's reigning monarchs and heads-of-state strutted the stage of impending war in Europe in the months that preceded the outbreak of war in 1914, few, if any, would have had any inkling that in less than a year's time they and their politicians would be manoeuvring over the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. Never mind Turkey had yet to be beaten on the field of battle, let alone its allies of the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, negotiations were to be made and deals were to be struck.

So, how did this optimism about vast territorial realignment as the spoils of war come about?

In August 1914, Britain and France had already come to a provisional agreement concerning the redefinition of the boundaries of the Germany colony of Togoland in West Africa. When Turkey joined the war in 1914, the thoughts of the Allies' governments immediately turned what would happen to the Ottoman Empire in particular, and the Middle East in general, when the inevitable victory was achieved by the Allies. In November 1915, two negotiators representing the principal interested parties - France and Britain - were appointed. Their names were Sykes and Picot.

  • Sir Mark Sykes, Member of the British Parliament and a renowned Middle-East traveller.
  • Monsieur Fran├žois Georges-Picot, former Consul General for France in Beirut, Lebanon.

Their terms of reference were to prepare an Agreement and by January 1916 they were ready to submit The Sykes-Picot Agreement for consideration. In May 1916 it was accepted in principle by the Ministers of State of the Allies.

Terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

  • France would be given 'direct, or indirect, administration' of a 'Blue Area' that covered Cilicia and the Syrian and Lebanese coastal areas.
  • Britain would take control under similar terms of a 'Red Area' - Central and Southern Mesopotamia, as far north as Baghdad, plus Acre and Haifa in Palestine.
  • A third area - the 'Brown Area' - which covered the remainder of the Holy Land including Jerusalem, would be under an 'International Administration' to be decided later.
  • The territory that fell between the Red and Blue Areas would be under independent Arab rule, but would be sub-divided into two sub-areas: the 'Northern A' and 'Southern B'. In the former the British would have the sole rights to appoint advisers to the Arab ruler and have preference over loans and contracts; the French would enjoy the same privileges in the Southern B.

Although the French had not obtained any part of Palestine as they originally wished, they had got effective control over most of Syria and the Mosul area in Mesopotamia.

Spin-offs from the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Since Russia had earlier - in April 1916 - come to an agreement with the Allies about Armenian and Kurdish lands in the northern part of the Ottoman Empire, the basis had now been laid for the establishment of colonies, protectorates and spheres of interest right across the Middle East.

These divisions of territory were defined in secret treaties that did not become known about until they came to light during the Russian October Revolution. As they were not at all what was promised to the Arabs in the later stages of the war, they cast an aura of strong distrust that continued up to, and after, the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 and, to some extent, continues to this day. The Conference was attended by 32 Allied and Associated States including the Arab Hejaz. The Hejaz delegation was led by Prince Feisal Ibn Hussein, later Feisal I of Mesopotamia and was strongly supported by Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence, 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Further complications caused by the Balfour Declaration
Whilst the clamour for British and French interests in the Middle East tended to hog the international stage, other interested parties were determined that their own particular interests should not be forgotten when the Ottoman Empire fell. Leading amongst these were the aims of International Zionism, whose spokesman was the prominent British Jew, Lord Rothschild. They sought a 'national home' - the State of Israel - for the Jews in Palestine.

In his capacity as British Foreign Secretary, and with the authority of a former Prime Minister (1902 - 06), Arthur Balfour announced in a letter dated the 2nd November 1917 that British government would endeavour to establish a Jewish home in Palestine, with the proviso that the civil and political status of Arabs already settled there would not be affected, and that Jews domiciled in other countries would retain full rights of citizenship in those countries. In short, the Jews of Europe would have their homeland in Palestine if they chose to go, but they should not be forced to leave their own countries to do so. And the rights of the indigenous Arabs would have to be assured.

The rationale for this extraordinary initiative was said to be an unjustified British fear that the Germans planned to offer International Jewry its support for a Jewish Palestine after the war.

In the event, once the British had their post-war mandate in Palestine, the violent objections of the indigenous Arab population caused the British to fail to implement the terms of the Declaration. In 1939 its aims were officially abandoned until the whole question was resurrected after the Second World War; to the considerable embarrassment and discomfort of the British Administration.


The secret terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the more open, if ambiguous, statement of the Balfour Declaration, did nothing to resolve the many problems of the Middle East in the early part of the 20th Century and created many anomalies and uncertainties. The Arab population always resented them as interference in their affairs and many of the problems that the international community faces today have their genesis in these documents.

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