Monday marks the 100 years since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret Anglo-French pact reached during the First World War that proposed splitting the Middle East up into zones of foreign control. The Middle East has been frequently afflicted with war since then, but the situation now—with ISIS holding territory in Iraq and across the Fertile Crescent, civil war in Syria, government paralysis in Lebanon, growing autocracy and violence in Turkey, and talk of an intifada in Israel and the occupied territories—has inspired particular debate on the century-old agreement’s legacy. Laments about Sykes-Picot drew arbitrary divisions that bedevil the Middle East even now have met with just-as-impassioned insistence that the secret agreement’s influence is overstated.
But wait a second: secret agreement? How did a confidential document become a hotly contested matter of the public record not long after it was signed? The answer is a tale of intrigue that serves as a reminder of how unstable closed-door diplomacy is, and how fast quiet handshakes can cause public backlash, even in the age before Wikileaks.
The agreement was negotiated, on the British side, by Mark Sykes, an aristocrat and soldier. A veteran of the Boer War and member of Parliament, he was plucked from the reserves—and saved from the front lines—by Lord Kitchener, the secretary of war, at the start of World War I and became a leading Middle East hand. He barely outlived the war: Sykes died of Spanish influenza in February 1919 while attending the Paris Peace Conference that would formalize the terms of the settlement. François Georges-Picot, who negotiated on behalf of the French, was somewhat older, a career diplomat who had been stationed in Beirut and Cairo.