Ourselves having extensively covered the making of the Middle East recently expert historian James Barr commented that there are odd similarities with the situation exactly a century ago. "Iraq was under British military occupation, but the British government, just like the Americans more recently, wanted to withdraw its troops. An outside force — then it was Arab nationalists based in Syria — was plotting violence that it hoped might quicken Britain’s exit."
The revolt that convulsed Iraq in 1920 was a taster of the consequences of three irreconcilable promises the British had made during the First World War, which became apparent over the next ten years. Under pressure in 1915, they had sent Mecca’s ruler Sharif Hussein a weasel-worded letter that recognized his claim to an empire encompassing Iraq and Syria if he rose up against the Turks. In 1916, in the Sykes-Picot agreement, they then secretly pledged a northerly wedge of this same territory to the French, to patch up the entente cordiale.
However, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which ended at a stroke thirteen hundred years of imperialism in the Middle East, was not a necessity, let alone an inevitable, consequence of World War I. It was a self-inflicted disaster by a shortsighted leadership blinded by imperialist ambitions. Had the Ottomans heeded the Entente's repeated pleas for neutrality, their empire would most likely have weathered the storm. However, they did not, and this blunder led to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire by the British army and the creation of the new Middle Eastern state system on its ruins. Even this momentous development was not inevitable, and its main impetus came not from the great powers but a local imperial aspirant: Sherif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family.
The Sherif exemplified the complexity among Arabs. Before the war, Hussein had been detained in Istanbul under the caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II hastily conferred to him the title of the emir of Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz in order to prevent the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) from appointing its own crony. In 1909 the sultan was overthrown, and Istanbul’s relationship with the Sherif deteriorated. The revolutionary triumvirate was eager to assert political control over the Hejaz and extend the rail links into the Emirate, largely to be able to deploy troops more rapidly there if required. The Sherif opposed the changes, ostensible to protect the incomes of camel rovers who carried the pilgrims to the holy places, but his motives were revealed in a secret meeting in the spring of 1914 between his son, Abdullah, and the British Consul General of Egypt, Lord Kitchener and his secretary, Ronald Storrs. The sheriff and his sons, while eager to resist Istanbul, by force if necessary, needed British intervention in an internal matter of the Ottoman Empire, although Abdullah knew the British had arranged to become a protector of the Emirate of Kuwait in 1899, had asserted their influence over the Gulf States in 1903 with a series of high-profile diplomatic overtures, and, ultimately, had made the military intervention against Egypt in 1882 which had led to the long-term occupation of what was still, ostensible, an Ottoman domain.
When the war with the Ottomans was imminent that autumn in 1914, Storrs and Kitchener advocated restarting the negotiations, asking the sheriff to declare any Ottoman fatwa of jihad against the Entente to be illegitimate. At the same time, the Ottomans sought the sheriff's endorsement for their declaration of holy war. Sherif Hussein hesitated: he gave his personal endorsement for their declaration of holy war but avoided public declaration on the grounds that it would invite aggression by the Entente powers against Muslims. The disappointing response prompted the government in Istanbul to claim the sheriff had approved of the call to jihad anyway, but they also sought ways to neutralize the sheriff and his Hashemite family.
Meanwhile, Storrs offered an alliance with the sheriff if he would promise to support the British war effort. In return Kitchener, as newly appointed Secretary of State for War, was prepared to offer ‘independence’ to the Arabs in the Hejaz. While ensuring their safety and freedom from the Ottomans, what Kitchener had in mind was a caliphate that was spiritual in nature, not political.
Hussein delayed, knowing that he could not yet guarantee that many would follow him and also that the Ottoman forces in the region would follow him and also that the Ottoman forces in the region were strong enough to crush any premature revolt. Moreover, his ambitions were initially unclear. It was only later, once the British had begun to secure their position in Palestine, that Hussein began to consider a role as a leader.
Far from being a proto-nationalist struggle for the sake of Arabism, this was a bid for dynastic security and an opportunity to replace the secularists in Istanbul with a caliphate of his own.
