A Line In The Sand


“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” [Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston]

For an illustration of what the late viscount meant by his statement one would be hard pushed to find a better example than in the events depicted in James Barr’s, A Line In the Sand. The competing needs of preserving the Entente Cordiale as a bulwark against future German misbehaviour in Europe and controlling a region vital to its economic and geo-strategic interests saw Britain engage her historic rival, France in a Pas de deux of intrigue and betrayal whilst maintaining the public façade of friendship and alliance. As Machiavellian goes, the tale lies at, if not the pinnacle, then surely amongst its loftiest outliers.

Perhaps the most shocking of all the book’s revelations is that of French support for Zionist terrorism during the final decade of Mandatory Palestine; bloody revenge for British manoeuvres to oust them from the zones of influence designated them by the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916. That this took place whilst the two countries were supposedly allies locked in mortal conflict with a common foe, Nazi Germany, speaks not only to the unforgiving nature of Realpolitik but also to the gravity of what was at stake. The discovery of oil in the region and the growing reliance of Western industry on the viscous commodity ensured its place at the pinnacle of foreign policy concerns in London, Paris and an increasingly assertive Washington.

Having spent years stoking Arab nationalist fervour as part of the war effort against the Ottomans, Britain found itself in the unenviable position of having to reconcile the competing demands of not only her French and Arab allies but increasingly also the Jews, to whom she had committed support for a national homeland. Providing simultaneous satisfaction to all the assurances given as wartime exigencies was a task beyond even the Foreign Office’s sharpest minds and so when forced to choose between conciliating her European rival-cum-ally and the Arab tribal leaders (most notably their wartime ally, Sharif Hussein) whose support had been instrumental in defeating the Turks, Britain opted for the former. Just how aware the British were, at the time of issuance, of the implausibility of keeping these multitudinous promises is moot but it hardly stretches credulity to infer they weren’t entirely oblivious to it.

“Lawrence drafted an aggressive reply….He now asked Sykes to clarify the inconsistencies in Britain’s promises to the Arabs, then to the French, and now to the Jews. ‘We are in rather a hole,’ he concluded; ‘please tell me what, in your opinion, are the actual means by which we will find a way out.’”

Only to later observe:

“I quite recognise that we may have to sell our small friends to pay for our big friends, or sell our future security in the Near East to pay for our present victory in Flanders.”

Growing resentment at the betrayal of wartime promises of independence saw native insurrections quickly break out in both Syria and Iraq. The French preference for rule by Paris appointed High Commissioners and functionaries was always bound to alienate and agitate a people who, after all, had revolted against the Turks on the premise that it would lead to their emancipation from foreign control. To compound it, the French made little secret of their disdain for the Sunni Muslim majority openly favouring the Christian minority and hiving off the coastal region of the Levant to create, what they anticipated, a pliant Christian-majority state. Their ham-fisted attempts at exciting sectarian divisions as part of a divide-and-rule policy served only to exacerbate nationalist fervour, leading at first to a Druze-led revolt in Syria and later to their expulsion from Lebanon in 1943 (an uprising in which Britain rendered covert assistance to nationalist factions). The resultant statelet, formed on the basis of the National Pact between its Christian and Muslim communities, has been beset by instability and unrest from its inception. The addition of a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees in 1948 to its already combustible sectarian admixture of Maronites, Druze, Sunnis and Shia made civil war at some point all but inevitable.

Throughout the course of the interwar period British agents and diplomats (most notably the relentless Francophobe Edward Spears) – on occasion to the chagrin of their superiors in London – steadily undermined French hold over Syria and Lebanon. The seemingly unopposed use of British Transjordan by Druze rebels as a staging post for attacks on French forces in neighbouring Syria proved singularly irksome to French military commanders tasked with suppressing their revolt. It was only the looming outbreak of another war in Europe that saw a temporary let up in this semi-official policy but faced with the threat of Vichy collaboration with Germany in the Middle East, Britain intervened in support of the independence of Lebanon in 1943 and against the Vichy controlled regime in Syria. British demands for French withdrawal from Syria after the war were seen by de Gaulle as a flagrant betrayal of a supposed ally; a betrayal the French would avenge in due course.

The British response to uprisings not easily subdued was negotiation and compromise or as some saw it, capitulation. It was a policy they employed first in Iraq, installing Feisal (the son of Sharif Hussein) as King, and then subsequently in Palestine where Jewish concerns they had previously been keen to propitiate were brushed aside in order to curry favour with region’s overwhelming Arab majority.

