Why the Middle East Is Always in Crisis

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June 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Leslie Evans


A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. David Fromkin. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989. 643 pp.


Why write about a book that is almost twenty-five-years old? The best reason is that it uncovers, layer by layer, the consequences, intentional and unintentional, of the confrontations in and after World War I that dismembered the Ottoman Empire and drew the map that built into itself the incendiary ingredients that have made the Middle East perhaps the most explosive portion of today’s world. The results of the final partition of the former Ottoman lands in 1922 directly laid the groundwork for today’s civil war in Syria, now spreading into Lebanon, the emergent second civil war in post-invasion Iraq, the rise of jihadi Islam, and the perennial Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only by looking at the region as a whole, pulling back from a narrow focus on the abuses of this or that Arab dictator or the Israeli occupation in the West Bank can the underlying dynamics and its actors’ motives be fully understood. David Fromkin’s classic work offers a convenient peg on which to hang a look back at how the Middle East mess took its modern form and what that tells us about where we are now.


Fromkin makes two points that are helpful to place at the beginning. First, it is common on the liberal-left to frame the post-World War I creation of dependent states in the Arab portion of the Ottoman territories as simply predation by Western imperialism. It is more accurate, he argues, to see that all the major actors in the war were empires and that is how all the important states involved in the conflict conceived of international politics. In the days before the League of Nations and its successor United Nations, empires, even if internally involving colonization and inequality, were the internationally unifying entities of the day. The first world war pitted the British, French, and Russian empires against the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Turkish empires. All had colonies, the Turks no less than the Europeans, as all of the Arab peoples had lived under Turkish domination for five hundred years. And during the war the Germans were directly involved in command positions in the Ottoman armies. Ironically, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks, after announcing to the world that they were the militant opponents of colonialism, used the Red Army to crush independence movements among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and imposed Russian-dominated governments over them that lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.


Second, and this is a point that has misled latter day liberals and leftists as much as it did the British and French imperialists of the last century, the central unifying element of the Ottoman peoples, particularly the Arabs, was and remains religious rather than national. And in the case of the overwhelmingly dominant Islam, it is a creed that consists largely of an extensive legal code that regulates every aspect of human life, rejects the comparable rules of every other faith, and does not accept the separation of church and state. There is a consequent extreme intolerance of religious difference, both within Islam between its warring sects, and with other confessions, particularly Jews, but also Christians.


The victors in World War I sought to create Western style nations based on patriotic identification with a territory. The ceaseless instability and endless bloodshed of the Arab East stems from the weak attraction of this concept among the peoples on the ground. Virtually every Arab state has been a theocracy, publicly acknowledged or cloaked behind a thin veil of secularism. And among the Arabs the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which dates from the late seventh century, remains a blood line. As I write, Bashar al-Assad’s government, nominally a secular Ba’athist regime, but dominated by the Alawite branch of Shiism, prohibits all the Sunni pilots in the air force from flying, while in adjacent Lebanon the Shi’ite Hezbollah, which supports its coreligionist in Syria, is engaged in running gun battles with Lebanese Sunnis.


Because religious homogeneity is the touchstone of stability and legitimacy in the Arab Middle East, it has been the best predictor of what states that emerged in 1922 would have relative peace and which would be forever internally torn. Fromkin ranks them in three levels. First, those states that have a very long preexisting continuity have been at least geographically stable. These are mainly Egypt and Persia. Next are those new states with a very strong rulership. He lists these as Saudi Arabia (which actually dates from 1932) and Turkey under Mustapha Kemal Pasha and his successors. He proposes that there remain a group of states whose existence in its present form remains contested. He lists these as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. In each case it is religious intolerance by the state’s opponents that puts its survival in question. He cites as an analogy the long period of national consolidation that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. This was not completed until the unification of Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century, fifteen hundred years after the fall of Rome.


This is a book largely about British actions in the Middle East between 1914 and 1922, and reactions by Turks, Arabs, Jews, and Persians. This is reasonable, as Britain was by far the most active Western power in the region in those years. French and Russian involvement are discussed to a lesser degree. To a surprising extent, even considering that it was a long-ago pre-Internet age, British information about the peoples it was dealing with was extraordinarily skimpy. This led to the proliferation of what today would look like bizarre conspiracy theories, such as the persistent belief in high government circles that Turkey was controlled by a pro-German Jewish cabal.


The Ottoman Background


The Ottoman Empire for Britain in the late nineteenth century was seen mainly as a welcome buffer to block Russian expansion, supplementing Afghanistan in the Great Game to protect British India. Though the Ottomans were notoriously in sharp decline, British policy up to the outbreak of the first world war was to stay out and leave the Empire intact, excepting Egypt, which had come under British control in 1882.


The Liberal Party in Britain in the 1880s strongly protested their government’s aid to the Ottomans, circulating reports of Islamic persecution of Christians. Disraeli, England’s Jewish prime minister, a Tory, supported aid to the Islamic Caliph in Constantinople. His successor in 1880, Gladstone, a Liberal, halted it. Thereafter the Turks cultivated relations with Germany instead.


Though in decline, the Ottoman Turks, as the holders of the Islamic caliphate, had for centuries pursued Muhammad’s vision of total world domination. They had acquired by colonial conquest the whole of the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Long after they lost Spain they seized most of Eastern Europe – Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and much of Hungary. They were stopped from taking Western Europe only by being repulsed during two brutal sieges of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683. Greece broke away in 1832, Bulgaria in 1878, and the last of the Ottoman Balkan colonies gained independence only in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. There were still in 1914 large Armenian and Jewish minorities as well as Coptic and Maronite Christians. Though the Empire was a theocracy, twenty-five percent of its subjects in 1900 were not Muslims and there were seventy-one sects of Muslim. The government became increasingly weak, but the Ottoman army remained formidable.


In 1908, the Young Turks, a largely secular secret society organized in the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), staged a successful revolution, imposing a constitutional monarchy on the Sultan and restarting the Empire’s moribund parliament.


If one were to say what is surprising about Fromkin’s study it is how little each side knew about the other leading up to and during the war. Major decisions, particularly by the British, were based on almost hilariously wrong information. As an example we have Gerald FitzMaurice, chief assistant to the British ambassador in Constantinople. The Young Turk rebellion had broken out in Salonika, today part of Greece but then still under Ottoman rule. Because Salonika had a large Jewish population, FitzMaurice, a virulent antisemite, believed claims by their Islamist enemies that the Young Turk movement was a front for an international Jewish conspiracy. He convinced the ambassador and they developed this thesis in reports to the British government in London, which believed them because they came directly from their own people in Constantinople. This conspiracy theory became an article of faith for the British until near the end of World War I. Over the years it was further embroidered. When the Ottomans allied with the Germans in the Great War it was believed that the international Jewish power was in cahoots with Germany. Then Russia, Britain’s ally, abandoned the war after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, in which many of the leaders were Jewish. Now high British officials concluded that the Bolsheviks were a German-Jewish front organization whose sole purpose was to stage manage Britain’s defeat.


Belief in these fantastic notions played a major role in the decision to issue the Balfour Declaration. Fromkin writes:


“FitzMaurice drew an obvious conclusion from his misconception: that the world war (in which Britain was by then engaged) could be won by buying the support of this powerful group. Its support could be bought, he decided, by promising to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. . . . This reasoning helped to persuade the Foreign Office that it ought to pledge British support to the Zionist program – which it eventually did in 1917.”


In 1913 the Young Turks took over direct control of the Ottoman government and appointed themselves as its heads. From then until the end of WWI in 1918 the principal figures in their government were Mehmed Talaat, Minister of the Interior; Enver Pasha, who headed the Ottoman military; and Djemal Pasha, Military Governor of Constantinople, and later of Syria and Palestine. They abandoned their program of 1908, which had pledged equal civil and religious rights for all, and now concentrated dominant power in the hands of Turkish Muslims in preference to Arabs and imposed still harsher conditions on Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Christians, and Jews.


Internationally the CUP government made its top priority securing an alliance with a major European power, to protect their Empire from the other powers. They first approached Britain. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was for it but the Foreign Office rejected the proposal. On August 1, 1914, the Young Turk government signed a secret treaty of alliance with Germany. The die was cast when two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, evading a British blockade in the Mediterranean, made harbor at Constantinople and were publicly welcomed by the Grand Vizier. When Britain protested, the Ottoman government issued a false claim that it had purchased the two ships, as cover inducting the German officers and crew into the Ottoman navy.


While it was still not certain that the Ottomans were really in the war on the German side, a British official met with the Ottoman ambassador in London to find out their leanings. The Turk’s explanation was that they leaned toward the Germans because they feared Russia, which had tried for a century and a half to dismember them, and which was allied with Britain and France. The Ottoman government, generally called the Porte, from the gate to its central buildings, initially thought to remain neutral when the fighting started. But the stunning German victory over Russia’s Second Army at the end of August 1914 led Enver Pasha to commit the Ottomans to the war on the German side in hopes of seizing Russian territory. In September the Turks mined the straits at the Dardanelles, closing off Russian access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, through which 50 percent of Russian exports passed. Britain declared war on the Ottomans in November.


