Every day politicians and pundits talk of another chance at Middle East peace missed, delayed or subverted. The focus is always on Palestinians and Israelis as the keystone to a global settlement with the West and across the region. But in the original peace arrangement between the Jews, Arabs and the Western powers, it was not settlements and Jerusalem that were at the heart of the problem. In fact, the Arabs originally agreed to a Jewish state complete with massive Jewish immigration. For Arabs, the prize was not Palestine, it was Syria.
This is the story of how the original Middle East peace plan crafted among all sides in the aftermath of World War I was subverted - not by Jews or Zionists, but by the French.
It begins at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, in a flag-bedecked, battle-scarred but victorious Paris. There, the great top-hatted Allied men of vision and illusion gathered to remake the world and invent the post-Ottoman Middle East. At those fateful meetings, the Arabs and Jews formally agreed to mutually endorse both their national aspirations and live in peace.
This was the deal: The Jews could have an unrestricted Zionist state in Palestine. The British could have Iraq and its fabulous, albeit still undrilled, oil. The Arabs only wanted Syria and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula.
During the first days of the League of Nations' Paris Peace Conference, Prince Faisal, accompanied by T.E. Lawrence, widely dubbed "Lawrence of Arabia," met in Paris with Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann. Following up on meetings the two had held the previous June in Aqaba, Faisal signed an enlightened and tolerant nine-point agreement endorsing the Balfour Declaration and inviting the Zionists to coexist in Palestine. The text includes great specificity about mutual national aspirations. But the chief goal of the Arabs for an Arab national state at that time was not Palestine, but Syria. The text:
"Article II: Immediately following the completion of the deliberations of the Peace Conference, the definite boundaries between the Arab State and Palestine shall be determined by a Commission to be agreed upon by the parties.
"Article III: All such measures shall be adopted as will afford the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British Government's [Balfour] Declaration of the 2nd of November 1917.
"Article IV: All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil. In taking such measures, the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development."
THE ENTIRE agreement was typed in English. But at the bottom, Faisal hand-penned in Arabic this stern warning: "Provided the Arabs obtain their independence as demanded in my [forthcoming] memorandum dated the 4th of January, 1919, to the Foreign Office of the government of Great Britain, I shall concur in the above articles. But if the slightest modification or departure were to be made [regarding our demands], I shall not be then bound by a single word of the present agreement which shall be deemed void and of no account or validity, and I shall not be answerable in any way whatsoever." Directly beneath that inscription the signatures of Weizmann and Faisal were duly affixed.
What happened and why?
The Arabs are a centuries-old tribal group. But Arab nationalism began in earnest as an early 20th century surge of Arab intellectuals who envied Christian Europe's international movement to achieve self-determination, autonomy and national independence for its ethnic and religious groups. Damascus had long been the intellectual epicenter of the Arab national movement, and was for centuries a keystone for the Islamic world. In addition, Faisal and the Hashemites were direct descendants of Muhammad, and the custodians of Mecca and Medina, precious to all Muslims.
But barren Palestine was considered a mere backwater, and Iraq a neglected Ottoman province rich in something the Arabs did not need at all, but the West craved - oil.
The Arabs were assured a seat at the victors' table in Paris because they fought alongside the British and Lawrence against the Ottomans. Faisal became the face of Arab nationalism to the Peace Conference. On January 1, 1919, he submitted a formal memorandum to the Supreme Council of the Peace Conference outlining his vision for Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East. It was not monolithic or pan-Arab. It sought only one territory: Syria.
"The various provinces of Arab Asia - Syria, Iraq, Jezireh, Hijaz, Nejd, Yemen - are very different economically and socially," asserted Faisal's petition, "and it is impossible to constrain them into one frame of government... [But] Syria... thickly peopled with sedentary [settled] classes, is sufficiently advanced politically to manage her own internal affairs."
As for Iraq, Faisal declared, "The world wishes to exploit Mesopotamia rapidly, and we therefore believe that the system of government there will have to be buttressed by the men and material resources of a great foreign power." He stipulated to a British mandate.
