Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Sykes in Sykes-Picot

Christopher Simon Sykes, The Man Who Created the Middle East, London: Collins, 2016, pp.368    

The Sykes in Sykes-Picot

This week marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was made in the course of World War II, on 2 November 1917. The promise to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine was part of the British and French parcelling out of the Ottoman Middle East.

The British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes is best known for the part he played in the division of the former Ottoman Empire during World War I. Together with the French diplomat François Georges-Picot, Sykes negotiated a secret agreement, called Sykes-Picot, which divided Ottoman territories between the British and French, with the Russians taking Istanbul and eastern Anatolia.

While the Sykes-Picot Agreement was not implemented in its original form, it provided the basis for the division of the former Empire after Ottoman defeat in 1918. Under the system of League of Nations mandates agreed at the Paris and subsequent peace conferences after World War I, France took control of what are now Syria and Lebanon, while Britain took what are now Iraq and Jordan. Much of the British mandate of Palestine subsequently became Israel after World War II.

The underhand nature of these manoeuvres was only later revealed when it became clear that Britain had been promising to support the self-determination of the Arab provinces of the former empire while at the same time negotiating their colonial occupation with France. As a result, Sykes, like Picot a minor figure, gained a degree of post-war notoriety. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, an otherwise obscure document from 1916, is still often cited today as an expression of European colonial interventionism in the Arab world.

However, as a new biography reveals, Sykes himself was not particularly ill-intentioned. As his grandson, UK author Christopher Sykes, explains in his The Man Who Created the Middle East, Sykes apparently came to regret his work on Sykes-Picot, even to an extent repudiating its basic presupposition of the desirability of Anglo-French control. Christopher Sykes quotes the Lebanese writer Georges Antonius, an early historian of Arab nationalism, to the effect that while the agreement was “a shocking document… a product of greed at its worst [and] a startling piece of double-dealing”, Mark Sykes himself became “convinced of its inadaptability to actual conditions and the futility of trying to implement it”.

Sykes, Antonius held, had done his best to make the Paris peacemakers halt the colonial division of the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. “Without going so far as to suppose that one individual, however genuine, talented and forceful, could have infected the Versailles peacemakers with his own sense of justice, there is little doubt that, had he lived, his recital of facts and his forecast of consequences might have filled the minds of the politicians with those anxieties which are often, in politics, the beginning of wisdom,” he wrote.

However, there seems little doubt that Sykes was never more than on the margins of the power politics that ultimately decided the fate of the Middle East after World War I. He comes across in this biography as having something of the amateurish quality of other British bit-players of the time, people like T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), whose involvement with anti-Ottoman Arab forces is commemorated in British film director David Lean’s 1962 film, or archaeologist Gertrude Bell, who also worked for British intelligence. 

Lawrence and Bell, and apparently also Sykes, became disillusioned with the work they had done on behalf of the British in the Middle East, particularly when, in Lawrence’s case, it involved what he saw as the betrayal of Arab aspirations for independence. Sykes had nothing of Lawrence’s romanticism, and his grandson’s biography, notably carefully researched, is illustrated throughout with his enchanting satirical drawings. However, the questions that his involvement raises were similar. 

Neither he nor Lawrence “created” the post-war Middle East, and neither he nor Lawrence saw their ideas implemented in practice. While Lawrence went on to live out his regrets in public, dying some years later in 1935, Sykes was an early victim of the Spanish flu epidemic that swept Europe at the end of World War I. 

His grandson’s biography thus begins on an unusual note with the exhumation of Sykes’s body from his grave in northern England. The strain of the flu virus that caused the post-war epidemic, H1N1, has long intrigued virologists, not least because of its appalling death toll, particularly among young adults. When a similar strain, H5N1, like H1N1 originating in poultry, emerged in Asia in the 1990s, it was thought that investigation of tissue from victims of the earlier strain could help to answer questions about this virulent new virus.

And so it was, Christopher Sykes writes, that “in the early hours of 17 September 2008, a bizarre scene took place in the grave of St Mary’s Church high up on the Yorkshire wolds… The grave that was being opened was that of Sir Mark Sykes, 1st baronet of Sledmore, and MP for East Hull. He had passed away on 16 February 1919, aged 39, a victim of the Spanish flu that had swept across the world towards the end of the First World War.”

DNA samples were taken in the hope that these would contribute to research. “In the future a vaccine [against H1 viruses] may be created that has its origins in tissue taken from the body of Mark Sykes,” Christopher Sykes writes. This would be “a great posthumous legacy for a man who has been reviled for what he achieved in his lifetime… namely the Sykes-Picot Agreement.”

For the British tabloid newspapers, he adds, the exhumation was an excuse for headlines like “Dead Toff May Hold Bird Flu Clue”, a “toff” being a member of the British upper classes.

While Christopher Sykes’ biography scarcely betters its opening act, the rest is full of unusual detail, though this may appeal more to those interested in the by-ways of British history than in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Sykes leaves what he has to say about the latter until the later chapters of his book, not unreasonably devoting the lion’s share to family matters and to Mark Sykes’ career. The latter, it turns out, though coming from a family that might well have expected its only son to follow a diplomatic career, did not have the academic interest in the Middle East that marked out Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, both of whom were originally archaeologists.

His father, Sir Tatton Sykes, sounds, in Christopher Sykes’ telling, like someone straying in from a novel by British satirical writer Evelyn Waugh, while his mother, the formidable-sounding Christina Anne Jessica Cavendish-Bentinck, was a granddaughter of the duke of Portland. Mark Sykes made his first trip abroad, aged only nine, to Egypt, “where he acquired a fascination for antiquities from the cicerone of the ruling sirdar [military commander] Lord Grenfell.” Later trips followed to what are now Syria and Lebanon.

During what seems to have been an unusually dilettantish period at Cambridge University even by the standards of the time, Sykes renewed his interest in the Middle East, taking time off to travel through Ottoman provinces. “With the help of A Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine, first published in 1858, [Sykes] mapped out a journey that would take him as far east of the River Jordan as possible, before striking out to Damascus” and what is now northern Iraq. “In preparation, he persuaded the distinguished lecturer in Persian professor Edward Granville Browne to give him instruction in Arabic.”

The Sykes in Sykes-Picot

Later, Sykes found himself again in northern Iraq, this time because oil had been discovered in the area around Mosul. There was determination in London that British companies, and not German, should gain the concessions to exploit it. The pattern for Sykes’ subsequent interest in the Middle East was set. While there seems little doubt that he was interested in the peoples of the region, publishing four books about them, whatever he might privately have felt as far as work was concerned his priorities were those of the British government.

Sykes found himself drafted in at a late stage in negotiations that had become deadlocked over French demands to head the British team negotiating what was to become the Sykes-Picot Agreement. From 21 December 1915, Christopher Sykes writes, “Mark met with Picot on an almost daily basis, negotiating with him at the French embassy [in London]” and reporting back to then British secretary of state for war Lord Kitchener. 

Sightings of the latter were rare — “about three times in all”, Sykes wrote — but gradually a deal was hammered out that agreed to French demands for control of Syria and Lebanon. “Of course, the Arabs [who wanted independence] were not consulted during the course of these negotiations because Kitchener knew perfectly well that it was impossible to reconcile their claims” with the negotiations going on in London.  

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, concluded in 1916, was kept secret, only emerging into the light of day when it was published by the Russian Soviet government after the October Revolution. It was never implemented in its initial version, one important change being France’s surrender of its claims to the oil-producing areas of what is now northern Iraq. These were attached to the new British Mandate territory at a meeting between British prime minister David Lloyd-George and French president Georges Clemenceau in December 1918. 

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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