In the war crisis Whitehall appointed Lord Herbert Kitchener as War Minister. Soon his face with its imposing moustache appeared on recruiting posters across the country, his finger pointing right at the viewer with the message in large type: “Your country needs YOU!”  Kitchener had conquered Sudan for Britain, avenging the murder of General Charles George Gordon in Khartoum. He commanded successfully in the Boar War, and had served as head of the British army in India. Most recently he was governor of Egypt. He had vast and unquestioned influence with the mass of the British public. He was the first to tell the Cabinet that the war would last for years and that it would be won on the ground and not with Britain’s vaunted navy. He saw the European theatre as the only one of importance and opposed any significant response to the Ottoman Empire.


It was assumed that Kitchener and his staff were expert on conditions in the Middle East. Consequently the Prime Minister and the Cabinet almost invariably deferred to him, or in practice to very junior members of his staff who were presumed to be conveying Kitchener’s opinions, though this was often not the case. In fact, even those British officials on the ground in Egypt knew very little about conditions in the Arab lands. There was not at that time a single authoritative book in English on the history of the Ottoman Empire, the best thing available being a German work written in 1744. Of course, this ignorance was mutual. Little was known about British and French issues on the Turkish and Arab side.


Kitchener continued to rely heavily on his team in Khartoum and Cairo. Mainly this was Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, British Governor-General of Sudan, based in Khartoum, Wingate’s Cairo deputy, Gilbert Clayton, who was also Director of Intelligence for the Egyptian army, and Kitchener’s former secretary, Ronald Storrs. In London, a central figure in the Kitchener group became the young MP Mark Sykes, later coauthor of the Sykes-Picot Treaty.


Wingate and Clayton became devotees of Gerald FitzMaurice’s crackpot theory that the Young Turk heads of the Porte regime were pro-German Jews. Their working hypothesis was that they should try to break the Arab colonies away from the Turkish heartland of the Ottomans. These British officials were misled here by a few self-seeking Arab radicals, who greatly exaggerated Arab discontent with Turkish rule, to imagine that liberation and then administration by a Christian power would be seen as an improvement.


This was a view fatefully promoted in London by Kitchener and his staff. They were at that time opposed by central figures in the then-Liberal Party government: Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, and Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) were against any acquisition of Ottoman territory by Britain.


Kitchener’s reasoning ultimately shaped British war aims and from there, much of our contemporary Middle East. He grasped that Islam was the unifying element in the Muslim East, but he erroneously supposed it to be rigidly centralized. From this he concluded that whoever controlled the Muslim caliphate would command the whole of the Middle East. He believed, along with Wingate and Clayton, that the caliphate was already in the hands of pro-German Jews, and expected that even if the Allies won the war that it would then fall into the hands of the Russians, who it was plain hoped to conquer Constantinople to protect their route to the Mediterranean. Either a German or Russian Caliph would be a mortal threat to Britain’s colonies in Egypt, Sudan, and India, which contained half the world’s Muslims. Kitchener believed that Tsarist Russia had ambitions to conquer India. So he advocated breaking the caliphate away from the Turks and giving it back to the Arabs. His candidate was Hussein bin Ali, the Ottoman Sharif of the Hejaz.


Hussein’s Hashem family, the Hashemites, were descended from Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, and had ruled the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in western Arabia since the tenth century. Under the Ottomans they held the title of Sharif and were in charge of the Hejaz, a narrow strip on the west of Arabia that ran from the Gulf of Aqaba in the north to the border of what is now Yemen in the south. Britain did not consider the alternative contender for control of Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Kitchener on September 24, 1914, had Storrs in Cairo send a messenger to Hussein’s son Abdullah asking if the Hejaz would support Britain in the war.


To the Kitchener crew in Cairo the proposal that the Hejaz ruler become the Caliph was seen as a religious and moral authority like that of the Pope in Christendom. To Hussein, in accord with Muslim tradition, the Caliph was the fully empowered political ruler as well, so the offer was taken to mean kingship over the whole of Arabia at minimum and more likely over the whole Arab world.


The British Raj in India, based at its summer capital at Simla, was appalled. They wanted to maintain the Afghanistan-Arab buffer between the British colony and the European powers, but did not want to see a unified Arab state in place of the weak and more distant Ottoman Empire. This split between British officialdom in Simla and Cairo persisted throughout the Great War. A further difference was that Simla had opened relations with Ibn Saud in eastern Arabia while Cairo was negotiating with the Hashemites of the Hejaz in the west. And while Simla opposed immediate Arab independence from the Ottomans, Kitchener’s people were issuing proclamations calling for an Arab revolt.


Meanwhile in Constantinople, Enver Pasha, against the advice of his German advisers, had delusions of grandeur. In December 1914 he launched an invasion of Russia, attacking in the mountainous Caucasus in the dead of winter. After defeating Russia he planned to conquer British India. Forced to leave his artillery behind in the snow, and with inadequate food, a typhus epidemic scattered his forces, the Russians finishing off the job.


In Europe the invention of barbed wire and the machine gun, combined with greatly improved artillery, produced static trench emplacements in northern France that were almost impossible to breach. Hundreds of thousands of casualties fell in single battles. Kitchener and the rest of the War Cabinet grasped early in the fighting that this would be a long war with prodigious human costs. They began to look for some way to outflank the Germans. In December 1914, Maurice Hankey, secretary of the War Cabinet, submitted a memorandum proposing an attack on Constantinople by breaching the straits of the Dardanelles, then, in alliance with her Balkan allies – Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania – a march on Austria-Hungary and Germany from the east. Later historians agree that this could have easily been accomplished, but the effort was bungled at several stages, leading to one of Britain’s most costly defeats in the war.


Kitchener, responding to Russian appeals that the seaway from the Black Sea be reopened, approved the plan, but only on the condition that only the navy would take part. He refused to allow troops to be diverted from the Western Front. At the last minute, in February 1915, he agreed to send one British division along with new units from Australia and New Zealand. The plan still called for the navy alone to open the straits, with the troops following later. The Turks anticipated the attack, but had no plan to repel it, expecting to lose. British warships fired the first shot on February 19. The Ottomans were in such extremis that they proposed to the Germans to try to get Russia to switch sides in the war to defend them.


Fromkin gives us the oft-told tale of Britain’s missteps that followed. Newly appointed Admiral John de Robeck opened the main attack on the straits on March 18, 1915. His first day was a disaster. A French ship exploded. Three of Robeck’s ships struck mines, two of them sinking. He withdrew, cabling London that he would resume hostilities in a few days. In London they received intelligence reports that the Turks had run out of ammunition. Fromkin writes:


“All that stood between the British-led Allied fleet and Constantinople were a few submerged mines, and Ottoman supplies of these were so depleted that the Turks were driven to catch and re-use the mines that the Russians were using against them. Morale in Constantinople disintegrated. Amidst rumors and panic the evacuation of the city commenced.”


At this juncture de Robeck lost his nerve and refused to continue. The War Cabinet decided to send in its limited army units without naval support. In the interim the defense of the Dardanelles was assumed by Mustapha Kemal, the Turkish officer who later was to rule Turkey as Kemal Ataturk. The British forces, under Sir Ian Hamilton, attacked the northern side of the straits, the Gallipoli peninsula. There was a delay of almost a month while Hamilton assembled his troops. The assault began on April 25. Taking the ridges in several places, the British lost the initiative by camping overnight. By the next day Mustapha Kemal’s reinforcements had arrived. The British dug trenches as in France and the same bloody stalemate ensued. The Turks held the heights while the British were pinned down on the beaches.


Despite the fact that the army had taken over the campaign, Winston Churchill was blamed for the defeat. It had been Kitchener who had insisted that the navy go it alone and initiated the separation of the two services, but he was above reproach while Churchill had been prominent in the public eye in the lead-up to the Gallipoli landing. He was dismissed from the Admiralty on May 19. In the end there were 200,000 English, Australian, and New Zealand casualties in the Gallipoli campaign.


The vast loss of life at Gallipoli ironically led to the feeling in Britain that it had made a great investment in the Middle East and had a stake that should be pursued territorially at the war’s end, as Fromkin puts it, “to give some sort of meaning to so great a sacrifice.”


The public, the press, and initially the Tory critics of the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his second in command, who would succeed him in 1916, David Lloyd George, were convinced that Britain’s setbacks, in Gallipoli and in France, were due to civilian meddling with Kitchener’s military. Over time, both the leaders of the Liberal Party majority and the Tory minority came to realize that Kitchener was out of his depth and having increasing difficulty formulating a course for Britain’s military. This became a closely guarded secret of the high command.


While British victory over the Ottoman Empire, as well as over Germany, now looked remote, an effort was set afoot to explore plans for a postwar Middle East. A central figure in this was Sir Mark Sykes, a young protégé of Kitchener who had spent a good deal of time in the region. The first version had a unified Arabic-speaking domain, in which religious authority would be exercised by Sherif Hussein in Mecca while temporal authority was exercised by the King of Egypt, with Kitchener to be British High Commissioner behind the throne. The British in India had some idea of administering Mesopotamia (later Iraq) from India, but opposed the consolidation of any large Arab state. They were supported by the Foreign Office, but Kitchener backed Sykes and won out. An Arab Bureau was created in December 1915, headquartered in Cairo, where it was effectively dominated by Kitchener’s proteges Wingate and Clayton. A low-level functionary brought in semi-officially was T. E. Lawrence, soon to win fame as Lawrence of Arabia.


