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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Wartime Arrangements and Proclamations

British and French diplomats and strategists began the partition well before the end of the war with a series of secret agreements, and shortterm policy initiatives intended to guard varying objectives and preclude dissent over the post-war negotiations. The British government was in a stronger position than France or Russia, since the Western Front engulfed much of France, and Egypt and the Trucial States of the Persian Gulf

Balkan War Cartoon, 1912 (Lemke Collection)

Figure 2.1. Balkan War Cartoon, 1912 (Lemke Collection)

were already British colonial possessions. The map of the region today remains much as it was plotted and penciled in by French and British diplomats in 1916. No one among the region’s millions of inhabitants was consulted.

The pledges began with the Constantinople Agreement of March 1915, in which the British government, then planning the assault at Gallipoli, promised the Ottoman capital and the control of the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Sea to Czarist Russia. British policymakers, led by Secretary of State for War Herbert Kitchener and Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, sought to deliver a rapid defeat to the Ottoman Empire by naval assault and invasion of Gallipoli, and a short march and quick capture of the Ottoman capital at Istanbul. British forces could then re-supply Russia through the straits, and the agreement over Istanbul and the straits would induce the Russian government to remain in the war. Churchill hoped the easy victory over the Ottomans in early 1915 would allow a subsequent march on Austro-Hungary, isolating and allowing attack on Germany from the south, ending the stalemate on the Western Front.

Short-term objectives and fanciful hopes dictated action. Great Britain had opposed Russian desires for a Mediterranean presence for a century, and the Crimean War, one of the most destructive wars ever before the Great War, had been fought to frustrate Russian moves toward the sea. In the event, the Gallipoli Campaign was a humiliating defeat for Britain and for Churchill personally. 400,000 mostly colonial soldiers were killed and wounded. A commission convened to investigate the defeats against the Ottomans determined that poor planning and persistent under-appreciation of the enemy caused the defeats.8

In Cairo the British High Commissioner, Henry McMahon, wrote to the Ottoman religious governor of Hijaz, Sharif al-Husayn, promising an independent kingdom if Husayn would lead a revolt against the Ottoman state. Sultan Abdul-Hamid II had appointed Husayn in early 1908 shortly before the restoration of the Ottoman constitution. Like most of Abdul-Hamid’s supporters, Husayn feared the Unionist government in Istanbul would imprison or force him into exile.9 Husayn sought British support to carve out some kind of guarantee against the new army officer leaders of the Ottoman government. Meanwhile, British colonial civil servants were haunted by creeping fears of the suddenly formidable “Turks,” and the appeal of Ottoman propaganda and victories on colonial Muslims. Tens of millions of Indian Muslims lived under British rule, and the night terrors of Ottoman victories and mass colonial disorder in India and Egypt in the midst of a world war, fused seamlessly with orientalist fantasies of a reborn Arabian-nights-style caliphate under British sponsorship.10

Meanwhile, similar orientalist fantasies of the German intelligence service had been responsible for the Ottoman call to worldwide jihad for the sultan-caliph against the Entente Powers. Ottoman war minister Enver Pasa reminded an enthusiastic Kaiser Wilhelm II that a “holy war” against infidels would necessarily include Germany too.11 Wilhelm, like the British, was undeterred by such details, and the message was slightly altered to a jihad against the Entente. McMahon and his fellow colonial functionaries, seized by similar dreams, resolved that the Arab revolt would provide the Entente Powers an “Arab” Caliph to counter the Central Powers’ “Turkish” Caliph. Husayn would be king and caliph of a new British-Entente-aligned Muslim nation, in opposition to the Central Powers German-aligned Ottoman-Muslim nation.12

Husayn wrote McMahon that his kingdom would include the area from the eastern Mediterranean coast and Sinai east of Egypt, to the frontier with Persia, and to the Taurus mountains north of Aleppo. McMahon replied that “the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed limits and boundaries.”13 McMahon knew that the region of coastal Mount Lebanon was a longstanding zone of French influence, and exempted it from his agreement with Husayn.14 He did not know or care about Palestine and so did not mention it in his correspondence, and was apparently unconcerned about the border between British-occupied Egypt and what he expected, if he expected anything, would be a British-aligned kingdom adjoining the British-aligned kingdom of Egypt stretching toward the Persian Gulf. Neither did he concern himself with the question of how or why he, or Husayn, were qualified or empowered to dispose of any portion of the territory of a sovereign state. By mid 1917 the control of Palestine had come to seem important.

