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Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration

World War I and its aftermath shaped present-day Middle East geopolitical conflicts. The British Empire made contradictory promises to Arabs, Jews, and the French over how Ottoman territory would be divided after the war, leading to many fights today. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user Sonja Zach
    What was the specific intention of the British behind the Balfour declaration? What advantaged hoped the British to get from the Jews?
    With the Arabs (Hussein-McMahon) it is clear because the British sought support against the Ottomans and the intention behind the Sykes-Picot-Agreement is also quite obvious.
    (22 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Rebecca Gray
      After a little research, I learned that there were Jews in prominent places that Britain wanted to keep happy. Two of advisors to then -US president Woodrow Wilson were avid Zionists. A British chemist who discovered a way to synthesize acetone - critical for the production of a propellant to fire ammunition without smoke - was the leading spokesperson of the Zionist movement in Britain. Even some of the head Russian revolutionaries were of Jewish decent. Britain didn't want to anger any of these people because of the sway they held in their respective countries.
      The motivation behind the declaration goes deeper than my summary. You can find a more thorough write-up here:
      (23 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Trinda Martin-Wolfe
    I hear the Rothschild name referenced often. Who are they and what is their role in world history? Were they official rulers of some sort, or just influential/wealthy idealists?
    (8 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Greg L
      The Rothchild's are a family of Jewish decent who are involved in banking, finance and other business ventures, They are probably better known for being linked to many conspiracy theories, often involving a new world order or a world wide shadow governing body.
      Prior to the Rothschild family's rise to prominence they were part of the Court of Jews, a group of money lenders who did business with the nobility of Europe. The modern dynasty is often seen as having started in Mayer Rothschild and his 5 sons. They followed the blueprint of the Medici, opened up beaches in the Europe's major cities, all of which were successful.
      In addition to large piles of wealth they had large families. Some descendents of Mayer Rothschild have been given titles of nobility, others married into families with power and wealth. This helps fuel the conspiracy that the Rothschild's are in close relations with many of the worlds royal households.
      While they did not hold high ranking political office they had the influence that comes with wealth. How they used that influence is often left to speculation. Speculation leads to the notion that any unpopular policy comes into being because of their behind the scenes actions.
      Many of the Rothschild's have been recluse, staying out of the public eye. When making loans with national leaders privacy is a virtue but it also gives rise to the ability of others to speculate. When you are a wealthy, politically connected family people are curious about you. When you are also secretive there is an ability for rumors to run wild. When the truth in not there to counter these rumors they take on a life of their own.
      (15 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user vcleveland0512
    Was Balfour aware of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement?
    (10 votes)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user Georg Chobanyan
    I'm just wondering why was nothing said about armenians in that time? Because it was a serious war between russians and armenians against turkeys initially, and afterwards just armenians against turkeys. from my point of my view, armenians played a huge role in defeating the Ottoman empire
    (7 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user SteveSargentJr
    At , could you clarify the difference between the British and French territories and their "protectorates"?
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Jazz
      A British territory is officially owned by Britain. A British protectorate is an independent land which is protected by the British. However, the protectors are often the people with the most power, so British protectorates are virtually controlled by the British. The same applies for French territories v/s protectorates.
      (5 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user jairamclasses
    At , what was the Gallipoli Campaign?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user 18BrouwerL
    at around , what does 'theological' mean?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Abdel homedan
    So if the Balfour Declaration meant that the Jewish people have a state of their own in Palestine, then where should the people (the Palestinians) who have lived in Palestine for centuries go and live?
    (2 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Benzion Chinn
      The Balfour Declaration never promised the Jews all of the territory in Palestine and it had no intention of placing Arabs under Jewish control. It simply was open to the idea of Jews moving to Palestine, buying land without use of force and then making a state out of that land. Don't think in terms of national rights, think in terms of individual property holders.
      (5 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user anstrok
    At , what does "Theological Warfare" mean?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kiri Gates
    The Sykes-Picot agreement gave significant assets to France, while at the same time there would seem to be little French military involvement in the acquisition of those lands. Why did the British feel compelled to give the French such large regions of the Middle East? In other words, what was their motivation? Did the French have a bargaining chip on another frontier where the British may benefit? Thanks!
