“We’ve been to the moon and we’re still fighting about Jerusalem” (R. Siken)
So here’s the thing. After our trip to debauchery last week, I thought it would be time for something a bit more serious. So, I picked up James Barr’s ‘A Line in the Sand’ – which, by all intents and purposes, is an excellent book about the role Britain and France played in the struggle that shaped the Middle East.
But then I quickly realized that I cannot summarize this book – and the entire origin story of the Middle East – in a blog post of 1,600 words. Reducing such a complex conflict to such a degree would do everyone a disservice – you, because I’d leave so much information out that you’d know less than what you knew at the beginning, but most importantly, the conflict itself.
It is a puzzle that the world has failed to solve for the past seventy years. The most intelligent minds, the most experienced diplomats were (and are) working on it. Six Nobel Peace Prizes have been won for efforts to bring peace to the region. And yet, peace remains elusive. (Well, we all know Jared will change that.) It seems like the more you read up on the conflict, the harder the solution gets. The less you know, the easier.
So, instead of summarizing, I thought I’d give you some ‘don’t forgets’ to keep in mind.
The separation of the Middle East into a French and a British ‘sphere of influence’ was completely down to randomness. Sykes, the British negotiator, said; “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in ‘Kirkuk’.” His French counterpart Picot agreed, and thus, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was born. Everything above the line (Syria, Lebanon in today’s terms) went to France, everything below (Iraq, Jordan, Palestine) went to the British. One can only marvel at the audacity of imperialistic ambition.
The Arabs were only ever used as a tool. The British used them to make the French miserable – when the Syrians rose in revolt against the French oppressor, Britain sheltered the terrorists and gave them subterfuge in Palestine. French paid them back by doing the same once the Arabs revolted in Palestine and Iraq. Both France and Britain dangled the hope of independence in front of the Arabs to get them to fight the Ottomans (in WWI) and the Vichy-French (in WWII), and then quickly renegaded on their promises once it was politically opportune to do so. The Arabs were never seen as a player themselves, only as a useful instrument.
This phenomenon is still visible today, in fact in this very book. I liked it, I think it’s a good book, and you should read it if you’re interested in the Middle East Conflict, or more generally in foreign policy, but be aware that one voice in this conflict is suspiciously absent – the Arab one. The author sources British, French and Israeli archives. Of course, there is no such thing as an Arab archive on this, but still. It means that their story gets told by someone else. And I found that this is very often the case, even in contemporary articles. It might be due to the langue barrier, but it still bugs me.
There’s two factors that made this conflict worse than any other territorial conflict. One was the Zionist movement. The other one was oil. After WWI, there was a brief window of opportunity where both France and Britain were thinking about leaving (especially since the new world leader, the US, wasn’t a big fan of imperialism). However, once oil was discovered in 1927, and the importance of it realized, the game was over for Arab independence. Neither country could let go of their land possession now. They were here to stay.
Sometimes, there is no good solution. Think about this. After WW2 (and even during, once the dimensions of the Holocaust became widely known), the Allies (but especially the US) begged the Brits to lift their immigration limits on Palestine. See, the Brits knew that the increasing number of Jews in Palestine was making matters more difficult, and placed a hard curb on immigration. So what do you do? Let everyone into Palestine, even though you know this will come to bite you (not even considering the fact that people, namely the Arabs, were already living there), or do you stay unmoved and enforce the immigration limits, probably condemning thousands of people to death? I’m not bringing this up to be contrarian, I just want to show that this entire conflict is full of ‘Damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ scenarios.
Two other points to note to the above –
- A lot of countries (namely the US) placed immigration limits on Jews before WW2. They might have criticized the Brits for not letting Jews into Palestine, but they somehow never bothered to re-visit their own immigration laws.
- The Jewish Agency knew how to play this card very, very well. Images of famished refugees, waiting to be let into Palestine, were widely distributed. This was also a PR game, and they were very good at it.
Also – this conflict is a political problem, not a religious one. It’s easy to forget this nowadays. The Jews justify the State of Israel by referring to the pact between God and their people. And for the Arabs, religion was the one measure of identification that was left. They couldn’t identify as Palestinians, as their land was being taken away, and they couldn’t identify as Arabs, as the Brits and French fought like hell to keep a pan-Arab nation from emerging. So they resorted to identify themselves primarily as Muslims, and the conflict became a religious one. But it hasn’t always been this way. Religion is not the solution to this, but politics might be.
And finally – don’t ever, ever forget what a pompous pain in the ass Charles de Gaulle was. So after France fell to the Germans in 1940, the Brits were suddenly without an ally in the Middle East, and even worse, surrounded by enemies, as Vichy France was now a neighbor in Syria. So they did what they could and found the first French guy who looked like he could lead the Free French (never mind that most French had never heard of deGaulle). It worked for a while, but Charles just couldn’t hide what an absolute tool he was. There’s several instances like that –
- Syria had to be liberated from the Vichy French. As this was war, the Brits tried to keep the operation a secret. However, our dear Charles decided that he needed a new set of desert clothes. He went out to get a tropical uniform at – I kid you not – Liberty in London. Of course, he was trailed by spies, so of course, they put two and two together, and word got out that an attack on Syria was imminent. Churchill was not amused.
- Eventually, deGaulle got to Syria, and promised the Arabs all kind of things. The British were also not too happy about that, and told deGaulle to double-time it back to London. DeGaulle answered that he was ‘too busy’. (The audacity! You and you country are literally depending on the support of Britain, and you are too busy to answer to them!) Churchill’s next move was no less extra, he simply cut off deGaulle’s financial support. Suddenly, a slot opened up in deGaulle’s calendar and he was in London within the next week.
So there you go. Some facts that should make you realize just how complicated this conflict is.
So there are plenty of good books about this topic out there. But as I said above – the more you learn about it, the more complicated it gets. I left out 90% of the book in my fact points above, and I have every reason to believe that James Barr did the same when writing this book. Not in a ‘I’m going to withhold information from my reader’ way – it is just way too complicated, there’s too many details.
I’d strongly encourage you to read “The Arabs: A History” by Eugene Rogan. You don’t often come across books written specifically on the Arab perspective, but this is one, and a book you don’t want to miss.
There’s also a good podcast out there called ‘MatyrMade‘. Two caveats – a) sometimes the narrator goes off on tangents that turn into pointless palaver b) he is no Dan Carlin – but it gives you a good overview on the conflict, from the end of the 19th century to today. It will keep you busy for a while – I think the total run time is about ten hours – but it is good.
Next week … well, next week’s book is currently in my freezer. Apparently Charity Shop Books sometimes carry bed bugs, so you are supposed to put the book in the freezer to kill them. Now you know. (I didn’t know either.)