Simon & Schuster, £25, 454pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Line In The Sand, By James Barr
James Barr has written a history of the rivalry between France and Britain for dominance in the Middle East as framed by the First and the Second World Wars. He plunges us straight into the mindset of two relatively junior officials, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes, in the maelstrom of 1915. A year later a fateful, secret paper is finally agreed: the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, outlining a possible future division of the spoils should France and Britain win the war against the German, Austrian and Ottoman Empires.
And there he keeps us for the next 30 years, not hovering with the historians in high Olympic judgement on the fates of nations, but with the journalists and spies at the very grubby coalface of foreign policy, made up of threat and counter-threat, hidden dreams, desire for revenge, inter-departmental rivalry and the jealousy of the bureaucratic chiefs in the capitals for their men on the ground. I found the entire book most horribly addictive, even if the ultimate picture it paints of the actions of the two Western powers is sordid, muddled and hypocritical.
We find that Picot's carelessness with his files of secret correspondence as a French consul in Beirut caused mayhem among the Syrian intellectuals and nationalists with whom he had corresponded, many of whom were executed as a result as traitors by the Ottomans. Sykes, meanwhile, is exposed as one of the many British Orientalist "experts" who had a very slight grasp of Arabic or Turkish but an urgent desire to escape the emotional chaos of his British upper-class upbringing. Lloyd George and Churchill are revealed to be almost insanely anti-Turkish, while the British fondness for the Hashemite dynasty was not just the work of Ronald Storrs and TE Lawrence, but was grounded on the stated desire to weaken the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate and create a rival "hereditary, spiritual Pope with no temporal power".
Despite the rhetoric of democracy and civilisation espoused by both Britain and France throughout the 1920s and 1930s to defend their rule over the Levant, they were only ever interested in costing out the minimum number of troops needed to suppress either violent rebellion and its junior sister, terrorism. Britain was ultimately concerned with just three principals: control of the oil fields of northern Iraq, control of the Suez Canal and control of the oil pipelines, which fuelled the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean (from Basra) and the Mediterranean (from Haifa). Indeed, the whole project of planting a Jewish emigrant population in Palestine can be seen to be no more than a project to help guard both the oil pipelines and the Suez Canal.
This policy (already disastrously misguided in conception) was made doubly worse by its abrupt reverse in response to the military success of the Arab Revolt in Palestine and the spiralling costs of subduing similar revolts in Iraq. Elements within the British Foreign Office then tried to bury the shame of being hated by both sides in Palestine by secretly promoting the cause of a "Greater Arab Syria" – even if it meant betraying its wartime ally France. British generals enforced free elections in both French-ruled Lebanon and Syria (ultimately at gunpoint) to produce independent nationalist regimes while at the same time refusing to hold free elections in any of their own mandates. No wonder French administrators tried to find a word more expressive than "perfidious" to describe their neighbour.
By way of revenge, and to help establish a new friend in the region, Barr provides incontrovertible evidence that France directly supported Jewish terrorist organisations, such as the Stern gang, in their struggle against Britain in the years after 1945. Indeed, he hints that it seems possible that Colonel Alessandri of the Bureau Noir may have been implicated in the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo, just as his successors may well have been behind the attempted assassination of Colonel Stirling in Damascus in 1949.
Fortunately, some colonial officials learned the folly of their ways. Sir John Shaw, former chief secretary of Palestine, after a lifetime of experience declared the Mandate "not only immoral but ill advised... not your business, or my business or British business or anybody else's to interfere in other people's countries and tell them how to run it, even to run it well."
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