Following the rebellion sparked by the Hussein-McMahon correspondence; the Sykes-Picot agreement; and memoranda such as the Balfour Declaration the British (closely followed by the French) in 1918 became the first to be influential in the Middle East.
Under pressure in 1915, the British 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.
The revolt primarily sprang from Arabs’ discontent with the rule of the Young Turks, who had betrayed the hopes for local autonomy, democracy, and rule of law that had been raised in the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution. The Young Turks’ 1912 coup had effectively suspended the constitution. They had purged the government and reorganized the military to privilege Turks over Arabs. Early in World War I, even as many Arab soldiers fought on the side of the Turks in the victorious battle at Gallipoli, the Ottoman governor of Syria had executed a dozen prominent Arab leaders and exiled many more on suspicion of treason for their earlier political dissent.
Even though Arabs were fighting in the Ottoman army, the Young Turks worried that Arab politicians might waver in their loyalty. When Faisal’s father learned of a Turkish plot to remove him from power, he chose Faisal, his most pro-Ottoman son, as his envoy to Istanbul.
Sharif Hussein's son Faisal secretly joined the Fatat nationalist organization where he met the men who in the following years would decide to build a Syrian state.
In June 1915, Faisal carried the Damascus Protocol back to his father. It set the terms of a potential alliance with Entente powers against the Ottomans, primarily the promise of an independent Arab state stretching from Anatolia to the Gulf and Red Sea.1
An alliance was sealed in March 1916, but the vague wording of McMahon’s promises, unknown to Faisal in 1918, would haunt British-Arab negotiations at war’s end.2
The Arabs launched the revolt after Jemal Pasha ordered a second round of hangings of prominent Arabs, conducted in the main squares of Beirut and Damascus on May 6, 1916.
The Ottoman intention was to set off feuds and rivalries amongst Arabs that would ensure that the Sharif’s cause would collapse. When the first Ottoman–Arab attack was made, the Howeitat and Bani men stood by idly, while the volunteers of Kerak drove off the Sharifian outposts and seized livestock and supplies for themselves. No further progress was made and Aqaba was not threatened, but, as intended, divisions had been sown. The Ottomans continued to court the Arabs back to their side.3 Indeed, there was a condemnation of the Arab Revolt and the connivance of the British and French in trying to establish an Arab kingdom, under Hussein, across the entire Middle East. In secret correspondence to Faisal, the Ottomans argued that the British intended to make slaves of the Arabs, rendering Mecca and Medina mere protectorates which would be cut off from the rest of the Middle East and therefore dependent on British supplies of food, fodder, and finance.4
The British spy T. E. Lawrence, who met Faisal in October 1916, masterminded the sabotage of the Hijaz Railway, crippling Ottoman troop movements.
On October 1, Faisal and Lawrence expelled the Jaza’iris from the Serail. One of the brothers was killed. That night, in response, the family unleashed hundreds of their militiamen onto Damascus streets and made violent speeches against Faisal.5 The Northern Arab Army crushed them in a few swift street battles that night, claiming control of the city. But the incident portended future resistance by old city notables against the government of the young rebels.
Ultimately, the revolt would not have been a success without the British and Indian armies, the support of the Royal Air Force or the efforts of the Royal Navy. The Ottomans had demonstrated that they could overpower Arab forces if they caught them, but Lawrence made a virtue of their elusive quality in the vastness of the desert.
What he could not overcome was their divisions, and despite his success in encouraging unity around Faisal, it was Arab disunity which sabotaged the achievement Lawrence and his Arab partners were useful as a means of deception and disruption.6 Allenby recognized their value in this limited capacity, and facilitated the operations, but never depended upon them. The balance of threat to the Ottomans was always clear. One British officer-related his interview with an Ottoman divisional commander who survived the battle of Megiddo: "The Arabs gave us pinpricks; the British – blows with a sledgehammer."7 Ultimately, the revolt would not have been a success without the British and Indian armies, the support of the Royal Air Force or the efforts of the Royal Navy. The Ottomans had demonstrated that they could overpower Arab forces if they caught them, but Lawrence made a virtue of their elusive quality in the vastness of the desert. What he could not overcome was their divisions, and despite his success in encouraging unity around Faisal, it was Arab disunity that sabotaged the achievement of taking Damascus, although outsiders were later blamed.
