1900-1919 | Secret Collusion

British and French in secret agreement to divide the Middle East

Map of the Sykes Picot agreement –
The National Archives/Wikimedia

3 January 1916

On 3 January 1916, during the First World War, a line was drawn on the map from Acre on the coast of Palestine to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, dividing much of the Middle East into what were planned as post-war British and French spheres of control. It was a draft memorandum of understanding and the official, though still secret, signing was delayed until May.  The pact later became known, after details were disclosed by Pravda in November 1917, as the Skyes-Picot agreement, named after the two chief negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot. Under the confidential accord the area to the north of the line, including all of Lebanon, Syria, Northern Iraq and a large area of what is today Turkey, would, once it was seized from the Ottoman Turks, fall under French rule, while most of the territory to the South including Jordan, most of Iraq and part of Palestine would be under British control, while part would remain nominally independent.

The British and French kept the pact secret, so as not to enrage their Arab allies. Only three months earlier, London had promised Sherif Hussein of Mecca that the entire area covered by the agreement would be granted full independence if the Arabs joined the Allies against the Ottoman Turks. So, naturally, there was concern that the accord, if published, would expose both the double-dealing and the naked self interest of the two imperial powers. As the historian James Barr observes in A Line in the Sand, ‘even by the standards of the time, it was a shamelessly self-interested pact, reached well after the point when a growing number of people had started to blame empire-building for the present (First World) war.’1


  1. James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, Simon and Schuster, London and New York, 2012, pp. 31-32.

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