“Everything T.E. Lawrence had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for, turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France. In London on the morning of Dec. 1, 1918, David Lloyd George took aside a visiting Georges Clemenceau and bluntly outlined just what Britain wanted in the Middle East: Iraq and Palestine. In tacit exchange, although Lloyd George would always deny it, France would have free rein in Syria. It was a proposed ‘solution’ to the spoils-of-war contest that had strained British and French relations ever since they had cast their covetous eyes towards the Middle East, and that had now taken on great urgency; with the Great War finally over and the Paris Peace Conference about to begin, it was vital that Britain and France present a unified front against the American president, Woodrow Wilson, with his high-minded talk of a ‘peace without victory’ and the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination. Faced with the imminent American threat, Clemenceau quickly acceded to Lloyd George’s proposal.
In essence, the two imperial victors had not only affirmed the basic structure of the Sykes-Picot Agreement but gone beyond it, giving themselves more and the Arabs even less. But in the time –honoured tradition of European secret deals, it was to be a while before anyone outside the British and French Prime Ministers’ closest circles would have any knowledge of that extraordinary accord.
What followed in Paris was a year long shadow play that first raised hopes of a new era in relations between nations, ‘Woodrow Wilson’s vaunted ‘new world order,’ only to degenerate into backroom deals, vengeful treaties, and arbitrary borders. As far as the Middle East was concerned, the byzantine machinations meant, in the end virtually nothing. “The Great Loot,” the carving up of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, would now come to pass.
Having long known that control of the Palestine portion of Syria was lost to the Arabs, Lawrence and Faisal sought an ally to affirm their nationalist aspirations for the rest of it. They found such an ally in Chaim Weizmann. By the close of 1918, the Zionists had strong patrons in both the British and American governments, but what made those governments nervous was the continuing—in fact growing hostility of the Palestine Arab population to the Zionists’ goals. So what if Hashemite support for the Zionist program in Palestine could be traded for Zionist support of an independent Arab Syria? Over the course of that December, Lawrence, Faisal, and Weizmann worked out the details for such a mutually beneficially relationship, culminating in a joint proclamation on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference. In that proclamation, Faisal and Weizmann announced their intention to work together in Paris, and in recognition of each other’s claim. Surely the most controversial of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement was the fourth: “All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.” To this document, Faisal—or more likely, Lawrence—had inserted a key closing proviso. The agreement was only valid so long as Syrian independence was achieved, barring that, it was null and void.
Yet in their desperation to find a supporting partner at the peace conference, Lawrence and Faisal had chosen to ignore several crucial details. While the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement offered a fairly detailed outline for the administration of Palestine, nowhere did it specify what Palestine actually consisted of. Further, in reaching his accord with Weizmann, Faisal had quite flagrantly turned his back on the doctrine of self-determination for Palestine, placing him in a weakened—some would say hypocritical—position in invoking that same doctrine for the rest of Syria. Most troublesome, Chaim Weizmann had recently made public just what he and other Zionists envisioned as the future status of Palestine. “The establishment of a National Home for the Jewish people,” he had announced in mid-November, “is understood to mean that the country of Palestine should be placed under such political, economic and moral conditions as will favour the increase of the Jewish population, so that in accordance with the principle of democracy, it may ultimately develop into a Jewish Commonwealth.”
In the last sentence of his memoir, William Yale referred to the Paris Peace Conference as “the prologue of the 20th century tragedy.” Yale served as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs to the American delegation in Paris. He placed much of the blame on his own government. To him the grand enterprise in Paris seemed a rather perfect reflection of Woodrow Wilson’s particular blend of idealism and arrogance. In the American president’s almost comic fondness for tidy enumerated lists—his “Fourteen Points” had been followed by his “Four Principles,” his “Four Ends,” and finally his “Five Particulars”—was the hint of a simplistic mind-set, as if solving the world’s myriad messy problems was merely a matter of isolating them into their components parts and applying quasi-mathematical principles. Nowhere was this more problematic than when it came to Wilson’s cherished and oft-cited notion of ‘self-determination.’ While the phrase certainly sounded good, in the mashed-together cultures of Europe and the Middle East of the early twentieth century, where faith and ethnicity and nationalism were all exerting tremendous and often opposing pulls, just whose claim to self-determination was to win out over others? London and Paris had repeatedly warned Wilson on the dangers of opening up this Pandora’s Box, but there had never been any indication that the President was listening.
To William Yale’s mind, all of this was actually symptomatic of perhaps the greatest paradox underlying the American role at the Paris Peace Conference: Woodrow Wilson’s grand vision of a new world order rested on a bedrock of profound ignorance. The picture was when Yale was handed a briefing book on Syria, a 107-page compendium of historic, economic, and political data that was serving as the principal guide in formulating American policy in the region. The Report on the Desires of the Syrians didn’t require a lot of study on Yale’s part, almost all the citations in those sections dealing with events since 1914 were drawn from a single source, a State Department special agent in Cairo named William Yale.
