The British Empire Library

The Man Who Created the Middle East: A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement

by Christopher Simon Sykes

Mark Sykes
Mark Sykes on Expedition
Mark Sykes has gone down in history as one of those meddling Imperialists who really helped mess up the Middle East. He and his French counterpart, Georges Picot, are given much of the blame for today's problems in and around the Holy Lands. However, his grandson has written a biography which reveals a far more nuanced character and also one whose own views evolved and was in the process of distancing himself from his earlier war work when he was tragically cut down from influenza just days before he was due to attend the Treaty of Versailles Peace Conference. He was just 39 years of age. It is an interesting 'what-if' of history. Had he lived would his own force of character have been enough to lay more appropriate foundations to Middle Eastern boundaries and political representation than were actually achieved? It certainly should cause some pause for thought.

His upbringing and experiences certainly prepared him for his role in Middle Eastern affairs. He was no grey bureaucrat with little affinity parachuted into an alien region from afar. He was an undoubted Middle Eastern scholar, traveller and a gifted linguist. He came from a privileged, if chaotic and scandal ridden, family of the aristocracy. As such he had opportunities for education and travel that were unusual indeed. Fortunately, he did not squander these opportunities and quickly identified an interest in the Middle East and the Orient. These travels were undertaken very much in the pre-European colonial era with brigandage, corruption and disease making travel more than a little taxing. Having said that it was largely still 'colonial' as such thanks to the continuing influence and rule of the Ottoman Empire. However, this power was waning and its inefficiencies were clear to see. Nevertheless, Mark Sykes was equally at home in the Cosmopolitan streets of Constantinople as he was in the empty deserts and dry scrublands of the interior.

This book shows that Mark Sykes held a curious mix of modern and old-fashioned ideas for much of his life. It could be claimed that he had a sense of noblesse oblige that could certainly be considered patronising to modern sensibilities. He would later be elected as a Conservative MP for instance and he took on the role of genteel landowner with gusto. However, his concerns were genuine and he never shirked from his responsibilities. In many ways he was something of a workaholic. He could be very thinly spread for sure and perhaps it was this work ethic that later helped cull him in 1919 after an exhaustive tour of the Middle East before heading back to Paris for the Peace Negotiations.

The Boer War had a formative effect on Mark Sykes. Initially enthused as many young men were with the prospect of war, he quickly appreciated the inefficiencies and deficiencies of the British Army on campaign in South Africa. He was undoubtedly a very active officer who caught the attention of many of his superior officers through his restless energies. He quickly realised the value of fortifications and engineering to defend his soldiers from the long range and superior accuracy of his Boer adversaries. Without waiting for permissions, he set about getting his own troops to dig elaborate defences which were often beyond the capabilities of the trained Royal Engineers. He was also an early pioneer in the use of camouflage - which unfortunately was not followed through by the army hierarchy much to their detriment. He was also unusually well disposed towards the native Black population - which was very unusual for the time and place and perhaps was related to his appreciation of native cultures developed whilst travelling through the Middle East. He quickly appreciated that they hated the Boers far more than the British and was keen to use them on the battlefield despite official opposition to do precisely this. He even went so far as to recruit Basutos as soldiers and gave them Martini-Henry rifles and staff caps as a primitive uniform. He thought they made ideal guards and were often more enthusiastic soldiers than their British counterparts. This was highly unusual for the war and was considered by many Europeans as being hopelessly naive. It did reveal though a man who did not always feel constrained by the social mores of his era.

Whirling Dervish
Whirling Dervish
It should be said that Mark Sykes was something of an artist and his sketches and portraits add a wonderful period feel throughout the book. They tend to be humourous caricatures but add so much to the texture of the mind of Mark Sykes and the world as he saw it. They were often sympathetic but could also be stereotypical. Nevertheless, their inclusion in the book really helps to view the world through the subject's perspective. They are a welcome addition.

