The Sykes-Picot Agreement, The Husay-McMahon Correspondence and The Lord Balfour Declaration: Ineffective Pledges after World War I?



"In the Middle East, World War I was a watershed that, along with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, directed the twentieth-century destiny of [much of the Arab world], including Palestine"[1]. Indeed, starting in 1915, the United Kingdom made three contradictory and ambiguous pledges to three different protagonists, the French, Sharif Husayn of Mecca, and Lord Rothschild, concerning the future of the Middle East.

However, according to the historian James L. Gelvin, these three promises were "relatively ineffective in determining the postwar settlement"[2]. Although these three pledges were not applied as such after World War I, it can be argued that, with varying levels of intensity, the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Balfour declaration, still played a significant role in the reordering of the Middle East after World War I.

Before assessing Gelvin's argument, this essay will balance the three commitments undertook by the British during World War I.

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To contrast these three pledges, let us firstly examine their respective context and territorial implications.

Chronologically, the first of these pledges is the agreement between the British and Sharif Husayn of October 24, 1915. In return for launching a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom was willing to recognize and to bolster the establishment of an independent Arab Kingdom, within the borders claimed by Sharif Husayn. In the view of the latter, this agreement was to be the basis to build a large and united realm, both in the Arab east and in the former Ottoman Empire. However, not a single map was exchanged, nor the accurate frontiers of this potential Kingdom clearly stated by the British, whom stood by the promise to recognize the Arab independence "in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca"[3].

The Sykes-Picot agreement was signed on the 16th of May, 1916. It has to be understood in the context of intense negotiations of secret agreements between the Entente countries about the future of the Ottoman Empire after the end of the War. The Sykes-Picot agreement was thus negotiated with the approval of Russia and Italy. This arrangement foresaw the division of the Middle-East between France and the United Kingdom. Five distinct zones were established. First, what is today the north of Lebanon and the Cilicia were to be a space of French direct administration. What is today the North of Syria and the area of Mosul were to be a zone of French influence. Symmetrically, what is today Kuwait and Iraq were to be a zone of Britain direct administration. The south of what is today Syria as well as the current Jordan were to be a zone of British influence. Lastly, current Palestine and Israel were to be a zone of international administration.

The Balfour Declaration is a letter dated November 2, 1917, written from Lord Balfour, at this time Minister of Foreign Affair, to Lord Rothschild, one of the leader of the Zionist movement[4] in Europe, stating that: "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object".

Let us now analyze the respective causes of these three pledges. On this ground, the Balfour declaration and the Husayn-McMahon correspondence can be opposed to the Sykes-Picot agreement. Indeed, both the Balfour declaration and the Husayn-McMahon correspondence were nationalist promises. However, whereas the purpose of the alliance with Husayn was clearly tactical, namely to win the war against the Ottoman as well as to use the nationalist Arab movement as a potential tool against French's imperialist views[5], the situation was much more complex in the case of the Lord Balfour Declaration. Historians still disagree on the determining factor of this pledge. Nevertheless, as far as the Middle East is concerned, it is certain that the British were willing to reinforce their control upon Palestine, because of its neighboring position with the Suez Canal. Indeed, the British were utterly concerned with the security of the sea routes leading to India, and thus of the stability of the Suez Canal region.

On the other hand, the Sykes-Picot agreement illustrates what Gelvin named the "compensionnal principle"[6]. This concept means that the winning countries of World War I would have rights upon the Ottoman territories. Therefore, imperialism and the Franco-British antagonism are the two key factors of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Lastly, when comparing these three pledges, it is important to keep in mind that they were settled between utterly different entities. Whereas the Sykes-Picot agreement was negotiated between two strong states, the Balfour declaration and the Husayn-McMahon were concluded between England and two leaders seeking to establish their people on the same territory. This implies a quite asymmetrical balance of power, and thus a different degree of efficiency in determining the postwar settlement, as we shall now discuss it.