Concurrently with Sherif Hussein’s planning was the conspiracy of Al Fatat a Syrian secret society which had been founded one year before the war. Al-Fatat was the civilian equivalent of the militarydominated al-Ahd (the Covenant). This group's membership was limited largely to army officers. It advocated the establishment of autonomous entities for all ethnic groups within the empire; each group was to be permitted to use its native language, although Turkish would remain as a lingua franca. AI-Ahd maintained a central office in Damascus. After the outbreak of war, the two movements would merge.
Al-Fatat approached Hussein to enquire whether he would lead the movement against the CUP government in Istanbul. Hussein again hesitated, but the discovery in February 1915 of Ottoman plans to have him arrested and executed compelled the sheriff to act. He sent his son Faisal to gather intelligence about the groups in question.
Meeting the conspirators, Faisal discovered that the nationalists were concerned that, if the Ottomans were defeated, the French would make a bid to take over Syria, yet they were reassured by news of secret talks between Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, and Kitchener.
Al-Fatat thus drew up their own plans, defined in the Damascus Protocol. Thy desired an alliance with Great Britain, to provide military and naval protection, and accepted the principle of economic preference for the British Empire. In June 1915, these plans and the Ottoman demands were considered by Hussein and his sons, before being presented as terms for cooperation with the British at Cairo. In exchange of letters, the Hashemites claimed to represent the ‘Arab nation’.
The British reaction was to dismiss this extensive claim to represent the Arab ’nation’, but there was some sympathy of a Sherifian revolt that might potentially tie-down thousands of Ottoman troops.
The Sykes-Picot agreement
Sykes-Picot are often accused of having divided up the Arab world, but as we have seen elsewhere Mark Sykes may have actually believed that his actions had the best interests of the Arabs at heart. He believed that, if properly encouraged, it would be possible to reawaken among the Arabs memories of a vanished greatness and bring them closer to the community of nations.
While the carnage at Gallipoli mounted day by day, Sir Mark Sykes was dispatched by the War Office to visit British commanders, diplomats, and imperial officials throughout the eastern theatre of war.
In a telegram to Sir Percy Cox in which Sykes claimed that the king "and his son are really very moderate in their views", and suggested that ‘if Ibn Saud could by some means convey to Sherif that he regards him as the titular leader of Arab cause without in any way committing his own local position I believe much good would result’. Cox, however, declined to approach Ibn Sa’ud on the subject. He telegraphed to the India Office that he did not see his way to comply with Sykes’s re-quest without Ibn Sa’ud questioning his ‘bona fides’. On 26 December 1915, Cox had concluded the Treaty of Darin with Ibn Sa’ud. In this treaty, Great Britain recognized the Najd’s independence, promised assistance in case it was attacked by a foreign power, and granted Ibn Sa’ud a subsidy for his military campaign against Ibn Rashid, the Emir of Ha’il, who was loyal to the Turks. On the day of the signing of the treaty, Ibn Sa’ud had characterized Hussein to Cox as ‘essentially unstable, trivial, undependable’.
David George Hogarth (Member of Arab Bureau) and Harry St John Bridger Philby (British Arabist and colonial office intelligence officer) in turn reported on Hussein’s attitude towards Ibn Sa’ud. Hogarth did not deny that to Hussein ‘Arab unity’ meant ‘very little […] except as a means to his personal aggrandizement’, but saw some merit in Hussein’s point of view in the question of his title. The king was moreover too weak to risk an armed conflict with Ibn Sa’ud:
He both fears Ibn Sa’ud as a center of a religious movement, dangerous to the HEJAZ, and hates him as irreconcilable to his own pretensions to be ‘King of the Arabs’. This latter title is the King’s dearest ambition, partly no doubt, in the interest of Arab unity, which he constantly says, with some reason, can never be realized until focused on a central personality. He opposes to our argument that he cannot be ‘King of the Arabs’ till the Arabs, in general, desire him to be so, the counter-argument that they will never so desire till he is so-called […] The resultant situation, however, is that the King is very unlikely to provoke a conflict with Ibn Sa’ud while the European War lasts. He is not easy in his mind either about Central Arabia or about the loyalty of his own Hejaz people […] He is quite firm in his friendship to us, but none too firm on his throne.
