16 December 1915 – Syria

The Anglo-French alliance is much weaker than its political leaders admit in public. Historic enemies, France and Britain are still rivals for Egypt, influence in the Middle East, and access to India and the Far East, with consequences in the formulation of their policies. Their differences begin on the Western Front, where the French army still does most of the fighting and dying while the British Army continues building its forces and calling for strategic patience, but the gap between strategic visions only widens the farther away we look.

Casting about for a new theater to attack the creaking Ottoman Empire in the wake of their retreat from Gallipoli, London has once again proposed landings around Alexandretta, the port city lying in the sharp bend of the Turkish coastline, but Paris has rejected the idea for fear that Britain will claim influence in the parts of the Levant that they covet for themselves. As December began, British Ambassador Francis Bertie warned Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey of “an inclination in some society and commercial quarters to think that we are making use of France against Germany for our own sole benefit and that much greater sacrifices are being made by France.” Despite closer coordination than ever between military commands, the cross-channel partnership is in very real danger of unraveling.

It is in this atmosphere that Sir Mark Sykes arrives for a meeting of the War Cabinet at Number 10 Downing Street today holding a map of Ottoman territories (see above). After weeks of study, Sykes proposes to draw a line across the region “from the E in Acre to the last K in Kirkuk” that will separate British and French areas of influence, and the Cabinet receives his idea enthusiastically. Sykes will not live long enough to see any of the tremendous consequences that his infamous colored pencils have incurred on the modern world: with modifications that bring Mosul into a new Mesopotamian nation, the line Sykes has drawn to limit British influence will become the long northern border of Jordan and Iraq. Intended as Britain’s entryway into the Levant, a carve-out that includes Haifa and Palestine will eventually be separated from the Transjordan; then, by the influence of Zionists over three decades, it will morph into the state of Israel. Today’s meeting is therefore one of the most fateful and important moments in the making of our present, violent world.


Left: Georges-Picot. Right: Sir Mark Sykes. Two of the most consequential diplomats in history, they are both surprisingly obscure

Having served as Resident in Beirut until Turkey’s entry into the war brought his diplomatic expulsion, French diplomat François Georges-Picot is an old Middle East hand who serves French imperial interests very well. He will meet Sykes for the first time on December 21st in a series of discussions that prove to be the matrix in which the modern Middle East is shaped, for better and worse.

Georges-Picot is well aware of the discontent in Arab sections of the Ottoman Empire; during 1914, he received thirty-three private letters from Arab Muslims, Christians, at least one Palestinian, and even a senior Arab officer of the Ottoman Army asking for French intervention against Ottoman authority in Beirut. But France was unwilling to grant Arab independence before the war, and is even less willing to entertain the idea now; rather than take the bundle of treasonous correspondence back to Paris, Picot hid it in the consulate basement, which was under nominal diplomatic protection by the still-neutral United States. During 1916, however, an imprisoned translator in Damascus will offer the bundle to save his own skin, resulting in the arrest, torture, and execution of everyone who had trusted Picot. The incident — which takes place just three days before Georges-Picot signs the secret arrangement with Sykes — is illustrative of the ways French policy will impact the Levant during the rest of the 20th Century. From the beginning, Georges-Picot demands a more direct mandate for France along the Mediterranean coast, where there is a higher concentration of Christians; it is in an effort to protect these religious minorities that Lebanon is resected from what is to become Syria. In time, France’s pronounced favoritism towards the Alawites sets up them up as the ruling minority in Syria, producing the unbalanced social and political system that collapses into civil war during 2011.

As exemplified by Sykes’s signature on the agreement being written in pencil rather than pen, British policy lies on a very different track. Whereas London will prefer to see the arrangement as an ad hoc, malleable framework for further negotiation, Paris has a much firmer view, and spends the next few years trying to hold the British government to the letter of its word. But the allies’ policies diverge the most at Arab uprising and independence, for the intelligence staff at the Army of India General Headquarters in Cairo is increasingly convinced that a new, rival caliphate to the Turks can be erected around the Sharif of Mecca. They already know about the thirty-three letters and Georges-Picot’s Arab officer; during April, the British Foreign Office authorized High Commissioner Henry McMahon in Egypt to open a dialogue with Arab leaders to foment sedition, though he was by no means authorized to actually commit the crown to any arrangement granting independence. In the months to come, an intelligence analyst and junior officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence will lobby for a mission to spark Arab rebellion against their Turkish masters, but the British Empire has no intention of honoring the promises he makes of a future united Arab kingdom. That inducement also runs quite contrary to the private arrangement with France, of course, and during the postwar peace conference, Britain will manage to both break its word to the Arabs while simultaneously annoying the French with demands to modify the Sykes-Picot agreement. Such an unfair and dishonest process is guaranteed to create resentment, and in fact those feelings still linger today.

Fighters of the so-called Islamic State breach the berm marking the Syrian-Iraqi border along the old Sykes-Picot line in 2014

Fighters of Da’esh, or ISIS, breach a berm marking the Syrian-Iraqi border along the old Sykes-Picot line in 2014. Their ideology rejects western-imposed borders, erecting the first Sunni caliphate since the Ottoman Sultanate was finally abolished in 1923