As seen, the Arabs followed plans that had been drawn up weeks earlier by leaders of Fatat, the secret nationalist organization. During the war Fatat’s network expanded with branches in most Syrian cities. Faisal had joined the organization in 1915, during a visit to Damascus. It was the alliance between Fatat and Faisal, the combination of urban political expertise with tribal military power, that had shaped the Arab Revolt.
On October 3, 1918, Faisal marched into Damascus on horseback at the head of a procession organized to display the Arab Revolt’s broad and local support.
Next came tribes from Greater Syria, the Howeitat, Rowala, and Druze, followed by hundreds of ordinary soldiers, mostly from Greater Syria, marching on foot. Troops from the Arabian Peninsula, who had launched the revolt two years earlier, had by then returned home.8
Suddenly, a red Mercedes-Benz pulled up alongside Faisal on the parade route. Behind the wheel was Major Hubert Young, who had served as the Northern Arab Army’s supplies officer. The flashy car had been captured by German officers. Young informed the prince that he had been summoned to the headquarters of General Edmund Allenby, commander in chief of British forces in Syria, at the Victoria Hotel in the city’s center.
Faisal was startled. He explained that the parade was meant to end at the Serail, where reception of prominent notables awaited him. No, Young said, General Allenby, insisted that Faisal meet him first. The prince consented, but he refused to ride in the Mercedes. Instead, he and Nuri al-Said galloped ahead beneath the Arab flags draped from rooftops and balconies while Young followed. “I drove in splendor for some distance, embarrassed by the plaudits of the crowd, who naturally took me for the hero of the hour.”9
With Lawrence at his side, Allenby had watched Faisal’s arrival, amid the joyous throng, from the balcony of his room. As soon as the prince entered, Lawrence translated a telegram from London for him: the Foreign Office officially recognized the Arabs as Allied belligerents, thereby guaranteeing them a seat at the coming peace talks.
According to Major Young, Allenby informed the prince that he would remain the general’s subordinate, as a military officer with the rank of lieutenant general. Faisal would report to Allenby through his liaison in Damascus and the chief political officer. He was not to dabble in civil affairs. None of this surprised Faisal.
Faisal would also report to a French liaison, soon to be appointed. And his Arab administration would extend only to the Syrian hinterland, not to the Lebanese or Palestinian coast.10Faisal was an even-tempered man, rarely given to anger. “I have never seen a more patient person in my life,” Fa’iz El-Ghussein wrote.11
What Allenby did not tell Faisal was that on September 30, the British and French had formally confirmed their commitment to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. And that the agreement granted a direct rule to France over the Syrian-Lebanese coast and in southeastern Turkey and to Britain in Iraq from Baghdad south. Palestine was to be an international zone. The agreement provided only for a semi-independent Arab state restricted to the hinterland and split between French and British zones of influence.12 The British had made these promises to France at a low point in World War I, when the French worried that while they concentrated their troops on the Western Front, British troops on the Ottoman front stood to gain colonial territory. By promising France territorial gains, the Sykes-Picot Agreement bolstered the alliance. But it violated the be it somewhat vague promise of an independent Arab state that Britain had made in 1915 to Faisal’s father.
After the reception, Faisal attended a banquet hosted by General Allenby. He then met individually with the city’s notables and religious leaders, who appeared to welcome his vision of Arab unity.13 Although T. E. Lawrence also took his leave on the morning of October 4. He and Faisal had grown to be close friends in the previous two years. They addressed each other as “dear friend” and “brother” in their letters. Faisal might have expected Lawrence to stay on, to help build the state. Why Lawrence decided he would not remain is unclear. It may have been shocked, or perhaps even guilt, over Allenby’s orders to Faisal that prompted him to leave so suddenly. Lawrence had heard reports of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the spring of 1917.
But like Faisal, he had hoped the Arabs’ valor would shame Allenby into granting them their due. As soon as Faisal had left the Victoria Hotel, Lawrence spoke personally to General Allenby. Expressing his disappointment that Britain would honor French claims, he requested permission to return to England immediately. Allenby reluctantly granted it.
Faisal’s opponents, especially pro-French Maronite Christians in Mount Lebanon, portrayed his regime as foreign, led by Bedouin from the distant Arabian Peninsula.
