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Carving It Up

Richard O’Brien

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East, by James Barr, Simon & Schuster, 464 pp, £25, ISBN: 9781847374530

James Barr’s fascinating account ‑ at once sweeping and detailed ‑ of Franco-British rivalry in the Middle East is not just a work of history, although it is history at its meticulously researched and addictive best. It is also a thoughtful and timely guide for those interested in the continuing search for the soul and destiny of that region in the contemporary world.

Through his painstaking research and superbly crafted narrative, Barr has opened up for us the entire range of competing ambitions and strategies, policies and personalities, the overarching designs and the petty rivalries, together with many of the secret understandings and countless conspiracies that informed ‑ and indeed frequently prejudiced ‑ the political and security discourse of the then Great Powers who shaped the character of regional and global relationships as they unfolded within the book’s thirty-four-year period of traumatic international upheavals and transformations, from 1915 to 1949. His cast of characters includes statesmen, scholars, soldiers and spies, Arab leaders, assassins, self-interested politicians, well-motivated reformers, religious zealots and calculating diplomats ‑ all caught up in a compelling story of war and intrigue, conflict and terror, promise and betrayal, death and survival ‑ as he recounts the story of the last great effort by the dominant European powers to salvage their fast-fading world order of imperial grandeur and colonial prestige in this all-important geostrategic hub of world civilisation.

The story opens in the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street on the morning of December 16th, 1915 with an account of how the hesitant and increasingly exhausted British prime minister HH Asquith empowered a young and largely inexperienced MP, Mark Sykes, to persuade his designated French interlocutor, François Georges-Picot, a firm believer in the historic vocation of his country’s civilising mission, to split the Ottomans’ Middle Eastern Empire between them ‑ effectively to draw a line across the map from the “e” in Acre to the final “k” in Kirkuk ‑ from a point, that is, on the shores of the Mediterranean to the outer limits of Churchill’s “unrewarding sands” of Mesopotamia at the foothills of the Persian frontier. The territory north of the line ‑ to be given to France ‑ would include Syria, part of present-day Turkey and of present-day Iraq (the oil-rich province of Mosul) as well as Lebanon. To the south of the line ‑ to be given to Britain ‑ would lie the remainder of Iraq, TransJordan and the ports of Acre and Haifa. Palestine would be placed under “international administration”.

For Sykes and Picot, their “line in the sand” (of May 16th, 1916) was one necessarily drawn in secret, since it attempted to ensure that ‑ whatever the interests of others ‑ the old Anglo-French “Entente Cordiale” would survive intact into the postwar world order. The agreement sought to guarantee that Britain and France together would determine the future shape of this part of the colonised world. It also conspired to preempt when possible ‑ and when not possible to manage ‑ the emerging demands for freedom and democratic empowerment at the dawn of what was promised to be a more peaceful and egalitarian postwar twentieth century. For the Arab world, encouraged by the enigmatic TE Lawrence and a host of others, the agreement was to be seen as a betrayal of the commitment to Arab independence solemnly promised by Sir Henry McMahon, Britain’s high commissioner in Cairo, to Hussein Ibn Ali, the Hashemite grand sherif of Mecca, in exchange for Arab support in overthrowing Ottoman rule across the region.

For the United States it was an affront to Woodrow Wilson’s cherished belief that the new era of postwar peace would enable the subject and stateless peoples of the world to freely choose their own destinies. In his State of the Union address to the joint session of the US Congress on January 18th, 1918 Wilson had proclaimed that “it will be our wish and purpose that the processes of peace, when they are begun, shall be absolutely open and that they shall involve and permit henceforth no secret understandings of any kind”. In Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s new communist Russia ‑ which had declared that the struggle against capitalism necessarily involved the struggle against colonialism ‑ Leon Trotsky, the commissar for foreign relations, had some weeks earlier made public for the first time the text of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which he cited as an example of the secret treaties that revealed “the true nature of the Entente Cordiale’s dark plans for colonial conquest”. Trotsky’s disclosure and Wilson’s address sent Britain and France into immediate damage control mode. Even before the State of the Union speech, in early January 1918, the new prime minister, David Lloyd George, had announced that Britain was reassessing its plans for the postwar disposition of the Ottoman territories: “Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine are in our judgment entitled to a recognition of their separate national conditions.”

