The Ottoman Empire (1516-1924) was one of the largest and longest-surviving empires in the world. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory from the Middle East to the Balkans and from North Africa to the Danube. The Ottomans ruled over a large multiethnic and multi-confessional population with a wide-ranging diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions and cultural traditions. The decline of the Ottoman Empire began in the 19th century. France took control of Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881. Following the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), Ottoman holdings in Europe declined sharply. In 1881 Austria occupied the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria conquered East Rumelia. Italy seized Libya in the aftermath of the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12). Britain took control of Oman (1861), Kuwait (1899), Arabian Gulf chiefdoms (1820) and Aden (1939). The remaining Ottoman territories in the Balkans were lost following the Balkan Wars (1912-13).
European machinations and intrigues played a major role in the disintegration and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. As World War I unfolded, the Ottoman Empire joined hands with the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) against the Allies (France, Great Britain and Russia). The Allies declared war on the Ottoman Empire shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. In 1914 the British prime minister H. H. Asquith announced in a speech that the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire had become a war aim. Shortly thereafter, the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office hatched a plan to instigate and finance an insurgency against the Ottoman Empire. T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), a British archaeologist, diplomat and military officer, played a key role in orchestrating and coordinating the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the Hejaz. In 1915 the British entered into a secret pact with the Sharif of Makkah, Hussein ibn Ali, who was the Ottoman Emir of the holy city from 1908. The pact involved an armed revolt against Ottoman rule under the Sharif’s command, for which Great Britain and France would supply money, weapons and logistic support. In exchange, he was promised an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat. The Sharif proclaimed himself as king and organized tribal groups from the Hejaz and Jordan and led them to attack Ottoman troops. By the end of 1916 the French had given 1.25 million gold francs to the Arab tribes who participated in the uprising. The British spent £220,000 a month on the Arab fighters, who were also provided with rifles and machine-guns. By 1918 the Arab troops succeeded in driving the Ottoman forces out of the Hejaz and other parts of the Arab region. Thomas Edward Lawrence, popularly known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the British secret agent who played an important role in instigating the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, wrote in 1916 that the Arab revolt would be useful to the British Empire because “it matches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire.”
After the end of World War I, Sharif Hussein refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the establishment of British and French mandates in Syria, Iraq and Palestine. In 1924, following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, he proclaimed himself caliph of the entire Arab region. However, he was challenged and attacked by the forces of Ibn Saud in 1924, which resulted in his defeat and abdication. In 1920 Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal was made king of Syria. Four months later, the French took over Damascus, expelled Faisal and imposed direct rule over Syria, which lasted until 1946.
In 1916, in the middle of the war, Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, hatched a conspiracy to dismember the Ottoman Empire and to divide the territories that were under Ottoman rule between themselves. Mark Sykes (1879-1919), an undistinguished British diplomat, and Francois Georges-Picot (1870-1951), a high-ranking official of the French government and military officer, were tasked with working out the modalities of the plot. Sykes and Picot drew a map which defined the proposed spheres of influence and control over Southwestern Asia for Britain and France. According to the map, Britain was allocated the coastal region between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq, while France was allocated northern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and south-eastern Turkey. The British were keen to take control of Transjordan because, following the discovery of oil in northern Iraq, they wanted to build a bridge in Transjordan through which oil could be transported to the Mediterranean. Russia, according to the deal, was promised Istanbul, the Dardanelles and the Armenian districts. The deal was signed on May 15, 1916, exactly a century ago. The pact was kept hidden for more than a year until Leon Trotsky leaked the details of the secret deal after the Bolsheviks seized power in the 1917 Russian Revolution. The details of the secret deal were published in the Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda on November 23, 2017. It caused a great deal of embarrassment between the Allies and between them and the Arabs. Following the leak, the Bolsheviks dropped the claims on Turkish territory.
The map drawn by Sykes and Picot reflected the geopolitical, strategic, commercial and ideological interests of the European colonial powers. It created artificial borders which had absolutely no consonance with the demographic, social, ethnic and cultural realities of the Middle East and of the people and communities that had lived in the region for centuries. In addition to geopolitical and strategic factors, religious and sectarian considerations also played a role in the division of the Ottoman territories among the Allies. For example, France favoured the creation of a Christian-dominated state in Lebanon, which was sliced out of Syria.
