Meet the Elusive Man Responsible for Today’s Middle East Mayhem
“It began as a mistake.” Charles Bukowski’s terse opening line in his debut novel Post Office succinctly summarizes the dubious beginnings of Arab-West discussions on the future of the Middle East in 1915 during the First World War. In the spring of that same year, bogged down British and French forces were desperately battling the Ottoman army on the Gallipoli peninsula trying to force the Dardanelles and occupy Istanbul. Amid the fighting, a 25-year-old Turkish officer, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi, deserted to the British side on August 20, 1915. Trying to save his own skin and apparently determined to play a role in shaping the postwar future of the Middle-East, Al-Faruqi provided British intelligence with a host of assertions about himself and the Arab tribes under Ottoman suzerainty, which later turned out to be either wild exaggerations or plain lies.
British intelligence, however, took Al-Faruqi’s statements at face value, which led the British to promise a great deal to the Arabs in exchange for revolting against the Turks. This in turn directly influenced the negotiations over the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement that in many ways has been at the root of much of the political upheaval in the Middle East ever since. Thus, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi may very well be one of the greatest impostors in the history of international relations.
Born in Mosul, in modern day Iraq, in 1891 into the prominent al-Umari family, he joined the Ottoman army and graduated in 1912 from the military academy in Istanbul. After his commissioning he was assigned aide-de-camp to Fakhri Pasha, commander of the 12th corps of the fourth Turkish army stationed in and around Mosul, where he also worked with Yasin-al-Hashimi, a future prime minister of Iraq.
At the end of 1913, Al-Faruqi helped found the Mosul branch of al-Ahd, a secret society of army officers, dedicated to advancing Arab interests within the Ottoman Empire. The founder of al-Ahd was a Circassian Ottoman army officer, Aziz Ali al-Masri, who, despite being a leader in the Young Turkey Party, felt discriminated against by the Turkifying policies of the Young Turks. At the beginning of the First World War, al-Ahd merged with the Arab secret society, al-Fatat, and they jointly sent a message to Sharif Hussein of Mecca offering to start a rebellion against the Turks in Syria. Hussein was already in correspondence with the British on the same subject. Al-Faruqi at that time was also stationed in Syria and along with other members of the secret societies met Hussein’s son Faysal in May 1915 in Aleppo. On May 23 in Damascus, Faysal, representing his father, accepted the conditions on which the secret society would support Hussein’s rebellion (“The Damascus Protocol”). Faysal, however, judged al-Fatat’s strengths inadequate to the task without Western help.
Jamal Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman fourth army, got wind of the secret activities of the Arab officers in his force, and had Al-Faruqi, alongside other officers, imprisoned for 15 days, released due to lack of evidence, then sent to Gallipoli to fight the Allies presumably to get killed in the trenches. While serving in an infantry unit, Al-Faruqi managed to keep up his correspondence with fellow secret society members and learned that Sharif Hussein had sent the British a letter in August 1915, outlining his conditions for starting a revolt. These conditions were based on the Damascus Protocol. Sharif Hussein was no nationalist. He only reluctantly contacted the British and joined in the resistance because he had learned that the Young Turks conspired to replace him as Emir of Mecca after the war.
After Al-Faruqi’s defection, his knowledge of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence (Arthur Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner of Egypt, exchanged a number of letters with Hussein about a possible Arab revolt) made his subsequent stories believable to British military intelligence in Cairo. Coincidentally, Al-Faruqi’s arrival aided Anglo-Arab relations as things were going badly for Britain and her allies in the East, and policy makers were desperately looking for alternatives that would bring victory.
The campaign in Gallipoli, which eventually would cost Great Britain and France more than 250,000 casualties and losses, had ground to a halt. (The initial plan of attack had been borrowed from the Greek General Staff). The tremendous sacrifices of the British Empire and its allies forced the former’s hand to elevate its involvement in the Middle East “to give some sort of meaning to so great a sacrifice” as the historian David Fromkin put it in his A Peace to End All Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Among key decision-makers within the British Empire, however, the opinion was sharply divided over precisely what to do. The British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who only reluctantly diverted forces from the Western Front for the Gallipoli campaign, was nevertheless convinced that the British would have to carve out a large territory in the Middle East in order to protect Britain’s Indian Empire from French and, above all, Russian encroachment. He states in a memorandum in early 1915: “Old enmities and jealousies which may have been stilled by the existing crisis in Europe may revive . . .” putting Britain “at enmity with Russia, or with France, or with both in combination.”