Mark Sykes tiptoed into politics as a Private Secretary to Conservative George Wyndham who had recently been made Chief Secretary to Ireland. However his knowledge and expertise of the Middle east caught the eye of the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour who sent him as honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople. Thus began his official career in Middle Eastern circles. In this role he met, and somewhat collided, with Gertrude Bell and other illuminiaries (an example of their clash of wills is revealed in a letter to his wife "confound the silly chattering windbag of a conceited gushing flat-chested man-woman globetrotting rump-wagging blethering ass). The richness of correspondence is one of the reasons that the author is able to provide such a well rounded view of Mark Sykes. This period was actually a touchy time for British relations in the Ottoman Empire. Personally, he got on exceptionally well with the Sultan of Turkey. However, the Young Turk revolution occurred whilst Mark Sykes was in the City and much of the Sultan's power was removed and replaced by a far more hostile regime. This was also the period of rising German influence in the region coupled with increased interest in the acquisition of oil reserves. It was a toxic mix and Mark Sykes was underwhelmed by the lackadaisical response of British officialdom which he believed was not facing these concerns vigorously enough. It is somewhat ironic for the man who would later do so much to dismember the Ottoman Empire that in the pre-war period he was a keen defender of Ottoman unity. He believed that Ottoman Empire was was keeping very powerful forces under control and was concerned lest they should escape and cause dominoes to fall throughout the region and into Europe.

It might also be noted that he was a stringent critic of French Imperial methods. This might seem surprising given the Anglo-French nature of the famous Sykes-Picot agreement to which his name and fame is attached. His visits to Tunisia and Algeria were deeply dispiriting to Mark Sykes who believed that the French settlers were exploitative and dismissive of Arab peoples and culture. The fact that he could discuss attitudes in Arabic and Turkish meant that he had a better understanding of genuine feelings than most Europeans of the time did. He would later revisit these anti-French colonial prejudices but only after the exigencies of World War One had compelled him to work with Britain's French allies.

It was interesting to read that even before the Ottomans had thrown in their lot with the Central Powers, Mark Sykes was advising preparation for a guerrilla war and to encourage the various tribes to rise up and paralyse the Ottoman Empire. What is interesting is that this is a full two years before the more famous Lawrence of Arabia did precisely that. As it was, at that particular time, Mark Sykes was officially promising the Ottoman Empire territorial integrity as long as they remained neutral. It was only after the fact that the Turks joined with Germany that all bets were off and that the entire Ottoman Empire would become fair game to those who fought against it.

War against Turkey elevated Mark Sykes' influence as the region became critical in the war effort. The Royal Navy was increasingly dependent upon oil and much needed troops from the Empire had to pass through the Suez Canal. Initially he was brought in to advise on preparations for the Dardanelles Campaign but soon he was brought on to the influential Bunsen Committee designed to give an official view on how Britain should respond to the opportunities and threats unleashed by the new front opening up. In many ways this committee sowed the seeds of British policy in the Middle East for many years. It ran through four possible scenarios; partitioning the Ottoman Empire; Retaining the Ottoman Empire but under Allied control; Maintaining the Ottoman Empire but moving the Caliphate to Damascus; Enforced Devolution of the Ottoman Empire with a central state and give provinces of Anatolia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. This last idea would later influence the map of the Middle East quite considerably.

Mark Sykes' views had been changed by the necessities of war. He had gone from defending the status quo to helping to dismember the historical political power of the region. This illustrates just how much the First World War would throw so many cards up in the air and where they fell were yet to be determined. Mark was despatched to India which was actually providing most of the men and material to fight in the Middle East and then went on to a six month fact finding tour through Mesopotamia. He got as far as Kut Al Amara after it was first captured by the British. He was particularly intrigued to interrogate captured Ottoman soldiers. He was soon convinced that Arabs being forced to fight for the Turks were not overly enthusiastic defenders of the old regime and might be prepared to fight for new Arab potentialities. But these were ideas still ahead of their time. The British Government was convinced that it could win the war conventionally with the forces available. It was only with the setbacks in the Dardanelles and in Mesopotamia that a serious re-evaluation was undertaken.

Meanwhile the Sharif of Mecca and his supporters had issued their own Damascus Protocol with demands to create an independent Greater Arabia. The famous 'McMahon' letter, of which Sykes was supportive, encouraged the idea without totally committing the British to the idea. It was in this context that Mark Sykes was tasked to meet with Georges Picot and hammer out an agreed Allied position on the fate of the region and the peoples within.

British Empire and Middle East
Sykes Picot Map
Picot had come from an old French Colonial family and had been Consul-General in Beirut at the outbreak of war. He was trusted by French colonialist politicians to maximise French interest in the region. Furthermore Maronite Christians were more sympathetic to French control and distrusted the idea of Arab rule. Picot displayed intransigence from the very outset of the negotiations. How much of this was negotiating technique or how much it was sincere is hard to unpick. Nevertheless, the more the French requested the more the Arabs, thought Mark Sykes, would resent. Mark Sykes was convinced of the hostility of Arabs towards the French version of Imperialism. He therefore sought to insert a British controlled belt between any French Zone and the Sharif of Mecca. Otherwise, he felt that the Arabs would continue to make demands and encourage uprisings into any French area and that the French might in return expand into a weakly governed Arab zone. It was also thought that it might be useful to have a French zone between the British and any future possibility of the Russians making advances Southwards. Great Game suspicions were still very much in evidence. The real stumbling block was Palestine - both sides wanted control - France for the prestige and Britain for Imperial defence purposes. In the end it was agreed that it would come under international administration and was specifically excluded from either's sphere of influence. It is interesting that at this stage Jewish concerns had not been considered at all - which is somewhat ironic given the blame that many modern day Arabs put on the agreement for providing the kernel of the creation of the Jewish state. It should be said that Mark Sykes had not displayed any particular favouritism towards Jews throughout his lifetime up to this point in time. If anything he had many of the prejudices against Judaism that were common in the era. He had believed that they a global secret society of whom he was deeply suspicious. Although his views would change in the not too distant future but only AFTER the Sykes-Picot agreement had been signed. It was interesting to read that Picot keenly signed the agreement in pen, whilst Sykes seemed to sign it in a much more suspiciously uncommitted pencil! Perhaps he was already have second thoughts even as he put his name to paper!

This book makes it clear that Mark Sykes had been hired for this specific task to solve a particular issue (namely the fate of Ottoman colonies) within the confines of the peculiarities and necessities of World War One. It has to be understood within these parameters: No World War One, no Sykes-Picot agreement! Although the agreement was kept a secret a copy of it was shown to Sharif Hussein, by Mark Sykes no less, who did not seem particularly perturbed by its implications. It was actually very useful for the Sharif to have been brought into the Allied Powers' confidence as when the Bolsheviks mischieviously published all the Tsar's correspondence and treaties, the Sharif was not shocked nor surprised and did not react unduly negatively to its revelation.

Although the Sykes-Picot map has gone down in history as the defining document of their political lives, this book makes it clear that both signatories' ideas evolved considerably between signing the document and the end of the war. Perhaps the most important evolution was a changing appreciation towards Zionist demands and requests. Once again, I did not appreciate that it was Mark Sykes who helped to write the initial letter which provoked the famous Balfour Declaration as a response to it. Funnily enough when the response was received, Mark Sykes personally relayed the answer to Dr Weizmann with the comment: "It's a boy!" clearly showing his support for the Zionist promise made. Although Mark Sykes increasingly warmed to Zionist aspirations, he was a realist and appreciated that they were very much in a minority in the region and that they should understand that they had to cooperate and collaborate with the existing Arab population. Once again though his primary motivations were less humanitarian and more to do with supporting Britain's war aims. He identified Jewish sympathies as being key throughout a number of the belligerent nations of the war. He was worried that the Central Powers might offer the Jewish community more and so sought to be generous in their Zionist aspirations in order to retain their loyalty, commitment and expertise in fighting the war. He also personally invested a lot of time in convincing Picot, the French government and key Arab leaders in the benefits in supporting Zionist ideas too. There was an interesting response from Feisal to Mark Sykes which suggested that compromises might be found: "I have a perfect notion of the importance of the Jews' position, and admiration of their vigour and tenacity and oral ascendency, often in the middle of hostile surroundings... On general grounds I would welcome any good understanding with the Jews". You could accuse Mark Sykes of naive optimism, but it is clear that he did appreciate and take into consideration all the varying groups that made up the Middle East from Arabs, Jews, Turks, Christians, Armenians, etc.... He appreciated the complexity of the region more than most and probably tried to find compromise between these varying groups more than he is given credit for. One of the more intriguing meetings he set up was a meeting between Chaim Weizmann and Feisal - a meeting which went more positively than might have been expected.