In 1914, David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Zionist, assured Britain’s Zionist leaders that he was very keen to have a Jewish state established in Palestine. On November 2, 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour released the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. A couple of hours after Britain ended its mandate in Palestine in 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, declared the establishment of a Jewish state with the active connivance of the British government. An American historian David Fromkin, in his book A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), calls Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine the “children of England and France”.
Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than half the native population of Palestine, more than 750,000 people, either fled in terror or were forcibly driven out of their ancestral land and more than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed. In 1953, the Israeli parliament retroactively declared about 120,000 hectares of captured Palestinian territories to be state property, to be used later for either new Jewish settlements or security purposes. The six-day war in June 1967 forced some 250,000 Palestinians to migrate and brought the remaining 22% of Palestinian territories under Israeli control. A group of Israel’s ‘new historians,’ who have accessed archives in Israeli, British and the United Nations archives, have revealed that Israel had systematically expelled one million Palestinians in 1948, which was nearly half of the Palestinian population.
British and French troops seized Palestine in 1917. Amir Abdullah, who later became Jordan’s first king, fought on the side of the British during World War I against the Ottoman Empire. The British rewarded him for his loyalty by giving him a fixed stipend and the control of Jordan. Italy, which had joined the Allies against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, was promised a large part of southwestern Anatolia. Great Britain and France also began encouraging and instigating Christian minorities living in the Ottoman Empire to rise in revolt. In the violent Christian uprisings in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, thousands of Muslims and Jews were mercilessly killed. By the time the Treaty of Sevres (1920) was signed, the Ottoman Empire had lost the Arab provinces and ceded a large area of Asia Minor to the newly created Armenian state. France and Britain also backed the creation of an independent Kurdish state as part of the Treaty of Sevres, but the idea fizzled out. The withdrawal of Russia from the war and the victory of the Turkish nationalists saved Anatolia from being expropriated by Italy.
In 1915 the British diplomat Sir Henry McMahon made a promise to Sharif Hussein, then Emir of Makkah, that he would be rewarded with an independent Arab kingdom if he supported the British against the Ottoman Empire and led a revolt against the Ottomans. The promise was made in a correspondence between McMahon and Sharif Hussein. The Sykes-Picot pact negated this promise. Successive British governments refused to publish the correspondence ostensibly on public-interest grounds. Had it been made public, the correspondence would have caused embarrassment to the government. In 1938, George Antonius, an Arab writer and leader, published the entire text of the correspondence in his book The Arab Awakening. The published correspondence clearly showed that McMahon had made the promise of an Arab homeland to Sharif Hussein and that, importantly, Palestine was included in the proposed independent Arab kingdom. The Sykes-Picot pact proposed an international administration for Palestine. The British failed to keep their word and the Arab region continued to be under British and French control. The British gained control of Palestine in 1920 and ruled it until 1948. They also ruled Iraq from 1920 until 1932 while the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946.
The Sykes-Picot map, endorsed by the European colonial powers, had disastrous and far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. European colonial powers had no concern for the consequences of the division of territories for people, communities, resources and cultural traditions. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and communities that had lived together for centuries. This fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.
In June 2014, when the fighters of the Islamic State relayed pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the border between Iraq and Syria, they announced that the event marked the end of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy to divide the Arab region. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled leader of the Islamic State, described the establishment of his “caliphate” as a nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy. The ISIS circulated a 15-minute video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot.”
The disastrous legacy of the Sykes-Picot deal continues to cast its long and ominous shadow over the Middle East. It is reflected in the deepening turmoil and chaos in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the sway of the ISIS over a vast stretch of territory in Iraq and Syria, the continued disenfranchisement and subordination of the Palestinian Arabs, the widespread violence and destruction in the Arab region, the escalating divide and conflict between Sunnis and Shias and the growing assertiveness on the part of Kurdish fighters in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.