The British at that time had no definite agreement with any Arab leader or group. It seemed providential, then, when Ottoman staff officer Lieutenant Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi presented himself, claiming to speak both for Sharif Hussein and for allegedly powerful secret Arab societies. The reality behind this was that Hussein had learned that the Porte intended to depose him. Reluctantly, he tried to interest the British, sending them a letter in the summer of 1915, expressing his understanding of what the caliphate meant, that they should make him ruler of the whole Arab-speaking realm. In making this demand he had been in contact, through his son Feisal, with Arab secret societies in Damascus who thought they could stage an insurrection with several units of the Ottoman army in which Arabs were the majority. The British did not take his demands seriously.


Al-Faruqi had been a member of one of the underground groups. By the time he approached the British in Cairo at the end of 1915 Djemal Pasha had discovered the plot and crushed the Damascus plotters. Al-Faruqi in effect tried to hoax the British by claiming he spoke for the Ottoman army officers in Damascus as well as for Sharif Hussein. He clearly knew the details of Hussein’s correspondence with the Arab Bureau in Cairo, and claimed the insurrection was still ready to go. He played a role something like that of the informer Curveball in the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.


The British were convinced now that Sharif Hussein both wanted an alliance and that he had significant military backing from within the Ottoman army. Al-Faruqi insisted that the price of the pending revolt was a British pledge to support an independent Arab Middle East. On the basis of al-Faruqi’s assurances the War Cabinet opened negotiations to try to persuade France to give up its claims to Syria.


From here unfolded the famous Arab Revolt of 1916. In a lengthy correspondence between British High Commissioner in Egypt Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein the British used formulas that could be read to mean a vague promise of postwar Arab independence but were intended to be unenforceable, while Hussein on his part opposed conceding “a single square foot of territory” to France in what are now Syria and Lebanon. While not winning that commitment he joined the Allied side anyway, as he had few options on the Turkish side.


If the British assurances of independence were false, so were the Arab promises made by Sharif Hussein, al-Faruqi, and by Aziz Ali al-Masri, a leader of the Damascus secret societies, who also participated in the exchanges. Fromkin writes:


“Hussein had no army, and the secret societies had no visible following. Their talk of rallying tens or hundreds of thousands of Arab troops to their cause, whether or not they believed it themselves, was sheer fantasy.”



The next step was London’s negotiations with Paris that ended in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in May 1916. Francois George Picot represented the hard-colonialist elements in the French government. Their war aims in Asia Minor were to directly administer the coastal cities of Syria, plus all of what became Lebanon, and to control the interior of Syria through Arab puppet rulers. They had some hopes of getting northern Mesopotamia as well, specifically the area around Mosul, now in northern Iraq. Britain was privately sympathetic to these aims, as it would provide a French buffer between British-dominated areas and Russia. The secret treaty Sykes and Picot negotiated gave France everything it asked for, while giving to Britain the provinces of Basra and Baghdad in Mesopotamia, and the loosely defined area the British called Palestine, which was based on the Ottoman vilayet called the Sanjak of Jerusalem but with larger boundaries. There was no area called Palestine under Ottoman rule. Variants of the term Palaestina appear in Herodotus among the ancient Greeks, in Roman writings, and among the Byzantine Greeks, possibly referring to the Philistines, but the term was not used by either Turks or Arabs until the British introduced it, and in British minds it was meant to signify geographically the biblical Jewish Holy Land. “Palestine” was to be placed under an as-yet undefined form of international administration, because of the Holy Land it contained, though the treaty made no mention of the Jews. The French, almost immediately after the signing, made another secret agreement with Russia, in which France, not some international body, was to control Palestine.


Sykes, who had a lifelong fear of Jews, came soon to feel, in contrast to Picot, that Britain ought to promise the Jews a place in Palestine to head off damage to the British cause this mysterious and powerful global force might be inclined to perpetrate. Around the same time, in the spring of 1916, the inveterate conspiracy enthusiast FitzMaurice persuaded a friend in the Foreign Office to submit a memo suggesting that “if we could offer the Jews an arrangement as to Palestine which would strongly appeal to them we might conceivably be able to strike a bargain with them as to withdrawing their support from the Young Turk Government which would then automatically collapse.”


In actuality, Djemal Pasha, the Young Turk administrator in Syria and Palestine, at the end of 1914 had ordered the destruction of the Jewish settlements and the expulsion of the Jews. This was partially carried out before the Germans got him to stop, for fear of pushing foreign Jews into the Allied camp. Ironically, David Ben-Gurion in 1914 offered to raise a Jewish army to defend the Ottoman Empire. He was deported to the United States, where for a few years he continued to propose his pro-Turkish force, switching to a plan for a pro-Allied Jewish army only in 1918.


No one intervened when, early in 1915, the Islamic Porte’s xenophobic hostilities turned on the Armenians, far outdoing the massacres of the mid-1890s. Fully half of Ottoman Armenians were deliberately killed or died under the severe conditions of a forced-march deportation. A common figure is that the dead reached 1.5 million. The massacre did strengthen opinion in the West that the Ottomans should not be left in control of non-Islamic peoples after the war, and perhaps not even of non-Turkish Muslims.


Sykes seems to have been a rather naïve young man and believed his treaty’s phraseology about independent Arab states. Picot was pleased to use such verbiage so long as France’s sphere of influence was included, while Sykes’ colleagues back in Cairo felt the same way about “independent” Arab regimes where Britain was to be their advisor.


The Kitchener era ended abruptly on June 5, 1916. Asquith, afraid of the public’s reaction if he had the failing hero removed from command, but unwilling to allow him to continue, sent him on a long voyage to confer with their Russian allies. His ship, the Hampshire, struck a German mine a few hours out of port from the naval headquarters at Scapa Flow. It went down with almost all aboard. A South African Boer adventurer, Fritz Joubert Duquesne, who had tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Kitchener during the Second Boer War, later claimed that he had given the Hampshire’s course coordinates to the Germans. During a stint in America Duquesne served as Teddy Roosevelt’s trainer for big game hunting. While living in Brazil during some part of World War I he planted time bombs disguised as mineral samples that sank twenty-two Allied ships. He was finally arrested in New York in 1942 during World War II as the head of the biggest German spy ring ever discovered in America.


The Arab Revolt

Emir Hussein proclaimed his long-awaited revolt the same week that Kitchener died. Only a few thousand Bedouin tribesmen joined in, but no regulars from the Ottoman armies. The British navy guarded the Hejaz coast, while a few units of British Muslim troops from Egypt landed to support the Emir. The Arab secret societies, insofar as they existed, much as they wanted independence from the Turks were firmly opposed to British rule and did nothing. Even Hussein himself kept a diplomatic line open to the Porte, offering to change back to the Turkish side if they would guarantee his rule in the Hejaz. The British spent 11 million pounds on the revolt that fizzled (about US$886 million in 2010 dollars).


Just as it seemed that the revolt would come to nothing at all, T.E. Lawrence, then working as a translator in the Cairo headquarters, proposed to have the Emir’s small force engage in a guerrilla campaign. It should be placed, he said, under the command of Hussein’s son Feisal, and that Lawrence himself was the only liaison Feisal would accept. Thus Lawrence got his foot in the door of the Arab Revolt. He was five foot five inches and had been turned down by the regular army as too short. He left Cairo to join Feisal on November 25, 1916.


In the course of 1916 and 1917 all three of the Allied governments that had entered the war in 1914 fell. The Liberal government in Britain was replaced by a coalition dominated by the Unionist-Conservative Party of Andrew Bonar Law, which endorsed the Liberal Lloyd George as prime minister. Unlike Asquith, Lloyd George ranked British conquests in the Middle East very highly. And unlike his colleagues, who had been schooled in Greek and Latin, he had been raised on the Bible, and viewed the Holy Land as a coherent whole that should be placed under the protection of the Jews, its original inhabitants, though he expected a Zionist state to accept British tutelage.


In November 1917, after several earlier and inconsequential changes of government, France gave the premiership to the seventy-six-year-old Georges Clemenceau. He differed from his predecessors in being more implacably anti-German, and in being less interested in colonies or Middle East affairs, seeing Europe as the political essential. Fromkin comments:


“The fortunes of war and politics had brought into power in their respective countries the first British Prime Minister who wanted to acquire territory in the Middle East and the only French politician who did not want to do so.”


And of course, there were the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, that ended with Lenin’s Bolsheviks in power and Russia out of the war.


Fromkin includes an interesting account of one more element in the British high command’s misinformation and conspiracy theories, in which they amalgamated Lenin and the Communist Revolution to the notion that the Ottoman Empire was controlled by a pro-German Jewish cabal. The fact that Lenin returned to Russia in the famous sealed train, provided by Berlin, and that Lenin within the year took Russia out of the war, to Germany’s great advantage, convinced many of Britain’s leaders that the Bolsheviks were a mere front for German policy. One figure provided what looked like solid evidence for that theory. This was Alexander Israel Helphand (1867-1924).


Helphand, a Jew born in a shtetl in what is now Belarus, became a Marxist in the late 1880s. He helped Lenin found the newspaper Iskra, was friends with Rosa Luxemburg, and was best known, under the name Parvus, for developing the theory of permanent revolution, which he then shared with Leon Trotsky. He was active in the Russian Revolution of 1905, when he was arrested and imprisoned. He later made a great deal of money in various businesses. And here is how he intersects our current story. He moved to Constantinople, where from 1912 he became close to the Young Turk leaders. He became an arms dealer, where he supplied the Ottoman armies during the Balkan Wars. At the outbreak of World War I he lobbied the Turks to ally with Germany against Russia. In 1915 he went to Berlin to try to persuade the German high command to throw their support to Russian Marxist revolutionaries with the goal of getting Russia out of the war, and if possible inciting a revolution there that would dismember the Russian state. He especially told them to put their money on Lenin. The Germans assented, and gave Helphand a million marks to put his plan into operation. Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg broke with Parvus. Lenin did so formally, but Fromkin says that Lenin’s correspondence shows that he secretly received money from him “via a Polish and a Russian Social Democrat.” And, most important of all, Helphand arranged the German sealed train for Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917.


