Dossier 1914-1918

The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence

Sharif Hussein Bin Ali in Amman, Transjordan,1921.
Library of Congress, coll. Matson (G. Eric and Edith).

Because it marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic ’block’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [Sharif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be (. . .) harmless to ourselves (. . .), The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (January 1916)

Recently, attempting to vehicle the image of renewal and of an anti-colonial force, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has been calling for the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the artificial borders it drew. One of its first deeds was the destruction of frontier posts between Syria and Iraq. However, ISIS’s anti-partition stance falls short, as the underlying problem is the separation process that provides the justification for the partition. Indeed, separation is an intrinsic part of the partition which makes of it not only a territorial and economical but above all a demographic and exclusion process. Pan-Arabists and Arab nationalists have been aware of that and in their time they condemned and rejected the colonial partition of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and sometimes they have proposed unionist pan-Arabist alternatives and translated their discourse into actual attempts to displace the borders and establish unions or federations.

However, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was not the first step of the partition process. Indeed, a hundred years ago, three documents were to plant the seeds of separation and colonial partition in the Middle East. The correspondence conducted between Sayyed Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and the High Commissioner in Egypt Henry McMahon from 1915 to mid 1916 is the document that introduced the notion of partition in the region along ethno-religious lines. Then, the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 aimed at sharing the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire among the concluding partners (France and the United Kingdom with the approval of Tsarist Russia and Italy). Finally, the Balfour Declaration issued in 1917 gave rights to a colonial movement to settle and develop in Palestine and thus came to confirm the partition of Syria.

Contracted against the will of the indigenous people, these three documents together and the principles they relied upon would nonetheless be confirmed by the Treaty of Sevres and the League of Nations. In 1922, the latter would sanction the implementation of arbitrary borders in the Arab territories, notably Greater Syria which left space for four Arab countries under western colonization: Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan—later known as Jordan—and Palestine. As for Iraq, its future was sealed through the Anglo-Iraqi treaty in 1922.

Once introduced to confer with the colonial powers’ interests, the partition developed into a solution device for the same powers—and those that would follow them—which resorted to it as a tool to resolve any nationalist, ethnic and religious conflict that emerged and developed as a consequence of the same colonial division and separation. Sometimes, the partition was also a way out for those powers when facing the consequences of their deeds, namely division and separation, both of which being the guiding principles in the administration of all British and French colonies. A divide and rule policy which called for the choice of local rulers and economic and financial partners among religious minorities. Privileges were traded for a minimum of loyalty and to avoid unrest. The examples of Palestine and Irak are particularly relevant.

A century after the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the partition proved to be a dynamic process that carries within it the ingredients for its renewal. In other words, partition generates more partition. Decades of separatist practices and partitionist discourses have induced the crumbling of the Middle East and its frontiers inherited from the colonial powers.

For a long time, these three documents were mainly dealt with to address the supposed or real contradictory promises made by Britain. In this article, I will attempt a “decolonial” rereading, by arguing that each one of them is part of a process that led to the actual colonial partition of the Middle East.

The Damascus Protocol

The years preceding WWI witnessed the deepening of the Turkish Arab antagonism and a severe repression towards Arab autonomists. At the same time, the willingness of the Ottoman government to depose Hussein made the gap between the Hashemites and the Turks wider.

Stopping in Cairo in February 1914, Sharif Hussein’s son, Abdullah, enquired with the British Consul General, Horatio Herbert Kitchener and Ronald Storrs (the Oriental Secretary in Cairo), about Britain’s position regarding an eventual Arab revolt. Britain’s position was dictated by caution.

On his way to Istanbul to confront the Grand Vizir, Hussein’s son, Faisal, became acquainted with the Damascus-based secret societies Al-Fath and Al-’Ahd. They would discuss the possibilities of organizing an Arab revolt for independence. However, they felt they could not trust the imperial powers to support them: after all, Europe was becoming more present in the region through cultural and economic penetration but also as a confirmed colonial power notably in North Africa. Moreover, the revolt in Libya had contributed to the anti-colonial discourses.

While Faisal was in Istanbul, the repression of Arab autonomist and nationalist leaders got harsher which led both societies to come up with the Damascus Protocol, a basis for an agreement with Britain that drew the frontiers of the claimed territory and framed Britain’s future role:

The recognition by Great Britain of the independence of the Arab countries lying within the following frontiers:
North: The Line Mersin-Adana to parallel 37N. Thence along the line Birejek-Urfa-Mardin-Midiat-Jazirat (Ibn ’Unear)-Amadia to the Persian frontier; East: The Persian frontier down to the Persian Gulf;
South: The Indian Ocean (with the exclusion of Aden, whose status was to be maintained).
West: The Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea back to Mersin.
The abolition of all exceptional privileges granted to foreigners under the Capitulations.
The conclusion of a defensive alliance between Great Britain and the future independent Arab State.
The grant of economic preference to Great Britain.

