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The Mandate Inheritance in the Arab East

To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant.

There was no dramatic ending to the League of Nations’ former Ottoman mandates. The colonial mandates outlived the League of Nations and they all reverted to the status of military colonies during the war. In May and June 1941, Free French and British forces, including the Zionist Palmach Brigade, marched on Syria and Lebanon and fought the Vichy French. High Commissioner Henri Dentz, one-time chief of mandate intelligence, was eventually sentenced to death for colluding with the Axis Powers. British forces invaded Iraq through the corridor of Transjordan at the same time and overthrew the nationalist government of Rashid cAli Kaylani, Yasin al-Hashimi’s old comrade. Even the nominal independence of Iraq was curtailed for the duration of the war. The mandate powers left after the World War II, diminished and made poor by the cost of holding their empires and the European war. No one among mandate or League officials really granted independence, and no one among mandate politicians really won independence.

In 1920, the League of Nations Mandates charter and the ideological foundations of the mandates demanded that colonial rule combine with paternalistic structures of liberal rule. But the colonial state could only take power if the wishes and consent of the population were ignored, as people like Shakib Arslan and Musa Kazim al-Husayni immediately pointed out. Both Britain and France temporarily resolved the contradiction by promising power and influence disproportionate to their numbers to various individuals, families, or sectarian groups in return for consent and support. In this way, each mandate power served to guarantee eventual sectarian conflict and civil war, and to enshrine the need for political factions to draw on outside support to prosecute their internal political struggles. A stunted politics that eschewed compromise was built in.

Britain and France lacked the popular legitimacy to derive consent from the majority population. As mandate citizens proclaimed repeatedly, Ottoman rule had delivered an imperfect but superior semblance of rights, justice, and representation to the majority of the population and petitioners viewed the Ottoman state as more legitimate and representative than the colonial regimes that replaced it. The Mandate state was afflicted by an immediate crisis of legitimacy, and continual opposition and challenges to its authority required violent suppression of the population.

But recourse to violence contradicted the altruistic claims of the mandate charters. Bloody counterinsurgency campaigns covered in newspapers all over the world damaged the reputation and international standing of the League of Nations also. To satisfy the League of Nations Mandates Commission, and metropolitan critics, mandate authorities erected facades of liberal rule, including constitutions, parliaments, elections, and law courts. But the structures of liberal rule were not designed to deliver consent, rights, equal justice, or participation, and were instead designed to console external critics and as innovative mechanisms to shroud colonial rule and military occupation.

The mandates regimes undermined the appeal and credibility of civilian rule and civilian political leadership. Each mandate developed extensive mandate martial law codes to routinely limit the rights of citizens and allow unrestricted use of state power to punish opposition. Each mandate state maintained an executive High Commissioner who had absolute power, including denial of rights to property, liberty, and life, without judicial process or oversight over every mandate citizen. The High Commissioners were always able to overrule any decision made by councils, parliaments, judges, or elected prime ministers. The executive implemented policy through large, and sometimes competing, military and intelligence bureaucracies, which were similarly without review or oversight. These features re-emerged in the post-colonial state.

The mandates gave the region its most enduring conflicts. The two states explicitly designed to favor minorities, Israel and Lebanon, have been involved in decades of intermittent civil and regional war. All three of the smallest former mandates, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon, have been dependent upon, and often at the mercy of, larger regional and international powers. The two larger mandates, Syria and Iraq, endured various varieties of military rule nearly from the moment of independence, and each military regime built upon the structure and habits endowed by the mandate regime to continue a dictatorial executive structure implemented through security agencies without oversight. Each preserved a cosmetic facade of democratic elections, a powerless legislative body, and a judiciary with no power to challenge the state or its various martial law codes. Both Syrian and Iraqi post-colonial politicians fixated on escaping the influence of powerful neighbors and on efforts to dominate less powerful neighboring states. These tendencies were built into the structure of the colonial state, with its odd boundaries and pervasive security anxieties, and were inherited directly by the post-colonial state.

No one can say what might have happened if the Ottoman state had continued to rule the Middle East. And no one can say how the region might be different today if its people had prevailed in their struggles to rule themselves after the World War I. Ottoman State modernization campaigns and pervasive international crisis elevated army officers in society and politics and tended to undermine the role of civilian and representative bodies. War and mass mobilization brought terrible state crimes against groups considered disloyal, and terrible suffering to the population generally. Violence brought more violence, and new mutually exclusive claims on identity divided people just as war, partition, and occupation divided them. Many resisted their involuntarily inclusion or exclusion. When former Ottoman army officers took power in Turkey or Iraq, they ruled as authoritarians shaped by their education and experiences and not as democrats or liberals. But perhaps, over the past century in the Middle East, the happier outcomes, and more satisfactory arrangements for the people of the region, have come to the people most able, by luck, circumstance, and struggle, to seize the greatest freedom of choice and independence from those outside and within the region who would deny it. It cannot be said that the people of the Middle East freely made the world they are forced to inhabit, but it may be that those most able to determine their own conditions and destinies have survived the events of the last century with greater success and happiness than their less fortunate neighbors.

In 1941, on the eve of the British invasion and military occupation of nominally independent Iraq, British ambassador Kinahan Cornwallis held a banquet in Baghdad. Cornwallis had been the deputy director of the Arab Bureau between 1916 and 1918 when it helped run the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman state. In 1918 he went to Damascus with Faysal, and in 1921 he went to Baghdad, where he engineered the referendum that preceded the installation and coronation of King Faysal. He spent the next fourteen years as chief British advisor to the Interior Ministry. Shortly after coming to power, Yasin al-Hashimi dismissed him in April 1935. In 1941, with the British Empire again at war with Germany, and Iraq again a crucial strategic interest, he was back in Baghdad. After the death of Bakr Sidqi, Yasin al-Hashimi’s widow and daughters had returned to Baghdad also.

At the banquet, Cornwallis met Nicmat al-Hashimi, Yasin al-Hashimi’s 26-year-old youngest daughter, accompanied by her husband, finance minister cAli Mumtaz al-Daftari. The ambassador engaged Nicmat in conversation, and asked, “What would your father, Yasin Paga, say if he were still alive today and could see me back here in Baghdad?” She replied, “If my father were still alive, you would not be back here in Baghdad.”23 Cornwallis left Baghdad at the end of World War II. Nicmat al-Hashimi al-Daftari spent most of her life in Baghdad until another invasion of Iraq, in 1991, took her to London, where she spent her last years in exile.

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