Nonetheless, the Sykes-Picot agreement survived to influence the division of the region into the five states ‑ Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine ‑ that both Britain and France would be mandated to administer by the League of Nations. However, even before these deliberations and decisions, the regional landscape would be further and fundamentally altered by another momentous decision ‑ and one that would be publicly proclaimed. Throughout 1917 ‑ despite the strong and forceful Arab support that would eventually assure the defeat of the Ottomans ‑ Britain and France remained anxious that the war in Europe, and indeed in the Middle East, was far from concluded. Unsettled convictions about ultimate success existed on both sides of the English Channel. These combined with the sense of a certain prevarication in Washington and a violent revolution in Russia to provoke fresh thinking in London about winning the support and sympathy of influential members of the Jewish faith and of influential Jewish organisations across the international community ‑ especially in the United States. This process of reflection ‑ characterised as much by conspiracy and chance as by deliberation and diplomacy ‑ culminated on November 2nd, 1917 when the then British foreign secretary, Sir Arthur Balfour, with the support of his Cabinet colleagues, signed a letter addressed to the leadership of the Zionist movement in Britain which stated that the British government “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people ... it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

The subsequent pages of A Line in the Sand are filled with the fascinating story of the full implications of that declaration: the gradual unravelling of the flawed Sykes-Picot agreement; the deliberations at the League of Nations; the San Remo conference of 1920; the reassignment of oil-rich Mosul to British supervision in the new Iraq; control of the Suez Canal; the contested status of Jerusalem; the Druze revolt; the growing American engagement and its intense insistence on increasing the levels of Jewish immigration; Anglo-French rivalries and French-Zionist intrigues; the quest for Jewish statehood and the role of Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang; the disaster of the Second World War; the Anglo-French confrontation of 1941; the implications of the unspeakably horrific tragedy of the Holocaust; the eventual departure of France in 1946; and war between Israelis and Arabs in 1948 ‑ in essence the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”.

And that phrase, the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, continues to reverberate. We are of course regularly assured that history is not just the story of our past ‑ that it is also an inspiration and instruction about the present ‑ deepening the understanding of ourselves on familiar ground and enabling us to look to the future with realistic expectations balanced by hope and experience. Yet some ninety years after the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration ‑ after all of the intervening conflicts and confrontations filled with so much human anguish and physical destruction ‑ in early August 2006 the then US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was again to refer to the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” as she set out on another ill-fated attempt at shuttle diplomacy following Israel’s invasion earlier that month of a divided and vulnerable Lebanon.

In an atmosphere reminiscent of so many of the dramatic moments described in A Line in the Sand, I well remember from those days in Cairo how many across the Arab world were dismayed by this characterisation of the violent events in Lebanon ‑ some sensing in them a repetition of America’s sense of idealism (often perceived locally as a troubling naivete), its belief that its values and prescriptions could remedy the problems that plague the Middle East. There were others who read in the secretary’s remarks the hint of a grand conspiracy to make the region more pliable and responsive to US interests ‑ as previously attempted by the great powers of Europe ‑ while a few even speculated about the launching of a proxy war to settle the growing confrontation between the US and Iran (and its ally Syria). There were also those who thought it signalled a greater determination by the US, even more so than Israel, to confront the region’s non-state actors and diminish, or possibly destroy, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Dr Rice’s remarks were all the more potent when seen against the background of a deepening concern among the leaders of countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that their views were having, and were seen to be having, little impact across the West, with the US bound more comprehensively than ever to Israel (following the tragedy of 9/11) and the EU determined to restore its vital transatlantic relationship following the turbulence about the decision to go to war in Iraq. The mood was so fraught that the Egyptian government was said to be considering legal action against the leading Egyptian daily newspaper Al Ahram for inquiring in an outspoken editorial why Cairo, with its longstanding ties with Washington and Tel Aviv, had not been able to insist on an early end to the conflict in Lebanon. These were coupled with concerns that the legitimacy of regimes across the region was also under challenge by the internal and external demands for democratisation, human rights reforms and transformed governance with greater financial transparency and public accountability. Contributing to all of these were the following broader considerations:

the effective stalling of the Oslo peace process following the tragic assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and despite the heroic efforts of others, especially of President Bill Clinton and his exceptional attempts to broker an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement as well as Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations at both Camp David and at Taba, to be ultimately disappointed by those, on all sides, who appeared to be as-anxious as always “never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”;

