The ‘missing dimension’ in Britain’s Middle East Policy

Uncovered documents reveal that British intelligence secured the collaboration of Arab leaders.

Charles de Gaulle and David Ben- Gurion accused Great Britain of having a conspiratorial policy in the Middle East. De Gaulle, who headed France’s provisional government after World War II, accused Winston Churchill of deliberately engineering the Syrian crisis in the summer of 1945 to evict France from the Levant and place Syria under tacit British hegemony. Ben-Gurion claimed, both before and after declaring independence in May 1948, that Britain was purposely working to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, or at any rate to reduce its territory, and that it secretly encouraged the Arab states to invade.
In either case, for lack of archival evidence, historians resorted to psychology to explain the two leaders’ charges which, it was argued, derived from their “Anglophobia,” “paranoia” and “obsession” with Britain. It was also alleged that Ben- Gurion’s accusations were intended to aggrandize the Zionists’ heroic achievements of 1948.
IN THE 1980s, two British historians, David Dilks and Christopher Andrew, warned their colleagues that ignoring the role of intelligence in international relations – which they defined as the “missing dimension” – could distort historiography. Their assertions were illustrated in a recently published article by this author (The “Missing Dimension”: Britain’s Secret War against France in Syria and Lebanon, 1942-45, Middle Eastern Studies, 46:6, 791 - 899) which examined the role of British intelligence, especially the MI6, in Arab politics during and after World War II.
The article provides more than 100 previously secret Syrian and British documents obtained by French intelligence in Beirut. The documents, uncovered in French archives, substantiate de Gaulle’s allegations, and shed new light on the covert activities of the British in the Middle East. They reveal that British intelligence agencies played a key role in shaping Britain’s policy by securing the tacit collaboration of prominent Arab nationalist leaders in Syria and Lebanon after helping them attain power.
They also disclose that British agents were behind the schemes to integrate Syria in an Iraqi-led Hashemite confederation, or with Transjordan in a Greater Syria federation that was to include Palestine. The documents include a secret agreement from May 29, 1945 revealing that Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli was coerced into tacitly granting Britain a dominant strategic and economic position in Syria in return for its help against the French army attack on Damascus (provoked by British agents themselves).
The Syrians’ claim that their country was the first Arab state to secure complete independence from colonial rule is therefore debatable. In this regard, it is worth quoting a telegram of November 5, 1945 from the Syrian minister in Washington to his foreign minister in Damascus referring to statements made by American diplomats: “As far as British influence is concerned, the American government asks, ‘Did we recognize your independence just for you to put yourselves in the hands of Great Britain?’ Having reminded them that Great Britain delivered us from French oppression, they said to me, ‘Is that deliverance? They freed you in order to use you themselves. Great Britain, under the pretext of delivering you from the French, wants to annex you.
We will not allow feudal Syrians to sell their country to Great Britain.’” YET-TO-BE-PUBLISHED documents from 1945-1947 indicate that after their success against France in Syria, British intelligence agents, who enjoyed even greater freedom of action in the Middle East under the Labor government, employed similar tactics against the Zionist movement.
In fact, the “Zionist card” became a vital instrument used by British agents in securing their country’s influence in the Arab world by playing on the Arabs’ fears of the Zionists’ aspirations for a Jewish state.
It was also exploited to deflect the Arab nationalists’ hostility from Britain and justify Britain’s continued influence in the Arab world.
Constantine Zurieq, a diplomat in the Syrian legation in Washington who later became a leading Arab nationalist intellectual and the first to apply the term “nakba” to the 1948 Arab defeat, quoted in a telegram to Damascus on November 7, 1945, the warnings of an American official in the State Department: “Great Britain wishes to exploit the Arab-Jewish conflict because it is the only way for it to remain in Palestine, to dominate all the Arab countries. The American government strongly desires to find a friendly settlement between the Arabs and the Jews. But it is convinced that the British colonial authorities will do everything to prevent that, as Great Britain wishes for incidents to worsen in Palestine and for disorder, where blood is spilled, to take place.”
The documents uncovered in French archives will oblige historians, especially here, to reexamine Ben- Gurion’s claims concerning Britain’s role in the 1948 war. Historians should take note of recurrent warnings that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The writer teaches Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
His article, “The Missing Dimension: Britain’s Secret War against France in Syria and Lebanon, 1942-1945,” was published in November 2010 in Middle Eastern Studies and is available for free download from the journal’s website. A previous article studying France’s covert action in the 1948 war appeared in the same journal in January 2010.