LONDON — My grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes, was only 36 years old when he signed one of the most controversial treaties of the 20th century, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
That secret pact was drawn up between the British and French two years into World War I, looking to divide up the Ottoman Empire in the event of their victory. It laid the groundwork for the creation of Israel and defined several national boundaries in the region which still exist, and are still being challenged, today.
A line drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot on a map of the region went from Acre in Palestine (now northern Israel) to Kirkuk in present-day Iraq. The region north of this line—including modern-day Syria and Lebanon—was to be given to France; regions south of the line were to become zones of British influence, including the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, Transjordan (Jordan), and Palestine.
It was a typical bit of wartime diplomacy, deliberately obfuscatory, in which each side tried its best not to tell the other exactly what it wanted. But it was the Arabs, who were no party to it, who really suffered.
The vaguest promises were made that the Arabs would have their own kingdom in return for fighting on the Allied side, but none of these promises materialized. Arab aspirations were dashed during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where the great European powers, eager to make the best deals for themselves after the war, paid little attention to the rights and aspirations of small nations and peoples who wanted their own states.
This was the cause of much of the bad blood that continues to poison the region to the present day.
In my forthcoming biography of Mark Sykes, I have not attempted to analyze the agreement itself in any great detail, but rather to explore the man himself, and to answer the mystifying question of how it was that someone so young was in such a position of influence in the first place.
The beginning of an answer, I discovered, lies in a childhood illness.
Mark was an only child, the product of an arranged marriage between a young and lively 18-year-old, Jessica Cavendish Bentinck, and Sir Tatton Sykes, an eccentric and misogynistic Yorkshire baronet 30 years her senior.
It was a deeply unhappy union and Mark spent a lonely childhood in Sledmere House, the large family home on the Yorkshire Wolds, a bleak and unforgiving spot in the North-East of England. Books were his companions, and he spent hours in the magnificent library that took up two floors and housed a remarkable collection created by his great-uncle.
“I enjoyed an advantage over most of my age,” he later wrote, “in having access to the very large library at Sledmere, and, before I was 12, I was quite familiar with the volumes of Punch and the Illustrated London News for many years back.”
He read volumes on the art of war and fortification, and numerous travel books. He devoured Dickens, Swift, and Shakespeare, and could quote them extensively by heart. He particularly loved Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, whose unvarnished footnotes contributed to his sexual education.
Then, just as young Mark was sent away to school, he was struck down by a congestion of the lungs, and when he recovered it was decided that the damp climate of Yorkshire winters was the worst thing possible for him. From then on he was to spend the winter months abroad traveling with his father, who spent three months of each year on trips to the East, journeys which were to contribute more to Mark’s general development and education than anything he ever learned at school.
“Before I was 15,” he later wrote, “I visited Assouan [Aswan], which was then almost the Dervish frontier.” A messianic leader had declared himself the redeemer of Islam, the Mahdi, and led a movement that overran much of Sudan, creating what was in some ways a predecessor of today’s so-called Islamic State.
“Then I went to India when Lord Lansdowne was Viceroy,” Mark wrote. “I did some exploration in the Arabian desert, enjoying myself bare-footed amongst the Arabs, and I paid a trip to Mexico, reaching there just when [the dictator] Porfirio Díaz was attaining the zenith of his power.”
On his return to school, Sykes invariably attracted a large crowd around him to listen to the extraordinary stories he had to tell. Sitting cross-legged and often puffing on a hubble-bubble, he regaled them with tales of trips with his father, of sleeping in tents on the edge of the Sea of Galilee; and of the dreadful scenes he witnessed in the lunatic asylum in Damascus.
Mark’s travels with his father awoke in him a fascination with the East which was never to leave him, and which first bore fruit in his book Through Five Turkish Provinces, published in 1900 when he was still an undergraduate. It told of a journey he made in 1898, during the holidays following his first year at Cambridge, that took him north of Damascus to the remote and mountainous Druse country of the Hauran, an area where few Westerners had ever set foot.
Mark took all his own photographs, and traveled alone—apart from the servants whom he describes in the opening pages: a dragoman (a translator, guide and fixer), a cook, a waiter, four mule drivers and a groom, plus “a Kurdish sheepdog that answered to the name of Barud, i.e. Gunpowder,” and who not only watched the camp being set up each day but “after nightfall undertook the entire responsibility of guarding it.”
When, four years later, Mark published Dar-ul-Islam: A Journey through Ten of the Asiatic Provinces of Turkey, he began to be talked about as an up-and-coming expert on the Ottoman Empire.
It was when he became a Member of Parliament, however, that he really made his mark, taking his seat in July 1911, and making a passionate maiden speech touching on the dangers of the government’s then lack of any real policy in the Middle East, an area that he believed to be of huge strategic importance. It was given, wrote the diplomat Aubrey Herbert, “in the rare complete silence that the House sometimes gives as a recognition to a distinguished contribution to its debates.”
Mark’s good fortune was that the next speaker happened to be Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. “It is my most agreeable duty,” he said, “If the honorable gentleman will allow me to do so, to congratulate him very heartily on as promising and successful a maiden speech as almost any I have listened to in my long experience.”
When war broke out in 1914 and the Turks sided with the Germans, it became clear that whatever happened to the Ottoman Empire was going to be of vital importance. Looking around for those with the knowledge to help determine what the future of this vast region might be, the eyes of the Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, fastened on young Sykes, then training with his battalion to go to the front.
He was summoned to the War Office to act as Kitchener’s personal representative on the Bunsen Committee, formed “to consider the nature of British desiderata in Turkey in Asia in the event of a successful conclusion of the war.” Thanks to this position, he found himself on May 16, 1916, putting his signature to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which effectively divvied up the soon-to-be defunct Ottoman Empire among the British, French and Russians.
Tragically, Mark was a victim of the Spanish flu that swept through Europe after World War I, and he died at a hotel near the Tuileries Gardens in Paris just before the fateful peace conference was to begin in February 1919.
The diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson, a friend of Mark’s, bemoaned the loss of his “endless push and perseverance,” his “enthusiasm and faith,” that had made both Arab nationalism and Zionism so useful to the war effort. “He made mistakes, of course, such as the Sykes-Picot Treaty,” Nicolson wrote, “but he kept to his ideas with the fervor of genius.”
No one will ever know what influence Mark might have had on subsequent events. But it’s a mistake to burden Sykes the man with all the blame for the subsequent woes of the Middle East that have been attached to his name.
Even George Antonius, the first great historian of Arab Nationalism, acknowledged the difference. Antonius was no fan of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, certainly. He called it “a shocking document… the product of greed at its worst,” and, “a startling piece of double-dealing.” But he wrote that “for Jews, Arabs, and British alike,” Mark’s premature death was, “little short of a calamity.”
“Had he lived,” Antonius wrote, “his recital of facts and his forecast of consequences might have filled the minds of the politicians with those anxieties which are often, in politics, the beginning of wisdom.”
It’s a generous tribute to an idealistic young man, one who was genuinely trying to do his best for the region and the country.