“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.”
Kitchener, the model of the Victorian empire builder and apostle of the “Great Game”, saw in the creation of a British dominated but nominally independent Arabian kingdom, which included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a bulwark against any religious infused outside agitations vis-à-vis Britain’s Muslim subjects in India. He also emphasized British involvement in Middle Eastern affairs in order to safeguard the Suez Canal and thus communication with New Delhi. This stood in sharp contrast to British policy in the past century that was focused on guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire and which still had supporters in the British government, most notably in the India Office and among the British colonial administration in India. The origins of this policy had been the containment of the ever expanding Russian Empire which had coveted Istanbul ever since Peter the Great, and which “Great Gamers” such at Kitchener saw as the principal adversary to Britain’s future imperial aspirations.
In June 1915, a few weeks after the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, Sir Mark Sykes, Kitchener’s personally appointed Middle East expert, was sent on a fact finding mission to the Balkans, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf to assess the political and military situation in the East. After his return he reported to the cabinet and Lord Kitchener in January 1916, amid the ongoing evacuation of imperial forces from the Gallipoli peninsular, that a powerful secret society within the Ottoman Empire and a native prince who could muster thousands of troops to fight the Turks was ready to strike on Britain’s behalf and turn the tide of the war in the East. Kitchener, politically compromised due to the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, seized the opportunity to push his idea of a British dominated but ostensibly independent Arabian kingdom through the cabinet. Kitchener and Sykes, however, along with his British colleagues in Cairo, had been duped by Al-Faruqi: there was no unified Arab opposition to Turkish rule, nor was there an all powerful secret society active behind enemy lines. How had Al-Faruqi tricked the British?
During a series of interrogations in the summer and fall of 1915 Al-Faruqi claimed that he was speaking for Sharif Hussein and was a high representative of al-Ahd, an organization so secretive that it had an unbreakable cypher and such a powerful force within the Ottoman Empire that 90 percent of Arab Officers serving in the Turkish army were members of the organization. In addition, he stated that al-Ahd was spreading pro-British propaganda, and that he personally had persuaded many Arab officers to desert. He also stated that other Arabian chieftains (e.g., Ibn Saud) were openly supporting the movement and by doing so vicariously backing Hussein. The organization was particularly strong around Mosul and Baghdad, where the most important families of both towns were active members. Al-Ahd officers had even been prepared to help a British landing in Alexandretta on the Syrian coast by starting a series of rebellions in that area but called it off in the end since the British never showed up.
Most importantly, Al-Faruqi stated that the Arabs could immediately establish an Arab empire covering the Arabian Peninsular, Iraq and Syria with Sharif Hussein as caliph and sultan of the realm. He also specified the geographical borders of the prospective empire and requested British help, which would be rewarded with an Anglo-Arab treaty granting special privileges to Great Britain in Arabia. Of even greater importance was his claim that the Germans were so afraid of al-Ahd that they already agreed to all their demands. It was Britain’s turn to act expeditiously or force the Arabs to side with the Turks and Germans.