The McMahon-Hussein correspondence

Several months after the last contacts between Hussein and Kitchener, on July 14, 1915, the former wrote to the new High Commissioner in Egypt, H. McMahon, to resume the discussions. Hussein demanded that England acknowledge Arab independence following the conditions of the Damascus Protocol.

The Arab question was not a priority and neither the Arabs’ capacity of insurgence, nor their capacity to govern themselves were taken seriously. Moreover, many in the government, especially in India, tended to advocate caution in fear of the repercussions in the rest of the empire. Furthermore, they rather envisaged the annexation of Mesopotamia (Iraq).

Despite all the critics, identifying a possible advantage—on the battlefield—on the Ottomans and Germans, Britain would continue “negotiating”. Moreover, they believed that the Sharif of Mecca Hussein could help them counter the jihad proclaimed by the Sultan at the start of WWI. The discussion about borders was, however, postponed.

But Hussein was not negotiating on his own and sole behalf, and the question of the frontiers could not wait for the end of the war as it was the “essential point”. So essential in fact that Britain would not commit itself without reservations and conditions, so, in his late reply dated October 24, 1915, McMahon demanded the exclusion of the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and of the territories to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, from the Arab claims as a condition to recognizing the Arabs independence. The reason they advanced to prove their argument? They were not “purely Arab” :

The 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 must on that account be excepted from the proposed limits and boundaries. With the above modification and without prejudice to our existing treaties concluded with Arab Chiefs, we accept these limits and boundaries, and in regard to the territories therein in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to interests of her ally France, [. . .] Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca.

The not “purely Arab” territories were homes to large Christian minorities such in Lebanon—which was also under France’s jurisdiction—, or Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian populations in the north of Syria. “Incidentally”, these were also the territories Britain knew France had set its sight at. As for Palestine, it was not mentioned as such and geographically speaking, lay to the south-west of the districts mentioned.

This letter reveals the ethno-religious dimension behind the partition of Syria and its translation on the ground that would serve as the basis for a partition with a double dimension: geographical and demographic.

The Sharif accepted the exclusion of the vilayets of Mersina and Adana (not Alexandretta which was part of Aleppo’s province and as such of the claimed Arab territory) from the Arab Kingdom, and it was the only territorial concession he was ready to make. What is interesting, though, is that he would not accept McMahon’s definition of a “pure Arab,” so he stressed that all the peoples residing in the areas they claimed were Arabs—regardless of their religion:

But the provinces of Aleppo and Beirut and their sea coasts are purely Arab provinces, and there is no difference between a Moslem and a Christian Arab; they are both descendants of one forefather.
We Moslems will follow the footsteps of the Commander of the Faithful (. . .). He, Omar, declared, in reference to the Christians, ‘they will have the same privileges and submit to the same duties as ourselves.’ They will thus enjoy their civic rights in as much as it accords with the general interest of the whole nation.

Pointing out that Iraq was by definition part of the Arab territory so that no independence could be complete without it, Sharif Hussein was nonetheless ready to accept a short period of British administration. However, Hussein raised some concern regarding the role of France and the treaties with other Arabs, but McMahon postponed their discussion after the “defeat of the enemy.” Without a strict agreement but with promises, both parties started a more practical correspondence on strategic moves on the ground and logistics.

On the basis of that understanding the Sharif of Mecca and his followers established a military force under the command of Faisal. Turkey capitulated on October 31, 1918.

As McMahon stressed in a letter to his former chief in India, the Viceroy Lord Hardinge, he had no intention to grant the Arabs what they had been promised. Besides opening the way to the Arab war effort on the Allies’ side, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence also contributed in granting Britain with a pre-eminent role in the Middle-Eastern scene. By placing itself in a position of negotiating territories lying outside of its scope, the British government confirmed its colonial vision that rested on the reconfiguration of the Arab territory previously under Ottoman Rule and the partition of the Arab territories so as to comply with its own and France’s interests. The negotiations between Britain and France that would lead to the Sykes-Picot Agreement had already started, while the correspondence between McMahon and the Grand Sharif was still ongoing.

Finally, it is the Balfour Declaration that would constitute the final element in the partition process of the Middle East.