From our window we have only one view of the world. It is good to cross to the other side of the street and see what we can see from that perspective. For this reason, I recommend reading
Destiny disrupted: A History of the World throught Islamic eyes by Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-US historian who knows both worlds well: our world and the «East» ‘s world, Islamic world in particular. Therefore, he can give us a different view from what we have learned reading books written from our western window. For example, the story of two people, two countries, cutting and pasting borders as they pleased.
The Great War and its influence in the Middle-East
In the first decade of 20th Centrury, British and the Ottomans’empire Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) had continuous wars to control vaster areas of the failing Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, in Europe, the «Great War» (a better name than World War I because it was at best an international war) killed millions of European citizens. From the Midwest and Central Asia, however, it seemed at first a civil war between Germany and Austria against France, Britain, and Russian, with most other European countries joined or getting dragged in later.
The CUP Muslims were initially unaffected by the war. Still, they felt that they would gain by aligning themselves with powerful Germany by participating on the winning side. As well as aligning themselves as the supposed winning side, they were fighting against their two eternal enemies: Russia and Britain. Eight months into the war, Russian troops dangerously came close to the northern border. The CUP politicians passed the Deportation Act, which officially aimed to relocate Armenians living near Russian territory. Maybe the idea was to prevent Armenians from supporting Russia. Still, it ended up as one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century.
The CUP had miscalculated the duration and the final sign of the war. Instead of a big blast of offensive destruction, the theatre of Western Europe had plenty of bizarre battles. Armies of millions of soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead, to advance a few metres into enemy territory.
Britain enters the scene.
The British took advantage of the confusion and rebellions in the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire. Nationalist movements sought independence from the Turks, and several prominent Arab families established themselves as independent local dynasties. Two of them stood over the rest: the Ibn Saud dynasty, aligned for two centuries with the Wahhabi clerics (one of the most radical factions within Islam) and the Hashimite family who ruled in Mecca, the spiritual centre of Islam.
The Anglo-Indian foreign office sent British agents to visit the Saudis and close a deal igniting their ambitions to defeat the Ottomans with British money and arms. Although Ibn Saud was suspicious of the envoys, he felt that he would receive a good reward if he defeated the Ottomans.
On the other side, for the Hashimites, controlling Mecca was not enough. They dreamed of the Kingdom of Arabia reaching from Mesopotamia to the Arabian Sea and thought the British could help him achieve it. Britain gladly led them to believe that they could and would help him. To do that, they sent a military intelligence officer, who was once an anthropologist. He spoke Arabic and liked to dress like the Bedouin tribes, which earned him the nickname Lawrence of Arabia. It was also made famous by David Lean’s excellent film, one of my favorites. Though a cinema masterpiece, Anglo-centrism, orientalism, and Victorian propaganda ooze from the figure of the sophisticated English hero against the evil and foolish Turks.
It is easy to see what a nest of trouble the British were stirring up in the area. The Hashimites and Saudis were the two most important tribal groups in the Arabian Peninsula. Both hoped to overthrow Ottoman rule in the Peninsula and, to make matters worse, both considered each other mortal enemies.
The British sent agents to both sides, making promises to both families. They made the most, leading them to believe that British troops would help establish their kingdom in that territory, provided they helped the British fight the Ottomans. The British Empire still did not care which of the two families ruled the area as long as they managed to overthrow the Turks and defeat the Germans at «home.»
The Hashimites took the lead in helping the British by fomenting Arab revolt. Two of Hussein’s sons worked for hand in hand with Lawrence to drive the Turks out of their region, clearing the way for the British to take Damascus and Baghdad and putting pressure on the Turks.
Division and sharing of the cake by Sykes & Pikot
While British agents continued to make promises to the two Arab families, two diplomats, one French and one English, were about to divide the cake. They met secretly with a map, a pen, and a nice cup of tea in exquisitely civilised surroundings (around the same time, something similar was being done with China. Their objective: to decide how the region should be cut up and divided among the victorious areas of the European War.
They agreed what share would go to Sykes’ Britain and what percentage would go to Picot’s France, and what concessions would appease the Russians for their participation. No mention appeared related to what share would go to either the Saudis or the Hashemites.
At Versailles Treaty, main actors agreed in the creation of mandates. France got Syria for its mandate, and Great Britain got the great part of the “Middle East”.
France divide its mandated territory in two countries: Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon was just an artificial state to maintain demographic majority of Maronite Christians.
Great Britain had also some compromises. Britain bundeld together three former Ottoman provinces in a country called Iraq and made one of his Hashimite clients, Faisal, king of it. But Faisal had a brother that did not want to be left without piece of cake. Britain awarded Faisal´s brother, Abdullah, with another country carved out: Jordan.
Balfour, Rothschild, Zionism, and Palestina
All ingredients were of great potential danger, but there were still more problems. Arab nationalism emerged in Palestine and other adjacent areas where Arabs lived before Britain or France existed, even in Egypt. And all this was unrelated to the dynastic aspirations of Hashimites and Saudis.
The first movements were secular, modernist movements that sought a new autonomous nationalism. They longed for autonomy from interference and control from European countries and included professionals, workers, and the nascent bourgeoisie.
There was a small additional detail, the most problematic and complex to resolve: Jewish immigration to Palestine. In Palestine and Syria, the Arab nationalists sought independence from the Ottomans and the Hasimites, and Saudis. European anti-Semitism, which had given wings to Zionism, intensified on the European continent, making life increasingly difficult for European Jews. As a result, the Jewish population in Palestina increased from 4% in 1883 to 13% at the end of the first international war (called WWI).
In 1917, the British foreign secretary, A.J. Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Lionel Rothschild – a millionaire Jewish-Anglo-American saga – a banker in Britain and a convinced Zionist activist. Both agreed on the establishment in Palestine of a «national home» for the Jews and that they would do all they could to facilitate that goal.
Balfour stressed that anything should be done that would prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. But Britain thought that accommodating Jews and Arabs in the same territory was not on the current agenda. Other may solve it later, in the future.
Resources for today and blood for tomorrow
Britain promised the same territory to the Hashimites, Saudis, and the Zionists of Europe, a region inhabited by other Arab people with growing nationalist aspirations. In parallel, Britain and France had already secretly agreed on partitioning and dividing that same territory between themselves.
Despite the many objections, qualifiers, and disclaimers offered over the years about who agreed to what and what was promised to whom, that is the essence of the situation. Solving short-term problems created immense future issues. A lesson we should learn about short-term tactics and long-term strategy.
But as the saying goes, the good thing about future problems is that they are in the future, not here and now. And although they wrecked politics and peace in the region for the following centuries, the short-term successes (of France and England) were apparent: the Turkish CUP lost everything the Ottomans had controlled outside Asia Minor, ceded Palestine, Greater Syria, and Mesopotamia to the British.
The future was far away for Mark Sykes and François George-Pikot and their governments. However, their future is our present. It is a region in a constant Israel-Palestine unequal war with new vested interests and actors such as Russia. But, losers, as always, were ordinary citizens.
The question is: Are we now doing similar things without caring about future consequences. How will our future -the present for other people, including our children and grandchildren…- be?
… but that is another story and we come to the end of another of our travel notes. But our Journey to the East continues so…