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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Great Britain: Promises and Contradictions (1915 – 1916)

It had been of imminent importance for both warring sides to forge alliances in the region. Especially Great Britain had gone to great lengths to cajole the Arabs into taking the Allies’ side. London went as far as to promise them independence after the war to lend their support against the Ottomans. In the so-called McMahon-Husayn Correspondence (1915-1916) between Husayn ibn Ali, the Sharif (Steward of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina), and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, the latter promised that ‘as for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act (…), I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances’ that ‘Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within limits demanded by the Sharif of Mecca.’

London would further ‘guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognize their inviolability.’ ‘I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs,’ McMahon concluded.

This statement was in sharp contradiction with the so-called Balfour Declaration, a letter written on November 2, 1917, by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Great Britain. ‘I have much pleasure,’ Balfour wrote, ‘in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet: His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

The purpose of this letter was two-fold. The political situation in Russia on the eve of the October Revolution was very unstable. It was expected that Russia would withdraw from the war in the case of a Bolshevik take-over. London tried to convince Russian Jews that the continuation of the war against Germany would benefit them in the long term. On the other hand, the British hoped that their promise to Rothschild would lead the important Jewish community in the United States to use their influence to convince the American government to sustain the British war efforts.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

To complicate the diplomatic situation, in May 1916 Great Britain and France, with the consent of Russia, had concluded a secret agreement on the partition of the Ottoman Empire after the war. The agreement was named after the negotiators, the British Conservative politician and adviser to the government Sir Mark Sykes, and the French diplomat François Georges-Picot. It entailed the division of Turkish-held Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine into various areas administered by the French and British.

Russia was to acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast. France was to acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland bordering Russia’s territory, including Aintab (Gaziantep), Urfa (Edessa), Mardin, Diyarbakır, and Mosul. Great Britain was to acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad and the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre. Between the French and British administered territories, Arab states or a single independent Arab state should be divided into French and British spheres of influence. Palestine was to be placed under international control because of the Holy Places. The Arabs learned of the Sykes-Picot Agreement when the Bolshevik Russian government published it in late 1917 and was scandalized.