Skes-Picot Agreement (1916) Taking Example of Berlin Conference (Nov. 1884 – Feb. 1885)
By: Hossein Alizadeh
۶th: Finnish colloquium of MENA studies- Helsinki 9-10.12.2022
By: Hossein Alizadeh
History has all along documented the fact that borders have never been static. The outbreak of the First World War (the Great War) dramatically changed the political, social, and demographic landscape of large parts of the Middle East under the Ottoman Empire . The War erupted in July 1914 and terminated in November 1918 between the Allies Powers (also Triple Entente, mainly Britain, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). The end of the war brought about significant changes in the losers territories.
As for the Ottoman Empire, at its greatest extent in the sixteenth century with almost 400,000 ml2 (1,036,000 km2), it was a significant military and transcontinental political configuration in three continents: namely in the Middle East in Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Europe, which from a trade perspective with unequivocal access to the Mediterranean and Black Seas made the Empire a significant hindrance in the way of European powers.
Nevertheless, prior to the First War, the Empire’s size became much less than its size in the sixteenth century due to losses in North Africa and Eastern Europe. The Ottomans suffered a decisive defeat when they failed to capture Vienna in the Austro-Ottoman War lasted for fourteen years (1683–۹۷), followed by the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), which marked the end of Ottoman control in much of Central Europe and the beginning of significant territorial losses. In other words, the Treaty marked a point in the decline of Ottoman power after centuries of expansion. In Edward Freeman’s words, it was “one of the heaviest blow […] that has never really recovered […] and paved the path to the revolts against the Ottoman power.”
Consequently, this was the beginning of setbacks for the Ottomans who gradually were defeated and lost control in North Africa, namely in Egypt (1798), Algeria (1830), and Tunisia (1881) by France, in Egypt (1882) and Sudan (1898) by Britain, and in Libya (1911) by Italy.
With the Balkans in turmoil, much worse than military defeats, were internal nationalist movements erupted in minorities within the Ottoman territories during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Serbians (1804-1817), the Greeks (1821-1832), and Bulgarians (1876), in addition to Moldavia, Wallachia (Romania), Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, and Georgia, all seeking autonomy or independence. The Treaty of Bucharest (1913) marked the end of the Balkan War. Accordingly, the Ottomans withdrew from the Balkans, except for a small portion of Thrace (the Turkish territory that is geographically located in Southeast Europe), which raised the “Oriental Question” about the Ottomans, now described as “the Sick Man of Europe.” Due to the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, the Oriental (also Eastern) Question was the question of which European powers inherit Ottoman territories once the Empire falls apart.
The decline continued until the First War brought about the end of the Sick Man’s Empire to its size today with a change into its name under the Republic of Turkey.
Notwithstanding, the situation deteriorated once the European minorities’ seeking autonomy turned into an inspiring moment for the Arabs under the Ottomans to seek independence in the form of an independent Arab Caliphate. This is comprehensively portrayed in The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (1938) by Palestinian historian George Antonius. The circumstances deteriorated for the Ottomans when Britain and France, the then two major European powers, became vastly aware of an underground Arab nationalist movement within the Empire.
Sykes-Picot: taking the example of Berlin Conference
Until a century ago, the Middle East political landscape looked different from that of today. None of the Arab counties we recognize today with artificial boundaries like Jordan, Syria, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, in addition to modern Turkey and Israel, existed a century ago. In referring to what is commonly described as the Middle East of the Sykes-Picot, David Fromkin, the American historian, notes that the Middle East, as we realize it today, emerged by the Allies who “destroyed the old order in the region irrevocably, they smashed the Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East beyond repair.”
Remarkably noteworthy, the Sykes-Picot partitioning of the Arabic-speaking Middle East took the example of the partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference (November 1884 – February 1885) to manage the European “Scramble for Africa” and prevent war over claims to African lands.
In a short time, i.e., over the course of twenty-five years from 1875 to 1900 and in the climax of the European competition for the entire continent of Africa, Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal all desired part of Africa to provide the efficient workforce and natural resources for their growing industrial sectors. In the event, Britain and France –two significant powers who later secretly made the Sykes-Picot deal between themselves- were major winners who took possession of vast tracts of African lands.
The Berlin Conference was held between fourteen nations, including the United States and thirteen Europeans, to divide Africa and manage an agreed direct European colonial influence while no Africans attended the event. By the end of the event, man-made borders were drawn in order to shape their colonies or protectorates in Africa, affecting the continent’s borders even today.
