[文摘] Gefährliche Versprechen (The Perilous Sykes-Picot Agreement of WWI)

Source Link: https://leserservice.zeit.de/die-zeit-diese-woche/?r=titel&bmMailId=1OUJRHHJ-1OMKH9HS-Q8T17V6&pa=

This is an around 65% summarized translation of  Die Zeit’s article « Gefährliche Versprechen » (Nr. 21, 2016 vom 12.05.2016) in mainly English and some free-floating Chinese. The article critically looks at the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of WWI in May 1916 for its centennial retrospection.


That there could be such a demarcation, a division of the Ottoman Empire, was something no one dared to think back in 1914 at the beginning of World War I; and even in January 1915 this idea still strained the Foreign Ministers in London and Paris.

For British diplomats and military men, it is feared that as this amounts to a humiliation of the Sultan and Caliph, it might trigger another holy war which could spill over to the Muslim population of India. France, which had invested in the Ottoman Empire, was also heavily betting on the region’s stability.

But the course of the war forced the British and French to rethink.

Constantinople joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the war by the end of October 1914; and in 1915, it caught all parties in surprise that the Battle of Gallipoli turned out to be one of the greatest Ottoman victories during the war. The Allies’ naval attack was repelled by the Central Powers after eight months’ fighting, as the land campaign was abandoned and their invasion force was withdrawn to Egypt. At the same time Ottoman fighters in Mesopotamia operated successfully against the British-Indian expeditionary forces.

It has marked a defining moment in the nation’s history, a final surge in the defense of the Ottoman motherland. The victory formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence between 1919 to 1923 under Kemal Atatürk, who first rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli.

As the situation of the Russian worsened by the German advances in the east, the fear that Russia could withdraw from the war after making a peace treaty grew. British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had therefore set up a secret treaty in the spring of 1915, which promised Russia significant territorial gains in prospect if the Allies would be victorious over the Ottoman Empire. In return, Tsar Nicholas II also supported French demands for areas in Syria, Cilicia (on the southeastern Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey) and Palestine, as if that the wants of more than 20 ethnic groups in the multi-ethnic Ottoman empire would mean nothing in the face of the strategic interests of the Grain Britain and France.


British policy was thus laid out with the mindset for the region’s further development in the long term course, eyeing at the fundamental importance of the Suez Canal and Egypt for the networking of its global empire.

Already in 1915 Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, has begun to negotiate with Hussein ibn Ali, the Sherif (郡治安官) of Mecca and leader of the Hejaz, (the region in what is now Saudi Arabia) for moving Arab descent soldiers of the Ottoman army to desert to fight against the Sultan. The promise to assist him in the establishment of an Arab kingdom was the return. (Both failed their stated promises, though.)

With Baghdad and Basra (the southwesternmost Iraqi city located on the Shatt al-Arab nearly the Gulf between Kuwait and Iran) marked as red provinces, their future were to be associated with the Great Britain as a protectorate and hence should be subject to the British’s direct management and control. The region from the Iraqi Kirkuk to Gaza was to be under British informal control. Blue zones were inked for defining France’s dominion. They included Cilicia and the regions of the Syrian coast. 另外有些地方為英法共管。

Finally in the area between Damascus, Aleppo and Mosul the promised Arab dominion should arise. But should there be an independent state? A monarchy? A confederation of several states with Arab leader? Unfortunately the Allies were too preoccupied at the strategic thinking to win the Arabs as a partner in the war against the Ottoman Empire to get interested in this important discussion. The possibility of an independent state is also conceived in the naive thought that the Arabs would automatically conquer most of the important cities of the contemplated territory itself – cities that are today known as places of violence: Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement also foresaw an international administration of Palestine, as Haifa (the third-largest city in Israel,  located below and on Mount Carmel, as a seaport city lying on the Mediterranean coast) was granted a special status as the end point of a newly constructed oil pipeline stretching from Iraq under British control  – which shows how developed the resource of oil had become in this world war.

Russian government got Eastern Anatolia. This entire region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Berg-Karabach) is still a conflict zone until now between Russian-backed Armenia and Azerbaijan, to whom the Turkish President recently assured his unconditional help.


Since the discussion in 1916 about an independent Arab state there was a disregard of the ethnic and social reality, as a homogeneous pan-Arabism should have been out of question in the first place. Within the narrow stratum of intellectuals in the Middle East very different visions were laid out to compete against each other, and few regional leaders even attempted at all to pursue the course of actually establishing a separate Arab state.

It should be noted that what the pyrric victory of the Great Arab Revolt under the leadership of Hussein ibn Ali against the Ottomans has given rise is not a homogenous movement. Although the pan-Arab circles under the Hashemites were particularly supported by the British leadership, but they represented only one current among many.

There were people who advocated an Arabic state solution of a Greater Syria (the Levant), which claimed the area now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.

At the same time, the British government has always focused on meeting the British Zionist Chaim Weizmann (a Zionist leader born in Belarus, who served as President of the Zionist Organization and later as the first President of Israel): Early Weizmann had been impressed by the idea of Zionism developed by Theodor Herzl (Austro-Hungarian political activist and one of the fathers of modern political Zionism, at whose initiative the Zionist Organization was founded) in his book The Jewish State. This idea of this state, so it haunted Weizmann before, is that it be built in line with the historical territory of Palestine. Most politicians from the Allies’ side argued that given the supposed global influence of the Jews – especially to potential lenders in North America, this arrangement can only be beneficial for the war against the Central Powers .

1916年的賽克斯 – 皮科協定,仍沒有脫離早期殖民思維妥協的傳統,布爾什維克發表於1917年12月的秘密協議,則殘酷地揭示了西方列強的「帝國主義陰謀」。The Arab leaders, however, appeared only mildly upset in their acknowledgement to this conspiracy because the military situation of the Ottoman Empire was so dire at that time that all Arab eyes had turned to the partaking in the big pie of the emerging post-war order.

The agreement, however, resulted in a juxtaposition of competing models of order: Pan-Arab arrangements here, Zionist ideas there, and in between were area alignments according to their particular interests. The credibility of European policy got seriously damaged by this contradictory action and the maneuvering over concessions made with various indigenous leaders, and so what began in May 1916 ended up being those problems with which the diplomats had to deal at the Paris peace conferences in 1919.

For a moment in Paris, it seemed there a post-war order on the basis of national self-determination, advocated by the US President Woodrow Wilson, had prevailed. But could the right claimed by the Polish, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Balts, Finns or Irish also be claimed by Asian or African colonial societies? Given the increasingly important role the British and the French Empire played in the Arab world, this was particularly a tough pill to swallow.

Wilson’s program seemed to be the starting point for a comprehensive decolonization as it successfully blocked the Western European diplomats in Paris. But in the decomposed zones of the multi-ethnic empires such as Russia and Austria-Hungary and the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, the World War soon passed into civil wars and ethnic conflicts, leading to the further disintegration of the region.

After November 1918, there is the emergence of entirely new violence centers: within Europe it was Ireland, where in 1918 the Civil War began, and the Baltic States, but also in the Middle East and in India, where the Amritsar Massacre took place in 1919, as the end of the World War for many regions of the world just does not mean the end the violence.

“Equality requires common rules for all peoples of the earth.” Henri Barbusse wrote this in his book Le Feu in 1918. This hope continues to this day- yet to be realized. The disappointment with the results of the post-war order is a shared fundamental experience of the 20th century.


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