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.

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