Why you should care
Because the end of the Ottoman Empire was the beginning of the modern Middle East.
He placed his finger on the map of the Ottoman Empire, sliding it from a modern-day Israeli port city all the way across to the Iraqi mountains. This was a region he knew all too well, and he had big plans for its future. But Lt. Col. Mark Sykes was nowhere near the Middle East that day in 1915 when, in a meeting with British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, he spoke of drawing “a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.” With World War I still ravaging Europe and Asia Minor, the Boer War veteran was already dividing up the spoils of conquest.
“Before the discovery of oil, this part of the world was vital to Britain because it was part of trade and imperial communications routes to India,” says Laurie A. Brand, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Southern California. From No. 10 Downing St., Sykes — whose fascination with the region earned him the nickname “the Mad Mullah,” according to A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East, by James Barr — marked off the territory he would one day help chop in half. Sykes’ obsession with the Middle East laid the groundwork for today’s raging power struggle, and the world is still fighting over the lines drawn by his finger.
The Russians were scandalized by the secret pact, and the Arabs realized they had been duped.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement, also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was signed in May 1916. Negotiations were conducted in secret by Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, on behalf of the U.K. and France, with the blessing of czarist Russia. Their goal? To divide the Ottoman Empire — in power from 1299-1922 — and access vital Mediterranean trade routes.
Back then, the Ottoman Empire spread from modern-day Turkey across northern Africa, all the way to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Flanked by Europe to the west, the empire decided to ally with the Central Powers and expand into the Balkans. Along the Ottoman Empire’s eastern border, the Arabs were rising up with the help of the British. Both the Arabs and the Allied Europeans saw Ottoman territory as an existential threat and a territorial prize. “[France and England] were two imperial and colonial powers that competed for influence in various parts of the world, and certainly in the Middle East,” Brand explains.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement handed modern-day Syria and Lebanon to France, while the British maintained control of Iraq. Russia was given large portions of Armenian-occupied lands in present-day Turkey, but they lost their cut after the Bolshevik Revolution, which would eventually lead to the unveiling of the secret agreement. Palestine, because of its central position in the Mediterranean, was set to be administered by the French and British, while holy sites were to be ruled over internationally. Sykes-Picot borders were designed to handicap Turkish influence while securing the vital trade corridors across Asia Minor and into the Mediterranean. There was just one little problem: While Sykes and Picot were busy negotiating the Middle East’s new borders, infamous English Arabist T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was suppressing Turkish intentions in the Arabian Desert under the guise of a different agreement.
The Arabs famously rose up against the Turks in Hejaz with the assistance of Lawrence and other British officers. All the while Hashemite Arab King Hussein bin Ali of Mecca was led to believe that the lion’s share of the Ottoman territory would fall into the Arab sphere of influence. While there is some question as to whether Lawrence knew about the letters between Sykes and Picot, it is clear that the U.K. had made two postwar deals, and only one could stand.
In 1917, the fall of the Ottoman Empire was still five years away, but owing to the rise of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, secret letters between Sykes and Picot were leaked to Russian newspapers, eventually finding their way to British headlines. The Russians were scandalized by the secret pact, and the Arabs realized they had been duped.
Eventually, the Arabs were promised land across the Jordan River at the Conference of San Remo in 1920. The Hashemite Arab country was to be called Transjordan (later Jordan). As the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922, Turkey emerged as a sovereign state surrounded by countries newly carved from the body of its former empire, which had spanned three continents. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne officially established today’s borders of Turkey, stretching from the Mediterranean along the southern coast of the Black Sea. While Ankara still controlled the Bosporus and, with it, access to the Mediterranean from the east, it was hemmed in by the Greek islands to the west.
From Lebanon to Iraqi Kurdistan, the names of Sykes, Picot and Lawrence are synonymous with Western meddling. The Sykes-Picot Agreement laid out spheres of influence that cut through ethnic, political and tribal affiliations — thus laying the groundwork for regional conflict. Many believe the line Sykes drew back in 1915 should never have been crossed.