The most immediate problem, however, arose from the clash between the promises to Hussein and the French.
Enter the French
On 1 September 1916, a French mission arrived at Alexandria on its way to the Hijaz. It was headed by Colonel Edouard Brémond who earlier had been a success in French Africa. However, it was not as a soldier that Brémond would establish a reputation in the Hijaz. He did not conceal from his British interlocutors that Hussein’s revolt should not grow into something bigger than the local affair that it was.
The Foreign Office refused to take the matter very seriously. Although Charles Hardinge, 1st Baron Hardinge of Penshurst who served as Viceroy and Governor-General of India was now prepared to admit that Brémond had shown himself to be ‘unreliable and untrustful’, the forthcoming mission by Sykes and Georges-Picot would soon set matters right, the more so as Picot had told Sir Ronald Graham that he intended to assume control of affairs in the Hijaz. The instructions of Sykes and Georges-Picot constituted a faithful reflection of the Foreign Office’s policy towards the Middle East, with which Sir Mark completely identified. Everything turned on cordial relations between France and Britain. British diplomacy should spare no effort to accommodate French susceptibilities, whether these were justified or not. This was the reasoning behind McMahon’s convoluted formulations in his letters to Hussein in the autumn of 1915. This also explained the procedure of first coming to an agreement with France before the negotiations with Hussein could be finalized. This did not mean that Grey, Sykes, and Foreign Office officials were blind to the problems that this policy entailed, but these counted for little compared to the all-important objective of good relations with France. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour'sBalfour’s minute on Wingate’s dispatch on Brémond’s machinations, however, indicated that he was less attached to this orthodoxy: ‘I think if the French intrigues go on in the Hedjaz we shall have to take a strong line. They may find us interfering in Syria if they insist on interfering in Arabia.’
Balfour’s minute constituted a first indication that British Middle East policy would change after Grey had left the Foreign Office. This was for the greater part due to the increasing meddling in foreign affairs by members of the War Cabinet, Prime Minister Lloyd George in particular, as well as the establishment of the interdepartmental Middle East Committee, subsequently the Eastern Committee, chaired by Curzon. Balfour dominated British foreign policy-making to a far lesser extent than foreign secretary Edward Grey had done in his days. In the early spring of 1917, matters still hung in the balance. For the time being Brémond could continue to make a nuisance of himself in the Hijaz. The Failure of the ‘Projet d’Arrangement’ Sykes’s arrival in Egypt heralded the reversal of the Foreign Office’s attitude towards the complaints from Cairo about the French mission. From that moment on these were no longer treated as utterances by biased men on the spot who tried to blow up incidents to further their own Syrian ambitions. On 8 May 1917, Sykes – who at the beginning of March had already written to Wingate that he had ‘seen the George Lloyd correspondence and George Lloyd, truly Bremond’s performances have been disgusting’– telegraphed to Graham that after a careful investigation he had reached the conclusion that ‘the sooner French Military Mission is removed from Hedjaz the better’. The ‘deliberately perverse attitude and policy’ on the part of Brémond and his staff constituted the main obstacle in the way of Sir Mark’s attempts to improve relations between the French and the Arabs.
If the French position was not challenged, then the door was wide open to, as Ronald William Graham (worked at the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office, before moving to Cairo as a Counsellor) had formulated it in November 1916, ‘the reversal of our policy of the last 100 years which has aimed at the exclusion of foreign influence on the shores of the Red Sea’. According to Sir Ronald: We can admit that no European Power should exercise a predominant influence in the holy places. But the French note goes much further than this in laying down that no Power is to obtain new territory or political prestige in Arabia and in limiting French recognition of our special position there to commercial interests. Hitherto the French have always recognized our special political position […] I fear we must conclude that the French desire to go back on this attitude and to claim equality of political position with us in Arabia – when they had no position at all and owe any improvement that they have latterly achieved in this respect entirely to our help and influence. Such a submission, which is a poor return for our rapport, must be strongly resisted.