The British intelligence services knew most of this and added it into the conspiracy: Here is a highly placed Jew who advises the Ottoman government, has extensive business connections with it, but is also a pro-German agent who secures German aid for the Russian Bolsheviks to undermine Britain’s wartime ally. Case proved. As Fromkin writes, “British observers of the Russian revolutions in 1917 were struck by the apparent conjunction of Bolsheviks, Germans, and Jews.” The Turkish angle just clinched it.


The colonial aspirations of the British and French were complicated when the United States entered the war in April 1917, in response to the sinking of American ships by German submarines. The U.S. was particularly outraged by the telegram German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent to his Minister in Mexico instructing him to try to get Mexico to join the German side, and in the event the U.S. entered the war, to seize Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The British intercepted and decoded it and turned it over to the U.S. in late February. Woodrow Wilson strongly opposed the creation of any new colonies and called for the right of nations to self-determination. This and a general climate that was emerging in which colonialism was getting a bad name, explains why at the war’s end French and British administrations in the Middle East were framed as temporary Mandates rather than as colonies as would have been the case a generation earlier.


The Balfour Declaration and the British Conquest of Palestine


Interestingly, the international Zionist movement remained firmly neutral throughout World War I. A cardinal reason was fear that siding with Britain in the war would provoke the Turks into taking reprisals against the Jews of Palestine, as they had done with the Armenians. The British connection to the actual Zionist movement came through Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a noted chemist and naturalized British subject, who headed a British Zionist Federation. He held no position in the international Zionist movement and opposed their policy of neutrality. He would at the end of his life become the first president of Israel.


In early 1917 Weizmann arranged to meet Mark Sykes. Sykes was still trying to adhere to  the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, so told Weizmann a Jewish state in Palestine would have to be under a joint French-English international condominium. Weizmann responded that he favored British only. As it happened, this was already Lloyd George’s view and Sykes was working with a policy the highest ranks of his government had abandoned. Lloyd George eventually met with Weizmann directly and backed his mutually agreeable position. The main obstacle to a public announcement was seen to be France and its ambitions rather than either the Turks or the Arabs. In fact, figures such as Lloyd George and Mark Sykes viewed themselves as equally pro Arab and pro Jewish, thinking both would benefit from escaping from Turkish rule, and that Jewish knowhow and financial backing could rapidly raise the standard of living in Palestine, to the benefit of both peoples. This view simply failed to grasp how Islam was viewed by its faithful.


Nevertheless, Lloyd George believed he needed French agreement to issue anything formal. The problem was solved by putting forward yet another fantasy: that a pledge of a Jewish homeland in Palestine would enthuse the millions of Russian Jews sufficiently to keep Russia in the war. The negotiations with the French took place before the Bolshevik seizure of power. Nahum Sokolow, an official of the international Zionist movement, told the French government that he would undertake a mission to the Jews of Russia if they would in return make a statement of support to a Jewish Palestine. The French issued a carefully worded document that in practice promised nothing, but it was enough for the British to move ahead and have Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour draft a statement. This was held up for several months in one of the complications typical of everything involving this issue, when several prominent British Jews, particularly Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, strongly opposed it, seeing the creation of a Jewish country as a threat to Jewish acceptance in Britain and raising charges of divided loyalty.


When it was finally released, on November 2, 1917, the famous Balfour Declaration consisted of only three sentences, only one of which was substantive. It read:


“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”


Britain adhered to this affirmation for a number of years, but by the late thirties had abandoned it.


*    *    *


The devastation in Europe was so extreme and the trench warfare so difficult to break through that there was little to fight for there, even though the fight could not be escaped. There were hopes of winning something in the Middle East despite the Gallipoli disaster. The new effort got off to a rocky start. Britain’s Indian Army made a push toward Baghdad in late 1915, but were mauled by the Turks the following spring. Under a new general, Stanley Maude, the Anglo-Indian Army of the Tigris entered the Mesopotamian provinces in December 1916 and captured Baghdad on March 11, 1917. Close to a majority of the city’s inhabitants at that time were Jews, their occupancy predating the Muslim conquest by a thousand years. The British thinking was to place the provinces of Baghdad and Basra under King Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, ignoring the fact that the two provinces as a whole were strongly Shi’ite.


Also in the spring of 1917 British forces based in Egypt set out to march north and capture Palestine. The first British commander, Sir Archibald Murray, was twice defeated in Gaza by Ottoman troops commanded by German officers. Djemal Pasha, the military governor, began a new campaign of suppression of unreliable elements. He expelled the entire Jewish and Arab populations of Jaffa, many of whom died in the process. He announced he intended to deport the whole civilian population of Jerusalem, the majority of whom were Jews. In June General Murray was replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby, who was ordered to take Jerusalem by Christmas. He did, but by the time he got there only about a third of the Jewish population remained. Fromkin writes: “[M]ost of the rest had died of starvation or disease.”


T. E. Lawrence had his first success with his Arab guerrillas in July 1917, when he accompanied a Bedouin chief who staged a daring raid, capturing Aqaba at the northern tip of the Red Sea in what is now Jordan. Lawrence showed up afterward near Cairo in Arab dress to recount the exploit. Always ready to exaggerate his own role and prone to retail fantasy for fact, Lawrence was en route to becoming a national hero.


The Aqaba battle marked the first breakout of the Hejaz forces, who had been blockaded by the Turks. Now their fighters, though not numerous, took part in guerrilla actions supporting the British drive into Palestine. Feisal was made a general in the British army to command these troops. He never had more than about 1,000 Bedouins and another 2,500 former Ottoman prisoners of war. Small as this force was, it was welcome when, after the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s definitive exit from the war, Germany transferred most of her Eastern Front units to the west, and almost all of Allenby’s troops were recalled to Europe. What saved the British in Palestine was a decision by Enver Pasha to launch a major offensive in the other direction, to try to capture for the Ottomans a big piece of Russia’s Central Asian territories, mainly Azerbaijan and Turkestan, although he had megalomaniacal hopes of conquering Persia, Afghanistan, and India as well. He succeeded in occupying Baku, but was forced to evacuate his troops by the terms of the armistice as the war ended. He was dismissed as War Minister in October 1918.


*   *   *


Implementing the Balfour Declaration did not fare well on the ground. And this was not particularly because of Arab opposition, but due to anti-Jewish feeling among the British leadership in Cairo. Fromkin writes:


“Even by the standards of the time, Clayton and his colleague, Wingate, were strongly disposed to be anti-Jewish.” Sykes began as an antisemite, but once he committed himself to the idea of the Jewish homeland he remained steadfast. On the whole, Clayton and Wingate sabotaged the Balfour commitment.


Early in 1918 Chaim Weizmann led an international Zionist delegation to Palestine. He met with Prince Feisal and the two got on well. Feisal above all wanted British support to become the ruler of Syria and had little interest in Palestine. He was content for the Jews to have it if it meant British backing for his own cause. Feisal followed through by a public endorsement of Zionism at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Unhappily, the British remained split, with the former Kitchener people in Cairo backing the Hashemites while the Indian government was supporting Ibn Saud. How firmly to back Feisal was put to a test as Allenby approached Damascus in September 1918. In London there was division over whether the Sykes-Picot treaty was still valid. If it was, Syria was to be ceded to France. If not, then most likely Feisal would be named king.


Allenby raised Feisal’s flag over Damascus on October 2, but Feisal and his troops did not arrive until the following day and played no part in the city’s capture. Allenby met with Feisal that afternoon and laid down Britain’s conditions. France was to have direct control of the coastal cities, including Damascus. The Arab sector would be inland Syria, but excluding Lebanon and Palestine. Even in the Arab sector Feisal would be “under French guidance and financial backing” (from the minutes by France’s representative at the meeting).


The French had very limited forces in the region. They had hoped to capture what is now Lebanon and Syria, if not Palestine as well, but lacked the troops to do so. They were able to win out in only a part of Lebanon. Allenby brought T. E. Lawrence to London to argue for rejecting all French influence in Syria. Feisal, Lawrence said, did not want French advisers but would prefer British or else, surprisingly, American Jewish Zionists. There was a heated debate on whether to set aside the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which had made the promises to France, with Sykes and the Foreign Office opposing but most of the rest of the government, including the Prime Minister, in favor.


Publicly London now advocated an independent Syria under Feisal, free of French interference. Behind the scenes they expected Britain to pull Feisal’s strings.


In March 1918 Germany concluded its armistice with Lenin’s Russia, touching off a race between the Germans and their erstwhile Turkish allies to seize Russian dominated Transcaucasia, consisting of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The area briefly declared its collective independence. Azerbaijan and its capital Baku were the main prize because of the plentiful oil. A small British force allied with a loose coalition of local ethnic and radical leftist groups briefly held Baku, but were overwhelmed by the Ottomans in September 1918. The Bolshevik Red Army invaded Azerbaijan in April 1920 and it, along with the other Transcaucasian states were incorporated into what became the Soviet Union in 1922.  One of the strangest confrontations of the war took place in Turkestan, when the British and Ottomans fought together on one side against Bolsheviks joined by contingents of German and Austrian prisoners of war.


