This book is an essential read for anyone trying to understand the modern middle east and the central conflict there between what is now the State of Israel and the Arabs of the region. For anyone familiar with the history of the relationship between the British Mandatory government and the Palestinian Jewish community – deteriorating from its high point following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised a national homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people, to the open warfare of 1946/7 – this book provides a much broader context for understanding the shifts and turns in British policy over that period. Like many of the arbitrary borders established by colonial powers, the line in the book’s title – defining the unquiet border between Israel and Lebanon – is still very much relevant today.
The author tells the story of two “Great Powers” – Britain and France – both of whom acted – in the grand tradition of 19th century colonialism – solely in the interest of perpetuating their own influence in the area. The problem was that, by the time that this story begins – toward the end of the World War 1 – the 19th century was history; there was a new spirit abroad, championed by the American President Woodrow Wilson, which demanded respect for the aspirations of local peoples to self-determination. Great Britain and France thus had to modify their imperialist goals – or at least cloak them – by seeking “mandates” from the newborn League of Nations, which authorised them to exercise so-called protective power over various parts of the now defunct Ottoman empire until such time as these territories were judged to be competent to rule themselves.
France wished to control Syria (including modern Lebanon), in order to resume a supposed association with that area going back to the time of the crusades, and which had been interrupted by a mere seven hundred years of Moslem occupation. Britain was interested in acquiring control over Palestine (which then included what is now the Kingdom of Jordan) and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Before the war was over, a deal had been done and the two spheres of interest had been defined and delineated by the line, the “Sykes-Picot Line”. France’s motivations seemed more to do with “La Gloire” and reinforcing its self perception – somewhat dented by its poor showing in the war – as a world power. Britain on the other hand had much more practical reasons; it had already made a strategic decision to change the fuel of the British navy from coal to oil, so control over the oil fields of Iraq was a priority. Palestine would serve an entirely different purpose; it would provide a cordon sanitaire between the zone of French interest in Syria and the British-controlled Suez Canal. This may not have been – as the author maintains – the sole motivation behind the Balfour Declaration. However, in the context of the bitter rivalry between Britain and France, it certainly would have furnished another persuasive reinforcer.
In 1916, during the course of the war, Sir Henry McMahon the British High Comissioner in Egypt had already secretly floated an offer to the the local ruler of Mecca, Sherif Husein, of an “independent” Arab state covering most of the area, including greater Syria. (As always the devil is in the details; the rather vaguely worded exclusions to this area were meant to define Palestine, which the British government – or some of its actors evidently had in mind for another purpose –which may or may not have been a Jewish Homeland. The impression of right and left hands acting totally independently is certainly evident.) The purpose of this offer was part of a strategy – of which T.E. Lawrence’s actions on the ground were the other part – to encourage the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Turks, hence accelerating the demise of the latter and also establishing Britain as the new “protecting” Great Power in the region. In the negotiations that led up to the Sykes-Picot carve-up later the same year, the French insisted on their rights to Syria, putting Britain in the situation where they effectively reneged on McMahon’s offer. In the event, the 1917 Ottoman defeat in Syria was very much an Arab achievement – organized and assisted by T.E. Lawrence – which made France’s claims to a mandate there particularly unsavory to the Arabs.
Once the two countries’ spheres of influence were agreed and established, each set about trying to undermine the other. The British tried to install one of Sherif Husein’s sons, who was favorable towards them, as the future ruler of Syria; he was run out of the country by the French; the British promptly made him the king of Iraq. In the 1920’s, the Druze of Syria revolted against the French; they were given material support from Palestine by the British. The French repaid the compliment a decade later, when the Arabs of Palestine were in revolt against the British. At the end of the second world war, French rule in Syria and Lebanon was increasingly resented, and British operatives there did their best to speed the departure of the colonial power. In 1946/7, when the British were faced with a full-scale Jewish insurgency in Palestine, Ezel, the most militant of the Jewish groups was allowed to recruit and buy arms in France itself, as well as taking refuge from the British in French-controlled Lebanon. The echoes of this struggle and the scars that it left can be traced right down to 1963, when De Gaulle, once again in power in France, effectively vetoed Harold Macmillan’s application for Britain to enter the European Common Market.
In most history books dealing with the first half of the 20th century, the second world war would have to play a major role. In this book it is almost incidental, a sideshow to the bitter struggle between these two “allies” for enduring influence in the middle east. There are really only two points at which the war intrudes; once the Germans had been defeated at the battle of El Alamein in 1943, the British could feel relaxed about the security of Egypt and the Suez canal, and focus once more on screwing France. The Free French under De Gaulle very reluctantly agreed to “allow” the British to assist in the liberation of Syria and Lebanon from the Vichy government’s control. Although this relieved the – by then remote – risk of a German invasion of Palestine from the north, it left most of the previous Vichy officials – now professing loyalty to the Free French – in place. Plus ca change…
The author tells the story with great clarity and liveliness; there is a very full cast of characters – some familiar, like T.E. Lawrence, Lloyd George, Churchill and Charles De Gaulle, and others less so – the analysis of whose personalities and backgrounds adds much to one’s appreciation of this account of, double-dealing, mutual distrust, manipulation and outright treachery .