Fear of French dominance and the need to establish an alliance that would support his political ambitions led Faisal to initiate the United States’ Middle East initiative. The inquiry was, in part, a result of the Hashemite prince’s choice not to reject the fresh mandates system outright while in Paris—a decision that immediately generated much controversy within nascent nationalist circles across bilad al-sham, or Greater Syria.
Lloyd George and the British believed that, in Faisal and his Arab irregulars, they had an ace in the hole, a façade to rule behind.
Anticipating this very track, the French press sought to undermine Faisal’s Arabs by playing up Lawrence’s role in leading them. Astonishingly, in light of his later rise to world fame, Lawrence was entirely unknown to the Western public before the end of the war, largely by design. Both Allenby and his chief political officer, Gilbert Clayton, had concealed Lawrence’s role in public communiqués so as not to compromise Faisal’s political prospects. As late as December 30, 1918, Lawrence was unmentioned in the account of the fall of Damascus published in the London Gazette. It was actually a French newspaper that first broke Lawrence’s 'cover,' expressly to belittle Faisal’s Arabs. Colonel Lawrence, the Echo de Paris reported in late September 1918, riding at the head of a cavalry force of "Bedouins and Druze," had "sever [ed] enemy communications between Damascus and Haifa by cutting the Hejaz railway near Deraa," thereby playing "a part of the greatest importance in the Palestine victory."
By introducing T. E. Lawrence to the world, the French scored an own goal of the most self-destructive kind. Seeking to undermine Faisal, the Echo de Paris had instead glorified Faisal’s greatest champion, a man born for the role of mythmaker. Rather than deny his role in the Arab revolt, Lawrence shrewdly manipulated his newfound fame, presenting himself not as an effective liaison officer who had helped Arab guerrillas blow up some railway junctions but as a witness to an Arab national awakening.
But the French were in no position to oust Feisal, the British tried not to take sides, and Anglo-French relations deteriorated. By January 1920, however, the British had begun to wonder if continuing to sit on the fence was wise.
Below Faisal's (also called the Arabian Commission) delegation at Versailles, during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal, Captain Pisani (behind Faisal), T. E. Lawrence, an unknown member of his delegation, Captain Tahsin Kadry:
Following the 1918 Paris Peace Conference
As the talks were underway in Paris, Ibn Saud took the opportunity to attack his Hashemite rivals and make a bid for control of the Hejaz. Saud was angered by the pretensions of Hussein, not least the claim to be ‘King of Arabia’, and irritated by the Hashemite edicts in Mecca. There had already been skirmishing between the Saudis and the Hashemites, but, in May 1919, Ibn Saud despatched 10,000 cavalry and 4,000 well-armed dismounted men to inflict a decisive defeat on Hussein. The situation revealed the difficulty for Britain in arming and financing two rival factions over the war years. The Foreign Office had backed the Hashemites, while the Government of India had funded the Saudis. Without a common enemy, the conflict between the Arabs had increased in likelihood, and the negotiations in Paris were not keeping pace with events on the ground.
Faisal's ( brother Abdullah tried to halt the Saudi offensive but was defeated and his army routed. As they streamed westwards, the Foreign Office was forced to issue an ultimatum to Ibn Saud. If he did not withdraw, the Royal Air Force would be sent to interdict his army. The India Office too urged Ibn Saud to withdraw. Lawrence was nevertheless perplexed. He had assured the Foreign Office that if Saud threatened the Hejaz, the Hashemites would be able to deal with it.1 The fact that the Hashemites had suffered such a comprehensive defeat undermined not only his own credibility but his claims about the Hashemite capability to govern Syria.