Arab’s suspicions were raised again only days later when Allenby produced a map dividing Syria into three military zones. It severed the Lebanese coast from Faisal’s jurisdiction in the hinterland, leaving Syria landlocked. It also transferred the Bekaa Valley, traditionally part of the Ottoman province of Damascus, to the French zone. The map undercut Faisal’s credibility as an independent Arab ruler, before the public and before the peace conference, conference, where final boundaries would be set. If the British enforced this boundary, Faisal warned Allenby, “my position will become impossible.”14
By the time Faisal himself arrived in Paris on 6 February 1919, to present the case for Arab "self-government" in Syria, Lawrence, and the British had assembled an entire public relations team for him, pumping gullible journalists (especially American ones) with tales of derring-do by the Hashemite prince. Embracing his part, Faisal showed up to address the Supreme Council wearing "white robes embroidered with gold," with "a scimitar at his side," thus inaugurating the curious twentieth-century tradition of Arab leaders addressing diplomatic assemblies while fully armed. In an inspired touch, Lawrence "interpreted" Faisal’s remarks to the Supreme Allied Council himself (in fact Lawrence’s Arabic was rather poor so that what he was really doing was making Faisal’s arguments for him). Speaking for Faisal, Lawrence said that the Arabs wanted, above all, self-determination. The Lawrence-Faisal promotion, judging by the effusions of Colonel House (in whom Faisal "inspired a kindly feeling for the Arabs") and U.S. secretary of state Robert Lansing (Faisal "seemed to breathe the perfume of frankincense"), impressed the Americans. The French, outmaneuvered, denounced the infuriating Faisal as ‘British imperialism with Arab headgear.
There were differences among members of the British cabinet, or as an adviser to the British delegation to the Versailles peace conference also overheard Prime Minister Lloyd George musing aloud: "Mesopotamia … yes … oil … irrigation … we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine … yes … the Holy Land … Zionism … we must have Palestine; Syria … h’m … what is there in Syria? Let the French have that."
Nevertheless, as Malcolm B. Russell argued in his 1987 book about this topic that the attempt by Faysal in Syria if successful would have been the first modern Arab State.
G.N. Curzon’s (acting foreign secretary) aide Major Hubert Young, who earlier provisioned the Arab regulars in March 1920 favored a compromise and wrote that: 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.
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.
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.
The San Remo conference of April 1920 was held in a luxury hotel. Seated at the table, on the far left are Philippe Berthelot and Alexandre Millerand of France; next to them sit Vittorio Scialoja and Premier Saverio Nitti of Italy. To Nitti’s left, bending down and blurred, is David Lloyd George. Lord Curzon sits next to him. At the far right is Matsui Keishiro of Japan. The Americans attended as observers only since the US Senate had voted to reject membership in the League:
The San Remo Resolution passed on 25 April 1920 determined the allocation of Class "A" League of Nations mandates for the administration of three then-undefined Ottoman territories in the Middle East: "Palestine", "Syria" and "Mesopotamia".
As for T.E. Lawrence a sensible conclusion might be that he was trying to solve a specific problem, which, after the war, he later generalized as a strategic theory. He admitted that the problems and solutions he conceived had originally been thought of "mainly in terms of the Hejaz."15 That said, there were some perennial themes which Lawrence had drawn from his study of history, and which, through the prism of his desire to understand the psychology of his subjects, could be applied generally.
He recognized the value of leadership and urged the sustained study of war in all its forms as the means to prepare for the stress, urgency, and intensity of decision-making in conflict. His skill as a writer created a memorable mental image of intuition, not least his famous observation that: "Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools, but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool."16 He captured the need for the leaders of weaker belligerents to avoid the full retaliatory force of the strong, and, like many of his generation, he condemned the eagerness for direct combat.
In the war in the desert, Lawrence knew that certain geographical positions, especially sacred sites, possessed disproportionate influence on the campaign. The Allied and Arab forces could not afford to lose the Red Sea ports, and the Sharifian armies could not give up Mecca. This reduced their ability to strike against the Ottomans, except towards Syria and Palestine. The Ottomans too were unwilling to relinquish Medina. Jerusalem took on political importance for the British government, if not for Allenby, and territorial claims were extended by all the belligerents as they imagined the peace settlement to come. Each of these locations conferred legitimacy.
It suited Lawrence’s generation, and many since, to allege betrayal and bad faith by Western leaders, not least because of the seemingly contradictory blueprints they produced during that war. Lawrence saw no contradictions, believing that the Arabs had been promised a territorial reward.