“The Suez Canal and the uninterrupted flow of oil from Iraq to Haifa were now both far more important than a twenty-two-year-old commitment to the Zionists given by a man who was nearly ten years dead.”

 It was a lesson not lost on Zionists settlers emigrating to Palestine and one which would inform their strategy in subsequent decades.

“…left the Jews with no alternative but to wait…In the meantime they would make new friends, and digest the most important lesson from the last three years: that when dealing with the British, violence worked.”

Though neither the Americans nor the French had previously exhibited any particular affinity for the Zionist cause (Truman reportedly telling his cabinet he had no use for the Jews and “didn’t care what happened to them”) both were to end up supporting it, albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons. The former had to contend with a highly organised, increasingly well financed and fervently dedicated domestic Zionist lobby, overseen by an agent of the Jewish terrorist gang, the Irgun who was operating (naturally enough) under a pseudonym. The pressure it brought to bear via the media and through the electoral process where the Jewish vote was critical in several key constituencies saw American policy shift from one of neutrality to steadfast support for Zionist aspirations, a position to which it has remained affixed for the past seven decades. The emergence of the Americans as a major force in the Middle East – they were already a shareholder in the Mosul pipeline – marked the start of a process culminating in the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the end of two centuries of British ascendancy. [Note: the ejection of Britain from the Middle East and her supplanting as a regional power broker by the Americans is the subject of Barr’s follow up book, Lords of the Desert]

French motivations were more sanguinary – a desire to wreak revenge on the British for their previous betrayals. As the war entered its climatic phase, with German defeat all but assured, Zionist groups stepped up their campaign of terror to force a British withdrawal from Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state; in the newly liberated French they found a willing accomplice. French support came in the form of arms, intelligence and perhaps most crucially of all, protection. The result would be a devastating wave of murder – directed at Arabs and the British alike – and mayhem that would rapidly erode British interest in hanging on to its mandatory possessions. It would be remiss not to mention the British attempts at responding to Jewish terrorism with terrorism of their own (a tactic they had employed against Arab insurgents two decades earlier). The half-hearted attempt, hamstrung from the outset by internal objections, soon petered out, however, leaving a managed British withdrawal the only realistic outcome.

“The longer HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] does nothing, the harder it is to resist the conclusion that terrorism pays, and that if only the pressure is kept on, the Jewish State – which is the official aim of the whole Zionist movement – will very soon be gained.”

In 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, pursuant to a United Nation’s resolution (obtained through a degree of cajoling and thinly veiled threats by Zionist representatives in New York) the British withdrew and Israel declared its independence, fulfilling Zionism’s fifty-years-old ambition.

The three decades separating the end of the Ottoman Empire and establishment of the state of Israel, saw the ethno-political fabric of the Middle East torn apart by the competing demands of two ailing imperial powers with scant regard for the long-term effects. The legacy it bequeathed was four Arab-Israeli wars, an internecine civil war in Lebanon, perennial instability and most importantly of all, the enduring hatred of the region’s Arab Muslim majority towards the West. It would be no great hyperbole to suggest that in this period lies the genesis of the current War on Terror. Barr’s eloquent summation is hard to better:

“Britain’s sponsorship of the Jews in Palestine and France’s favouritism of the Christians in the Lebanon were policies designed to strengthen their respective positions in the region by eliciting gratitude from both minorities. The appreciation they generated by doing so was short-lived, but they deeply antagonised the predominantly Muslim Arab population of both countries, and the wider region, with irreversible effects. As Britain and France became increasingly unpopular, they were forced into oscillating alliances that only polarised Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim further…It is a tale from which neither country emerges with much credit.”

To this one might be tempted to add: neither do the Arab potentates whose concerns fixed (as they do to this day) primarily on securing their own positions rather than advancing the prosperity of the peoples they claimed to represent.

Meticulously researched and superbly written, A Line In The Sand brings much needed clarity to this murkiest of chapters in a millennium of Anglo-French relations; damning in its detail yet without prejudice towards any of its protagonists. It is a highly compelling read that is guaranteed to shock in parts, bringing into question at least some of our previous assumptions on the subject. Barr clearly has a knack for transforming mountainous stacks of archival records into a page-turner piece of historical narrative. I highly recommend A Line In The Sand (and its sequel, Lords of the Desert) to all who might have an interest in the history of the region and especially as a propaedeutic for contemporary Middle Eastern political analysis.

[A Line In The Sand is available on Amazon (and at all good book stores): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Line-Sand-Britain-France-struggle/dp/1847394574/]

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