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