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According to Gelvin, three main reasons explain the inefficiency of the three pledges at stake in impacting the reorganization of the Middle East after World War I. The first of them is the contradictory nature of these pledges. The second cause is the changed circumstance of the postwar period, as Russia had abdicated in 1917. Thirdly, the role of the United States is crucial, as president Wilson was clearly willing to make his 14 points the basis upon which the postwar settlements must be implemented. Furthermore, Wilson condemned the secret diplomacy used by Europeans.

However, if one looks closer at the situation, it appears that the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Balfour declaration all impacted the postwar settlements, although to a variable extent.

Firstly, the Sykes-Picot agreement can be considered as the basis of the reorganization of the Middle-East after World War I. Indeed, this agreement was renegotiated between Lloyd Georges and George Clémenceau in the margins of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Two main modifications were decided: Palestine would not be internationalized, but a British mandate, and France accepted to leave the Mosul area to the British, as long as they would reverse 40% of the oil they would extract in this region.

Based on this, this new agreement was acknowledged and legalized by the League of Nations during the San Remo conference in April 1920. The exact boundaries defined by the French and the British were implemented, under the form of mandates, that is to say that France and the United Kingdom were supposed to assist the Middle East populations on the path towards independence. Even if Gelvin argues that the United States were hostile to this form of imperialism, which might have hampered free trade, not only the United States were more or less satisfied by this agreement, but also they did not have the legitimacy to prevent it, as they were not part of the League of Nations. The following maps compare the Sykes-Picot agreement and the postwar organization of the Middle East. It appears clearly that the Sykes-Picot constituted a decisive framework for the reorganization of this region after World War I.



However, this reorganization was rapidly threatened by the promise made by the British to Husayn. One of Husayn's son, Faysal, had taken Damascus in September 1918. When Syria became officially part of the French mandate in 1920, the French army drove Faysal's troop off the region. In order to remain faithful to both of their allies, the British decided to give the throne of Iraq to Faysal. Therefore, even though Husayn and his descendent were far from obtaining the entire territories they claimed, the Husayn-McMahon correspondence still impacted the way the British handled their mandate in the Middle East.

This is all the more true considering that it was not only the Husayn-McMahon correspondence  that conflicted with the Sykes-Picot agreement, but also the Balfour Declaration. Indeed, the British had promised Palestine to both Husayn and Lord Rothschild. To solve this issue, the British separated their mandate into two regions. On the Eastern part, they established what is today Jordan, and offered the throne of this territory to Husayn's other son, Faysal. The Western part was to be the Jewish National Home described by the Balfour Declaration[7]. The maps below summarize this evolution.


Above a comparison of the territory claimed by Husayn's during World War I and the territories Husayn's family eventually obtained after the conflict.

Below a comparison of the "Jewish National Home" described by the Balfour declaration and the situation in 1922.


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The Sykes-Picot agreement played a crucial role in the postwar settlement. The Balfour declaration constituted the basis of what is today Israel. The Husayn-McMahon correspondence was less significant, yet still determined part of the reorganization of the Middle East, through the power given to the Hashemite family in Iraq and Jordan.

To conclude, let us add that the importance of the Sykes-Picot agreement went far beyond the inter-war period. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot borders constituted the basic structure upon which the Middle East evolved during the entire XXth century. It is only today that the emergence of Daesh might ultimately destroy this order, as the extremist group claims it itself[8].

© Rosalie Calvet, October 2015


[1] Farsoun, Samith & Zacharia, Christine, Palestine and the Palestinians, Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1997, pp. 67-68.

[2] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 11, p 197

[3] Letter from McMahon to Husayn, August 30, 1915

[4] Movement born at the end of the XIXth century and theorized by Theodor Herzl. Claiming the existence of a national Jewish land in what is today Israel.

[5] Rogan, Eugene, The Arabs, chap 7

[6] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 11

[7] It is important to keep in mind that even in what is today Israel, the British were playing a double game between the Arabs and the Jews, but this is question is not the core of this essay.

[8] In a video uploaded on youtube in October 2015, a masked-Daesh militant claimed: “The borders of Sykes-Picot will not protect you [the Jews], and like we blurred the borders between Syria and Iraq, we will do so between Syria and Jordan and then Syria and Palestine,”