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

Narrator: As we'll see in this video and in others, the roots of a lot of the current disagreements in the Middle East and a lot of the conflict in the Middle East can actually be traced back to World War I. I realize this is an incredibly touchy subject that there are people who have very strong feelings on either side of it and my goal here is to really give my best attempt at what really happened. I encourage you to doubt any of this and look it up yourself and come, frankly, to your own conclusions. Let's rewind back to October of 1915, or 1915 in particular. The British were already at war with the Ottoman's. Just as a reminder of some of what happened in 1915, the Gallipoli campaign, by the end of 1915 it was pretty clear that this was a disaster for the allies. The Ottoman's were able to fend off the allies, they were in retreat. The British were able to fend off the Ottoman's when they tried to attack the Suez canal in 1915. This is the background, you can imagine the British are eager to get any other allies they can in their battle against the Ottoman's. In particular, they are eager to get the help of the Arab's who have been under the rule of the Ottoman's for hundreds of years. That's the backdrop where you have this correspondence between the high commissioner in Egypt, the British high commissioner, Sir Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin ʿAli, who had his own aspirations to essentially be the king of an independent Arab state. They kept going back and forth from mid 1915 to early 1916 talking about what the state could be. Obviously the British want his support, wants him to lead a revolt against the Ottoman's. He's already articulated the boundaries for a state that he would like to see. So, that gives us a context for this correspondence in October of 1915. This is from Sir Henry McMahon to Hussein. "... it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you "on their behalf," the British government's behalf, "the following statement, which I am confident "you will receive with satisfaction. "The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta "and portions of Syria lying to the west "of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, "and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, "and should be excluded from the limits demanded." This is referring to the limits that Hussein bin Ali had demanded in previous correspondence. "With the above modifications," so just that region right over there, this right over here is Mersina, Alexandretta, this is Hama, Homs, Damascus, so really what he's referring to is this region, the west, the west of those cities right over here. He's saying look, you can't really consider this to be purely Arab, I'm going to exclude this out of the boundaries of this potential independent Arab state. "With the above modification, and without prejudice "to our existing treaties with Arab chiefs "we accept those limits," we accept those limits. "As for those regions lying within those frontiers "wherein Great Britain is free to act "without determinant to the interest of her ally, "France," so as long as I'm not getting in trouble with France, "I'm empowered in the name of "the Government of Great Britain to give the following "assurances and make the following reply "to your letter; Subject to the above modifications," so taking this part out, "Great Britain is prepared "to recognize and support the independence "of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits "demanded by the Sharif of Mecca." So, essentially it included all of this region and actually much beyond what I'm showing here, kind of present day Syria, Jordan, Iraq, parts of present day Saudi Arabia. All of that is essentially, the British are saying, yeah we're going to allow you to have that, an independent state there. "Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places "against all external aggression "and will recognize their inviolability. "... I am convinced that this declaration will assure "you beyond all possible doubt," beyond all possible doubt, "of the sympathy "of Great Britain towards the aspiration of her friends "the Arabs, and will result in a firm "and lasting alliance, the immediate results "of which will be the expulsion of the Turks "from the Arab countries and the freeing "of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, "which for so many years has pressed heavily "upon them." This actually does help to convince the Arab's to rise up against the Turks, against the Ottoman Empire, they play a significant role in the Palestine Campaign, they rise up in June of 1916. Now, the video that I did on the Palestine Campaign, I got several comments of people being cynical about Britain's intentions and it does look like the British were, indeed, cynical. T.E. Lawrence famous for Lawrence of Arabia was often depicted as this mystical fellow, this guy who had this kinship with the Arab's. His actual correspondence with the British government actually do show that he did have a kind of ... he was doing, I guess, in the words of George W. Bush, a little bit of strategery, he had a more cynical view of this relationship with the Arab's. This is some correspondence that he wrote in early 1916, so right about the same time that all of this was going on. This says he's referring to a possible Arab revolt, or Hussein's activity. "Hussein's activity seems beneficial to us, "because it matches with our immediate aims, "the break-up of the Islamic 'bloc' "and the defeat and disruption of the "Ottoman Empire." Assuming he didn't really talk about this, this being one of the ... the British didn't talk about that when they were talking to Hussein. "If we can arrange that this political change "shall be a violent one, we will have abolished "the threat of Islam, by dividing it against itself, "in its very heart." "There will then be a Khalifa," kind of a seat of Islam, "in Turkey "and a Khalifa in Arabia, in theological warfare." This is T.E. Lawrence, I got this from The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Even this, somewhat portrayed as a heroic figure, was doing things in very strategic, strategic terms. To make things worse for the Arab's, while the British were trying to convince them to revolt, they were also in secret negotiations with the French on how they would divide the Middle East if they were able to beat the Ottoman's. At this point in the war the British were already making some progress in Mesopotamia, but they really hadn't really started on the Palestine Campaign