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How Britain created the Middle East crisis The carve-up of the region after the First World War led to the fanaticism and conflict of today

Iraqi protestors storming the US embassy last week (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Iraqi protestors storming the US embassy last week (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

January 6, 2020   6 mins

Although trouble in Iraq has been brewing for months, it has taken the assassination of the Iranian kingpin Qassim Soleimani to catapult the country back into the news. As Iran decides how to retaliate for the killing of its satrap, at the same time that the threat from a regrouping ISIS grows, Iraq looks likely to remain in the headlines in the year ahead.

There are odd similarities with the situation exactly a century ago. Iraq was under British military occupation, but the British government, just like the Americans more recently, wanted to withdraw its troops. An outside force — then it was Arab nationalists based in Syria — was plotting violence that it hoped might quicken Britain’s exit.

Amid rising doubts about the wisdom of his approach, Arnold Wilson, Britain’s ebullient proconsul in the country, claimed there was nothing to see here. “The Shaikhs and tribes of the outlying districts are everywhere settling down,” he insisted to a former colleague in a new year letter. “The political atmosphere in Basrah is good, in Baghdad fair and improving, and I think even in Mosul things are getting better.” This analysis was at best deluded, at worst deliberately deceitful: a revolt would plunge Iraq into chaos later that year, and the 1920s would be a decade of instability in the Middle East, as a crisis in one country rapidly spread across freshly-drawn frontiers that were no more than lines in the sand.

The revolt that convulsed Iraq in 1920 was a taster of the consequences of three irreconcilable promises the British had made during the First World War, which became apparent over the next ten years. Under pressure in 1915 they had sent Mecca’s ruler Sharif Hussein a weasel-worded letter that recognised his claim to an empire encompassing Iraq and Syria if he rose up against the Turks. In 1916, in the Sykes-Picot agreement, they then secretly pledged a northerly wedge of this same territory to the French, to patch up the entente cordiale.

Then in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 publicly committed themselves to a Jewish national home in Palestine — land that Hussein believed they had already acknowledged as his. During the next decade the British contorted themselves to try to square these promises with each other. The widespread anti-western sentiment, the Arab-Jewish conflict, and Islamism we see in today’s Middle East are all the result.

The most immediate problem arose from the clash between the promises to Hussein and the French. If you have seen Lawrence of Arabia you will recall that the end of the war left Lawrence’s ally, Sharif Hussein’s son Feisal, in control of Damascus, the city that, defended by Saladin, had defied the crusaders eight centuries earlier. Now the French, citing their 1916 deal with the British, felt it was theirs.

While the French were in no position to oust Feisal, the British tried not to take sides, and Anglo-French relations deteriorated. By January 1920, however, the British had begun to wonder if continuing to sit on the fence was wise.

The British had initially hoped that they could directly govern Iraq, in order to exploit the country’s oil, while buying off the Arabs with independence in Syria. It now dawned on them that whatever happened on one side of the Sykes-Picot frontier would soon happen on the other. Were Feisal’s confident and vocal Arab nationalist supporters able to gain independence for Syria they would set an uncomfortable precedent for Iraq. Moreover the French would be likely to veto British rule in Palestine in revenge.

These factors, together with the growing realisation that sooner or later they would need French support to fight another war with Germany, led the British to decide that they would have to side with their old rivals. In March 1920 news from Damascus, where the nationalists had proclaimed Feisal king of Syria and his elder brother Abdullah emir of Iraq, spurred a Franco-British rapprochement.

At the Italian resort of San Remo a month later, the British and French governments firmed up the 1916 Sykes-Picot deal. Britain got Palestine and Iraq; France: Syria and a quarter share of Iraq’s oil, to compensate her for the loss of the city of Mosul — hers by the 1916 agreement but which the British had seized just after the end of the war.

The precise frontiers of these shard-like new states would be hammered out by Anglo-French teams of surveyors during the ensuing decade. Meanwhile, Syria’s brief experiment with self-government ended when a small French army expelled Feisal from Damascus that July. Its general marched into the tomb of the city’s most famous ruler soon afterwards, and there he is reputed to have declared, “Saladin, nous voici” (“Saladin, we’re back”).

