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Black bashi-bazouk by Jean-Léon Gérôme (MMA, NY)

The Partition of the Ottoman Empire

In my last post, I mentioned the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which occurred during World War II, without referring to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. If a single event throws light on today’s conflicts in the Middle East, it would probably be the Sykes-Picot Agreement or Convention, also called the Asia Minor Agreement.

The Sykes-Picot Agreements of 1916 (Britannica) (see Sykes-Picot Agreement, Wikipedia), was a secret agreement between England and France, concluded with the assent of Imperial Russia. Its authors drew a map of Asia Minor protecting their “spheres of influence” in the Middle East in the event the Ottoman Empire collapsed, which was expected, as a result of World War I.

Its authors, Mark Sykes for Britain and François Georges-Picot, for France, were in fact partitioning a fallen Ottoman Empire, before its defeat. That would be avant la lettre. As for the map of Asia Minor they drew, it was reflected in the apportioning of protectorates created by the League of Nations (LN), Société des Nations, SdN). The Ottoman Empire was defeated during W.W. I and, given the Bolshevik Revolution (the Russian Revolution) that began in 1917, Asia Minor could not be partitioned taking Imperial Russia’s assent into consideration.

According to Britannica’s entry on the Sykes-Picot Agreements of 1916, it was agreed, that the partition of the Empire would be as follows:

  1. Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast;
  2. France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia’s share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakır, and Mosul;
  3. Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and ʿAkko (Acre);
  4. between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence;
  5.  Alexandretta (İskenderun) should be a free port; and
  6.  Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime.[1]

The Ottoman Empire would be as drawn below under Britannica’s entry on the Sykes-Picot Agreements. Wikipedia indicates the same divisions.



The Ottoman Empire at its Greatest Extent, 1863 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ottoman Empire: History

For our purposes, the Ottoman Empire had seized Byzantium in 1453 and expanded to include several nations we view as European. The Empire lasted until World War I, but date wise, it ended on 29 October 1923, after modern Turkey’s declaration of Independence. (See Turkish War of Independence, 1917-1924.) Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. Its European theatre had begun two centuries earlier and you may remember that Algeria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, defeated by France in 1830. As the first map indicates, Armenia existed in 1916. The genocide of Armenians started during W.W. I and is imputed to the Ottoman Empire, although other countries claim responsibility for this massacre and some deny it ever happened. (See Armenian Genocide, Wikipedia.) It has been said that the Sykes-Picot agreement ended in 2014, but this date is disputed. (See Sykes-Picot Agreements, Wikipedia.)

The Sykes-Picot Agreement itself has been disputed and altered. Factors would be:

  • the Russian Revolution;
  • prior agreements or other agreements;
  • the question of Palestine and Zionism or the Balfour Declaration.

For our purposes, the Balfour Declaration, 1917, is particularly significant. Speaking on behalf of the Zionists was Chaim Weizmann (27 November 1874 – 9 November 1952). The British were represented by Arthur Balfour, the 1st Earl of Balfour (25 July 1848 – 19 March 1930). Zionism is a product of the 19th century and its father is Theodor Herzl (2 May 1860 – 3 July 1904). Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization, a movement we associate with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Jews have long been persecuted. For instance, the local Jewish population was burned during outbreaks of the plague. Jews were made into scapegoats. The Jewish Agency promoted aliyah, returning to Israel. However, although Palestine had a minority Jewish population since time almost immemorial, in 1917, there had not been a Jewish homeland for two thousand years.

In his negotiations with Lord Balfour, Dr Chaim Weizmann stated the following:

“Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” He sat up, looked at me, and answered: “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” “That is true,” I said, “but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.” He … said two things which I remember vividly. The first was: “Are there many Jews who think like you?” I answered: “I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves.” … To this he said: “If that is so you will one day be a force.”
(Chaim Weizmann and Arthur Balfour)[2]

As a Canadian who spent a year in Regina, Saskatchewan, and loved it, I rather like this other formulation of the same question:

“Would you give up London to live in Saskatchewan?” When Balfour replied that the British had always lived in London, Weizmann responded, “Yes, and we lived in Jerusalem when London was still a marsh.”
(Chaim Weismann to Arthur Balfour, see Chaim Weizmann, Wikipedia.)

The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) was exposed by the British Guardian on 26  November 1917. It negated the Balfour Declaration, a letter dated 2 November 1917 sent by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild. It read:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
(See Balfour Declaration, Wikipedia.)

There was no mention of a homeland for the Jews in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It also negated the UK’s “promises to Arabs” through T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Britain had also promised a “national Arab homeland.” The Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Empire (see Arab Revolt, Wikipedia), which Britain wanted to defeat. In the end, the Mandates partitioning the defeated Ottoman Empire were issued through the League of Nations.

Britain would rule Palestine as a Mandatory Palestine, from 1923 until 1948, as well as a Mandatory Iraq (Mesopotamia) from 1920 until 1932. France would rule a mandatory Syria and Lebanon, referred to as the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1923 −1946), as well as Alexandretta (İskenderun, now in Turkey).


The Zykes-Picot Agreement (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zones of French (blue), British (red) and Russian (green) influence and control established by the
  Sykes–Picot Agreement. At a Downing Street meeting of 16 December 1915 Sykes had declared “I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.” (Caption by Wikipedia, under Sykes-Picot Agreement.)


“‘This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders,’ a jihadist from ISIL warned in a video titled End of Sykes-Picot.” That quotation was culled from an article published in The Guardian (UK) entitled Isis announces Islamic Caliphate in area straddling Iraq and Syria by  and , 30 June 2014. (See Sykes-Picot Agreement, Wikipedia.)

It has been a hundred years since the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, and it remains.


Sources and Resources


Love to everyone


[1] “Sykes-Picot Agreement”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 11 août. 2016

[2] Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.111, as quoted in W. Lacquer, The History of Zionism, 2003, ISBN 978-1-86064-932-5. p.188 (footnote 19, quoted in Balfour Declaration, Wikipedia.)


A Tryst by Gérôme, 1840 (wikiart.org)

© Micheline Walker
11 August 2016
corrected: 11 August 2016