Many of the allegations about bad faith though stemmed from Lawrence’s own doubts about his role. He never resolved the differences between his identity as a British officer, working within intelligence, his mission to make use of the Arabs as an instrument in a wider strategic plan, and the proximity of the Arabs he was charged to guide. His personal difficulties also came from his sense of collective obligation and the more egocentric desire to seize opportunities thrown up by the war. Yet, in the end, it was the agency of the Arab peoples themselves that determined the divided space of the Middle East region. Lawrence was familiar with the minds of the men in the Near East, but he was a relationship limited by time and the extraordinary pressures of the war.
The project of united Arab independence was not achieved in the period 1916–19, but not because Britain "betrayed" the Arab cause, as Lawrence had suggested. Lawrence expressed his doubts about the sincerity of his political masters, but he did not have the full range of diplomatic and strategic calculations in his possession, and he was just as critical of Arab "nationalism". He knew that Britain had to maintain its interests, and he knew that Britain was also keen to preserve good relations with a number of actors and groups, many of whom had competing or overlapping interests of their own. His reference to Britain emerging with "clean hands" from the Middle East in 1920 demonstrates that, at that point, he believed the Arabs had achieved independence, with British protection, he had visualized from the start. He believed strongly that the Hashemites should be rewarded for their part in Britain’s war effort.
After the Cairo conference described in the official minutes as Middle East Conference held in Cairo and Jerusalem, 12 to 30 March 1921, Lawrence was convinced that, for all its imperfections, this had been achieved. Here it was decided that Abdullah bin Hussein was to administer the territory east of the Jordan River, Transjordan, and his brother Faisal was to become king of a newly created Kingdom of Iraq; both were to continue to receive financial support from Great Britain. It was also agreed that Lebanon and Syria should remain under French control, Britain should maintain the mandate over Palestine and continue to support the establishment of a Jewish Homeland there, Husain, the Sharif of Mecca, was to be recognized as King of the Hejaz and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud left in control of the Nejd in the heart of the Arabian Desert.
1. Ali A. Allawi, Faisal I of Iraq, 2014, 52–57.
2. Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 275–85.
3. James Barr, Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918, 2008, p. 210. Neil Faulkner argues that the ‘mere presence of Jafar [al-Askari’s] 2000 recruits in training had been sufficient to deter an Ottoman advance from Abu al Lissan’. This seems highly unlikely and no empirical evidence is provided on this from Ottoman sources, or indeed, any other incident, so we must conclude it was geography and logistics, not the prowess of untrained troops that deterred. Faulkner, Lawrence of Arabia’s War, p. 371.
4. Djemal to Faisal, November 1917, FO 686/38, TNA.
5. Allawi, Faisal I, 138–42; S Moubayed, "Two September Weeks That Saved Damascus in 1918, 2015, 382; Malcom B. Russell, First Modern Arab State: Syria and Faysal, 1918-1920, 1987, 8–13; Eliezer Tauber, The Arab Movements in World War I (New York: Routledge, 1993), 239–40.
6. Asprey, War in the Shadows, p. 288.
7. General Barrow, cited in Morton Jack, Indian Empire at War, p. 482.
8. El-Ghussein, Mudhakkirati, 599.
9. 28 Young, Independent Arab, 255.
10. Young, Independent Arab, 257; Qasimiya, al-Hukuma al-Arabiya, 52.
11. El-Ghussein, Mudhakkirati, 2: 608–9. Excerpt at http://www.telstudies.org/discussion/war_service/fayez_al_ghussein.shtml.
12. “The Sykes-Picot Agreement: 1916,” at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sykes.asp.
13. Qadri, Mudhakkirat, 75; Stefan Weber, Damascus: Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation (1808–1918), vol. II (Damascus: Danish Institute, 2009), 52, 383–85; Allawi, Faisal I, 147; Yusuf al-Hakim, Suriya wa al-’Ahd al-Faysali [Syria and the Faisal Era], 2nd printing (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar lil-Nashr, 1980), 23.
14. Russell, First Arab State, 18; Allawi, Faisal I, 155–58, which draws on Mousa, T. E. Lawrence, 220–21; Qasimiyah, al-Hukuma al-’Arabiya, 51–54.
15. Morsey, ‘Lawrence: Strategist’, p. 193; Lawrence, Seven Pillars, p. 196.
16. Lawrence, Seven Pillars, p. 193.