A Line in the Sand

Book Review by Jalal Parsa

In 1915 when France and Britain  were fighting side by side as allies  on different fronts in WWI, they  were also in the middle of a bitter  rivalry in the Middle East and Levant  to carve up the Ottoman Empire between  themselves. In 1898 they had  gone briefly to war over the territory of  Fashoda on the upper Nile in Sudan.  In 1904 both sides reached an agreement  called ‘Entente Cordiale’, but  the French remained resentful. They  accepted Britain’s rule in Egypt and  Sudan and in return Britain recognised  the French occupation of Morocco.  ‘I should like to draw a line from the  “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk’,  said Mark Sykes in response to Lord  Balfour‘s question who asked his  opinion on how to  divide the territory  between the Mediterranean  Sea and  the borders of Persia.  This so called  ‘line in the sand’  forms the subject  of Barr’s book.  The meeting took place in 10 Downing  Street on 16 December 1915, exactly  around the time that the Allied Powers  were pushed back from Gallipoli after a  catastrophic defeat. The line suggested  by Sykes would divide the territory into  two, giving the land north of the line to  France and the southern part to Britain.  James Barr reveals that Sykes was  not as cognisant of the Middle East as  he led people to believe; Sykes left the  prime minister and his colleagues with  the impression that he knew perfect  Arabic and Turkish when in fact he  could speak neither.  The thirty-six year old had built up  a reputation for being an expert in  Ottoman and Middle East affairs. He  had recently published a book, The  Caliph’s Last Heritage, on the history  of the rise of Islam as a political force  including some of his pre-war travel  accounts throughout the Ottoman Empire.  He knew that the British Empire  was facing resistance inspired by Islam  in India and Sudan in the years before  the Great War. Although the Ottoman  government was bankrupt and had lost  most of its power, the sultan retained  his authority as caliph – the successor  of the Prophet – to call upon Muslims  around the world to join him in a  holy war. The British took this threat  seriously and determined to finish the  Ottoman Empire. By this time they  had already abandoned their fifty year  policy of supporting Ottoman integrity,  by first seizing Cyprus in 1878 and  then Egypt in 1882.  James Barr shows that the idea of landing  troops at Gallipoli was first suggested  to the young Churchill by Mark Sykes.  He argued in a letter to Churchill that  once the Ottomans surrendered, the  Germans would be far more vulnerable.  He addressed the letter to Churchill as  ‘the only man I know who will take  the risk’. However in December 1915  and after the  Battle of Gallipoli,  the human loss  for the British  and the French  was so high and  the gains so insignificant  that they  were both under  pressure to appease nationalist sentiment  at home by showing some kind of  victory. Dividing the Ottoman Empire  would allow them to show their populations  that they had gained something.  Before the Downing Street meeting  with Sykes, the British had met with the  French negotiator François Georges-  Picot on 23 November about the Arab  provinces and more specifically about  Syria. According to Barr, Picot’s belief  in France’s imperial ‘civilising mission’  ran in his blood. He had studied law  and later changed his career to be  a diplomat. As a tough negotiator  he made it clear to the British that  ‘Syria was very near to the heart of the  French’. He then reminded them that  while they were distracted by Gallipoli,  the French had to carry the burden of  the war on its western fronts. ‘Now after  the expenditure of so many lives, France  would never consent to offer independence  to the Arabs’. In contrast Britain  had offered the Arabs independence,  as this would allow London to carve  the Empire into provinces that would  be easier to influence rather than take  on the responsibility of administering  a huge empire. Sykes  and Picot reached an  agreement on 3 January  1916. They took  Syke’s line from Acre  to Kirkuk as a guide  but made many alterations.  France would  take the Syrian and  Lebanese coasts, part  of Turkey to the north  and Britain would get  southern Iraq up to  Baghdad and the port  of Haifa. Palestine remained  undecided as  they could not reach  any agreement over its  future. Therefore they  agreed that Palestine  would come under  international control.

We should remember  the British interests in  the Middle East. They  were first, to control  Iranian and Mesopotamian  oil; second, to  control Palestine as a  buffer to secure the  Suez Canal and Egypt;  and third, to control land and see  routes to India. Giving up Palestine was  not desirable to the British because of  its importance in their dominance over  Suez.  James Barr shows how the British  came up with an ingenious plan (as  they thought at that time) to control  Palestine without being seen as imperial  land grabbers. The idea was to  openly support Zionist aspirations to  make Palestine a Jewish state. In 1915  according to Barr, ‘a cabinet minister,  Herbert Samuel, who was both Jewish  and Zionist spotted the opportunity  to promote his long-held ambition to  see a Jewish state in Palestine. Many  Jews at that time, mostly those who  had fled the oppressive Tsarist regime  were unhappy with Britain because  of its alliance with Russia during the  war.

Samuel believed that Britain’s  support of Zionist ambitions would  reverse those sentiments. Moreover the  public declaration of support for Zionists  would leave France in a difficult  position and the idea of international  governance would disappear.  There was another reason to support  the Jewish state according to Barr. He  says that when the Allie’s great offensive  failed in the Battle of the Somme  in July 1916, it became evident that  the Germans could not be defeated  without the help of the United States  of America. Samuel pointed out that  there were two million Jews in the  United States whose support might  help draw Washington into the war.  However after the war and when Britain  was granted the mandate to control  Palestine, especially after 1939, the  British imposed tight immigration restrictions  and returned large numbers  of fleeing Jews to Nazi Germany. When  the nature of the systematic crimes  against Jews and the scale of the  Holocaust became evident, the British  in Palestine found  themselves in a very  difficult situation. Barr  shows how the French  saw that as an opportunity  and discovered  that the Zionists  ‘share their appetite  for revenge’. By that  time both Jewish and  Arab public opinion  resented British rule.  The book is a very interesting  and readable  account of British and  French rivalry over the  region from the late  nineteenth century  up to the First and  Second World War,  independence struggles  and nationalism  in the Arab world,  and the machinations  of seminal players  such as Churchill and  Balfour. It is also very  helpful in understanding  current developments  in the Arab  world by explaining the historic roots  of many of geopolitical disputes. •

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the  Struggle that Shaped the Middle East,  by James Barr, Simon & Schuster, Paperback  £8.99, 454 pages

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