Bulgaria sued for peace on September 26, 1918, opening the way to Germany’s eastern flank, within days bringing the long war to an end.


Remaking the Middle East

At the war’s end Britain had 1,084,000 troops in the Middle East, and had seen 250,000 of its men killed or wounded there. The French had only a tiny force and the Americans, who had joined the war late, nothing at all. Based on its strength on the ground, Britain made large-scale demands for territory. As its troops left for home, however, and its armies on the spot rapidly dwindled away, these demands became impossible to enforce. Her position was worsened by a major domestic recession in 1920-21. Lloyd George continued as Prime Minister, and Churchill returned to the government, as Secretary of State for both War and Air, placing him in charge of the demobilization and also of whatever military moves would be made in the former Ottoman territories.


Unexpectedly, Italy, which had been on the Allied side but had nothing to do with the Middle East, laid claim to a portion of Anatolia and landed troops at Smyrna. Stories of Italian atrocities raised international outrage. The Allies, with strong American support, asked Greece, which was nearby, to send in its own forces to expel the Italians. This set up a major confrontation between the Greeks and the Turks. Smyrna had been a Greek city since the days of classical Athens, and the Anatolian Mediterranean coast was dotted with Greek towns and offshore islands that had been colonized by Greece for some 2,500 years. Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference were sympathetic to the idea that a portion of Anatolia around Smyrna should become part of Greece. It might seem that Europe and Asia are naturally separated in that area by the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, yet in the end these natural borders didn’t hold, but it was the other way around, and Turkey incorporated a portion of European Greece.


Through astute manipulation of the agenda, Lloyd George managed to keep virtually all of Britain’s holdings in the Middle East off the floor at Versailles: its occupation of Mesopotamia/Iraq, its influence in Persia, its alliances in Arabia with both Hussein and Ibn Saud, and even the fate of Palestine. Only France’s claim to Syria was up for debate. Woodrow Wilson spoke forcefully for national self-determination, but returned home early and the Senate refused to ratify either the Treaty of Versailles or American membership in the League of Nations. The commission on the Middle East excluded almost all the interested parties. It was initially composed of five states, then reduced to a Council of Four – the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. Italy soon withdrew, and when Wilson went home there were just Britain and France.


The details were worked out not at Versailles but in a series of succeeding conferences and treaties, concluding in a final redrawing of the Middle Eastern map in 1922. Fromkin notes that “Lloyd George, between 1919 and 1922, attended no fewer than thirty-three international conferences.” The most important ones for the Ottoman Empire were the First Conference of London (beginning February 1920), a meeting in San Remo, Italy, in April, and a treaty at Sevres near Paris signed in August 1920.


The greatest omission from the settlements were the hoped-for creation of a homeland for the Kurds, the largest ethnicity in the world that had no state of its own. The British had hoped to sponsor one or more Kurdish homelands, but when they occupied the area in 1919 the Kurds rebelled against them and the project was dropped. Today the Kurds are divided between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, their unrealized hopes for nationhood leading to perennial clashes in all four states.


The intent of the armistice terms were to break off the Arabic-speaking territories from the Ottomans and shrink their empire to its Turkish core, under various restrictions and impositions of external control. When popular opposition arose to the limits on national sovereignty, the new sultan, Mehmed VI, who intended to cooperate with the Allies, imposed a dictatorship. Outside of Constantinople the government’s authority collapsed, replaced by roving bands and local administrations. This became an international problem when Muslim bands attacked Greek villages near Samsun on the north Black Sea coast. The Sultan appointed Mustapha Kemal to suppress the unrest. Kemal set out on May 6, 1919, but his real intent was to recruit an army in the Turkish interior to resist excessive Allied demands.


As the Greeks were massing in the west at Smyrna, Mustapha Kemal revolted against the Sultan in the interior. He called a national congress at Sivas and declared Turkey independent. In February 1920 Kemal led an army of 30,000 in defeating a small French unit in southern Anatolia, providing the first indication to the Western powers that his army existed. Kemal was an exception in the region in that he was a secular nationalist, while for all the prominent Arab leaders Islam was the center of their politics.


Parallel to Kemal’s uprising in Turkey, Arab resistance to the French began to stir, based in Damascus but extending into Lebanon. It was led by former Ottoman officers and pro-Ottoman land owners, now committed to Arab independence from Turkey but persisting in their hostility to the Western Christian powers. These elements were far weaker than Kemal and divided among themselves, but the British, the only serious Western military force nearby, withdrew in September 1919. That left Feisal, who was claiming to rule Syria in alliance with Britain, caught between the Arabs who wanted independence and the French who would have none of it. When Clemenceau, who had been willing to concede a good deal to Feisal to maintain relations with Britain, was defeated for the French presidency in January 1920, replaced by hard-line colonialist Alexandre Millerand, the period of negotiations with Feisal abruptly ended.


The terms arrived at in London and San Remo in 1920 provided that the Arabic-speaking portion of the Ottoman Empire would be split off from Turkey and divided between France and Britain, under League of Nation Mandates that were nominally temporary. France would get Syria and Lebanon; Britain, Mesopotamia and Palestine. Arabia would be independent, but its kings were allied to Britain. Turkey’s finances were to be administered by France, Britain, and Italy, while the Dardanelles were to be under international control. It didn’t work the way it was planned.


Local unrest soon broke out throughout the British-occupied areas: Rioting in Egypt in 1919, a war in Afghanistan, anti-Jewish riots in western Palestine in the spring of 1920, and a revolt in Iraq that summer. France and Communist Russia also faced Muslim revolts. Fromkin devotes a brief chapter to each of the trouble spots that confronted the British.


In November 1918 an Egyptian delegation, led by Saad Zaghlul, a founder of the Wafd Party, had a meeting with Sir Reginald Wingate, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, asking to attend the Versailles Conference. This was refused, and when Zaghlul persisted, he was arrested and deported to Malta. Protests erupted, there were massive strikes, railroad lines were torn up. Two British officers and five soldiers were murdered. Things were brought under control only when General Allenby returned to Cairo and ordered Zaghlul’s release. Fromkin writes: “The principal British fantasy about the Middle East – that it wanted to be governed by Britain, or with her assistance – ran up against a stone wall of reality.” Britain continued to rule, without the consent of the governed, mainly because of its concern with control of the Suez Canal. It issued a unilateral declaration of Egypt’s independence on February 22, 1922, which reduced but did not eliminate Britain’s military presence. Saad Zaghlul was elected Prime Minister in 1924. The last of British influence essentially ended with the Egyptian officers’ revolution in 1952, the last British troops leaving in 1954.


On February 19, 1919, Amanullah Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan, a British protectorate, issued a declaration of independence. He planned to sponsor a national anti-British uprising in India. Afghan troops crossed into India on May 3, 1919. The British won the skirmish, bombed several Afghan cities, but in August  conceded complete Afghan independence.


In Arabia both monarchs were being financed by Britain, but they were engaged in a religious war against each other. The Saudi family were allied with the fanatical and puritanical Wahabi sect, which viewed all other forms of Islam as heretical. In May 1919 a Bedouin force of Wahabi militants, numbering just 1,100, armed only with swords, spears, and some antiquated rifles, completely destroyed a Hejaz force of 5,000 camped with the latest European equipment. In 1924 Ibn Saud and his Wahabi warriors totally destroyed the Hashemite system and incorporated the Hejaz into what was soon renamed Saudi Arabia.


Turkey proved the biggest surprise for the Western powers. As late as the beginning of 1919 Lloyd George was considering a plan in which Turkey would be divided between Greece, France, Italy, and the United States. By 1920 he came around to the idea of keeping the country unified, but under strictures of foreign control. In Turkey, in contrast, national elections were held late in 1919 that produced delegates quite unwilling to accept Britain’s terms. The new delegates held an informal meeting at Angora (now Ankara) where they endorsed a declaration called the National Pact that proclaimed Turkey an independent Muslim state. In January 1920 when the new Chamber of Deputies formally convened in Constantinople they voted to adopt the National Pact and announced this publicly on February 17. Fromkin comments:


“If the political theme of the twentieth century is seen to be the ending of Europe’s rule over its neighboring continents, then the Ottoman Chamber’s declaration of independence signaled the dawn of the century.”


A new war began. Mustapha Kemal delivered a smashing defeat to the French in Cilicia near the Syrian border. Then, in mid-March, the British occupied Constantinople. Prominent officials and members of the Chamber of Deputies were arrested and deported to Malta. This simply released Mustapha Kemal from any obligation to the Sultan and his government. Free members of the Chamber of Deputies made their way to Angora, where they declared a new parliament and elected Mustapha Kemal president.


The British took a while to grasp what Kemal represented. They first thought he was an agent of the Sultan. Then, when he signed a treaty with the Bolsheviks in March 1921, they thought that he was acting either for the Communists or for Enver Pasha, who had been given asylum at the end of World War I. All these assumptions were wrong. Kemal and Enver were enemies, and Kemal soon outlawed the Turkish Communist Party and had its leaders killed. The Communists ignored this and began to pump money and military supplies into Turkey on the grounds that driving out the British was more important.


Because the Ottomans had just been defeated in a long war, the British did not believe that Kemal could mount a credible opposition. This was a grave miscalculation. After a Kemalist attack on a British battalion outside of Constantinople in June 1920 London, looking for reinforcements at low cost, asked Greece to send troops. So began the Greek-Turkish war. The Greeks opened an offensive from their base at Smyrna, capturing most of Asia Minor. A second salient in mainland Greece captured Thrace, the portion of European Greece long held by the Ottomans. On August 10, 1920, the captive Sultan in Constantinople was compelled to sign the humiliating Treaty of Sevres. They were ignoring Kemal’s forces deep in the interior.