the election of President GW Bush, who was determined to move beyond his predecessor’s valiant but failed efforts to transform the region through a comprehensive network of peace agreements and to replace those efforts with a policy of proactive engagement in the establishment of democracy across the Middle East ‑ a policy which appeared to be based on the belief that nothing (including the entrenched recalcitrance of many Arab leaders, the internal fractiousness of Israeli politics, the rivalries within and between the Palestinian factions, the pressures of US domestic politics, where Israel’s future remains a priority, and the constant vulnerability of both reason and progress to endemic violence) could resist the arguments of purposeful statecraft as well as the appeal of democratic political accountability and free market economics;

the rejection by Israel and the subsequent neglect by much of the Western world of the comprehensive Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia, agreed by all Arab states at their Beirut summit meeting in 2002 and endorsed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (the world’s second largest intergovernmental organisation) at its meeting in Sudan in June 2002, an endorsement which, as the inspiring King Abdullah II of Jordan has rightly remarked, put an impressive fifty-seven-state solution on the table;

the launching of the 2003 war in Iraq, which raised the temperature on the Arab street and gave a foothold both to Iran to spread its influence across the Arab world and to al-Qaeda and others to spread their violent extremism across the region;

the construction of the “separation wall” by Israel, a new “line in the sand”, a twenty-six-foot-high structure ostensibly to protect against the vile terror of suicide bombings (a vicious distortion of the true meaning and message of Islam) but seen by others as an attempt to create a de facto border which effectively annexed occupied territory, and perhaps even as an attempt to preempt the outcome of final status negotiations. On July 9th, 2004, the International Court of Justice found the wall ‑ with the judge appointed by the United States the sole dissenting voice ‑ to be in violation of international law. The government of Ariel Sharon ignored the judgment and ordered its completion, deepening the suspicion that the commitment of Israel (clearly evident during the hope-filled era of Yitzhak Rabin) to the negotiation of “land for peace” (essential to the creation of a Palestinian state) was waning, if it had not already been abandoned.

the increased toleration of Israel’s unilateralism, evident in the construction of the separation wall, also saw its withdrawal from Gaza take place in a manner which marginalised and damaged the reformed, pro-Western and peace-committed leadership of Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas ‑ a marginalisation which became further evident when they were democratically succeeded in the Gaza elections by the Iranian-supported and Syrian-headquartered Hamas, developments which soon saw the effective suspension of the international community’s roadmap for peace in the Middle East;

the violent demonstrations and street protests across the Arab world in reaction to the publications of what were referred to as “the Danish cartoons” of the Prophet Muhammad, which highlighted not a clash of civilisations but rather the capacity for cynical manipulation of public opinion by a number of Arab regimes, the failure of European diplomacy to deal effectively with the fallout, the limited success of interfaith dialogue as well as the tragic misunderstandings that can arise from mutual incomprehension; and

the 2006 war in Lebanon ‑ celebrated by many as a victory for the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah ‑ which offered a potentially dangerous validation of the proposition that violence can succeed where statesmanship falters.

By the end of August 2006 it was already clear that the war in Lebanon was having a profound impact on the political discourse within and beyond the countries of the region, a discourse which was distancing itself from Dr Rice’s vision of a new and democratic Middle East. Indeed much of the previous decade had seen a debate of growing intensity about the prospects for democratic transformation and economic modernisation across the Arab world, a debate promoted and progressed by those whom the brilliant former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher described as the embodiment of the “Arab Centre”. However, the war in Lebanon meant that the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its manifest tragedy and complexity had returned to the forefront of regional and international attention. In so doing it turned too many away ‑ at least temporarily ‑ from Marwan Muasher’s “architects and advocates” of reform and drove them back towards criticism and cynicism ‑ away from hope and expectation and towards resentment and recrimination. This is not to suggest that before the war in Lebanon the political life of the region had been all about political change and economic modernisation. Sadly it had also been marred by terrorism, the war in Iraq, sectarian violence and the ongoing search, ultimately a futile one, by many of the region’s authoritarian regimes for the means to restrict the encroachment of globalisation and the sense of personal empowerment that was developing from the revolution in personal electronic communications systems. Nor indeed was the Arab-Israeli conflict ever far from view. Violence in the Palestinian territories continued and on occasion surpassed the dramatic levels seen at the beginning of the second intifada, but violence in the occupied territories had by then tragically become part of the ordinary landscape of the region.

Nonetheless, the reference to “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”, and all the historical baggage that went with it, together with the widespread destruction involved in Israel’s military invasion of Lebanon, led many to be torn by the stark choice between resisting American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East and surrendering the rights of the Arab and Muslim community. The range of domestic political alignments began to shift away from the debate on democratisation and economic development to the threatening polarisation between the ruling elites at one end (who struggled to contain, control and even use the conflict) and Islamist and Pan-Arab opposition groups at the other end (who denounced restraint and called openly for resistance). It was indeed a time when many of the putative opposition movements came to openly express their own totalitarian and populist tendencies. However there were also those in the Arab media and beyond who courageously argued that there was a fundamental difference between a rational debate that, when necessary, condemned Israel for unrestrained belligerence and criticised Western toleration of Israeli excesses, and the repulsive exultation that greeted announcements of the death of Israeli civilians as a step towards the destruction of the “Zionist entity”. Indeed, such exultation reinforced the fear that at the heart of Islamist and Pan-Arab extremism there existed no clear willingness to embrace an essential requirement of reformist politics, namely a capacity to confront ideologies of hate rather than seek to employ them for political advantage. At the same time there were those in the media and elsewhere ‑ far removed from any extremist Islamist ideology ‑ who began to question Israel’s “absolute” right to aggressive actions in the name of self defence – “absolute” in the sense of being apparently unrestrained by the norms of international law and prosecuted on the basis of “an open cheque” provided by the major Western powers which effectively enabled, even if it did not explicitly encourage, military engagements beyond Israel’s (widely recognised) 1967 borders without fear of serious censure. While these commentators and columnists did not in any way challenge the existence of Israel they sought to promote a process of reflection on how to achieve a totally new accommodation across the region which would prevent any one country (and not just Israel) from being a continuing source of instability and tension and even of global uncertainty. In any event, the summer of 2006 became the summer of many complexities across the modern Middle East.

It was the summer when Israel lost its reputation for regional invincibility. Hezbollah was perceived to have been victorious in the conflict simply because it survived.

It was the summer when Hezbollah was also transformed from a military/political organisation attempting to secure its position on the harsh landscape of Lebanese rivalries ‑ then being reshaped following the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of the Syrian army ‑ into a rallying movement for many deeply frustrated by hypocrisy and alienated by corruption.

It was the summer when Iran reshaped its profile and recast itself as an important regional player, claiming to support the neglected and the dispossessed across the Sunni as well as the Shia world. Already encouraged by the overthrow of its main regional rival, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, the regime in Tehran sent a strong message of defiance, in its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, to Washington, to the European Union and, perhaps of greatest significance, to the governments of the Sunni Arab world, the great majority of the membership of the League of Arab States.

It was the summer when Israel demonstrated its inability, or incapacity, to seize the opportunity to convince its immediate neighbours that they had a shared interest in addressing, on its own analysis, a common external opponent ‑ one moreover that had been criticised implicitly by the Arab League for endangering Lebanon through supporting the “miscalculated adventure” of Hezbollah.

It was the summer when a powerful new confluence of interests was forged between Sunni and Shia militants, angry young secular Arabs, Palestinian radicals and the advocates of regional reform. It was a confluence which resembled the brief alliance of convenience in the 1950s between the Nasserites and the Muslim Brotherhood that sparked the Egyptian revolution, a confluence that many believe has helped to bring forward ‑ enabled by new communication technologies ‑ the justly celebrated Arab Spring.

These were among the many complexities that emerged during the summer of 2006 in the Middle East and provide the general context within which some in the western world stood poised to redraw the map and to reshape the dynamics of the “old Middle East”. It was a summer, President Bush was to tell us, that had created a new “moment of opportunity in the history of the Middle East”. In one respect the president was of course entirely right, for it is history that will eventually tell us for whom that “moment of opportunity” had created a more promising future. That is a story that has yet to be written.

In the meantime we have the insights of superb scholarship in a richly textured retelling of the making of the real Middle East at another decisive moment in James Barr’s A Line in the Sand. I have always been fascinated by the creation of great books ‑ the detailed research they require, the ordering of material and the structuring of the story, the transmission of the author’s findings and analysis through meticulously worded drafting and crafting, the complex processes of editing and printing and publishing, the distribution to the shelves of bookshops and libraries, buying and borrowing, an entire process through which the once private genius and imagination of the author becomes the personal and enriching property of us all. This book will have a wide circle of friends and a great many admirers.

Richard O’Brien - a UCD graduate - retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2010 having served as Ambassador in Warsaw, Canberra - where he now lives - Cairo and Singapore. He also served in London and Washington and was Head of the Press and Information Section of the Department from 1985 to 1990.

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