Lawrence of Arabia and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, revisited

From: Lawrence DeBivort (
Date: Wed 04 Dec 2002 - 23:39:02 GMT

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    Some time ago, Grant (I think) posted an informative post in which as an aside he suggested that Lawrence of Arabia had betrayed the Arabs by inducing them to revolt against the Ottomans for Arab independence, knowing that the British and French had signed a secret agreement in which they carved up the area for their colonial aims. I posted a reply indicating that Lawrence was innocent of this deception, as he had urged the revolt in 1915
    (Hussein-McMahon correspondence), whereas the Sykes-Picot agreement followed in 1916. So far so good. The question which I did not address was whether Lawrence knew of the Sykes-Picot agreement and kept it secret himself from his Arab allies. This question has been nagging at me, so I dug a bit, and want to elaborate on my answer to Grant.

    The UK-French negotiations that led to the S-P agreement began in April 1916, and ended in October 1916. Lawrence, we know, was not involved in these ministerial negotiations; a relatively junior officer, he was fighting with the Arabs in the Hejaz, by then. The terms of the agreement were leaked, first in Izvestia (Nov. 24, 1917)(Russia had been an eventual signatory to the S-P Agreement) and then in the Manchester Guardian (January 19, 1918). The leaks were brought to the attention of the Turkish Government, which passed them on the Arabs along with an offer of Arab autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, if the Arabs ceased their revolt. The Arabs refused, and queried their UK 'ally' about the meaning of the S-P agreement. This led to a flurry of reassurances by the UK (Hogarth and Wingate Declarations, and the Declaration to the Seven). There is no doubt that these declarations were essentially misleading, but I can find no suggestion that Lawrence was behind them, or that he knew how misleading they were.

    So the question then is, did Lawrence know anything about the S-P agreement between October 1916 and, say, February 1918, and if he did, did he know that the agreement betrayed the Arabs, and if he did, did he warn his Arab allies? I could not find any evidence that he knew of the S-P agreement during this time, and his behavior seems to suggest that he didn't: he was already heavily committed personally to Arab independence, putting himself at considerable personal risk with scouting forays behind Turkish lines in Syria. Then, with Arab victory and the Arab declaration of independence in Damascus, he strongly backed the new state, asserting the numerous UK commitments to such an outcome, and ensuring Arab participation in the first peace conferences.

    I can find nothing in the various volumes of Lawrence letters to suggest that he knew of the S-P agreement; indeed in 1917 he reports on a discussion he had with Sharif Hussein, head of the Arab Revolt, in which Hussein tells Lawrence of the visit by Sykes to explore Hussein's post-war thoughts. This letter does not conclusively prove that Lawrence did not know of the agreement, but it does suggest that he only knew of it second hand and no more than the Arabs themselves had come to suspect.

    God is in the details...

    So, I think this is the best I can do for now, Grant.

    Cheers, Lawry

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