Sand not just mud: 100 years on we remember . . . the wrong war?

by - 7th November 2014

ATTEMPTS TO HELP resolve today’s tragedy in the Middle East are marred by almost total ignorance of its origins among those in Western governments who are now struggling to  handle the fall-out a century later. 

And the issue reaches a head next Tuesday, as Britain commemorates the outbreak of the First World War. 

Some leading analysts believe that we are memorialising only part – and perhaps the wrong part - of the story.

‘Sand not just mud’ should have been the focus all along, according to Revd Canon Andrew Tremlett, sub-dean of Westminster Abbey, who earlier this week discussed Britain’s so-called ‘treachery' over promises of land and autonomy in exchange for Arab support against Germany, as the Ottoman Empire whose unwilling vassals they were, was dismantled.

He says:  ‘Absolutely rightly, the main focus of our attention is on the events of the Western Front and on the scale of the conflict.

‘However, there is precious little in the public arena which even begins to illuminate the way that the Middle East as a region was largely shaped at the time, and that that is an enduring heritage with current day consequences.’

The view is increasingly widely held that secular men who drew the lines in the sand that created the nations of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Arabia were juggling the religious interests of Jews and Muslims, against a backdrop of Christian genocide in Ottoman Armenia – and did not foresee the implications of what befell their various treaties.


And as ISIS redraws the historic map of Syria and the Levant – originally biblical Canaan - Britain still feels it has responsibility for the region it helped delineate, based on factors whose religious and cultural complexity was – and still is - now largely lost on us.

Tremlett describes as ‘duplicity’ and ‘double-crossing’ the failure of the British to honour its pledge to grant Syria and Palestine to the Arabs in return for their support against the Turks. The Turks had joined with Germany against Christian Europe following a blood-curdling call to jihad by the Sheikh of Istanbul.

The Sheik-al-Islam published his proclamation, summoning the whole Muslim world to arise … “Oh you Muslims, you are smitten with happiness and are on the verge of sacrificing your life and your goods for the cause of right … obey the commands of the Almighty, who, in the Holy Koran, promises us bliss in this world and the next … The Chief of the Believers, the Caliph, invites you all as Muslims to join the holy war!”

This was the introduction to five fatwas or religious legal declarations made in the name of Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V, the sclerotic Sultan of Ottoman Constantinople, translated into Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tatar, spread throughout the Muslim world and exhorting Muslims to take up arms against Christians in Britain, France and Russia at the start of World War I.

But even as Lawrence of Arabia, tormented symbol of British duplicity, sought to defeat the Turks at Medina, by cutting off its supply lines through the Hijaz, marching with Prince Feisal and the victorious Arabs into Damascus in 1918, another secret deal was being consolidated.

The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, which was concluded in May 1916 under the Entente Cordiale which entailed commitments by Britain to the French from an earlier war, is evidently the target of ISIS, according to a video released in February this year, and subsequently removed from YouTube.  It evidently showed a history lesson from a Chilean jihadi under the title ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’.

The agreement, negotiated in secret, effectively divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of future British and French control or influence, under mandated rule.

There is widespread speculation that the Balfour Declaration also signed in 1916 which assigned Jerusalem to the Jews, a people who had not lived there for centuries in any numbers, set not just the seal on future war, but was itself the outcome of secret pressure affecting all the other negotiations.

Giving Syria to the French instead of the Arabs as had been promised was deemed more politic.

Religious passions

Zionist Herbert Samuel who had a seat in Cabinet as Minister for the Local Government Board states in his memoirs: ‘I mentioned that two things would be essential—that the state [of Israel] should be neutralized, since it could not be large enough to defend itself, and that the free access of Christian pilgrims should be guaranteed. ... I also said it would be a great advantage if the remainder of Syria were annexed by France, as it would be far better for the state to have a European power as neighbour than the Turk.’

It became of utmost import therefore to keep the Arabs on the side of the Allies, while it proved expedient to do so.  But promising them autonomy if they revolted against Turkey proved a hostage to fortune.

As with India, secular Britain in the driving seat found itself forced to appeasereligious passions it did not take seriously.

As Edward House, Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy adviser put it: 'It is all bad and I told Balfour so. They are making it a breeding place for future war.'

To the dismay of the Arabs, as forces entered Damascus on 1st October 1918, Balfour overruled his junior Minister, Cecil, and insisted that Sykes-Picot be honoured. The reaction was one of disbelief: W F Stirling wrote of delegates of ‘frenzied and almost despairing Arabs who could not believe that we had signed an agreement which would hand them over to the French’.

It is the Sykes-Picot agreement that is now unravelling, as the IS group marches across a swathe of territory that ignores the arbitrary ‘lines in the sand’ that have governed international politics for a century.

‘The toxic legacy of betrayal, deceit and sedition is still played out in the Middle East’, says Tremlett.

Others believe this is too harsh a judgement on the British who were attempting to bring modernity to a region in meltdown. Left painfully backward by the Turks, without healthcare, audit, or boundaries, Britain, France and Russia – an ally before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 - created nations capable for a while of withstanding interminable Arab raiding parties that kept the numerous tribes on a permanent and debilitating war footing.

That legacy now seems doomed.

As we remember the fallen of the West this week, and listen to calls for a new Caliphate, we should also remember those who spent their lives trying to build something out of the rubble of the last one.