Several times Yale saw opportunities for championing the cause of Arab self-determination, but they always slipped away on the tide of American inaction. At a meeting with Faisal in mid-February 1919, Yale was taken aback when the Arab leader bluntly proposed an American mandate in Syria, vastly preferring the supposedly disinterested Americans to the French. By then, however, Yale had already been with the American delegation in Paris long enough to realize that, virtuous principles aside, the Wilson administration was more interested in dictating solutions to the rest of the world than in assuming any responsibility of its own. And there was another problem, one that may not have been readily apparent to non-Americans. Its brief outburst of international involvement notwithstanding, the United States was already showing signs of sliding back into an isolationist spirit, with Wilson and his Republican opponents who dominated in Congress increasingly at loggerheads. What it meant for all those in Paris looking to the United States for leadership was that time was not on their side, that the longer things dragged on, the less likely the Americans would have the ability or even interest to do much at all.
As the peace conference extended, the folly of Yale’s mission would only grow increasingly absurd. In the late spring of 1919, he was appointed to an American fact-finding committee, the King-Crane Commission, which, in pursuit of Wilson’s self determination principle, was dispatched to determine the desires of the former denizens of the Ottoman world, “to take a plebiscite of a vast sprawling empire of 30,000,000 inhabitants. The message the commission heard after a tour of two months in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine in each place was unequivocal: the vast majority of people wanted either independence or the Americans. In light of this, the commission came up with a sweeping set of recommendations that placed the United States at the forefront of administering a solution to the Middle Eastern puzzle. That solution, however, did not at all resemble what had already been secretly agreed to by the British and the French, nor what the Wilson administration was willing to take on. At least here, the administration was prepared to act with great dispatch; the King-Crane reports were swiftly locked up in a safe, not to be seen or read by the outside world for the next three years.
Returning from that mission in the fall off 1919, Yale would make one last attempt to salvage the situation in Syria, enlisting Lawrence’s support for what became known as the Yale Plan. With the plan drawing support from senior British statesmen, it briefly appeared the coming showdown between the Arabs and French in Syria might be averted. Yale was essentially acting in a freelance capacity, and once senior American officials learned of it, his plan was quickly scuttled. On Nov. 1, 1919, British troops who had occupied Syria until a final settlement was reached began to withdraw. On the same day, French troops began moving in. Yale resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York.
By going into partnership with the Zionists under such circumstances, Faisal had just handed his more conservative Arab and Muslim rivals a powerful weapon to use against him. One who would soon wield that weapon to devastating effect was King Hussein’s chief rival in Arabia, ibn-Saud, and his fundamentalist Wahhabist followers.
The notion of a true pan-Arab nation was always something of a mirage, the differences between its radically varied cultures far greater than what united them. Perhaps such a fractious and vast nation could have endured for a time through sheer lack of strong central control, much as under the Ottomans old system, but advances in technology and communications would almost certainly have soon brought these disparate cultures and peoples into conflict. Similarly, there were never going to be truly harmonious relations between the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine, given that Arab resistance to an expanded presence long preceded the Balfour Declaration and took little notice of Faisal’s moderation; indeed, the postwar Arab leader who would try to reach an accommodation with Israel, Faisal’s brother Abdullah, would be assassinated by a Palestinian gunman for his troubles. As for the American occupying troops being hailed as liberators, that surely would have been short-lived too, ending when those troops were drawn into policing local conflicts they little understood, with the inevitable choosing of sides this entails. Even if it somehow managed to avoid those treacherous straits, the United States would have shed its image as “the one disinterested party” as it steadily became an imperial power in its own right.
All that said, it is hard to imagine that any of this could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world. That sad history began from almost the moment the negotiators in Paris packed their bags and declared their mission complete, leaving in their wake “a porcelain peace.”
A desperate Faisal was forced to accept the few crumbs of compromise the French were willing to throw his way in Syria. When Faisal returned to Damascus, however, he found himself denounced as a traitor for selling the nation out to the European imperialists. Harnessing this popular rage, Faisal renounced his deal with the French and in March 1923 staged something of a palace coup by declaring himself king of Syria. This act, in conjunction with the San Remo Conference the following month at which Great Britain and France formalized their partition of the region—British taking Iraq and a “greater” Palestine that included a broad swath east of the Jordan River, or Transjordan, France the rest of Syria—set Faisal on a collision course with the French. The collision came in July; after a brief and one-sided battle on the outskirts of Damascus, the French ousted Faisal and cast him into exile. By the close of 1920, the French at last had much of their Syrie integrale (with the exception of the British mandate in Palestine and Transjordan), but they now faced a populace seething with rage. They also now confronted an external threat; inb the deserts of Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdullah were massing his followers with the intention of marching on Damascus.
