The British Empire Library

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East

By James Barr

The modern history of the Middle East is a topic that has attracted so much attention and so many authors one can be forgiven for thinking that there cannot be much new said about the region. James Barr though has managed to detail an intriguing thesis that the roots of the modern day borders, political instability of the region and indeed much of the Arab-Israeli antipathy could be laid at the feet of the competition between Britain and France in the Levant from World War One through to the British leaving the Palestine Mandate in 1947. Traditionally the dynamics are thought to be a combination of factors like the strengths and weaknesses of Britain, the Ottoman Turks, the rising power of the USA, the ambition of Zionism, or the division between Arabs or perhaps collective Western guilt over the Nazi treatment of Jews in World War Two. These all make their way in to James' book but he finds a more calculating and indeed destructive catalyst in the way that Britain and France constantly antagonised and disappointed one another and in so doing creating jealousies, influencing decision making and ultimately sabotaging one another's ability to rule their respective parts of the Middle East.

Put boldly, the thesis goes thusly: Britain was the prime combatant against the Ottoman Empire during The Great War and was always conscious of the security of the Suez Canal as a vital artery of Empire. However, it also appreciated that it needed to diplomatically and militarily support France in its European War and that also meant giving France an element of equality in the wider World War. The consequence of this was to offer France a share of the spoils in the Ottoman Empire through the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Britain almost immediately had buyer's remorse as it realised that they had given France more opportunity for influence and regional power than they had intended. Partly in response to this disappointment, they made promises to the Arabs and even more fatefully to the Jews through the Balfour Declaration. The French were to see the promises to the Hashemite Arabs and to the Zionists as ways of short circuiting their agreement to become a colonial power in the region. Add in the discovery of major oil fields on the border of the French and British borders and the ingredients for duplicity and disappointment were abundant.

France had indeed played a major role in the region although the Comité de l'Asie Francaise's claim that it went back all the way to the Crusades through the term 'Franks' often used to describe all Western Europeans was more than a little disingenuous. Indeed the role of this Comité de l'Asie Francaise was to be highly influential if not toxic to Anglo-French relations. It was a pre-war group set up by Georges Picot (father of the signatory of the Sykes-Picot agreement) to increase French influence in the region and in reaction to the successful British increase in their power in the region, especially after the British had almost accidentally knocked France out of Egypt in 1882 after their invasion of Alexandria. Members of the Comité would feel further French humiliation after the Fashoda Incident in 1898 when a British Army stared down an ambitious French expedition hoping to link French colonies in West Africa to East Africa. Thus the starting point was suspicion and it would have a toxic influence even on the course of the war against the Turks. For example, before he was famous as Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence had been an advocate to seize the strategically important port of Alexandretta at the heart of Ottoman commerce and communications and with its impressive deep water port. The French were concerned that if the British were to land here, they would be too close to the Syrian lands that they coveted themselves and might never leave. Therefore they vetoed this idea and backed the far more costly and ultimately disastrous assault on the Dardanelles instead. It is a fascinating counterfactual to consider what might have occurred had the Allies landed at Alexandretta rather than Gallipoli - we probably would never have heard of Lawrence of Arabia, but then we may not have needed one as the Turks might well have sued for peace far earlier than they did!

The author contends that Mark Sykes was rather out of his depth compared to the cynical and determined Picot. In one example he cites Sykes naively telling Picot of British intentions before they had been finalised allowing the French to prepare their objections in advance. Not that Picot himself was always the sharpest knife in the drawer. When forced out of Beirut as war was declared between the Ottomans and the Allies, he arrogantly left names of many anti-Ottoman Arab leaders in his office. Thus allowing the Turks to round them up and execute many of them. But when it came to diplomacy the French had little to lose and everything to gain in the region. Almost immediately the British realised their mistake in being too generous to a power that was contributing little in the theatre and was as likely to stir up resentment amongst local leaders as provide a long term solution to governance. T.E. Lawrence was particularly dismissive of the French colonial record to date and also had the foresight to remark "One cannot go on betting that France will always be our friend." The French returned this suspicion with their own reticence in backing the Arab Revolt which they saw as little more than a sideshow designed to increase British influence amongst the interior Arab tribesmen. The Arab Revolt's very success only confirmed to the French their suspicions and indeed the author claims the French perversely played up the role of Lawrence publicly in order to detract from the role of the Arab leaders who they feared would be rivals to their own regional power in the future.

The French had played little role in liberating the lands that they would claim for themselves. The Arab Revolt combined with Allenby's army to defeat and occupy the Ottoman lands. The author explains the horse trading between the victorious powers and how the British once again managed to offend the French, this time over Palmyra and its proximity to the recently discovered oil fields. Lawrence was sidelined as the British bean counters were keen to reduce the size of the British military commitment in the area and hand over responsibility to govern at least some of the area to the French. The French expelled Lawrence's protege Feisal from Damascus and set up a more compliant regime. Britain and France were also on a collision course for how best to confront the defeated Turkish. The French quickly reached an accommodation with their former enemy which left the British high and dry diplomatically. The rapid demobilisation of troops saw Arabs in Iraq spot an opportunity to rise up and seize back some control from the British. If it had not been for the recent discovery of oil, the British may not have poured as many resources as they did in to the area to reclaim their influence at the cost of over 2,300 British servicemen and the increased use of RAF resources as a way of policing the vast areas relatively cheaply. However, the new Colonial Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill, realised that if they were to remain in the area they had to find a way of establishing a government that would satisfy both Arab aspirations for self-government alongside Britain's strategic interests. Long gone were the days of British Imperial hubris where they could impose leaders at will. In this new era of national aspiration, the British were learning that they needed to bring local leaders on board and to leave much of the day to day running of the colonies to these local leaders. To a certain extent this was to happen with Feisal being given control of Iraq and Abdullah of Transjordan but it would ultimately fail in Palestine due to the unfolding antagonism between Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.