The decision was cast to push further when Greek elections brought to power the pro-German leaders who had been in exile during the Great War. They were determined to try to conquer Turkey outright. France and Italy took this as a sign that they should make peace with Kemal. Churchill and most of the cabinet were opposed to war with Turkey on financial grounds. Lloyd George almost alone remained committed to defeating Mustapha Kemal.


In Syria, Feisal was still in uneasy charge. He called a General Syrian Congress on June 6, 1919. The congress demanded total independence for a Greater Syria that would include what is now Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Feisal, in Europe, negotiated an agreement with Clemenceau offering very minimal French oversight for Syria, but on his return to Damascus the Arab nationalists rejected this. They also issued declarations opposing British rule in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The British, in consequence, withdrew their military protection of Damascus. The French in Beirut marched on Damascus. Feisal at the end of July 1920 was sent into exile.


Now the French made one of the great mistakes for which the world is still paying. Their core concern was to protect the Maronite Christians of the Levant. With their momentary military advantage they added to what is now Syria a Great Lebanon that  expanded far beyond the territory where the Maronite Christians were the majority. The Maronites had historically, for security from Muslim threats, retreated into the Mount Lebanon range that parallels the coast inland. The French now added the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre, as well as the long Bekaa Valley, all of which had large Sunni or Shi’ite populations, making Lebanon in the long run almost ungovernable.


The British had their own problems. A main public reason for them to be in the Middle East was to support Prince Feisal, who had fought on their side in the Great War. Now Feisal, to retain his Arab following, had declared his opposition to both French and British presence in the region.


What Happened to Palestine?

Now that the French had a strongly pro-colonialist government that aimed to grab whatever it could in the Eastern Mediterranean, the generally undefined borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine left open the opportunity to lay claim to the whole of it. To discredit Britain’s Balfour policy they dug deep into the arsenal of French antisemitism. Fromkin quotes the Oeuvre des Ecoles d’Orient, the representative of French Catholic missionaries in the Middle East, claiming there was a world Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy “seeking by all means at its disposal the destruction of the Christian world.” The president of this organization declared, “It is inadmissible that the ‘Country of Christ’ should become the prey of Jewry and of Anglo-Saxon heresy. It must remain the inviolable inheritance of France and the Church.”


The original Mandates for Syria to France and Palestine to Britain were issued by the San Remo conference in April 1920, pending final approval by the League of Nations. The most important decisions concerning the Palestinian portion were made at a Cairo Conference held in March 1921. These were already in place by the time the League of Nations took up the issue and confirmed the British Mandate on July 23, 1922. Throughout these three international gatherings, “Palestine” was defined consistently as the territory that today constitutes Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, west of the Jordan River, and what is now Jordan on the east side. Though the Mandate specified that Palestine was to provide for a Jewish national home, the British, for reasons outlined below, decided at the Cairo Conference to exclude the Jews from 75 percent of Palestine, in order to set up an Arab state in what was then called Transjordan. It has been argued ever since, with some justice, that already in 1921 the Palestinian Arabs were given 75 percent of the total land of Palestine.


The eastern part of Palestine, Transjordan, posed a problem for the British after the bulk of their military had gone home. They had essentially no administration there. The French were looking for an excuse to invade Palestine and take it from the British, and the road in would certainly be through the undefended Transjordan. The British adopted a strategy of trying to get the local Arab groups to fight among themselves to divert them from staging raids over the border into Lebanon that would give the French an excuse to invade. The British saw a solution at the Cairo Conference both to put an administration in place on the east side of the Jordan and to win back the Hashemites as their main Arab allies in the Middle East. Their proposal was to offer the throne of Mesopotamia to Feisal, and to create what was supposed to be a temporary monarchy in Transjordan for Feisal’s brother Abdullah. Part of the reason here was that Abdullah, with 300 Bedouin followers, had shown up in Amman in November 1920, claiming he was on his way to attack the French in Damascus. This seemed highly improbable, but the British wanted to take no chances on provoking the French, and so tried to persuade the Hashemite prince to stay where he was. Churchill, who presided at the conference, insisted that both the terms of the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration would be met if the Arabs got the larger portion of the land, east of the Jordan, while the Jews got the 25 percent that remained west of the Jordan.


Abdullah agreed to govern Transjordan for six months on a trial basis. He ruled until  July 20, 1951, when he was assassinated by a Palestinian of the clan of the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. His descendents continue to rule Jordan today. As many as 20,000 Palestinians were killed in 1972 when they staged an unsuccessful uprising to try to overthrow the Hashemite dynasty.


On the west side of the Jordan many of the British officers, even those who publicly claimed to agree with the idea of Jewish immigration, secretly opposed it. This gave encouragement to Arab exclusionists who opposed both Jewish and Christian communities, of no matter how long standing. There were attacks on Jews by Bedouin tribesmen in the Upper Galilee in 1919. Several Jewish settlers were killed by Arab marauders in early 1920. There were three days of anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in April 1920 in which many Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. The British government mostly ignored the rioters but meted out long prison terms to members of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s self-defense force, which had prevented violence in the section called New Jerusalem. Local British authorities blamed the Jews for the violence, but an investigation by the head of Military Intelligence from Cairo determined that the Jewish witnesses were telling the truth. His investigation showed that a British colonel was conspiring with the Arab Mufti of Jerusalem to start further anti-Jewish riots.


It seems that there were two dominant families among Jerusalem’s Arabs, the al-Husseinis and the al-Nashashibis. The former were strongly anti-British and antisemitic, the later more conciliatory and willing to live in peace with the Jews.


Priming the Iraqi Powder Keg

Submerged in the broader Ottoman matrix, the many otherwise hostile groups in the territory of Mesopotamia were held in check by the far greater power of the Empire. When the borders shrank down to the state renamed Iraq in 1920, the hostilities seemed more able to be acted on. We have seen a similar pattern since, when the Tito dictatorship ended in Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq. Authoritarian regimes have for a time successfully repressed internal animosities, but when the bonds are loosened all hell breaks loose.


Britain began with the Ottoman vilayets of Basra and Baghdad, but was able to add Mosul in the north, a Kurdish enclave, desirable because of its oil. The national majority were the Shi’ites, who strongly opposed being governed by the Sunni minority. The Kurds were against any Arab ruler. And there was a large Jewish minority, especially in Baghdad, as well as Nestorian Christian refugees from the fighting in Turkey. The Jews would be expelled en masse after the founding of Israel, as part of the one million Jews driven out of the Arab, Turkish, and Persian lands between 1945 and 1960. This would sweep up virtually the entire Jewish populations of Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, people’s whose unbroken residence long-predated that of the Arabs. These refugees, who became the majority in the new State of Israel, seem in the minds of many progressives and leftists in the West, who know only about the smaller number of Palestinian refugees in the mass exchange of populations of that period, to have neither existence nor a right to a place to live.


In June 1920 the British got a taste of what they were up against as revolts by a multiplicity of the mutually hostile groups became focused on driving out the Europeans. Outposts were overrun and soldiers killed, communications were cut. In August some of the rebels proclaimed an Arab provisional government. By the time order was restored Britain had 450 dead and 1,500 wounded.


Placing the Pahlavis on the Persian Throne

It is astonishing to recall just how geographically widespread was Britain’s influence even after its armies had been repatriated. As World War I ended she had four small military groups in Persia. Russia had occupied northern Persia in 1911, a status disavowed by the new Bolshevik government in Moscow. In London, Lord Curzon undertook to install a postwar pro-British regime, but had little in the way of forces with which to do it. He somehow managed to get Persia to sign a treaty in August 1919 that delegated to British officers construction of a railroad and put British experts in charge of the country’s national finances. Britain was to offer a loan that would cover the railroad and the staff salaries, recovering it from custom duties. He did not grasp that the Persians were no longer worried about the Russians and now looked on the British as unwelcome guests. Twenty-five of Teheran’s twenty-six newspapers denounced the agreement.


On May 18, 1920, a flotilla of Bolshevik battleships attacked the Persian port of Enzeli, drove off the small contingent of British defenders, and seized a number of ships that had been taken over by the Persians from defeated anti-Bolsheviks. In the autumn London sent Major-General Edmund Ironside to see what he could do in northern Persia. He quickly concluded that only an indigenous military force could expect to remain functional as Britain retreated further. He set his eyes on the Persian Cossack Division. Originally a creation of the Russian Tsars, it served as a bodyguard for the Persian Shahs. After the Bolshevik Revolution it was financed by the British. Ironside took it over, sacked its anti-Bolshevik Russian commanders, and put Reza Khan, a tough Persian colonel, in their place.


On February 21, 1921, Reza Khan, encouraged by Ironside, marched into Teheran at the head of a small force of 3,000 men in a coup in which he appointed himself commander in chief of the Persian army. In 1925 he overthrew the Shah and named himself Reza Shah Pahlavi. He was the one to change the name of the country to Iran, in 1935. He drove out both the British and the Soviets and established a modernizing secular regime like that of Mustapha Kemal in Turkey. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shi’ite Islamic revolution in 1979, affirming, after more than half a century of secular rule, that Islamic religion remained dominant over nationalism.


