Many historians misunderstand Sykes–Picot, the treaty that carved up the Middle East, as a random act of colonial mapmaking. In fact, the secret World War I agreement between France and the United Kingdom had everything to do with oil. France and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, knew of the Middle East’s vast petroleum fields and had set up a consortium to share the oil before the outbreak of the war. Through Sykes–Picot, France and the United Kingdom planned to absorb the German share and build pipelines to ports along the Mediterranean. Yet the two countries did not want to share a pipeline, fearing that their alliance might someday fray. The plans for two separate pipelines—the French one from Kirkuk, in modern-day Iraq, to Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon, and the British one from Kirkuk to Haifa, in modern-day Israel—determined how Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot split up the region.
Historians usually quote Sykes’ 1915 statement to the British war cabinet—“I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,”—as proof that the borders he drew were arbitrary.
All rights reserved. To request permission to distribute or reprint this article, please visit ForeignAffairs.com/Permissions.