Faisal's petition also stated: "In Palestine, the enormous majority of the people are Arabs. The Jews are very close to the Arabs in blood, and there is no conflict of character between the races. In principles, we are absolutely at one."
That said, he acknowledged that Palestine was important to many faiths and therefore the Arab national movement "would wish for the effective super-position of a great trustee, so long as a representative local administration commended itself by actively promoting the material prosperity of the country." Again, a British mandate was stipulated.
But at the Paris sessions, the French snubbed Faisal. Regardless of prior representations by the British, the French were uninterested in relinquishing their designs on greater Syria, especially since the Lebanon region was overwhelmingly Maronite Christian. Many French officials simply considered the Arabs a threat.
Typical was a memo from the Quai D'Orsay that stated, "Damascus is a Muslim center which is very hostile to France, to tell the truth, the most hostile in all Islam... It is there where all the plots against our authority in the Muslim countries are hatched, and it is there where the agitators come and preach rebellion... Damascus [must] be placed under our control."
FRANCE THEN began a disingenuous diplomatic process with the Arabs - the legacy of which would last many generations. In mid-April 1919, Faisal met with French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and was promised total Arab independence for Syria. A declaration was typed up on April 17. But according to the French document, the French army would occupy Damascus, and the new Arab nation would actually exist as a mere federation of local autonomous states in which all the government advisers, including the governors and heads of major government bureaus, as well as the judiciary, would be French, under Paris's control as they were in Lebanon. What's more, Faisal himself would be compelled to publicly declare the importance of France's historic relationship with the Maronite Christians. Other than that, said the French, Syria would be completely "independent."
Faisal quickly refused, encouraged by Lawrence of Arabia, who advised him to demand total independence "without conditions or reservations." Clemenceau, however, would not tolerate what he considered Arab impudence. Faisal summarily left Paris for Syria to claim his nation.
Throughout late 1919, multilateral negotiations dragged on with the usual permutations, frustrations and reversals. But in the French view, it could not retreat from dominating a Greater Syria that included Lebanon. French troops, religious groups and civilian organizations had undertaken an impressive economic and administrative reconstruction of the neglected Turkish provinces. One leading French columnist and government adviser warned that if forced out of Syria and Lebanon, "world opinion would consider France 'a finished people.'"
Using blunt language, an adamant Clemenceau made it clear: If Faisal and the Arab nationalists did not have "absolute respect... [and] satisfy me," the entire region would be taken "through force." Meanwhile, Muslim rejectionists had already been attacking French troops in the region. Rapidly, the situation deteriorated. Faisal now had to choose between the possibility that ingenuous French promises might be kept, and fervid and distrusting Arab nationalists who everywhere demanded instant independence.
On March 7 and 8, 1920, the Second General Syrian Congress, a representative assembly of Arab nationalists from many countries, raced ahead of any decision by the League of Nations. The Arab congress vehemently declared independence for a Greater Syria, to extend both into Lebanon and south into Palestine. The congress then elected Faisal king of Syria.
The Allies were outraged. On March 11, the French premier insisted to British prime minister David Lloyd George that the Second General Syrian Congress was an illegitimate enterprise and its decisions of no value or import. Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, rejected this and angrily scolded the French ambassador in London: "The future of France and Great Britain in [the seized Turkish Middle East] was imperiled because of the way in which the French government, in pursuance of traditional or historical aspirations, had insisted on forcing themselves into areas where the French were not welcomed by the inhabitants."
About a month later, on April 19, 1920, the Allies, working through the League of Nations, gathered at San Remo, Italy, to carve up Turkey. With the last dusk of the San Remo Conference, the conferees granted France the mandate for both Syria and Lebanon. The British received the mandate for Iraq and also Palestine, under a provision creating a Jewish homeland.
On April 24, away from the main diplomacy of the San Remo Conference, Anglo-French petroleum negotiators concluded their own secret agreement to divide up the oil of Iraq and transport it through pipelines yet to be built in Syria to the Mediterranean.
News of the League mandates in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, while denying Arab sovereignty in Syria and establishing a Jewish national home in the process, quickly burned throughout the Arab world.
On May 8, a dismayed Faisal sent a formal protest to the Supreme Council of the Peace Conference that he "was much surprised to learn, through public channels, the decision taken at the Conference of San Remo on the Arab countries... The wishes of the inhabitants have not been taken into account in the assignment of these mandates."
FAISAL REMINDED the League of Nations that the stated intent during the Arab uprisings against Turkey was "nothing less than their complete deliverance from a foreign yoke, and the establishment of a free and independent government." Ominously, Faisal added, "The decision of San Remo puts an end to this hope. The moderate elements in the young nation, who... are still endeavoring to guide it toward a policy of sincere collaboration with the Allies, are now discouraged and rendered powerless by this decision."
As the fuse of San Remo burned, Arab militancy and violence across the occupied Middle East - in Palestine, Mesopotamia and Syria - already a problem, now ratcheted up.
On May 18, 1920, Britain's foreign secretary, fed up with the violence, washed his hands of Syrian Arabs, cabling Paris, "The French authorities must be the best judges of the military measures necessary to control the local situation." Quickly, French president Alexandre Millerand confirmed to his commanders: "Action against Faisal is indispensable and urgent." France's army immediately prepared to invade Syria with several divisions backed by tanks, airplanes and heavy artillery.
France issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Faisal to desist and facilitate French efforts to restore order - or else. This ultimatum was calculated to be unanswerable because of the sheer difficulties of rapid communication across the underdeveloped region. Nonetheless, Faisal instantly agreed to the demands, but his reply came one day late. Therefore, the French march on Damascus began.
July 24, 1920, was the turning point for the Arabs and the world.
En route to Damascus, French forces met belligerent Arab forces at Maysalun, just west of the city. Charging with swords and bolt-action rifles, the Arabs displayed "strong resistance." But they were no match for French tanks, airplanes, machine guns and overwhelming infantry force. The Arabs were nearly all slaughtered within eight hours. The French now occupied Damascus and successfully established their mandate.
That same day, after persistent fragmentary leaks, the secret San Remo oil agreement became public.
That same day, the Zionist Conference concluded in London with a flourish for the future. Gathering in a large hall dominated by Jewish-star-emblazoned flags hanging vertically from the balconies and across the stained glass windows at the front, the Zionists created Keren Hayesod to mobilize moneys worldwide for a new Jewish homeland. The fund would legally purchase lands for kibbutzim and finance the formation of new Jewish villages in Palestine. Just days earlier, Whitehall had appointed Sir Herbert Samuel as high commissioner of Palestine, empowered to oversee the orderly immigration of Jews. The Jewish homeland was being slowly brought to life as a fact on the ground.
On that day, July 24, 1920, for the Arabs, it was over. The Jews had gained Palestine. The West had grabbed their oil. The Arabs had lost the one land they really wanted: Syria.
THREE INTERTWINED evils - the infidel European Allies, the infidel Zionists and the black substance the West craved - became conflated in the Arab mind to create one great Satan. Indeed, these three evils would galvanize the Arab consciousness for virtually the next century. For the first time in centuries, the Arabs stopped fighting each other. Sunni and Shi'a, tribal enemies squabbling over wells, those of the desert and those of the city, the intellectual and the peasant, they could all unite under one Islamic banner, because this was Am al-Nakba, the Year of the Catastrophe. Forevermore, 1920 would be a black year in the collective Arabic consciousness.
Now, across the off-kilter Arab territorial rectangle, a great jihad would be unleashed. Faisal had earlier warned the peace conference: "The unity of the Arabs in Asia has been made more easy of late years, since the development of railways, telegraphs and air-roads. In old days the area was too huge, and in parts necessarily too thinly peopled, to communicate common ideas readily."
Arab anger could now move quickly and with coordination. The Arabs would strike most fiercely where it would hurt most. They would strike in Iraq, where Britain and France dreamed of the oil that had not yet been drilled and that had not yet flowed, but that the Allies could already taste. The Arabs wanted that taste to be bitter and bloody. That bitter taste has become permanent.
The writer is The New York Times best-selling and award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is adapted from Banking on Baghdad, Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit and Conflict (Dialog).