But whatever problems the French had at the end of 1920 were dwarfed by those of the British. In Palestine, tensions between Zionist immigrants and the resident Arab population had escalated into bloodshed. In Arabia, ibn-Saud was once again pushing oust King Hussein. The worst crisis point was in Iraq. By the time the May rebellion in Iraq was put down, some one thousand British and none thousand natives were dead. Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.
To combat these crises, in December 1920 Lloyd George turned to a man who had become something of a pariah in British ruling circles, former first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill. One of Churchill’s first acts upon assuming the position of Colonial Office secretary was to enlist the help of another recent outcast, former lieutenant colonel T.E. Lawrence. As a result, the Cairo deliberations were a little more than a formality, with Lawrence and Churchill having worked out ahead of time not only the question the Conference would consider, but decisions would reach.
Iraq was now to be consolidated and recognized as an Arab Kingdom with Faisal placed on the throne. In Arabia, the British upheld Hussein’s claim to rule in the Hejaz, while simultaneously upholding ibn-Saud’s authority in the Arab interior. Surely the most novel to come out of Cairo was the plan designed to stay Abdullah’s from attacking the French in Syria. Transjordan was to be officially detached from the rest of Palestine and made an independent Arab kingdom—today’s Jordan—with Abdullah as its ruler.
By the time Lawrence returned to England in the autumn of 1921, his one-year service to the Colonial Office nearly over, he had quite literally become the unseen kingmaker of the Middle East.
In Anatolia, the former Turkish general Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, had refused to accept the dismemberment of Turkey as outlined by the Allies. Over a four-year period, he led his army of Turkish nationalists into the battle against all those who would claim a piece of the Turkish heartland, before finally establishing the modern-day borders of Turkey in 1923. France’s turn in this round robin of war came in the autumn of 1921 when Kemal, soon to become better known as Ataturk, turned his attention to the French troops occupying the Cilicia region. Quickly routed, the French armies in Cilicia beat a hasty retreat back into Syria under the leadership of their commander, the unlucky Edouard Bremond.
At the same time a bewildering arc of war extended from the Caucasus all the way to Afghanistan as various nationalist groups, Russian Reds and the Whites, and remnants of the Young Turk battled for primacy, forming and reforming alliances with such dizzying regularity as to defy both logic and comprehension. Among the prominent aspirants in this crucible were both Enver and Djemal Pasha, and it was no more surprising that anything else going on in the region that Djemal Pasha should turn up in Kabul in the winter of 1921 as a military adviser to the king of Afghanistan.
And then, far to the south, it was King Hussein’s turn. With the British having long since tired of his mercurial rule and refusal to accept the political realities of the Middle East, he was all but defenseless when ibn-Saud and his Wahhabist warriors finally closed on Mecca in late 1924.
From there, matters simply turned worse for the West. By the 1930s, the British faced a quagmire in the Palestine mandate they had schemed so hard to obtain, first a full-scale Arab revolt fueled by increasing Jewish immigration, joined after World War II by attacks from Jewish guerillas who saw the British occupiers as the last roadblock toward the creation of Israel. In 1946, the war-exhausted French were forced to give up their cherished Syrie integrale, but not before carving out a new nation, Lebanon, from its territory; within three years, Syria’s pro-Western democratic government would be ousted in a military coup, and the convoluted governing structure imposed by the French in Lebanon would set the country on the path to civil war. In 1952, British control of Egypt ended when their puppet king was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his nationalist Free Officers Movement, followed six years later by a military coup in Iraq by like-minded junior officers that ended the pro-Western monarchy established by Faisal. By the 1960s, with the era of European imperialism drawing to its unceremonious close, the Middle East resembled the shambles the colonial powers were leaving behind in other parts of the globe, but with one crucial difference: because of oil, the region had now become the most strategically vital corner on earth, and the West couldn’t walk away from the mess it had helped create there even if it wanted to. What has transpired there over the past half-century is of course, familiar to all: four wars between the Arabs and Israelis; a ten-year civil war in Lebanon and a twenty-year one in Yemen; the slaughter of ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq; four decades of state-sponsored terrorism; convulsions of religious extremism; four major American military interventions and a host of smaller ones; and for the Arab people, until very recently, a virtually unbroken string of cruel and /or kleptocratic dictatorships stretching from Tunisia to Iraq that left the great majority impoverished and disenfranchised.
Certainly, blame for all this doesn’t rest solely with the terrible decisions that were made at the end of World War 1, but it was then that one particularly toxic seed was planted. Ever since, Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms. This culture of opposition has been manipulated—indeed, feverishly nurtured—by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people’s anger away from their own misrule in favour of the external threat, whether it is “the Great Satan” or “the illegitimate Zionist entity” or Western music playing on the streets of Cairo. This is why the so-called Arab Spring movement of today represents such a potentially trans formative moment in the history of the Middle East. For the first time since 1918, the “Arab street” is having a say in its future, and however many roadblocks are thrown in its way, an element of civic participation and personal freedom is being spawned that likely can never be boxed back up.”
Excerpts from: Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson.
McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Ontario, 2013