December 23, 2006 at 2:30 am | Posted in Arabs, Globalization, History, Islam, Middle East, Military, Oil & Gas, Zionism | Leave a comment








Mark Sykes

Sykes-Picot Agreement

16 March 187916 February 1919

Various commentators have suggested that his motivation for supporting a Jewish homeland was to favourably influence the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States. Sykes felt by 1916 that American entry into the war was the key to victory and gradually came to support Zionism.

Sir Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet (16 March 187916 February 1919) was an English traveller, Conservative Party politician and diplomatic advisor, particularly about matters respecting the Middle East at the time of World War I. He will always be associated with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, drawn up while the war was in progress, regarding the apportionment of postwar spheres of interest in the Ottoman Empire to Britain, France and Russia.

Early life

Mark Sykes was son of Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th Baronet, a 48 year old reclusive bachelor hypochondriac who was maneuvered into a most unsuitable marriage to an 18 year old girl by the bride’s mother. They were never happy together and became less so as Lady Sykes descended into sexual promiscuity, drinking and heavy gambling. After spending large amounts of money paying off her debts, Tatton Sykes published a notice in the papers disavowing her debts and legally separating from her. Both his parents were self absorbed. Lady Sykes lived in London, and Mark divided his time between her home and the Yorkshire estates, 30,000 acres (120 km²), of his father.

Lady Sykes was a convert to Roman Catholicism and Mark was brought into that faith at the age of three. For all practical purposes he was a “cradle Catholic”.

Mark Sykes was left much to his own devices and developed his imagination, without the corresponding self discipline to make him a good scholar. He travelled most winters with his father to the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire. He also visited the Mediterranean, Egypt, India, the Caribbean, Mexico, the United States and Canada. But all things Turkish appealed to him most.

Mark Sykes attended Cambridge University.

The Boer War, travels and Parliament

Heir to the vast Yorkshire estates and a baronetcy, the Roman Catholic Sykes was not content to await his inheritance. He served in the Second Boer War for two years where he was engaged mostly in guard duty, but saw action on several occasions.

He travelled extensively, especially in the Middle East.

From 1904 to 1905 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, George Wyndham. Later he served as honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople.

Sykes was very much a Yorkshire grandee, with his country seat at Sledmere House, breeding race horses, sitting on the bench, raising and commanding a militia unit and fulfilling his social obligations. He married Edith Gorst. It was a happy union and they had six children. Sykes succeeded to the baronetcy and the estates in 1913.

In 1912, Sykes was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull Central, after two close but unsuccessful tries in another constituency. He became close to Lord Hugh Cecil, another MP. and was a contemporary of the volatile F.E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, and the Catholic liberal radical Hilaire Belloc.

Sykes was a friend of Aubrey Herbert, another Englishman influential in Middle Eastern affairs, and was acquainted with Gertrude Bell, the pro-Arab Foreign Office advisor and Middle Eastern traveller. Sykes was never as single minded an advocate of the Arab cause as Bell, and her friends T.E. Lawrence and Sir Percy Cox. His sympathies and interests later extended to Armenians, Arabs and Jews as well as Turks. This is
reflected in the Turkish Room he had installed in Sledmere House, using a noted Armenian artist as designer.

With all his enthusiasms and interests, Sykes is best seen as an Englishman, a Roman Catholic and a representative of some of the best qualities of the landed gentry.

Protégé of Kitchener

When World War I broke out, Lieutenant Colonel Sykes was commanding officer of a reserve unit, the 5th Battalion of the Green Howards. But, he did not lead them into battle as his particular talents were needed in the War Office working for Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. Kitchener placed him on the de Bunsen Committee advising the Cabinet on Middle Eastern affairs. Although Sykes never got to know Kitchener well, they shared a similar outlook and Sykes had his confidence. He was soon the dominant person on the Committee, and so gained great influence on British Middle Eastern policy. Upon Sykes’s instigation but not completely according to his wishes, the Arab Bureau was created.It was Sykes and his fellows in this group who revived ancient Greek and Roman names for Middle Eastern regions. Such terms in common use today include “

Syria“, “Palestine“, “Iraq” and “Mesopotamia“.

Britain’s strategic conundrum

Sykes had long agreed with the traditional policy of British Conservatives in propping up the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) as a buffer against Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. Britain feared that Russia had designs on India, its most important colonial possession. A Russian fleet in the Mediterranean might cut British sea routes to India. British statesmen of the Conservative Party, such as Palmerston, Disraeli and Salisbury had held this view. The 19th century Liberal Party leader, William Ewart Gladstone, was much more critical of the Ottoman government, deploring its misgovernment and periodic slaughter of minorities, especially Christian ones. A Liberal successor, David Lloyd George, shared these views.

Since Britain was now at war with Turkey, a major rethinking of policy was needed. Sykes, through his connexion with Kitchener, was at the centre of this. Two conflicting positions were soon apparent. Some favoured the Arab cause in postwar settlements at the expense of Turkey, seeing the value of friendly client states in the coastal areas along the sea route to India and in the Persian Gulf which was assuming a new importance now that the Royal Navy had converted its ships to oil from coal. Others saw the need to retain a strong Turkey lest Russia enter the vacuum and seize Constantinople and the Straits.