The French did not forgive the British for making Feisal the ruler of an Arab nation on their doorstep after they had forcibly had to remove him from power in Damascus. It did not help that Feisal's supporters continued to harass French authorities and including attempted assassinations on their personnel after which the perpetrators would then flee in to British controlled territory where they could not be pursued by the French. When the French learned that one of the attackers was hiding with the Druze in their Lebanese mountain stronghold, they sent a force to seize him which only succeeded in unleashing a five year long campaign that tested French colonial power to its limits. It also saw the French escalate their determination to hold on through the flattening of suburbs and towns with artillery and indiscriminate violence. Consequently there was even more toing and froing across the border and the French believed the British were complicit in aiding the Druze and although some individual British administrators may have been sympathetic there was certainly no official sanction to do so. Regardless, it built up another layer of resentment from the French colonial government that would fester for many years

A possible rapprochement could have been made between the two powers over the laying of the pipeline to take the Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean. The logical and most direct route was through Syria and Lebanon to Beirut. The British managed to offend the French though by insisting on a bifurcated route which went this direct route but also through a much longer British controlled route to Haifa in Palestine. The French were offended that they could not be trusted but then events in 1940 were to prove the British right in their suspicions of depending on others to provide their oil to their ships.

In 1936 the Arab Revolt erupted in Palestine largely in opposition to the increased levels of Zionist immigration to the Mandate. Now it was the turn of the French to turn a blind eye to Arab terrorists moving across the border to sanctuary from the British. The French excuse was that they did not wish to antagonise their own Arab populations after their heavy handedness in suppressing their own revolts. The reality though was to create a new level of suspicion from British administrators towards the French. Ultimately, the solution for the British was to severely curtail Jewish immigration just when Jews needed to find a safe haven most whilst being treated abominably in Fascist Germany. It deferred one crisis by creating resentment to build a new crisis at a later date, but this was not entirely appreciated as the world hurtled to World War.

The relative importance of Arabs would rise as war unfolded, Britain could not risk wide scale revolts across the Middle East or in to Egypt and so Arab sensibilities were once more placed above those of Jewish ones. However the determining event would be the Fall of France in 1940 which would see their colonies up for grabs. Despite de Gaulle's appeals, the French colonies of Lebanon and Syria remained firmly attached to Vichy France. However when the Germans began to advance ever closer to the Suez Canal through Libya and Egypt and when they had seized Greece and Aegean Islands and when they started using Vichy air bases in the Middle East to fly supplies to Iraq the British felt obligated to invade. De Gaulle assured the British that the French would greet the invaders with flowers and switch sides with barely a shot being fired (where have we heard that before?). This was to prove to be a forlorn hope and many British, Australian and Free French soldiers were gunned down by determined Vichy French defenders and their paramilitary allies. There were to be over 10,000 casualties in the month long campaign and the internecine fighting between the two French camps was to be particularly brutal and horrific.

One would have thought that Allied victory would have solved the long running issues between the British and the French in the region. However, this was not to prove the case. De Gaulle was short of personnel and indeed of practical political power and so was determined to keep the British at arm's length as much as he could and called upon many Vichy administrators to remain in post as he simply did not have the Free French personnel to spare. Many of these former Vichy officers would carry their bitterness towards the British with them even more so when the British were able to use their practical power on the ground to help Lebanon achieve its effective independence in 1943. Syrian independence was to be not much later in 1945. Britain hoping that they would gain some element of thanks and influence with the newly independent Arab nations. This of course was before a succession of coups and political instability in both nations made memories short on who they should thank for such upheaval. Regardless, bitter French personnel would seek to gain a modicum of their own influence with a touch of revenge by aiding the rising Zionist terrorist organisations of the Irgun and the Stern Gang from 1944 onwards. The author contends that vital financial, military and political aid was provided by the French Surete and other governmental agencies in a deniable but all too clear sympathetic manner towards the Zionists. Furthermore, they aided Jewish refugees seeking to sail from France to Palestine in the aftermath of the war as a kind of deferred atonement for what the French nation had done to their own Jewish population during the years of occupation. The French asked for little in return except a modicum of influence in a new Zionist state should one emerge. Meanwhile the British were losing their power and prestige as they had been financially and politically exhausted by World War and a new left wing government no longer had the stomach to sustain the losses to impose law and order on unwilling populations. It did not help that the new American administration of Truman showed little sympathy. Attlee's government called the bluff of Truman and the United Nations alike by declaring their intention to leave unilaterally and let others deal with the seemingly unresolvable dispute between Arabs and Zionists in Palestine. France had got its revenge and would go on to be Israel's biggest supplier of military goods at least until 1956. However it did somewhat sell its soul in the process and inspired its other Arab populations in its colonies who were less than impressed with their colonial power's role in championing Zionism in Arab lands to challenge and ultimately overthrow French rule throughout the Maghreb. So it was a pyrrhic victory at best.

In summary this is a fascinating book that sheds an interesting light on a well worn issue. It is possible to overstate yourself when making a radical new thesis... minor points that confirm may well be embellished whilst inconvenient points are sidelined or ignored altogether. I am not saying that James Barr does or does not do this, you should read the book and judge for yourself. However, I would say that he challenges our historic preconceptions and makes us think about the possible consequences of colonial rivalry that played out in unexpected but long lasting ways. The arbitrary 'Line in the Sand' of the Sykes-Picot agreement was not so much important for where the borders were drawn but for the resentment and difficulties that it would throw up between the signatories in subsequent years. In those terms, the author could not have chosen a better title for his book: A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East.

British Empire Book
James Barr
Simon and Schuster


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