McMahon and others in the colonial service of the empire were concerned to keep the various colonies quiet while the soldiers, metropolitan and colonial, of the British army were being annihilated in their hundreds of thousands on the Western Front. Husayn’s sons did raise a revolt and participate in fighting the Ottoman army in Palestine and Syria between 1916 and 1918; in the meanwhile, however, other parts of the British army continued to gravely and disastrously underestimate the Ottoman foe. In April 1916 a British army division made up of colonial troops from India and British officers surrendered in Iraq. Goltz Pasa himself had commanded the Ottoman forces, but he died of typhus at the age of 72 two weeks before the surrender.

Shortly before the British surrender a secret delegation including T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) tried to negotiate a payment of ransom to allow for the flight of the besieged army, offering to pay two million British pounds sterling and pledging not to attack Ottoman forces anywhere in the region. The Ottoman high command refused any negotiation and the entire force of some 13,000 surrendered. A similar number had perished during the siege. British military and colonial functionaries had reason for bitter feelings toward their Ottoman enemies.

The month following, in May 1916, diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot met in Paris. Whether by accident or design, the agreement they reached in secret was in direct contradiction to the pledges between Sykes’ colleague Henry McMahon and Husayn, so while Husayn had been promised a contiguous kingdom, France and Britain agreed to partition the entire region between themselves into French and British zones of direct and indirect rule. The Sykes Picot agreement

Yasin al Hashimi and Kaiser Wilhelm, at Galician Front, July 1917 (IWM, w/permission)

Figure 2.2. Yasin al Hashimi and Kaiser Wilhelm, at Galician Front, July 1917 (IWM, w/permission)

remained secret till late 1917, when the new Bolshevik government published the secret wartime treaties of the Entente allies and the Czarist government it had overthrown. Today the map of the region still resembles the lines Sykes and George-Picot drew together in 1916.

By early 1917 the Ottoman army had defeated and humiliated two major British offensives and remained undefeated in battle. (See Figure 2.2.) British war aims were under dire threat if greater Syria and Iraq could not be conquered, held, and detached from the Ottoman realms. If Britain was defeated, or made peace without decisive victory in the Middle East, the Ottomans and Germans could be reasonably expected to expand the rail lines and gain effective control over the Suez Canal, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf at Kuwait.15 British-initiated peace negotiations took place in Switzerland during 1917 and 1918, but both sides were unenthusiastic about a negotiated settlement: the Ottomans because they were undefeated in the east and expected a German victory in France, and the British because the situation on the Western Front was not sufficiently desperate to abandon the hope of conquering Greater Syria and Iraq.16 Negotiating a settlement to detach the Ottomans from Germany would have required giving up the dream of an empire from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, and accepting a growing German role in the region.

When a British army finally conquered and occupied Baghdad in April 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in London instructed its commander to declare:

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Since the days of Midhat, the Turks have talked of reforms, yet do not the ruins and wastes of today testify the vanity of those promises?

The Germans and the Turks, who have despoiled you and yours, have for 20 years made Baghdad a centre of power from which to assail the power of the British and the Allies of the British in Persia and Arabia. Therefore the British Government cannot remain indifferent as to what takes place in your country now or in the future, for in duty to the interests of the British people and their Allies, the British Government cannot risk that being done in Baghdad again which has been done by the Turks and Germans during the war ...

Many noble Arabs have perished in the cause of Arab freedom, at the hands of those alien rulers, the Turks, who oppressed them. It is the determination of the Government of Great Britain and the Great Powers allied to Great Britain that these noble Arabs shall not have suffered in vain. It is the hope and desire of the British people and the nations in alliance with them that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown among the peoples of the earth, and that it shall bind itself together to this end in unity and concord.17

The proclamation illustrates the attitudes and aims of the British empire in the Middle East and anticipates the central trope of mid-twentieth- century Arab nationalism. Like later Arab nationalist histories, the statement claims an oppressive ethnic identity for the Ottoman State it never claimed for itself. The statement argues that Ottoman rule had brought nothing but “ruins and wastes,” never mind the fact that General Maude commanded the army that had just finished an invasion of the province and a siege of the city, and that the battle involved all the modern technology of warfare including airplanes, machine guns, trains and telegraphic communication on both sides. Trains and steamships supplied both armies. The presentation appears less disingenuous and more illuminating of imperial policy when it admits that Baghdad in Turkish/German hands was a nightmarish prospect for Britain. General Maude died of cholera a month later in the same Baghdad house in which Goltz Pasa had died of typhus a year earlier.