It was the Americans who provided a new opportunity for the Hashemites to achieve their objectives, when, thanks to President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence, there was to be a commission of inquiry into local allegiances that would help fulfill the principle of self-determination. The British offered Sir Henry McMahon and David Hogarth to accompany the American officials, Dr. Henry King, and Mr. Charles R. Crane, to the region, but the French refused to send any delegates. After two months of delay, imposed deliberately by the Quai D’Orsay, the British gave up. The Americans went ahead on their own and returned with the recommendation that there should be mandates, care-taker administrations, for a limited period, for Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. King and Crane recommended an American mandate for Syria, Britain in Iraq, but none for the French. They also recommended that the Zionists should abandon any idea of a ‘commonwealth’ within Palestine, as the British had suggested in 1917.2 All sides, including the American administration, ignored these findings and continued to negotiate on their own terms.
The hard fact was that Britain now in 1919 wanted a firm alliance with France for future European security arrangements, and that meant cooperation with them over their stated interests in the Middle East. France was determined to govern Syria, regarding it as an essential base to balance Britain’s dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. They regarded it as the only suitable compensation for long-standing humiliations over Suez, Egypt, and the Sudan, where Britain had thwarted French interests for 40 years. The problem for Britain was that its model of governance was so different from that of France. While the British sought local intermediaries to govern, under British protection, for some mutual economic advantage, the French insisted on a political, linguistic and military subordination. Lawrence urged the British model, claiming: ‘If the French is wise and neglect the Arabs for about twelve months, they will then be implored by them to help them.’ He continued: ‘If they are impatient now, they will only unite the Arabs against them.’3
Feisal had already resolved not to accept any French proposal, from the British or directly from the French, about the future of Syria. Faisal left Paris to consult the Syrians.
Leading up to the famous San Remo Conference
In February, discussions at the London Conference had virtually awarded the Syrian mandate to France. His hand was forced by Syria’s March 8 Declaration. It broadcast to the world that a majority of Syrians favored national independence, a fact that the British had tried to cover up by suppressing the King-Crane report.
Curzon’s aide, Hubert Young, favored a compromise: Britain could insist on the Supreme Council’s sovereignty over the future of Syria and at the same time signal respect for consent of the governed by promising Faisal’s rule under the mandate. A thirty-five-year-old former soldier, Young had witnessed Faisal’s entry into Damascus in October 1918 and remained one of his strongest supporters at the Foreign Office.1
Young later published an account of the crisis that Curzon faced in his negotiations with the French:
When the news reached London the French Ambassador immediately asked for an interview with Lord Curzon. There was a meeting of the Conference of Ambassadors in Lord Curzon’s room that afternoon, and he said he would see the French Ambassador immediately after it. I was in attendance at the meeting, and when tea was brought in after the discussion I reminded Lord Curzon of his promise.
“But I don’t know what to say to him,” Curzon replied.
Curzon and Cambon subsequently agreed to send the joint message to Faisal refusing to recognize his status as king or the legality of the Syrian Congress. The March 15 note, conveyed by Gouraud, invited Faisal to Europe to settle Syria’s future status, an act that would force him to recognize the Supreme Council’s sovereignty over Syria.
Ultimately, Curzon won support for his policy because of Syrians’ inclusion of Palestine in their declaration, and the simultaneous declaration by Iraqis in Damascus of independence in Mesopotamia. Zionists saw peril in ceding authority to the Damascus government, and hard-liners in the India Office opposed any form of Arab self-rule in Mesopotamia. All feared a slippery slope, if one occupied people were granted sovereignty, then others would demand the same. As Young later disclosed to the British parliament, the Foreign Office was forced to accept a “parallélisme exacte”: if Britain wanted a free hand in Mesopotamia, it had to accord France such license in Syria.2
The Syrians might have stood a chance of winning British and French support had they chosen to declare only partial independence, of the East Zone in the Syrian hinterland. British imperialists were angered that the March 8 declaration not only included southern Syria, British-occupied Palestine, but also was accompanied by a separate Iraqi declaration of independence. And French liberals could never have prevailed against the colonial lobby to cede Lebanon. A partial call was never a political option, however. Only half of the deputies who convened on March 8 were from the East Zone. The other half came from Lebanon and Palestine.3 Because the Syrian Declaration was an assertion of right and principle, it would have been difficult to exclude some Syrians in favor of others.
