October 22, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part One

The Husayn - McMahon Correspondence

While World War I raged in Europe, British forces fought the Turks in the Middle East. At this time, the Ottoman Empire extended all the way south to encompass the Hijaz – including the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Al-Makkah Al-Mukaramah) and Medina (Al-Madinah Al-Munawirah) – and what what is now Israel (including Jerusalem), Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia.

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashemites, then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia), and the third was between Great Britain and a group of influential Jewish nationalists.

British forces, with commonwealth troops from Australia and New Zealand, were making only marginal progress against the Ottomans. The bulk of British military power was concentrated on the Germans in Europe. They sought help from the local Arab population who had suffered under harsh Turkish rule for over four hundred years. In return for this help, the British promised the Arabs their independence once the Turks had been defeated and the war ended.

The Husayn – McMahon Correspondence

A series of ten letters between British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Husayn seem to spell out an agreement between the two parties. Two of these letters are regarded as significant. Key portions are excerpted here.

Sharif Husayn to Sir Henry McMahon, July 14, 1915:

The Arab nation is asking the Government of Great Britain to acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37th degree of latitude, to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina. Both parties will offer mutual assistance to face any foreign Power which may attack either party.

From Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Husayn, October 24, 1915:

The Government of Great Britain statement:

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded. With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.

As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter: Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.

Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability. When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories.

On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British.

With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognize that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.

The Husayn – McMahon Correspondence laid the groundwork for one of the most famous special military operations of all time and the creation of a legend – Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence, an accomplished archeologist and Arabist with years of experience in the region, was serving as an army officer on staff in Cairo. He was dispatched to work with and lead the Arab revolutionary armies under Husayn’s sons ‘Abdullah and Faysal. It was these Arab armies that preceded British forces into Damascus and Aleppo.

The Reality

The British also entered into other secret agreements, both of which conflicted with the terms agreed to in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. Later, Britain would try to extricate herself from the commitments made to Sharif Husayn, claiming that these letters merely represented on-going negotiations and not a final agreement.

In the end, the Saudis under ‘Abd Al-’Aziz, who was also supported by the British, forced the Sharif from Mecca. The Sharif’s sons were put on thrones in kingdoms created by the British almost as consolation prizes. ‘Abdullah became King of Transjordan (now Jordan) and Faysal became King of Iraq. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan survives to this day; the Kingdom of Iraq was overthrown in 1958.