May 19

This Day in History

World War I

May 19, 1916:

Britain and France conclude Sykes-Picot agreement

On May 19, 1916, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly reach an accord, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire are to be divided into British and French spheres of influence with the conclusion of World War I.

After the war broke out in the summer of 1914, the Allies—Britain, France and Russia—held many discussions regarding the future of the Ottoman Empire, now fighting on the side of Germany and the Central Powers, and its vast expanse of territory in the Middle East, Arabia and southern-central Europe. In March 1915, Britain signed a secret agreement with Russia, whose designs on the empire's territory had led the Turks to join forces with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914. By its terms, Russia would annex the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and retain control of the Dardanelles (the crucially important strait connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean) and the Gallipoli peninsula, the target of a major Allied military invasion begun in April 1915. In return, Russia would agree to British claims on other areas of the former Ottoman Empire and central Persia, including the oil-rich region of Mesopotamia.

More than a year after the agreement with Russia, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored another secret agreement regarding the future spoils of the Great War. Picot represented a small group determined to secure control of Syria for France; for his part, Sykes raised British demands to balance out influence in the region. The agreement largely neglected to allow for the future growth of Arab nationalism, which at that same moment the British government and military were working to use to their advantage against the Turks.

In the Sykes-Picot agreement, concluded on May 19, 1916, France and Britain divided up the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. In its designated sphere, it was agreed, each country shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab State or Confederation of Arab States. Under Sykes-Picot, the Syrian coast and much of modern-day Lebanon went to France; Britain would take direct control over central and southern Mesopotamia, around the Baghdad and Basra provinces. Palestine would have an international administration, as other Christian powers, namely Russia, held an interest in this region. The rest of the territory in question—a huge area including modern-day Syria, Mosul in northern Iraq, and Jordan—would have local Arab chiefs under French supervision in the north and British in the south. Also, Britain and France would retain free passage and trade in the other's zone of influence.

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