Compounding this was the desire of France to secure lands in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where there was a significant Christian minority. Another ally, Italy, advanced claims to Aegean Islands and protection of Christian minorities in Asia Minor. Then Russian claims had to be considered, particularly with respect to the Christian population of Turkish Armenia and the Black Sea Coast.Another problem was the desire of Greece to regain historic territories in Asia Minor, and Thrace, claims that conflicted with those of Russia and Italy, as well as Turkey. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1916-1922), David Lloyd George, favoured the Greek cause.

Complicating all this was the desire of Jewish

Zionists to have a homeland in Palestine.In summary form; the conflicting interests of the Great Powers and aspiring nations during World War I were:

Russia vs Turkey vs Greece over Constantinople, the Straits and Thrace

France vs the Arabs vs Turkey over Syria

Britain vs France vs the Arabs vs the Zionists over Palestine

Greece vs Turkey vs Italy over Smyrna and southwest Asia Minor

Britain vs France vs the Arabs vs Turkey over Kurdish northern Iraq

France vs Turkey over southeastern Asia Minor and Alexandretta

Russia vs Turkey over Armenia and The southeast Black Sea coast

It was the special role of Sykes to hammer out an agreement with Britain’s most important ally, France, which was shouldering a disproportionate part of the effort against Germany in the war. His French counterpart was François Georges-Picot and it is generally felt that Picot got a better deal than expected. Sykes came to feel this as well and it bothered him. Particulars may be found in the article Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The Balfour Declaration

Evidence suggests that Sykes had a hand in promoting the Balfour Declaration issued on November 2, 1917. It stated that: “His Majesty”s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object….”

Various commentators have suggested that his motivation for supporting a Jewish homeland was to favourably influence the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States. Sykes felt by 1916 that American entry into the war was the key to victory and gradually came to support Zionism.

Premature death

Sir Mark Sykes was in Paris in connection with peace negotiations in 1919. At the conference a junior diplomat present, Harold Nicolson, described his role, “It was due to his endless push and perservance, to his enthusiasm and faith, that Arab nationalism and Zionism became two of the most successful of our war causes.” He died there in his hotel room on February 16, 1919, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic. His remains were transported back to his family home for burial. He was 39 years old.

Nahum Sokolow, a Russian Zionist colleague of Chaim Weizmann in Paris at this time, wrote that Sykes “… fell as a hero at our side.”

Sir Mark Sykes was succeeded by his son, Sir Richard Sykes, 7th Baronet (1905-1978). Another son, Christopher Sykes, (born 1907) was a distinguished author and official biographer of Evelyn Waugh.Sledmere House is still in the possession of the family, Sir Tatton Sykes, 8th Baronet, being the current occupant. Sir Mark Sykes’ great-granddaughter is the New York-based fashion writer and novelist Plum Sykes.


  • Desert Queen, Janet Wallach, Anchor Books, New York, 1999
  • A Peace To End All Peace, David Fromkin, Avon Books, New York, 1990
  • Righteous Victims, Benny Morris, Vintage Books, New York, 2001
  • Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur, Jonathan Cape, London, 1975
  • The Big House: The Story of a Country House and Its Family, Christopher Simon Sykes, Harper Perennial, London, 2005

External links

The Arab Bureau was a section of the Cairo Intelligence Department during the First World War.It was constituted on the initiative of Mark Sykes and it was meant to make British decision making with regard to Arab affairs more unified and effective. Sykes and his friend Gilbert Clayton wanted British Egypt to control the Arab world. They were opposed in their aims by the Foreign Office and Kitchener and by the Government of India (Hardinge and Chamberlain) who did not want to relinquish their claims of control.

The result was a compromise and the resulting bureau was given no independence but was part of the Cairo Intelligence Department

David G. Hogarth, a Naval Intelligence officer, was named head of the Arab Bureau and Kinahan Cornwallis his deputy. G.S. Symes, Philip Graves and Thomas Edward Lawrence were also part of the Arab Bureau.


  • A Peace To End All Peace, David Fromkin, Avon Books, New York, 1990
  • Percy Zachariah Cox:

20 November 186420 February 1937

Sir Percy Zachariah Cox (20 November 186420 February 1937) was a British administrator and diplomat in the British Mandate of Iraq. He was born in Herongate, Essex, England and died in Melchbourne, Bedfordshire, England.

He established the Iraqi army and constitution. He replaced Sir Arnold Wilson as the British Civil Commissioner in Baghdad in 1920. In 1902, he was adviser to the Sultan of Oman.

Nickname: ‘Coccus’ He replaced Sir Charles Marling as Minister
at Tehran from the Indian Political Service and wrote the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919.

He established the Iraqi army and created the individual state of Kuwait. Kuwait was an autonomous caza within the Ottoman Empire which was setup in the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913.


J. Townsend, Some reflections on the life and career of Sir Percy Cox, G.C.M.G., G.C.I.E., K.C.S.I., Asian Affairs, Volume 24, Number 3, Number 3/November 1993, pp. 259-272(14)


See movie:

A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990) (TV)

The movie deals with Lawrence’s activities at the Paris Peace Conference following World War One and the cast is wonderful. Appropriate for material based on real events the film avoids hype and melodrama, keeping the viewer riveted with it’s mature, intelligent approach. No matter what your politics it’s intriguing to watch this movie and reflect on “what might have been” regarding relations between the Western Democracies and the nations being formed from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The closing scene between Lawrence and Feisal nicely summarizes the sense of a monumental lost opportunity.

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