right here. So, this was all conjecture. The British representatives was Sykes, the French representative was Picot, this was done with the consent of the Russian's. You didn't have a revolution in Russia as of now, so in early 1916, in May this agreement was concluded, this secret agreement. You have the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it's secret. Let me write that, it is a secret agreement between Britain and France and essentially they are carving up the entire Middle East between them. This blue area right here, this would be occupied by the French, part of eastern Turkey or modern day eastern Turkey would be given to the Russian's. The British would be able to occupy, would occupy southern Mesopotamia essentially insuring protection of the oil that is coming out of Persia. Oil is becoming more and more of a relevant factor in kind of global power. Then you have these two protectorates right over here, which in theory could be independent or an independent Arab state, or two independent Arab states under the protection. Let me put that in quotes, because "protectorate" is always not as nice as it sounds, under the protection of the French or the British which means, "Hey you're an independent state, but we will "protect you in case anyone wants to invade." The reality of protectorate is that it usually involves the people doing the protecting have all the real power and all the real influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement also give this little carve out to Britain so they would have access to the Mediterranean. Palestine, or the Roman Kingdom of Judea, this is carved out as a separate international property something that would be administered by multiple states and I guess the argument would be, this is where the Holy Land's are, multiple religions have some of their holiest sites within here and so they carved it out like this. Once again, this is all in secret, they obviously don't want the Arab's to find out because they're about to convince the Arab's to join in a revolt against the Ottoman's. Now, to make things ... once again, this was all secret up to this point in 1916 when it was all agreed on. Then you forward to 1917 where we have the famous Balfour Declaration. This right over here is the Balfour Declaration and it was essentially a letter from the Foreign Secretary of the U.K., Balfour, to Lord Rothschild who was a leading [Briticizen] , a leading member of the Jewish community. In it he writes, "Dear Lord Rothschild, "I have much pleasure in conveying to you, "on behalf of His Majesty's Government, "the following declaration of sympathy "with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been "submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. "His Majesty's Government view with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a national home," of a national home, "for the Jewish people, "and will use their best endeavors to facilitate "the achievement of this objective. "It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done "which may prejudice the civil and religious rights "of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, "or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews "in any other country. "I should be grateful if you would bring "this declaration to the knowledge of the "Zionist Federation." Signed Artur Balfour. In here, he's not explicitly saying ... and they're being very careful here, he's not saying we're supporting a state for the Jewish people, but he's saying he is supporting the return of national home for the Jewish people, but at the same time, he's saying that it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Needless to say, you can imagine that this is making the Arab's fairly uncomfortable. On one side it seems, based on some of the McMahon-Hussein correspondences that were ... especially in 1915, that they were being promised an independent Arab state which included much of this territory, but at the same time, in the Balfour Declaration the British were promising to, kind of the Jewish diaspora, that they could have a homeland there and it might one day, who knows, it might one day turn in to some type of a state. To make the Arab's even more uncomfortable, this was in November 2, 1917. By the end of November, you have to remember that 1917 you first had a revolution, in Russia the Czar was overthrown in February and in March of 1917, and October the Bolshevik's take over. They want to get out of the war, they don't like all these secret deals, not clear that they would even get what they were entitled to these secret deals, so they actually release all the entire text of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. They released this, so in the same month you have the Arab's and the Ottoman's and the Ottoman's were very happy to see this because it would undermine the Arab's belief in maybe supporting the allies, but in one month you have the Arab's finding out about the Balfour Declaration, which was a pulbic declaration and then later that month because of the Russian release of it, the formally secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, so it makes them very, or at least a little bit more suspicious. So you can imagine the British Empire trying to have it both ways, to kind of have support from the Jewish Diaspora while at the same time have support from the Arab's in their revolt against the Ottoman's would lead to very significant conflicts over the decades to come. Regardless of which side of the issue you fall on, a lot of the seed is happening right around now, right around World War I. This has been admitted by the British government. This is right here, this was the then Secretary, or Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, U.K Foreign Secretary in 2002. This is a statement he made to the News Statesman Magazine in 2002. "A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, "I have to deal with now," he's the Foreign Secretary, "are a consequence "of our colonial past ..." Consequence of our colonial past. "The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances," "and the contradictory assurances "which were being given to Palestinian's "in private at the same time as they were "being given to the Israelis ... "again, an interesting history for us, "but not an honorable one." This is really just the beginning as we'll see in future videos as we go to the Interwar period, the British kind of go back and forth on this issue over, over, and over again, but needless to say, it's lead to a very messy situation in the modern Middle East.