A look at the effect of British colonial betrayal a century ago on the Middle East of today. By Renee Parsons (for Counterpunch)
After almost a century, the seeds of the on-going death, destruction and violence in the Middle East that began during WWI can be directly traced to two historic documents that continue to provide the foundation for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Almost one hundred years after the flawed Sykes-Picot and Balfour documents, the tragically long suffering peoples of Iraq and Palestine, both betrayed by the British in 1916, still live with a sorrow and anguish that offers little hope for peace and reconciliation.
More than just a mere historic misjudgment, the McMahon-Hussein letters of 1915 bear witness to the role of deliberate British deception throughout the annexation of Palestine and its ultimate treachery during the Arab revolt (1916 - 1918). Led by the Sharif Husayn bin Ali, the revolt was initiated to secure Arab independence from the rule of the Ottoman Empire and to create one unified Arab state spanning from what is now Aleppo, Syria, including Iraq and stretching to Aden, Yemen (not including the area controlled by the rival Saud clan).
Hussein began secret correspondence with British High Commissioner Sir Henry McMahon who encouraged the revolt in the hopes of obstructing Ottoman’s support as an ally of Germany in exchange for official British recognition of an Arab state and Hussein’s expectation that Palestine would go to Palestinians after the war. Custodian of Mecca and Medina, Hussein was declared Caliph when the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished and was ultimately overthrown by Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. He was exiled to Trans-Jordan where his son became Abdullah I of Jordan.
It was not until members of the Bolshevik revolution perusing the Tsar’s correspondence after the 1917 revolution discovered the existence of the Sykes-Picot agreement to split the Arab territories into British and French administered areas. The historical record shows that the Sykes-Picot’s first round of discussion regarding the division of Arab lands was occurring in 1915 at roughly the same time that the McMahon-Hussein correspondence offering assurance of a unified Arab state was also taking place.
Secretly negotiated, the British and French assumed the audacity of presumption based solely on WWI spoils to claim the authority to carve the Arab territories into arbitrary borders without any legal jurisdiction and a complete disregard for a millennia of existing ethnic, historic, tribal, cultural or religious affiliations. Sykes Picot dissolved Ottoman with the reinvention of Mesopotamia into Iraq and a British mandate to govern Palestine.
To fully appreciate the on-going tragedy of Palestine and Iraq that has now spread across the Middle East and threatens a regional conflagration is to acknowledge the additional impact of the [British Foreign Secretary Arthur] Balfour Letter of 1917 approved during the turmoil of WWI. The Balfour Letter to Lord Rothschild, President of the British Zionist Federation stated that the British government ‘view with favour the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people.” And in 1918 Balfour added that “Zionism....[is] of far profounder import than the prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
By the 1920’s, the House of Lords, citing the depth of Arab resentment, repealed Balfour with the motion failing in the House of Commons. However, no match for the high profiled, influential Zionist supporters and in a spirit of ‘clarification’ which offered no satisfaction to the indigenous peoples, Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill’s White Paper in 1922 separated Transjordan (later Jordan, Syria and Iraq) from Palestine in an effort to compensate Arabs for their loss of land thus reducing the Palestine Mandate territory by one-third. A reasonable supposition is that the Israel government’s more recent irrational confiscation of land that does not belong to them is rationalized as a ‘pay-back’ for the loss of land denied them in 1922.
While US President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the Letter due to lobbying by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis among other Americans, a Paris Peace Conference fact-finding mission to Palestine “concluded that the local population opposed continued Zionist inroads and recommended against the establishment of an independent Jewish homeland.”
Once an integral part of the Ottoman Empire and similar to the usurping of Mesopotamia, the British had no legal jurisdiction or sovereign right to annex Palestine. The colonization of Palestine and the displacement of its Arab residents, cheated of what had been their homeland for the last two millennia and denied their right of self-determination, remains a historic root of today’s perpetual violence and conflict in the Middle East.
In addition, as Israel’s government with a history of repeatedly overstepping the legal limits of international law with never any consequences, and the US, as its most steadfast advocate no matter the crime, consistently looks the other way, US foreign policy in the Middle East is in irreversible tatters with no prospect of progress any time soon.
As British Statesman Lord Robert Ashburton Crewe wrote in 1920, “What we want is not a united Arabia but a weak and disunited Arabia, split into little principalities ....incapable of coordinated action against us” - and splitting Iraq and Syria into an Islamic State is exactly what Abu Bkr al Baghdadi and ISIS are attempting - one hundred years too late.