January 8, 2020


How Britain created the Middle East crisis: The carve-up of the region after the First World War led to the fanaticism and conflict of today (James Barr, 1/07/19, UnHerd)

The revolt that convulsed Iraq in 1920 was a taster of the consequences of three irreconcilable promises the British had made during the First World War, which became apparent over the next ten years. Under pressure in 1915 they had sent Mecca's ruler Sharif Hussein a weasel-worded letter that recognised his claim to an empire encompassing Iraq and Syria if he rose up against the Turks. In 1916, in the Sykes-Picot agreement, they then secretly pledged a northerly wedge of this same territory to the French, to patch up the entente cordiale.

Then in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 publicly committed themselves to a Jewish national home in Palestine -- land that Hussein believed they had already acknowledged as his. During the next decade the British contorted themselves to try to square these promises with each other. The widespread anti-western sentiment, the Arab-Jewish conflict, and Islamism we see in today's Middle East are all the result.

The most immediate problem arose from the clash between the promises to Hussein and the French. If you have seen Lawrence of Arabia you will recall that the end of the war left Lawrence's ally, Sharif Hussein's son Feisal, in control of Damascus, the city that, defended by Saladin, had defied the crusaders eight centuries earlier. Now the French, citing their 1916 deal with the British, felt it was theirs.

While the French were in no position to oust Feisal, the British tried not to take sides, and Anglo-French relations deteriorated. By January 1920, however, the British had begun to wonder if continuing to sit on the fence was wise.

The British had initially hoped that they could directly govern Iraq, in order to exploit the country's oil, while buying off the Arabs with independence in Syria. It now dawned on them that whatever happened on one side of the Sykes-Picot frontier would soon happen on the other. Were Feisal's confident and vocal Arab nationalist supporters able to gain independence for Syria they would set an uncomfortable precedent for Iraq. Moreover the French would be likely to veto British rule in Palestine in revenge.

These factors, together with the growing realisation that sooner or later they would need French support to fight another war with Germany, led the British to decide that they would have to side with their old rivals. In March 1920 news from Damascus, where the nationalists had proclaimed Feisal king of Syria and his elder brother Abdullah emir of Iraq, spurred a Franco-British rapprochement.

At the Italian resort of San Remo a month later, the British and French governments firmed up the 1916 Sykes-Picot deal. Britain got Palestine and Iraq; France: Syria and a quarter share of Iraq's oil, to compensate her for the loss of the city of Mosul -- hers by the 1916 agreement but which the British had seized just after the end of the war.

We are deservedly paying the price for betraying our own ideals. And every time we double down--like refusing to accept elections in Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran--we make things worse.

Posted by at January 8, 2020 12:00 AM