Twenty-nine years after Britain’s and France’s experience in successful partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference, the First War erupted in 1914. The Ottomans’ military weakness from the late eighteenth century was evident to the Triple Entente. In the middle of the War, they expected to pick up their pieces soon once the Ottoman Empire fell apart. To London, British Egypt, and notably, the Suez Canal was the key to access to British India. To Paris, Greater Syria was the desired land. Because of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Moscow wished to claim Istanbul and the Straits of Dardanelles. Their dreams came true once France and Britain split the Ottoman’s Arab lands between themselves based on a secret colonial deal, officially recognized as the Asia Minor Agreement but colloquially remembered as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The deal was reached by the British diplomat Mark Sykes (1879–۱۹۱۹) and French diplomat François Georges-Picot (1870–۱۹۵۱). The two high professional envoys were designated to draft a mutually acceptable post-War partition of Arab lands under the Ottomans into three imperial possessions.
The Sykes-Picot secret negotiations occurred between November 1915 and March 1916. Eventually, the Agreement was concluded on May 16, 1916, while almost parallel talks were going on between Sharif Hussein and Henry McMahon from July 1915 until March 1916.
Based on the precious experience Britain and France gained in the Berlin Conference, the parties agreed to carve up overwhelmingly Muslim territories, Arabic-speaking, Turkish-ruled since the thirteenth century (sometimes referred to as the Arabs of Mesopotamia, the Greater Syria, and the Hejaz) into three different spheres of influence. That took place by drawing an almost straight line on a map, extending roughly from Palestine to Iraq (i.e., to the south and east) to British and to the north and west to France. Russia was supposed to receive Armenia, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and Istanbul. 
In the middle of the First War and still prior to the Russian revolution (1917), François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes, who drafted the Agreement in March 1916, traveled to Russia to secure their Entente Allies’ consent to their partition plan. Sergei Dmitryevich Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, negotiated them to receive western Armenia, Constantinople, and the Turkish Straits for Russia. Also, after the Italian declaration of war against Germany on May 23, 1915, Britain and France promised Italy southern and southwestern Anatolia of the Ottoman lands and any territory gained by the Allies from Germany in Africa. However, despite the initial agreement between the four parties, Russia’s defection from the First War canceled the Russian share of the Asia Minor Agreement. Also, the Turkish War of Independence, which brought victories for the Turkish Nationalists, prevented Italy from accessing any part of Anatolia. Consequently, the remained parties of the Agreement were Britain and France, who manipulated the Mandate System entirely in their self-interests.
Soon after the defeat of Ottomans, the Allies, later on, in the Paris (Versailles) Peace Conference (beginning in January 1919, two months after the First War was over in November 1918) adopted what is known as Mandate System, entered into force on June 28, 1919. Contrary to what was supposedly agreed with Sharif Hussein, Greater Syria was not given to the Arabs. Instead, it became a French mandate, while Britain was given mandates for Mesopotamia and Palestine. That means they first created new zones on the map, and then, they claimed in the League of Nations (itself an Allied creation) that these new zones are not able to rule over themselves.
Interestingly meaningful, David Fromkin notes that such an approach toward Arabs existed in the British officials even before the League of Nations. He notes that what was once written by Gertrude Bell, the prewar British famous traveler in Arabian lands, was regarded as an indisputable fact by the British once she wrote: “the Arabs can’t govern themselves.”
Naturally, this was a fatal blow to the Arabs’ identity and a subject of Emir Feisal’s severe objection.
As for Palestine, the British opened up doors to Jewish migration as per the Balfour Declaration, which increased Arab outrage in Iraq in 1920. Iraqis themselves were against the British occupation of their lands. Like France in Syria, Britain quickly defeated the revolt therein but decided to designate Hussein’s sons Faisal and Abdullah as loyal kings in Iraq and Jordan, respectively, as two new small separate Arab kingdoms instead of one single substantial Arab kingdom Caliphate promised to their father.
Soon within one month from the Russian revolution of October 1917, the revolutionary Bolshevik Soviet government, in public disclosure, released the entire Sykes-Picot script in Izvestia and Pravda on November 23 as a sign of the former Russian monarchy’s treason against the people of the region in collaboration with other imperialist countries namely France and Britain. Subsequently, the Manchester Guardian newspaper also published the document on November 26. The Bolshevik’s disclosure of the Agreement was soon after Britain publicized on November 9 the Balfour Declaration signed on November 2.
