May 24, 2014


The Great War and Iraq: Britain's poisonous legacy (IAN RUTLEDGE, 17 May 2014, Open Democracy)

By early 1916, Britain had suffered two catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Ottoman army: Gallipoli, and Kut al-Amara in Iraq, where an over-confident Anglo-Indian army was surrounded and forced to surrender. In desperation, the British government offered the aged and deeply conservative Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons a vaguely delineated Arab empire to be carved out of the Ottoman territories, in return for rebelling against their Turkish overlords, an offer lubricated by a generous monthly subsidy in gold sovereigns. 

Sykes was now faced with the onerous task of accommodating the territorial aspirations of the Sharif of Mecca while at the same time recognising the ambitions of its French ally to establish a colony in the Levant (as well as Russia's demand for the straits). His solution - and he apparently convinced himself it would be an acceptable solution to all sides - was the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. This proposed a British protectorate in the Iraqi provinces of Baghdad and Basra, and a French protectorate in Lebanon and southern Anatolia. Palestine, with its "holy places" would be "internationalised". And as a "concession" to Sharif Hussein there would be two semi-independent Arab emirates: one in the interior of Syria, the other stretching from northern Iraq extending south-west through present-day Jordan to a point just south of Palestine. These "Arab" regions, however, would be effectively under the control of French and British "advisors".

But within a year, military and political developments dictated the abandonment of Sykes-Picot. During the Russian revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks discovered and published the terms of the agreement. To mollify the Sharif of Mecca and an enraged Arab world, Sykes authored a public declaration, issued in Baghdad in March 1917, which promised to satisfy the Arabs' "aspirations". Although the word "independence" wasn't used, educated Arab opinion took it to mean just that. Then, faced with the United States president, Woodrow Wilson's declared support for "self-determination" for subject peoples, a second proclamation (again authored by Sykes) was made in November 1918 offering the Arabs "complete liberation". 

Nevertheless, after the Americans had withdrawn from the post-war peace negotiations in disgust at its Allies' manifestly imperialist manoeuvrings, In April 1920, Britain and France simply awarded themselves the "mandates" for the whole of Iraq and Syria - in theory, the responsibility to gradually lead these countries to full independence but in practice, little more than indefinite protectorates. And on the same day that the mandates were distributed, Britain and France agreed to share Iraq's future oil production with British-controlled companies getting 75%.

The decision to focus on the League instead of on self-determination was the most ill-fated of any president.

Posted by at May 24, 2014 9:17 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus