Creating a New Middle East

Thomas Edward Lawrence and Sir Mark Sykes helped Britain forge a new Mideast reality following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire

Lord Balfour 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lord Balfour 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In “British Pan-Ara b Policy 1915-1922” Isaiah Friedman returns again to a thorny and hotly disputed territory, which he has made his own, British Middle East policy in the period immediately before and after the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
He fluently describes and analyzes the failure of British policy to maintain Britain's status in the Middle East at the end of World War I and to make allies of the local Muslims, despite the military and political support given to the Arab rebellion of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, and his sons, Feisal and Abdullah.
The author bases his research mainly on an abundance of documents from British government offices, private archives and on academic literature relating to the era.
And he has struck archival gold by discovering the long-missing Arabic text of a letter sent by the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, to Hussein on October 24, 1915. Opponents of the Balfour Declaration have long claimed that the correspondence between the two committed Britain to include Palestine in a postwar Arab state as reward for Hussein's military assistance in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire, the then-rulers of most of the region. Friedman's analysis shows that the text did not create any such obligation, leaving the way clear for Britain to back the creation of a Jewish national home two years later.
Further, he claims that Hussein became aware of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided Syria, Lebanon and Palestine between France and Britain the year after, and that he knew that the "formal promise" of Arab independence had been conditioned on a general Arab uprising and applied only to areas liberated by Arab military efforts. In fact, only the tribes of Hejaz and a few Arabs east of the Jordan rebelled against the Ottomans, whereas the Palestinian, Syrian and the Mesopotamian Arabs mostly fought alongside the Turkish army.
In elucida ting thi s complex episode in diplomatic and Middle East history, Friedman focuses on two fascinating and dynamic figures: Thomas Edward Lawrence and Sir Mark Sykes. Both, with differing reasons and motives, tried to create a new Middle East. Both, gifted with belief in their ability to influence policymakers, actually succeeded.
Lawrence, an archaeologist turned intelligence officer, won fame in 1917 by leading Feisal's Bedouin tribes to capture the Turkishheld port of Aqaba. This battle enabled the British fleet to control the Red Sea supply route between Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. It also won Lawrence the support of General Edmund Allenby, the recently appointed commander of the allied Egyptian Expeditionary Force, in his attempt to create a general Arab uprising against the Turks in Palestine and in Syria. He ended the war in liberated Damascus, where he helped set up a provisional Arab government under Feisal.
However, Sykes, a Conservative politician serving as a diplomatic adviser, had already in 1916 forged an agreement with his French counterpart Francois George-Picot, which in effect divided the Middle East between British and French spheres of influence: Damascus was to be administered by France.
Sykes saw this as a stepping stone to a postwar Arab-Zionist-Armenian alliance under French and British auspices.
After the war, Lawrence tried in London and Paris to obtain Allied support for the crowning of Feisal as king of Syria and Eastern Jordan, and for cooperation with Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader. He hoped this would lead to financial and political support of Feisal by the Jews, and Feisal's recognition of the Jewish National Home in Palestine (as foreshadowed by the January 1919 Weizmann- Feisal agreement).
Friedman writes, however, that the Syrian nationalists objected to Lawrence's plans for Arab-Zionist cooperation: some even objected to Feisal. Furthermore, David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, and Lord Curzon objected to the breaching of the agreement with the French government. They demanded that Feisal and his aides talk directly with the French over Syria's future. By the spring of 1919, Lawrence had acquiesced to the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, and the British mandate in Mesopotamia and in Palestine.
At the end of the war, Sykes visited Syria and Palestine and discovered that senior British army officers there had very different ideas: Most of them supported an independent Syria that would include Palestine and would be under a British mandate, and disapproved of the Balfour Declaration. He tried to get the Syrian nationalists and France to cooperate with the Jews in Palestine but to no avail.
His disappointment at Feisal's weakness in Syria and with Syrian objections to the Zionist movement was evident from the reports he sent to the British representatives in Paris and directly to Lloyd George.
He did not withdraw his unconditional support for the Balfour Declaration, which he believed to be in Britain's best interests: he thought, as others did at the time, that Zionist settlement would lead to rising living standards for Jew and Arab alike.
He reiterated this opinion in conversations with his friends Nahum Sokolow and Aaron Aaronson, the Zionist representatives at the 1919 Paris peace conference, a few days before his death.
Fri edman then di ssects the disputes that arose between the policy makers in Whitehall and the army commanders in the Middle East over Syria and Palestine. The still influential Lawrence unsuccessfully tried to pacify Hussein, who was disappointed that the British did not enable him to unite, under his authority, Hejaz, Syria and Mesopotamia. Moreover, in light of his dispute over the control of the Arabian Peninsula with Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the Emir of Nejd, who was supported by the Indian government and the India Office in London, Hussein expected more military backing from the Foreign and Colonial Offices.
The uprising in Egypt, led by Saad Zaglul in the early 1920s, and the rebellion in Mesopotamia in 1920, which was assisted by Feisal's men in Syria and suppressed with difficulty, together with postwar financial problems and the disbanding of the wartime army, caused the British government to rethink its Middle East policy.
Despite opposition from Allenby and the army, the government therefore sacrificed Feisal, who had been crowned in March 1920 by the National Assembly in Damascus, on the altar of the French alliance. This policy change was affirmed at the San Remo conference the following month with the mutual recognition of the British mandate in Mesopotamia and Palestine, based on the Balfour Declaration, and the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon.
France invaded Syria, and defeated and expelled Feisal in June. Lloyd George then appointed Herbert Samuel as the first civilian High Commissioner in Palestine, ending military rule. Allenby, who opposed British policy in Syria, was appointed as High Commissioner in Egypt for a short period, but had already lost such political influence as he had had.
The British cabinet's decision to transfer the management of Mesopotamia and Palestine to the Colonial Office headed by Winston Churchill gave official approval to the creation of identical policies in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The author describes at length Churchill's attempts to find a solution that would be acceptable to Hussein's sons and that would fulfill Britain's obligations made during the war.
In the spring of 1921 Lawrence, then advising Churchill, helped to install Feisal as King of Iraq, and Abdullah as the Emir of Transjordan. This move, greeted with reservations by Colonial Office officials, dealt a death blow to Zionist hopes of settling east of the Jordan, hopes that had been supported by officials in the Foreign and War Offices, in 1919, who wanted the eastern border of Palestine to pass west of the Hejaz railway. But Lawrence, having quit the Colonial Office in 1922, wrote that these arrangements were in the spirit of his government's promises to Hussein: he supported the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.
The Bri tish government’s policy towards the Zionist movement went through many changes after the Balfour Declaration. In the spring of 1920 the heads of the military regime in Palestine stood by passively during the pogroms that Jerusalem Arabs, led by Haj Amin Al-Husseini, committed against its Jewish residents: some even supported the outrages.
The rioters had only limited support. Friedman has unearthed a previously unknown letter, written to Churchill by the heads of Muslim villages and towns in Palestine, following Arab violence in May 1921, which declares that: "The progress and prosperity of the country lie in the brotherhood with the Jews".
Nevertheless, the author claims that High Commissioner Samuel and Colonial Office officials preferred to reach an arrangement with an Arab delegation then in London to obtain support from the British government and Parliament to overturn the Balfour Declaration.
Friedman believes that Samuel, whose decisions were influenced by anti-Zionist officials, was responsible for the principles enunciated in the June 1922 Churchill White Paper. The British government therein abandoned its attempts to reconcile the Zionist leaders and the Palestinian Arabs, and delayed the progress of the Jewish National Home by deciding that the economic absorptive capacity of the country would decide how many Jews could immigrate to Palestine.
While Friedman shatters popular historical assumptions, he does not analyze British interests in the Middle East during those years. In 1918, the British saw the Middle East both as the crossroads between their marine forces in the Mediterranean Sea and their huge base in India, and as the source of increasingly vital oil supplies. This was the main reason why Lloyd George demanded that the Mosul region with its rich oil resources be included in Mesopotamia and not in Syria, as the Sykes-Picot agreement had said. •
Dr. Shlomo Yotvat is affiliated with the Open University Ra'anana, and has written on Anglo-American conflicts in Palestine and the Middle East in the 20th century.