Schemes That Set the Desert on Fire

Schemes That Set the Desert on Fire

Mini Teaser: After WWI, Britain and France made the Arab world the object of history, not its subject. James Barr’s new book shows that the Middle East was born crazy. Later misunderstandings and manipulations were laid atop well-worn grooves.

by Author(s): David Ignatius

James Barr, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914–1948 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), 464 pp., $29.95.

THERE’S A knotted strand of Arab conspiracy thinking that goes roughly as follows: The modern Middle East is a plot hatched by colonialists and Zionists. Israel was implanted in Palestine by Western imperialists for their own cynical reasons. The Arabs have been manipulated and deceived by the West at every turn. Their history is a narrative framed by spies and saboteurs.

I’ve been listening to versions of this paranoid story during more than thirty years of traveling in the Middle East. Often, such Arab complaints of perpetual victimization seem part of a broken political culture. Not to mention that it’s tedious listening to so much whining about plots by outsiders.

But here’s the strange thing: This theme of victimization is surprisingly accurate, at least in terms of the early twentieth century. Life for Arabs has, in fact, been shaped by the conspiratorial plots and schemes of Western imperialists. If the Arabs are passive and sullen toward Israel and the West, it’s partly because they have been objects of history rather than its subjects. Their narrative, or at least its early twentieth-century chapters, was written in secret, by others.

A Line in the Sand brings this perverse story to life. The “line” in question is the one drawn by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which parceled up the collapsing Ottoman Empire between Britain and France. The coimperialists were at each other’s throats nonstop for the next thirty years, according to author James Barr. In the course of this rivalry, they used and manipulated Jews and Arabs alike, though it was the Arabs who proved the most hapless victims.

The value of this book is that it makes clear that the modern Middle East was born crazy and that each subsequent iteration of misunderstanding and manipulation has been laid on top of well-worn grooves. Barr’s account of the birth of Israel, in particular, is important—not because it invalidates the Zionist idea but because it shows how cynically it was used by France and Britain, who then left Arabs and Jews to clean up the mess. Fixing the ill will created by the imperialist plotters has proved almost impossible, as we are reminded nearly every day by newspaper headlines.

BARR BEGINS his story by sketching the two men who drew the line, who embodied the distinct personalities of their two nations in the age of high empire.

Sir Mark Sykes was a classic British amateur—an aristocrat from an eccentric Yorkshire family who spent a holiday with his family in the Middle East in 1890 and never got over it. He traipsed back again and again, as an undergraduate, a diplomat and finally a member of Parliament, and he fancied himself an expert on the Ottoman Empire in its years of seedy decline. In 1915, the British war council, searching for a strategy to cope with the Ottoman breakup, summoned Sykes for advice. The brash, self-made Arabist proceeded to draw a line on the map “from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,” and he proposed that this should be the division between French and British zones of post-Ottoman influence.

Although the British and French, to judge by Barr’s account, loathed each other, they were nominal allies in the Entente Cordiale, fighting together in Flanders against the Boche. So Sykes’s proposal for a carve up was judged sensible by Lord Asquith, the prime minister, and in November 1915 Sykes began negotiating with a French representative named Francois Georges-Picot.

The Frenchman was a lawyer, diplomat and enthusiast for French imperial ambitions in Syria through a group known as Le Comité de l’Asie Française. Complicating the negotiations was the fact that the British were talking separately with a group of Arab nationalists headed by Sherif Hussein (the Arab ally of T. E. Lawrence)—with the conniving Brits encouraging the Arabs to take control of the very areas they were supposedly ready to cede to the French.

It was a sublimely deceitful piece of British diplomacy—the sort of operation that gave rise to the widespread view in the Middle East that the British are the most practiced and effective liars in the history of that region. As they realized the extent of the British game, the French were indignant (probably, in part, because they hadn’t thought of it first). Georges-Picot warned during the first negotiating session: “To promise the Arabs a large state is to throw dust in their eyes. Such a state will never materialise. You cannot transform a myriad of tribes into a viable whole.”

The British didn’t really disagree that their plan to draw lines and create “states” was impractical. Sir Arthur Nicolson, who chaired the first November 1915 meeting between Sykes and Picot, said the Arab state imagined by Hussein and Lawrence was an “absurdity” because the Arabs were “a heap of scattered tribes with no cohesion and no organisation.” This is among several dozen lines in the book that read hauntingly as if they might have been written yesterday about today’s Libya, Syria or Iraq.

Though they recognized the slippery slope ahead, Britain and France formalized the Sykes-Picot Agreement with an exchange of letters in May 1916, of which Barr states: “Even by the standards of the time, it was a shamelessly self-interested pact.”

The British and French, having divided the Ottoman booty, then set about trying to undermine each other and steal more than their allotted share of the goodies. A main British stratagem for thwarting French aspirations in Syria was an initiative that harnessed the idealistic cause of Zionism in the service of Britain’s screw-your-ally campaign in the Levant. It was a letter published in the Times of London on November 7, 1917, from the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, the prominent banker and Zionist. This became known as the “Balfour Declaration” and contained a pledge that forever altered the history of the region and the world:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, . . . it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

There was an idealistic appeal to Zionism, a romantic vision of a Jewish nationalism that fit the age of empire. For an evocation of this Zionist ideal as it appeared at the time, there is no better guide than George Eliot’s daring 1876 novel Daniel Deronda and its chronicle of how the title character comes to embrace Zionism. But for the British statesmen of 1917, the Balfour Declaration was a bit of realpolitik. Lord Asquith remarked that his successor Lloyd George, the prime minister at the time of the declaration, “does not care a damn for the Jews or their past or their future, but thinks it would be an outrage to let the Christian holy places—Bethlehem, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem &c—pass into the possession of ‘Agnostic Atheistic France’!”

T. E. Lawrence, meanwhile, was conducting his guerrilla campaign with Sherif Hussein’s son Faisal to “set the desert on fire” by blowing up the Hejaz railway. Lawrence understood from the beginning that his campaign for Arab independence was really about besting France. “So far as Syria is concerned it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy,” he wrote in February 1915. Several weeks later, he advised a former Oxford tutor that if he could unite the Bedouin tribes behind him, “we can rush right up to Damascus, & biff the French out of all hope of Syria.”

The French gradually realized what Lawrence was up to, and they were shocked, shocked. A French general described Lawrence’s ally Faisal as “British imperialism with Arab headgear.”

With Germany’s surrender and the 1919 Versailles peace conference, the cynical Anglo-French wartime agreement to dismember the Ottoman Empire had to pass through a new filter—that of the passionately idealistic American president Woodrow Wilson (mocked by a fellow conference attendee as “Jesus Christ”). Given Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination in the newly liberated lands, the Balfour Declaration posed a particular problem with its pledge to assist the Jewish minority in Palestine. Balfour wrote to Lloyd George: “The weak point of our position is that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination. If the present inhabitants were consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict.”

The British and French were so eager for short-term advantage that they ignored the long-term problems they were creating. Barr cites a telling moment when Lloyd George, unsure where to mark the boundaries of the territory he was so eager to administer, asked two Christian publishers how the Bible had demarcated Palestine. In the end, it was a raw political exercise. Barr quotes one British adviser: “The truth is that any division of the Arab country between Aleppo and Mecca is unnatural, therefore whatever division is made should be decided by practical requirements. Strategy forms the best guide.”

Pullquote: Barr's book quite deliberately uses the past as a provocation for the present. Readers cannot but wonder at the stories we seem condemned to relive, to our sorrow and chagrin.Image: Essay Types: Book Review