Profile: Sir Mark Sykes, midwife to the modern Middle East

A drawer of lines in the sand

The World Today Published 5 December 2014 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
Illustration: Hulton Archive/Getty

Illustration: Hulton Archive/Getty

Returning to his country estate one day in the waning years of the Edwardian era, the British diplomat and Orientalist Sir Mark Sykes was met by the tears of his infant son. Informed by his wife Edith that the child was inconsolable, Sykes bundled him into his arms and disappeared into the drawing room. Within minutes the crying stopped, prompting Edith to inquire what he had done. Replied Sykes, who would soon emerge as midwife to the modern Middle East and the century of war and dispossession that followed: ‘I just reasoned with him.’

Together with his French co-conspirator, François Georges-Picot, Sykes would draft the accord that defined the contours of the post-First World War Arab world amid the ashes of Ottoman rule: a patchwork of new nation states as Anglo-French proxies and a Jewish enclave in Palestine.

Contempt for the agreement still resonates, particularly among those who have endured it. This year, when militant Islamists declared that they had established a so-called caliphate in war-torn Iraq and Syria, its leaders proclaimed that they were eradicating the despised demarcations.

For those close to Sykes, either through scholarship or blood relations, it is an undeserved infamy. A model father and husband, even-tempered and wry – he regularly embellished his letters with cartoons and caricature – he was pinioned between the nationalist passions of the peoples of the Levant and the imperial ambitions of Britain. As an agent of empire, he was compelled to make conflicting guarantees of sovereignty to rival Arab and Zionist leaders and, inevitably, satisfied no one.

Christopher Sykes, the writer and photographer, told me in a 2000 interview that his grandfather ‘had a refreshing, if naïve belief that he could avoid conflict by encouraging parties to be forthright and reasonable with each other’. George Antonius, in his book The Arab Awakening, slams the Sykes- Picot Treaty – primarily the work of the Foreign Office – but praises Sykes for his good-faith labour.

Even as a boy, Sykes was forced to tread a perilous middle ground. His father, Sir Tatton, drank heavily and beat him. His glamorous mother Jessica was a compulsive gambler who would visit her son at the Beaumont Jesuit School, in Berkshire, intoxicated. While still a student, Sykes was obliged to give testimony at his parents’ highly public divorce trial.

The young Sykes found solace and adventure travelling throughout the Eastern empire, particularly the Levant. A photograph from one expedition captures him in a pith helmet, a tweed hunting jacket, riding boots and breeches. He is cradling a hunting rifle, a Bedouin guide by his side. Back at St John’s, his Cambridge college, sporting a fez and smoking a water pipe, he would regale students and dons with his travels. These he would crystalize into best-selling travelogues on the Indo-Arabian world, and in 1911 he was elected as a Conservative MP.

Sykes also rose to the rank of captain in the Boer War. Like Winston Churchill, whom he met and befriended during the conflict, he had an irreverent wit. England, he once noted, was great ‘not because of Liberalism, but because of our extraordinary geographical position which has permitted of our playing the fool; and the Germans with a vile geographical position have by Iron, Blood, Discipline, Brutality, Labour, Sweat, Ruthlessness, Devotion, Pertinacity made themselves of some account … If the Germans had had politicians like Gladstone and Cobden … they would either be ruled by Russia, France or Turkey.’

Once resettled from the Transvaal to his native Yorkshire, Sykes invented the idea of camouflage patterns to hide artillery pieces and founded the Wagoner’s Special Reserves, a logistical support unit that was deployed to France in 1914. Impressed, Lord Kitchener assigned him to the General Staff for Eastern service.

The primary objective of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, according to Sykes and others in the War Office, was to create a Franco-British buffer in the Middle East that would deter Russian predations on the land bridge between Europe and India. Sykes’s main initiative to give Mosul to the French, was overruled by the Foreign Office. A partitioned Arabia would also allow for a Jewish state, which the ardently Zionist Sykes believed could co-exist peacefully with its predominantly Muslim neighbours.

On February 16, 1919, the influenza epidemic that was to kill more Europeans than the war itself claimed Sykes, a loss Antonius described as ‘nothing short of a calamity’ for Jews, Arabs and British alike. Sykes’s charger, Punch, led the funeral procession, saddle empty and with the deceased’s boots fixed in the stirrups.