Essay Example on WW1: Britain & France Divide the Middle East

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1769 Words
Date:  2023-01-11

World War 1 provided an opportunity for imperialist states such as Britain and France to expand their interests on dominating foreign lands upon the Allied war victory. In particular, the land controlled by the Ottoman Empire was of utmost interest to the French and British. As a result, the Middle East became a hotly contested region between two allied powers. On 6th May 1916, a secret agreement between Britain and France was signed that divided the Middle East along the British and French sphere of interest. The agreement became renowned as the Sykes-Picot Agreement named after Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Sykes was a British Diplomat who was a self-proclaimed Middle East expert while Georges-Picot was a French diplomat and lawyer. The two had been chosen by their respective governments to negotiate the control of the vast landmass under Ottoman rule. The Sykes-Picot Agreement created an installment for European meddling in the region as well as subsequent American influence leading to the problems of civil war, state failure and radical Islam in the Middle East.

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The Sykes-Picot Agreement formerly known as The Asia Minor Agreement created the modern Middle East. The secret deliberation between Britain and France had seen the decades decline in the Ottoman Empire. The First World War further led to a strained and weakened Ottoman Empire due to its participation in fighting for the Central Powers. Therefore, the British and French have foreseen the ultimate fall of the Ottomans and wanted the spoils of the war in the Middle East. Britain and France used true imperialism in the sense that the division of the Middle East or lines in the sand was not determined by religious, tribal, ethnic and linguistic differences. Instead, the French and British were interested in the benefits they would derive from the region. As such, Sykes and Picot drew a line that divided the Middle East into two regions, A and B. Area A was under French mandate and represented the contemporary Lebanon and Syria. Likewise, Area B was under British control representing modern day Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait. However, Palestine was placed under international administration until 1920 when Britain took control of the region under Mandatory Palestine. The division created colonial spheres of interest as a general understanding between the two powers and the agreement was officially acknowledged in the 1920 San Remo Conference.

The British were in search of allies in the Middle East despite being in an important alliance with France in Europe. The Ottomans had managed to thwart the British and French advances in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli Peninsula. As a response, Britain wanted to partner with the Arab nationalists to defeat the Turks. The British partnered with Sharif Hussein, an ambitious Sharif of Mecca who was ready to fight the Ottomans. As a result, the British High Commissioner in Egypt negotiated the revolt conditions in what became known as the Hussein-McMahon letters. The British promised an independent Arab State to Hussein which was a pleasing deal because an Arab state could have grouped a vast territory of modern Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence predated the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Therefore, the negotiation about the spoils of war in the Middle East betrayed Arab allies. Furthermore, the British promised land in the two agreements to another potential ally since London was dissatisfied with the Sykes-Picot Agreement because Sykes failed to deliver Palestine to the control of Britain.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the onset of civil war in the Middle East. The British in pursuit of the territory of Palestine decided to partner with the young Jewish nationalist movement that aimed at establishing an independent Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Zionists found support in the cause in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. The Majesty's government supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine that led to the mass migration of Jewish people from all over the world into Palestine. Britain has changed its view over Palestine by denying the self-determination of the majority of Arab inhabitants in the territory. The Zionist movement grew stronger under the British support creating tension in Palestine. Some of the Arab people were ready to cooperate with Britain while others resulted in extremism because their rights to self-determination were limited. Arab nationalists insisted on independent and democratic governance. The different movements led to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has led to constant violence in the Middle East especially in Palestine. For instance, in May 1921, there was a series of Arab riots that led to the death of 47 Jews while 146 others were wounded. Other violent revolts occurred in 1920 and 1929.

The escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict led Britain to turn for the League of Nations for assistance that ultimately led to the creation of the state of Israel. In 1947, the United Nations adopted a resolution to partition the Palestinian mandate into Arab and Jewish states in May 1948 when British control was scheduled to end. The following year in May 1948, the state of Israel was created and countries like the United States acknowledged the new nation. Following Jewish independence, the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948 when five Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq) invaded Israel. The war led to the outbreak of refugees from Palestinian Arabs fleeing the conflict. Ultimately, the war ended with Israeli victory and the Jewish annexed land beyond the partition borders. Despite the 1948 cease-fire, an all-out Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1967 that was fought for six days. Israeli was victorious again and to settle the conflict, part of land annexed in 1949 was returned to former countries. Other major conflicts occurred in 1973. To date, Israel still fights with Palestinians especially in Gaza, where Hamas, a terrorist organization seized power. The instability and current conflicts in the Middle East can be traced back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Besides the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the creation of states that never existed in the Middle East. The boundaries created by Britain and France propagated a geopolitical problem. The Sykes-Picot had negated from Arab knowledge since it was a secret document. Furthermore, France and Britain continued to exert influence in the Middle East even after independence. Most notably, the boundaries were created on the sectarian divide. In Lebanon, the French create an unstable political system. Paris hoped to promote Christian rule over the country under the National Pact. However, the shifting demographics favored a majority Muslim population that created a disaster for the country. As a result, there was an onset of a disastrous political crisis and a civil war in Lebanon that can be felt even in the present day. The unstable political environment led to the rise of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that controls the political, social and economic aspects of Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah is in frequent conflict with Israel. Syria has also experienced massive political unrests due to an unstable colonial past.

One of the greatest challenges of the boundaries created in the Middle East after WWI has been the rise of violent extremism perpetrated by radical Islam. When the terrorist group is known as Islamic State or ISIS mushroomed out of Iraq after the American occupation of Iraq, the extremists championed the end of Sykes-Picot. The philosophy, vision, and mission of ISIS were to create an Islamic caliphate to eradicate the boundaries separating Arab countries in the Middle East and erase the region's colonial past. The rise of the Islamic State militants has created added challenges in the Middle East. The militants have promoted sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia Muslims. Furthermore, the terrorists have exterminated minority Arabs such as the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, the group has created a humanitarian crisis with a displaced population and massive civilian deaths. The intervention of foreign powers such as the US, Britain and other coalition partners to fight the terrorists have also perpetrated widespread destruction of property in the fighting. The Islamic State has destabilized the Middle East and has even emerged as a global threat due to its ability to perpetrate violence in foreign countries beyond the Middle East. Foreign policy intervention by the US and other countries to salvage the Middle East have not borne fruits because the West has failed to assume responsibility for the outcome of political input.

Another problem created by the boundaries drawn by France and Britain has been the identity struggle due to the failure by Arabs to address the challenge of nationalism, Islamism, secularism and perhaps Christianity. The Arab liberal age founders failed to create proper systems to address their identity leading to various political modes of governance. As a result, the colonial past destabilized the region and has been the cause for political unrests. For example, the Arab Spring is a key example of a wave of political unrests and revolutions that rocked Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The political upheavals are an example of an identity crisis because of differing nationalistic, dictatorial or democracy views. Besides that, the boundaries led to the rise of royal Muslim families ruling some of the Arab countries in the Middle East. For example, Jordan is still ruled by the family that rose to power after WWI. Such instances can be attributed to the rise of dictatorship in the Middle East.


In conclusion, the problems facing the Middle East are deeply rooted in colonial rule after World War One. The Sykes-Picot Agreement signed between Britain and France in secret partitioned the Middle East according to the spheres of influence of the two imperialist states. The French and British created artificial boundaries that previously did not exist creating political, social, economic, religious, ethnic, and tribal challenges in the region. The French aimed at installing Christian rule over Lebanon leading to the continuous civil and political crisis in the country. The colonial influence in the Middle East with respect to Britain and France and the now US intervention in the region has worsened the problems in the region.


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Donaldson, Megan. "Textual Settlements: The Sykes-Picot Agreement and Secret Treaty-Making." AJIL Unbound 110 (2016): 127-31. doi:10.1017/s2398772300002932.

Mcmillan, M. E. "From Sykes-Picot to the Treaty of Sevres: Betrayals, Backstabbing, and

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