In fact, from the Arab and Islamist perspective, the Balfour Declaration is seen as supplementary to the Sykes-Picot Agreement according to which:
As the aftermath of the Ottomans’ defeat in the First War and the division of its territories under the Treaty of Sèvres and the Treaty of Lausanne among European powers, the Middle East political shape changed dramatically.
The first partitioning of the Arab Middle East took place by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The secret deal took its example from the partitioning of Africa in the Berlin Conference (November 1884 – February 1885) to manage the European “Scramble for Africa.”
During the nineteenth century, most territories with a Muslim majority gradually passed under colonial powers, particularly Britain and France, as the two geographically tiny but militarily and mighty countries. The then two colonial powers exercised their influence in vast regions with a Muslim majority, leaving behind a sense of humiliation for indigenous people deteriorated once the Muslim Caliphate eventually vanished in 1924 forever.
Interestingly, London desired to keep the Sykes-Picot Agreement classified, for the British had already promised an independent county under the name of the Caliphate to the Arabs under Sharif Hussein’s leadership, whereas secret negotiations were going on between the Zionist Movement and Britain to endorse them in establishing the Jewish homeland in Palestine. In other words, the British tried to have it both ways, i.e., to support the Jewish diaspora while at the same time having the support of Arabs in their revolt against the Ottomans.
Since then, the British arrangement in the Middle East is considered a controversial alignment in the region, leading to severing lasting resentment and conflicts that persist even today. From an Arab and Islamist perspective, the colonial Sykes-Picot was not just a sign for the termination of the Ottoman Empire but also a turning point in gradually shifting Muslim and Aarb territories to arbitrarily imposed nation-states with artificial boundaries, similar to the partitions in Africa.
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Demant, Peter R. “Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World.” Praeger. (2006).
El Bakri, Alia. “Revolutions and Rebellions: Arab Revolt.” International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Version 1.0. (May 2018).
Freeman, Edward A. “The Ottoman Power in Europe: Its Nature, Its Growth, and Its Decline.” London, Macmillan and co., (1877).
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“Berlin Conference of 1884–۱۸۸۵”. Oxford Reference. Available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195337709.001.0001/acref-9780195337709-e-0467
African Age. “African Colonization 1914”. Available at: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/maps.html
“The Sykes-Picot Agreement: 1916”. In: The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy in Yale Law School. Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sykes.asp
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Why Border Lines Drawn With A Ruler In WWI Still Rock The Middle East. in: BBC available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25299553
“The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919”. In: Nations in: The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy in Yale Law School. Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/parti.asp
 Mussadiq Mahmood Ghumman. “Towards the Unification of Muslim Umma.” International Institute of Strategic Studies & Research. (2013). 66-7.
 Edward A. Freeman. “The Ottoman Power in Europe: Its Nature, Its Growth, and Its Decline”. London, Macmillan and co., (1877). 155-6, 166.
 Vox. “Photo 7” in 40 Photos that Explain the Middle East. Available at: https://www.vox.com/a/maps-explain-the-middle-east (Accessed March 31, 2021)
 Peter R Demant. “Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World.” Praeger. (2006). 20.
 James Barr. “A Line In The Sand: Britain, France And The Sruggle That Shaped The Middle East”. Simon & Schuster, UK. (2011). 24.
 David Fromkin. “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” Owl Books. (2001). 563.
 See: “Berlin Conference of 1884–۱۸۸۵”. Oxford Reference. Available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195337709.001.0001/acref-9780195337709-e-0467 (Accessed Septembe 12, 2021)
 See: “Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–۱۸۸۵ and the Onset of Partition”. Oxford University Press. (1989).
 “The Sykes-Picot Agreement: 1916”. In: The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy in Yale Law School. Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sykes.asp (Accessed September 12, 2021)
 See: “Memorandum by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Question of Asia Minor”. In: Supplement 2, the World War. Volume I. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the Uited States. (1917). Available at: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1917Supp02v01/d416 (Accessed September 12, 2021)
 Why Border Lines Drawn With A Ruler In WWI Still Rock The Middle East. in: BBC available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25299553 (Accessed February 31, 2021)
 “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919”. In: Nations in: The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy in Yale Law School. Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/parti.asp (Accessed September 19, 2021)
 Alia El Bakri. “Revolutions and Rebellions: Arab Revolt.” International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Version 1.0. (May 2018). 4.
 Fromkin. A Peace to End All Peace. 144.