Lenin’s Russia in the Middle East


Despite its colonial rule in India and Egypt, Britain was fairly well regarded among Muslims before World War I because it was seen as their protector from Tsarist Russia. This changed dramatically after the war with the Ottomans and the Bolshevik Revolution. Now it was Britain that was imposing restrictive treaties in Muslim lands while the new Russia had renounced its secret treaties and publicly encouraged Kemalist Turkey and revolts in Persia and Iraq. This opened a debate in London between Lord George Curzon, former Viceroy of India and currently Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and the current Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu. Curzon viewed the Bolsheviks as a military threat and advocated a tough military presence in the Middle East. Montagu, an anti-Zionist Jew, saw Curzon’s policy as making enemies of the Muslims. He opposed the division of the Ottoman Empire, and saw Soviet influence as political rather than military, proposing to counter it by support to Muslim and Arab nationalism. Montagu , Fromkin writes, held that


“It would be a mistake for Britain to maintain a military presence in the Middle East . . . or even a merely economic one, for it might lead native leaders to conclude that the real threat to their independence came from London.”


Montagu also called for changing India’s status from a colony to a dominion as with Canada and Australia.


Montagu largely won the argument when the War Office ruled against Curzon on the grounds that there were neither the troops nor the money to mount an interventionist policy.


As for the Soviets, while in their propaganda they were anti-imperialist, in practice they used military force to subdue the Muslim peoples of Central Asia who had been colonized by the Communists’ Tsarist predecessors. The first of these conquests was the seizure of Azerbaijan. This former Russian colony declared its independence in May 1918 and created a parliamentary republic. It gave women the vote, which was unique among Muslim states. It also created a modern university at Baku. The Bolshevik 11th Red Army invaded on April 28, 1920, ending the brief experiment in independence. They did the same in the Christian states of Georgia and Armenia.


Around the time of the October Revolution Muslims in Central Asia gathered in Kokand in what is today Uzbekistan and declared an autonomous government. The Bolsheviks had a Soviet of their own in nearby Tashkent, composed entirely of Russians without a single Muslim. The Red Army moved in a crushed the Kokand Muslims. Survivors, in 1919, organized the Basmachi rebellion, that fought for an independent Muslim Turkestan and saw the Bolsheviks as no better than the Tsars. Heavy fighting continued for four years, with the main Basmachi forces defeated by the Communists in 1923, but continuing on as guerrillas for another decade.


There were two existing Muslim states besides the armed efforts to create new ones. These were the former Tsarist protectorates of Khiva and Bukhara. The Red Army captured Khiva in September 1920 and executed its leaders. They lost a small war with Bukhara in 1918. A second assault with armored vehicles and aircraft overthrew the emirate and Bukhara became a People’s Republic. It became a province of Uzbekistan in the 1990s after the Soviet collapse.


Our old acquaintance Enver Pasha played a role in these events. Exiled from Turkey, he went first to Germany. There he contacted his friend, General Hans von Seekt, who was interested in establishing contacts between defeated Germany and Soviet Russia. Enver contacted Communist leader Karl Radek, went to Moscow, and for a time served as director of the Soviet government’s Asiatic Department. In November 1921 Lenin sent Enver to Turkestan to bolster the Communist forces fighting the Basmachis. Enver changed sides and soon rose to Basmachi supreme commander, supported by the Emir of Bukhara. He was killed in a battle with the Communists on August 4, 1922.


One consequence of Enver’s negotiations on General von Seekt’s behalf was the second Treaty of Rapallo, in April 1922, between Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union. A secret annex of July of that year provided for mutual military training. German factories were set up in the USSR to manufacture military aircraft, poison gas, and explosive shells. Fromkin adds that “The German army established training and academies for its tank commanders and fighter pilots on Soviet territory.” Soviet officers received training in Germany as well.


The Soviets, by military force, subjugated a vast Muslim territory in Central Asia. These were organized into Soviet Republics, all of which broke away from Russia as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. They comprise the five present-day nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Fromkin writes:


“Soviet Russia’s liquidation of the last of the Turkish independence movements in Central Asia completed the process by which the Bolshevik authorities revealed that they would not keep their promise to allow non-Russia peoples to secede from Russian rule. It was now evident that they intended to retain the empire and the frontiers achieved by the czars.”


Finalizing the Situation in Palestine and Turkey


The final shape of the postwar Middle East took form in 1922. Foreign colonial control, masked as temporary Mandates for the British and French, and as socialist liberation by the Russians, was codified, in the establishment of the Soviet Union in December 1922, and in the final series of conferences among the Western Allies.


Winston Churchill played an outsized role in the final deliberations of the Western powers, but his views nevertheless did not prevail. He favored continuing his country’s nineteenth century strategy of maintaining Turkish power intact as a buffer against Russia. Hence he called for recognizing the Mustapha Kemal government and establishing good relations with it. And now that the Arabs were separated from the Ottomans, Britain should try to stay on good terms with them as well. He was particularly opposed to the Greek military in Smyrna and their campaign against  the Kemal forces. He warned that Britain could not prevail if she were enemies with the Russians, Turks, and Arabs all at once, and that Greek opinion didn’t matter in the bigger picture. Though their views did not coincide, Lloyd George in January 1921  made Churchill Colonial Minister. The Indian office had finally reached agreement with Cairo to support the Mandate protectorate plan for Iraq and Palestine under the rule of Hussein’s sons and not press for direct control.


T. E. Lawrence had an important influence on Churchill’s conclusions. From the time of the Aqaba raid in 1917 Lawrence had persistently exaggerated the role played by Feisal and his small band of Bedouins in the British campaign in Palestine and Syria. This falsely led Churchill and others to believe that Feisal represented a powerful military force and was widely popular among the Ottoman Arabs. None of this was the case, but it underlay the ultimate decision to give Iraq to Feisal and to split off the majority of Palestine and give it to his brother Abdullah. By the early 1920s, with Britain deep in recession, the eagerness of its high officialdom to possess large tracts of the Middle East had definitely waned, and this now looked more like a useless drain on an exhausted treasury. One advantage Churchill saw in installing two Hashemite kings was that it would simplify future disagreements. Pressure on one could likely extract compliance from the other. Churchill was more ready to look to some level of force to get what he wanted from Arab leaders while Lawrence advocated the free adherence of Arab states to the British Commonwealth.


At the Cairo Conference in March 1921 the plan for Feisal to rule Iraq and Abdullah Palestine were approved. In the debate over how Britain could supply the resources to maintain its influence, Churchill proposed a scheme in which a few regional air bases backed by small military units with armored cars were to manage internal security. As this would be much cheaper than large numbers of troops it was accepted.


Feisal was made king by the Mesopotamian/Iraqi Council of Ministers on July 11. His principal opponent for the position, Sayyid Talib, who campaigned under the slogan “Iraq for the Iraqis,” was conveniently deported to Ceylon just before the vote.


Abdullah in Transjordan proved to be a weak and lackadaisical ruler. Initially sorry they had chosen him, the situation was stabilized by the appointment of the competent Colonel F. G. Peake to run a Transjordan Bedouin military, consolidated in 1923 as the Arab Legion. The Legion gained fame later under its British commander, John Glubb (Glubb Pasha), 1939 to 1956.


The Cairo Conference decisions plainly ran counter to the Balfour Declaration and the understanding that underlay the League of Nations grounds for Britain’s Palestine Mandate, whose draft was then under discussion and scheduled for a formal vote in 1922. Fromkin writes:


“But to maintain Abdullah – an Arabian – as ruler of Transjordan and to maintain Transjordan as an Arab preserve, in which Jews could not settle to build their homeland, was to depart from the Balfour Declaration policy of fostering a Jewish National Home. If the British were indeed planning to make Palestine into a Jewish country, it was hardly auspicious to begin by forbidding Jews to settle in 75 percent of the country or by handing over local administration, not to a Jew, but to an Arabian.”


Churchill responded by changing the text of the Mandate declaration to read that Britain was not required to implement the Balfour Declaration east of the Jordan River. Chaim Weizmann wrote to Churchill strongly protesting ceding Transjordan to the Arabs. He also objected to Churchill’s agreement to let the French take a goodly strip of northern Palestine and incorporate it into Lebanon. A similar protest was sent by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The Zionists were assured that the prohibition on Jewish immigration to Transjordan was likely to be purely temporary. It was not.


Putting a Hashemite in charge of Transjordan did not bring peace to the country. In 1922 Ibn Saud’s Wahabi warriors staged an invasion that almost toppled Abdullah, who was saved by Churchill’s airplanes and armored cars.


Fromkin concludes about this situation:


“The recurring suggestion that Palestine be partitioned between Arabs and Jews ran up against the problem that 75 percent of the country had already been given to an Arab dynasty that was not Palestinian. The newly created province of Transjordan, later to become the independent state of Jordan, gradually drifted into existence as an entity separate from the rest of Palestine; indeed, today it is often forgotten that Jordan was ever part of Palestine.”