Mark Sykes was also an early convert to the idea of the Internationalist League of Nations (indeed his last speech in the House of Commons was in support of this very institution.) Indeed the 14 points of Wilson provided a useful tool for Mark Sykes to try and get the French to molify some of their demands in the region. He was an enthusiastic backer of the idea of Mandates. He hoped that this would give Arabs the time and opportunity to learn how to run a state. An intriguing statment from Mark Sykes demonstrates how much his ideas had evolved since the Sykes-Picot agreement when he effectively said that it would be better to have natives running their own government badly but learning the ropes rather than have Europeans running the show efficiently but without transferring any knowledge. To the modern view, this may seem a little condescending but for the era it was remarkably radical and the fact that it was coming from the High Tory Mark Sykes makes it more so. Once again we see that he was an interesting mix of old and new thinking.

British Empire and Middle East
Flag of Hejaz
Yet another of the many ironies in Mark Sykes' life was the fact that he was the designer of the official Flag of Hejaz which was so proudly displayed by many Arabs as they swept towards Damascus and beyond and formed the basis for so many subsequent Middle Eastern flags. He seems to have taken considerable pride in seeing Arabs celebrate so enthusiastically around the flag that he had designed for them. He did put in yet another marathon stint in the aftermath of the War travelling all around the Middle East to fact find in anticipation of attending the Peace Conference at Versailles. Unfortunately, this very trying regime may have done much to weaken his constitution when he fell ill with influenza in Paris. The author is convinced, mainly through Mark Sykes' correspondence and writings, that he would have been a keen advocate to maximise Arab self-determination at the conference had he lived. His death may have robbed the British of their most eloquent and knowledgable experts in the field. His failure to articulate his evolved views at Versailles may have had calamitous results for the region. The temptation to maximise returns for the sacrifices of such a bloody World War were too much for the French and British to resist. Although the final result had little in common with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, it still put European aspirations ahead of those of the peoples of the region. The real damage on the ground was probably undertaken not at Versailles but at the San Remo conference in 1920 which again Mark Sykes would almost certainly have attended had he lived! As such it was the agreement made here that formally acknowledged the creation of four new nations under European control and under Arab leaders who had little or no powerbase for where they ruled. The foundations for the Middle East had been laid on shaky ground but almost certainly it would not have been the ground selected by Mark Sykes had he had his say in the matter. Mark Sykes' name has been associated with creating an unstable Middle East when in actuality he wanted to achieve the exact opposite. He was an unusually sympathetic ear to local peoples at a time when their voices were too often ignored. It seems that his name has been unfairly usurped by those who find it a useful, if incorrect, analogy for Western double-dealing and self interest. This book makes it clear that this was far from his intention although his first priority was winning the war and for that he would not have apologised. The first Sykes-Picot agreement was within this parameter but the war went on far longer than anyone had expected and much had changed by the time it finally ended. Mark Sykes appreciated that fact but sadly did not live to articulate his thoughts fully on how this should have been reflected. Had he lived, many of the peoples of the Middle East might have ended up with far more positive associations with his name.

An interesting postscript was the fact that this was the same Mark Sykes whose body was exhumed in 2008 by medical researchers. Thanks to his wealth and stature, he had been buried, unusually, in a lead lined coffin. As it was common knowledge it was hoped that his preserved body might help identify the strain of influenza that was so deadly in the aftermath of the First World War. His death certainly showed that it was no respector of privilege and wealth!

British Empire Book
Christopher Simon Sykes
William Collins


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