The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration
Speech at the Maison du Futur Conference, Bikfaya, Lebanon, 20 May 2016
Firstly I want to thank the Maison du Futur and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for inviting me to speak today. I want to look from one controversial hundredth anniversary to the next, so I am going to talk about how the link between the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, which was established during the five crucial months from January to May 1916.
As you probably know, the Sykes-Picot agreement was finalised by an exchange of letters a hundred years ago. On 9 May 1916 the French ambassador in London Paul Cambon wrote to Sir Edward Grey. His letter asked Grey to endorse the deal reached by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. This was set out on a map enclosed with the letter. A week later, on 16 May, Grey replied.
The tone of Grey’s letter is clearly reluctant. The sense that the British were unhappy with the deal is reinforced by an intriguing detail on the infamous map that had arrived with Cambon’s letter. This map was autographed by both negotiators in the bottom right hand corner, and if you look closely you will see an important difference. While François Georges-Picot signed in black ink, Mark Sykes preferred to use a pencil to write his name and the date: 8 May 1916.
Why did Sykes do that? To my mind there is an obvious answer. He did not think the deal would stand the test of time. And there was a particular reason why he thought this. It had failed to resolve the future of Palestine satisfactorily.
Six months before he signed that map, Sykes had entered the negotiations with Georges-Picot having set himself a clear task. This was to establish “a belt of English-controlled country” across the Middle East. Its northern frontier ran along a line – as Sykes infamously put it – from the “E in Acre to the last K in Kirkuk”. The aim was to protect India, by creating a cordon that stretched from the Suez Canal to the Persian frontier, and cut across the main east-west land route running through Aleppo, down the Euphrates, to the Gulf. But this plan was thwarted when Picot refused to give him Palestine. The two men compromised by agreeing the holy land should have an international administration but it was an outcome that neither man liked, particularly Mark Sykes.
Measured against his own objective, Sykes had clearly failed, and he quickly found his efforts being criticised. “It seems to me that we are rather in the position of the hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it, Britain’s director of military intelligence wrote on 6 January. Six days later his admiralty counterpart, the director of naval intelligence, made a less-known but more significant complaint. He warned that the deal would be opposed by “the Jewish interest throughout the world”. This opposition, he continued, might be “partly placated by the status proposed for the Brown area, but it may not be wholly, or indeed, very largely placated.”
Why did that matter? Because the British believed that the Jews wielded “vast financial influence” at a time when Britain needed to borrow money in America to pay for the war. “They are an increasing power”, claimed Bertie Clayton, the director of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, “as the war becomes more and more a question of who has the deepest pocket and the longest credit.”
Sykes’s deal therefore potentially had huge implications, if it provoked Jewish opposition that in turn made it harder for the British government to borrow money on Wall Street. By mid-February Sykes looked very isolated. He could not talk openly about the negotiations with Georges-Picot, because they were in secret. But in a speech in Parliament on 15 February he implied that his job had been made difficult by a lack of interdepartmental coordination, and remarked, “Personally, I have seen criticisms of people, and I can say this, that when you happen to know the circumstances you realise very often how entirely unjustified are the personal criticisms, and the rather odious criticisms, that are cast about outside this House, and how very unjust they are.”
At this moment one man saw an opportunity. Sir Herbert Samuel had, a year earlier, circulated a memorandum around the Cabinet arguing that Britain should back the Zionist cause for a mixture of sentimental and strategic reasons. A Jewish state in Palestine, he argued, would keep the French away from Suez. “Help given now … cannot fail to secure, into a far distant future, the gratitude of a whole race”, he had claimed.
In 1915 Samuel’s paper had fallen flat. The then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, noted at the time that the only other minister who had shown any interest was David Lloyd George, and he only because support for the Zionists offered a convenient way to deny France control of Palestine.
A year on, a proposal that simultaneously excluded the French and appeased the Zionists was precisely what Sykes needed and Samuel offered it to him. Sykes needed little convincing. He told Samuel on 26 February that he had committed the memorandum to memory and destroyed it, because he could not take it on the journey to Russia that he was about to make with François Georges-Picot. The two men needed the approval of the Tsarist Government for their deal.
While Sykes was in Russia with Georges-Picot, the British Government decided to sound out their allies about a more forthright declaration about the Jews’ future in Palestine. The Russians indicated that they had no objections, but the French were not convinced, with one French diplomat describing the proposal as “laughable … the less said about this, the better.” Sykes, who by now thought the Zionists “the key of the situation”, tackled Georges-Picot, trying to convince him of the “inestimable advantages … of active friendship of Jews of the World”. Sykes believed that he had made progress, but if anything he only raised Georges-Picot’s suspicions. After the two men had left, the French ambassador secretly persuaded the Russians to support France’s claim to Palestine as and when the negotiation was reopened.
By May 1916 therefore, when Sykes and Georges-Picot signed the map, both men were looking in different directions for support over the question of Palestine. The French had a secret arrangement with the Russians. Sykes was now enthusiastically courting the Zionists, hoping that they would reciprocate by endorsing British rule for Palestine. In these circumstances, he signed the map in pencil.
It is worth pausing to speculate for a moment about what might then have happened had there been no Russian revolution nor a Prime Minister Lloyd George. The Sykes-Picot agreement might have remained secret until the war’s end, and France, with Russian backing, might have taken control of Palestine.
But that of course is not what happened. David Lloyd George took power in London, and three months later the Tsarist government was ousted. So far as Palestine was concerned, the Zionists had just gained the most powerful possible advocate in London, while the French had lost their backstop in Petrograd.
Lloyd George had grown closer to the Zionists since he had first read Samuel’s memorandum in early 1915. Two months later, in May 1915, he became minister for munitions, and was introduced to the Jewish-British scientist Chaim Weizmann who had discovered a new way to make acetone, which was key to the manufacture of cordite. In November 1915, after Georges-Picot’s early meetings with the British had gone badly, Lloyd George met Weizmann. He predicted that France would not cede Britain control of Palestine and floated the idea of a condominium, partly on the grounds that public appetite for additional imperial commitments was waning. Weizmann, who thought this was a recipe for confusion, disagreed.
Given Lloyd George’s prediction, Sykes’s failure cannot have come as a complete surprise. But it became apparent just as Weizmann had successfully demonstrated that he could produce acetone in industrial quantities. The coincidence of these two events seems important, and around now Lloyd George changed his mind. He now assured Weizmann that, if Palestine came under British influence, Britain would grant the Jews a charter in Palestine. This was the pivotal moment: by the end of February 1916, the man who would be Britain’s next prime minister had decided that the country's imperial security required an alliance with the Jews. That, of course, had vast repercussions for this region: but they are the topic for discussion on another day.
© James Barr 2016