Meanwhile in western Palestine Arab violence against Jews was mounting, with the secret encouragement of sections of the British officer corps. On May Day 1921 a small demonstration of Jewish communists was met by an Arab riot in which thirty-five Jews were killed. This quickly spread to the rest of the country. A key event that would echo down the years to our own day was the selection of a new Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the death of the existing one on March 21, 1921. Under rules that were inherited from the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim electoral college was to select three candidates and the final decision was referred to the civilian government. The winner this time was not even one of the three approved candidates. A violently antisemitic officer in the British High Command secretariat, Ernest T. Richmond, rigged the selection to give the position to Amin al-Husseini, one of the most anti-Jewish of the Arab leaders, who had been sentenced to ten years in prison for his role in the anti-Jewish riots of the previous year. Fromkin writes:


“Richmond must have believed that he was striking a blow against Zionism. As time would show, he had struck a crueler, more destructive blow against Palestinian Arabs, whom the Grand Mufti was to lead into a bloody blind alley. An all-or-nothing adventurer, the Grand Mufti placed Arab lands and lives at risk by raising the stakes of the Arab-Jewish conflict such that one or another – Jews or Arabs – would be driven out or destroyed. Eventually the Grand Mufti’s road was to lead him to Nazi Germany and alliance with Adolph Hitler.”


The Jews, for their part, tried to avoid confrontations with the Arabs by purchasing unused land from the large landowners. This rapidly inflated land prices and even those Arabs who were anti-Jewish were eager to make money selling land to the Jews. Fromkin says that at least a quarter of the elected leadership of the Arab Palestinian community sold land to Jews between  1920 and 1928. Churchill and his government supposed that the hostility toward the Jews arose from the land purchases and took at face value the publicly professed Arab complaints that the land could not support a larger population than existed at that time. Fromkin comments:


“Arab opposition to Jewish settlement was rooted in emotion, in religion, in xenophobia, in the complex of feelings that tend to overcome people when newcomers flood in to change their neighborhood. The Arabs of Palestine were defending a threatened way of life.”


Arab hostility was fanned by anti-Jewish British officers who assured them that Britain would renounce the Balfour Declaration. Fromkin reports that Churchill believed “that 90 percent of the British army in Palestine was arrayed against the Balfour Declaration policy.” In fact, back in London the House of Lords on June 21, 1922, passed a resolution by 60 to 29 that the Palestine Mandate and the Balfour policy were unacceptable. Churchill responded in the House of Commons with a brilliant speech in which he said that while he had no part in creating the Balfour policy that Britain was morally bound to carry out its obligations and that most of those who had voted to abandon the Jewish cause in Palestine were on record as favoring it in the past. His position was passed in the Commons by a vote of 292 to 35.


The Palestine Arab Congress sent a telegram to Churchill saying they rejected the League of Nations Mandate in its totality. The Zionists, having little choice, supported it even in the greatly reduced territory it left open to them.


Elsewhere, in the fall of 1921, the French signed a separate peace with Turkey, a major victory for the Kemalists but disconcerting to Britain and Greece. The French in the process supplied weapons to Turkey to use against Greece, which Britain was supporting, putting the two allies from World War I on opposite sides of a new small war. Fromkin traces the roots of this disunity back to the decision of the Asquith government in 1915 agreeing to Russian demands to be given Constantinople and control the straits of the Bosphorus. So long as British policy had been to keep the rest of Europe out of the Ottoman Empire it was not a source of contention. But once opened for division, each country was staking its own territorial claims, if possible at the expense of its rivals.


This led to the last major event in remaking the Middle Eastern map: the Greek invasion of Turkey. Lloyd George at the conclusion of the London Conference in March 1921 sent a message to the Greek delegates that his country would not oppose a new Greek offensive in Turkey. The Greek troops at Smyrna opened hostilities on March 23. They reached the Anatolian plateau but were repulsed by Kemal’s forces. The Greeks decided to renew the offensive in the summer. It began on July 10, 1921. Initially they met with success, capturing a major rail center at Eskishehir. Kemal asked the new assembly for, and received, dictatorial powers. He pulled back his troops to the Sakarya River, less than fifty miles from Angora, where they dug in on the hillsides on the east bank.


The Greeks succeeded in crossing the Sakarya, and even fighting their way to the top of the ridges. There, cut off from supplies and harassed by the Turkish cavalry, they abandoned the campaign on September 14 and began the long trek back to Eskishehir. The battle resumed the following year and in early September the Greek front crumbled. Athens sent an evacuation fleet. The defeat had historic consequences. The largest of the Greek settlements on the Turkish coast was Smyrna, the greatest city of Asia Minor, which had been Greek since the 11th century BC. The Turkish forces burned it to the ground, sparing only the Turkish quarter. Fromkin estimates that by the end of 1922 1.5 million Greek civilians were driven out of Turkey. The fact that their occupancy predated the arrival of the Turks by thousands of years carried no weight at all.


The expulsion of the Greeks, following on the Armenian massacre a few years before under the Ottoman government, was a clear sign of the ethnic and religious intolerance that would come to mark all of the Middle Eastern Muslim regimes, even those that, like Kemalist Turkey, tried to be secular.


An Allied occupation force still held Constantinople, but hasty negotiations in October 1922 confirmed that Turkey would have full control of the old capital, of the Dardanelles, and of the former Greek territory of eastern Thrace on the European side. In November Mustapha Kemal expelled the Sultan from Constantinople. Only then did the Ottoman Empire officially come to an end. The Greeks put their whole top leadership who had waged the war against Turkey on trial and executed six of them, including Prime Minister Gounaris. In London, Lloyd George, who had supported the Greek invasion of Turkey, resigned. Much of the British press demanded a full withdrawal from Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. Even Winston Churchill lost his seat in Parliament.


What Was Settled in 1922?

If 1922 ended with the map redrawn, what did the settlement amount to? First, the new Soviet Russia’s southern borders were settled, while Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan had managed to remain independent. Next, the long awaited demise of the Ottoman Empire had finally taken place. The results were recorded in not one but in a score of different agreements, treaties, and decisions by national assemblies. While the British Mandate for Palestine was signed off on by the League of Nations, the comparable status of Iraq rested on a treaty Britain concluded with Feisal, also in 1922.


The bonds between Britain and Egypt were loosened under the terms of the Allenby Declaration of 1922. The Kurds were abandoned and split among several countries, which was also a decision, if a negative one.


While a vast territory changed hands, the days of direct colonialism were already numbered. Control of new lands was being entered into shamefacedly and half-hearted. Fromkin writes:


“By the time that the war came to an end, British society was generally inclined to reject the idealistic case for imperialism (that it would extend the benefits of advanced civilization to a backward region) as quixotic, and the practical case for it (that it would be of benefit to Britain to expand her empire) as untrue. Viewing imperialism as a costly drain on a society that needed to invest all of its remaining resources in rebuilding itself, the bulk of the British press, public, and Parliament agreed to let the government commit itself to a presence in the Arab Middle East only because Winston Churchill’s ingenious strategy made it seem possible to control the region inexpensively.”


The British had begun in 1914-15 by viewing French claims to Syria as reasonable in the course of the World War, with the Ottomans as an enemy state. By 1918 they looked on them as a disaster. On their own side they were shackled to the Hashemites, who Kitchener had chosen for them early in the world war. “By 1918,” Fromkin writes, “British officials had come to regard Hussein as a burden, who was involving them in a losing conflict with Ibn Saud. By 1922 British politicians and officials had come to view Hussein’s son Feisal as treacherous, and Hussein’s son Abdullah as lazy and ineffective. . . . Palestine was another case in point: in 1922 Britain accepted a League of Nations Mandate to carry out a Zionist program that she had vigorously espoused in 1917 – but for which she had lost all enthusiasm in the early 1920s. . . . British policy-makers imposed a settlement upon the Middle East in 1922 in which, for the most part, they themselves no longer believed.” (emphasis in original)


Here Fromkin launches on a meditation about the nature of modern states, mainly to say that the Western concept of secular, territorially based states as the universal standard is not accepted in the Muslim Middle East. There religious sect remains the core of loyalties, and the states created in the Ottoman breakup drew borders that locked together peoples with historic hatreds of each other, or in the case of Palestine, consolidated within a single portion of the Empire one such people who all the Muslim sects hated.


Fromkin, writing in 1989, points to Wahabi militancy in Saudi Arabia, Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt, and the Shi’ite Islamic revolution in Iran as volcanic fault lines. He reminds us of the millennium and a half after the fall of Rome that it took to weld together the modern states of Europe out of ethnically and religiously divided smaller entities. And of course, the places where the religious divides were deepest, even in 1989, were Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. These states do not have settled legitimacy because legitimacy in the region is measured by adherence to particular shades of Islam. And in a 2009 afterword, David Fromkin adds that parliamentary democracy is not an accepted form of rule in the Muslim Middle East. He quotes an article from The Economist in 2004 that said, “The Arab League’s 22 states remain the most uniformly oligarchic slice of the world. Not a single Arab leader has ever been peacefully ousted at the ballot box.”


In Europe there were great wars and terrible persecutions over religious doctrines. Catholics slaughtered Albigenses, Protestants slaughtered Catholics, Protestants murdered each other as their branch of Christianity fragmented into scores of sects. The bloodletting over religious difference ended only with the abolition of state religions, when belief became a private matter. Islam does not accept that. At its core are the legal rules of the Quran and the Hadith that regulate every aspect of human life.  Most of the Middle Eastern states are theocracies and those that are not, such as Turkey and Egypt, have powerful Islamic forces within them that are profoundly opposed to non-Islamic creeds. Legitimacy in that context is bought by religious agreement or acquiescence, not by legal rules about rights of free speech, religious tolerance, or respecting electoral outcomes.


This inheritance does not inspire one to believe that peace is a likely outcome in the near future, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Turks and Kurds, Lebanese Maronites and Hezbollah, Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians, or, of course, in the most famous conflict of all, between Israelis and Palestinians.




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