The announcement of the establishment of mandates, ratified at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, caused widespread local anger. Small groups of Syrians started attacking symbols of French authority, and violence escalated. The French Army used the opportunity to issue an ultimatum against the Arab leaders in Damascus and marched on the city. Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, urged Faisal to accept the French demands to avoid a conflict, and he did, but the Syrian nationalists did not. A small detachment at Maysalun mustered to take on the French Army but was defeated. Faisal was unceremoniously deported.
During the negotiations in Paris, T. E. Lawrence came to believe the center of gravity in Middle Eastern affairs was shifting towards Mesopotamia.4 In a period before the discovery of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, he assessed that Iraq would be the most dynamic of the Arab regions. Syria, by contrast, he thought too agrarian. That said, he did not think Basra would be as important as the Government of India thought it might, and, perhaps in an effort to persuade Europeans about the greater relative importance of the Levant, he emphasized the ‘Mediterranean’ focus of all the Semite peoples. He hoped particularly for Arab and Zionist cooperation, not least because he believed that Jewish energy, industry, and finance would fuel the economic ‘take-off’ of the Near East and thus the entire region. The survival of the British Empire, he reasoned, needed the cooperation of local people for its governance and security. Like most of his generation, he imagined dominion status, and equality within the empire, of all the colonies.5
The military occupation of Mesopotamia had continued after the war, and it was administered as an enemy territory until the establishment of the British civil government under Sir Arnold Wilson, with the close support of Gertrude Bell.6 The arrangement frustrated those Arabs who had hoped for independence, and the announcement of the conclusions of the San Remo Conference, which made the new state of Iraq one of the mandate territories, sparked mass demonstrations. Many Iraqis feared that, despite wartime assurances of liberation, the British intended to turn the country into a colony. Protests were led by prominent religious figures and often orchestrated by tribal elders or former Ottoman Army officers. Their protests were emboldened when it became evident that British troops were being withdrawn and demobilized. The proportion of British officers in the Iraq garrison was also lower than usual since many were tasked with assisting in the civil administration. Although under the direction of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), there were too few to run a normal bureaucracy, so there was a dependence on individual political officers, either ICS men or army officers, to act as governors, protected by small contingents of British and Indian troops. Naturally, this penny-packeting of military power, while offering a physical presence, was unsound if there was any significant unrest. There had already been trouble. The Kurds had resisted British administration in 1919, while concerns that the Turks might try to retake Mosul meant that garrisons in the north were ordered not to relinquish territory and had to remain spread out. The result was that Lieutenant General Aylmer Haldane, who took command in March 1920, inherited a force that was largely ‘fixed’ and that would find abandoning any part of the country difficult, lest it is interpreted as weakness.7
1. Timothy J. Paris, Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule 1920–1925 (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 70–71.
2. Timothy J. Paris, Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule: The Sherifian Solution, 2003, 72.
3. No documentation of the roster of those present at the critical vote of March 7 survives. This estimate is based on analysis of the photos of deputies assembled at the moment of independence and published in the official commemoration of Independence Day: Sa’id Tali’, ed., Dhikra Istiqlal Suriya (Cairo: Matba’at Ibrahim wa Yusuf Berladi, 1920).
4. Phillip Knightley, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, 1969, p. 124.
5. The full archive of the King-Crane Commission can be found at http://www2.oberlin.edu/library/digital/king-crane/ ; Andrew Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015).
6. Ed. David Garnett, The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, 1939, Letters, no. 115, Memorandum to the Foreign Office, 15 September 1919, p. 289.
7. Garnett, Letters, pp. 285–8; Knightly and Simpson, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, p. 129.