In late October 1917 Bolshevik leader Lenin issued his “Decree on Peace,” demanding an end to the war, to imperialism, and to secret diplomacy. It and similar speeches were widely reported in newspapers around the world. Lenin pointed out that the “wearied, tormented, and war-exhausted toilers and laboring classes of all belligerent countries thirsted for peace.” And that the peace he proposed would be immediate, without colonial annexations and without indemnities.

The government considers that to continue this war simply to decide how to divide the weak nationalities among the powerful and rich nations which had seized them would be the greatest crime against humanity, and it solemnly announces its readiness to sign at once the terms of peace which will end this war on the indicated conditions, equally just for all nationalities without exception ...

The government abolishes secret diplomacy, expressing, for its part, the firm determination to carry on all negotiations absolutely openly and in view of all the people. It will proceed at once to publish all secret treaties ratified or con cluded by the government of landlords and capitalists from March to November 7, 1917.18

One week later, Foreign Secretary Balfour issued his declaration in support of Zionism. For the British cabinet the victory in Baghdad and prospect of victories in Palestine brought new confidence. There would be no more contemplation of a negotiated settlement with Istanbul, and the improvisational pledge to support the territorial ambitions of the Jewish nationalist movement in Europe seemed to make sense. The Balfour Declaration was a public relations move intended to gain support for the British war effort on the part of Jewish populations in America, Russia, and Germany and facilitate British control after the war.19 The Sykes Picot accord with France in 1916 had made Palestine more strategically important and Balfour’s declaration corresponded with successes in the Palestine Campaign under the command of General Allenby. The Balfour Declaration represented an attempt to walk back some of the expansive promises made to France in the Sykes Picot accord the year before under more desperate circumstances. Allenby captured Beersheba on 8 November, meaning that the Balfour Declaration appeared in the press the same day as the news of the first British victories on the Palestine front.20

Like the effort to draft Husayn as an anti-Ottoman Arab caliph, the Balfour Declaration was based on a simple-minded impression of the political consciousness of American and European Jews. In other words, as British policy-makers hoped Ottoman Syrians could be peeled off from their loyalty to the Ottoman state, by sponsorship of an alternate caliph of the “true race,” Russian Bolshevik Jews, German Jews, and American Jews were imagined to owe allegiance to their religion above all else.21 As a wartime policy to convince Trotsky to keep Russia in the war, or to urge Jewish German soldiers to desert their units on the Western Front, the Balfour Declaration was a failure. But as a policy securing Palestine for Britain, and enabling the implantation of a reliable immigrant client population into a colonial territory, support for Zionism held promise, and appeared for a decade or so anyway, to be a qualified success. Zionist leaders, and probably Husayn also, actively manipulated British prejudice and ignorance in pursuing their political goals.

Two months after the Balfour Declaration, in early January 1918, in direct response and as an attempt to co-opt the Bolshevik position, American President Woodrow Wilson issued his famous “Fourteen Points” speech to a joint session of congress. For perhaps the first time, an American president addressed a mass audience outside the United States, in invoking the language of universal rights and equality of nations and peoples. But Wilson failed to understand the implications of his words on popular aspirations in the colonial world.

What we demand in this war is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world, as against force and selfish aggression.

All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us ...

Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall pro ceed always frankly and in the public view .

A free, open minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the population concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined .

The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmo lested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees .

We have spoken now, surely, in terms too concrete to admit of any further doubt or question. An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak.22

Debate continues over the contradictions of the wartime pledges. And while the tangle of promises, counter-promises, agreements, and faithful or faithless intentions, bureaucratic feuds, and shadowy rivalries have now flummoxed and fascinated generations of historians, the authors of each agreement made their decisions casually and based on expediency. The pledges were mostly intended to achieve some now obscure short-term wartime goal, often without regard for any other previous promise or agreement. The agreements and pledges were not usually binding, and those claims that eventually took precedence were based on the preponderance of political, financial, and military power at the end of the war. Put another way, Britain achieved its aims and other parties achieved theirs to the extent that they were in a position to demand them without compromise, as in the case of France, or to the extent that they appeared to correspond with short-term British policy objectives, as in the case of the Zionists, or the Hashimites of Iraq and Transjordan.

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