In Iraq, Wilson was already dealing with the fury following the Anglo-French decision to call time on Syria’s independence. Following encouragement from the nationalists in Syria, that June a revolt broke out, which it took the British 90,000 troops to quell. In doing so they killed over 8,000 Arab insurgents.

As the new secretary of state for the colonies, Winston Churchill became responsible for the country at the start of 1921. When at the same time it emerged that the Arabic translation of the 1915 promise to Hussein lacked any of the disingenuous subtlety of the English original, Churchill’s answer was to put the newly jobless Feisal on the throne in Baghdad. In doing so, however, he had ignored French warnings, and when days later, Arab extremists tried to murder France’s top official in Syria, the French felt they had been vindicated. Anglo-French relations entered a deep-freeze.

The Arab backlash to colonial rule was gathering strength. The Iraq uprising had lasted just six months, but in 1925 a revolt in Syria broke out which went on for three years. The French accused the British of assisting the rebels. While there is no evidence of direct support, it is certainly true that the British did next to nothing to prevent the rebels using territory under their control as a safe haven. They sat on their hands for a simple reason: they knew they would become even more unpopular if they handed over men whom ordinary Arabs saw as freedom fighters, to face execution by the French.

British inertia was the product of a desire to avoid making their position in Palestine any worse. The British had expected to reap Jewish gratitude for their sponsorship of Zionist ambitions, and (just like Jared Kushner today) assumed that the investment the Jews would bring to Palestine would win over the Arabs to their permanent and growing presence. Both hopes proved naïve. Amid Arab enthusiasm for the unification of Syria and Palestine, the declaration of Feisal as king of Syria in April 1920 had led to four days of rioting in Jerusalem, and over 250 deaths.

Accused by each side of favouring the other, the British zig-zagged. To dispel well-founded allegations of anti-Semitism they appointed the prominent British Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as high commissioner. After further riots in Jaffa in 1921, he temporarily halted Jewish immigration.

That was a gesture, since Jewish immigration to Palestine was at that point negligible. So tough was life in the mandate that in some years there were net outflows. But this began to change when tougher immigration policies, brought in by the United States and other western countries in the 1920s, narrowed the options available to Jews trying to leave Europe.

Naturally the arrival of growing numbers of eastern European Jews by the late 1920s created tensions with the Arabs. Jewish access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a particular flashpoint. Today the wall forms the eastern edge of a large piazza, but in the 1920s that space was full of Muslim housing, which only a narrow alley separated from the wall. In 1928 the Muslims complained when orthodox Jews erected a screen across this passage to segregate male and female worshippers. And then the following year a protest by radical Jewish youths at the wall led to a riot which spread to the towns of Hebron and Safad. Two hundred and seventy one Jews and Arabs died; nearly 600 more people were injured. And so began a cycle of violence which has yet to end.

From today’s perspective, however, the most relevant development of the 1920s may be the intellectual response to the humiliation that many Arabs felt after the end of the First World War.

One man who had been closely involved in Feisal’s short-lived kingdom of Syria was a thinker named Rashid Rida, a Sunni Muslim now regarded as one of the founders of the Salafi movement, which now provides the intellectual ballast for violent jihad.

Rida in fact flirted with more liberal ideas while he was in Syria. But following the removal of Feisal, he returned to Egypt where he reverted to the Wahhabism that had shaped his earlier thinking. There, his views would strongly influence an Egyptian named Hassan al-Banna, who came to believe that the unbroken British occupation of Egypt since 1882 and his country’s vulnerability to foreign influence were symptoms of a deep moral decline that only a spiritual revival along Salafi lines might solve. That was the purpose of the Muslim Brotherhood, which al-Banna founded in 1928.

In a world in which sectarianism has driven Sunni and Shia Muslims apart, the influence that such thinking has had in turn on revolutionary Iran’s ayatollahs was huge, and it is they who have now replaced the British as the power behind the throne in Iraq.

Gharbzadeghi — the idea that the west’s influence is toxic – echoed Rida’s thinking. And Khomeini’s manifesto, Islamic Government, borrowed deeply from the thinking of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Muslim Brother hanged by the Egyptian government in 1966. A century has passed, but the legacy of the 1920s lives on.

James Barr is a historian specialising in the Middle East and author of Lords of the Desert and A Line In The Sand.


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