A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 30, 2015

Sykes and Picot Would Be Proud: There are No Syrians at the Vienna Syria Talks

I think my headline is all the comment needed. There isn't even a Syrian flag. Of either variety.

UPDATE: The communique issued in Vienna includes this line:
 8. This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. 
Oh, good. I guess it's fixed then.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Graphic of US Foreign Aid

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
—George Orwell, Animal Farm

Americans love to complain about foreign aid, and many perceive it as being a much higher proportion of the Federal budget than is the case; far from the days of the Marshall Plan, US foreign aid today represents a small percentage of the budget and a smaller percentage per capita than most of Europe and Canada.

So this graphic may be of interest. I will add no editorial comment and will leave you to make your own judgments. The Middle East does pretty well, doesn't it? Some more than others.

Egypt's Runoff Round: Even the State Press Underplays the Story

Egypt's runoff round for the first phase of the Parliamentary elections (14 governorates), despite disappointment at the low turnout overall, is more or less complete, short of challenges. Some accounts suggest turnout for the runoffs was even lower than the 26.5% announced for the first round. Here are the results in  English from Ahram Online:
Preliminary results of the polling have showed that parties have gained over half of the 226 seats contested by individual candidates in the vote.
The Free Egyptians Party, founded by billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris following the popular 2011 revolt, has clinched the biggest quota, announcing it has won 36 seats.
The Future of a Homeland (Mostakbal Watan), a newly founded pro-regime party, came second with 30 seats. The almost 100-year-old liberal Wafd Party won 17 seats, according to its media advisor Yasser Hassan.
"It is a very healthy phenomenon to have a big number of parties winning in the face of independents," assistant secretary-general of the Free Egyptians Party Ayman Abu Al-Ella told Ahram Online.
"It mirrors a political maturity among the people and underlines some parties' ability to strengthen their footing in the political spectrum," said Abu Al-Ella, who appears to have won a seat in Cairo's western suburb of 6th of October City.
But with most of the contesting party members said to be businessmen, some fear a comeback of the kind of patronage politics and cronyism that prevailed under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule before he was overthrown in 2011.
The first round of the much-postponed elections took place last week in 14 of Egypt's 27 governorates and was marred by a low turnout of 26.6 percent of eligible voters.
Only the individual seats were contested in the run-offs, as party list seats in the first round were swept up by For the Love of Egypt, a coalition loyal to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
The Nour Party, the only Islamist party standing in the vote, won 10 seats, mainly in the governorates of Beheira and Alexandria where they court massive popularity.
Nour, which supported the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, lost all party-based seats in the first round to the pro-El-Sisi alliance, despite coming second, due to the highly-criticised winner-takes-all list system.
The liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which won 23 of the 2011 parliament's 508 seats, only secured 3 places in the poll.
 So the new Parliament part of it elected so far, will be dominated  by For the Love of Egypt (pro-Sisi), the Free Egyptians, founded by a billionaire businessman and also pro-Sisi, and the Future of the Homeland (also pro-Sisi). And some Wafdists (who don't like the Muslim Brotherhood and likely will be pro-Sisi) and some Nour deputies.

Well, there are numerous parties represented. They just don't differ on much.

Tomorrow's front page of Al-Ahram may be indicative of something: the main headline is about a new foreign investment project announced by President Sisi that runs across the page; the election returns get a second tier, shorter headline, and that's on the front page of the Friday (main weekend edition of the flagship state-owned newspaper. Is even the official media underplaying the low turnout and the results?

October 28, 1915: Sir Charles Monro Relaces Ian Hamilton at Gallipoli

Though this post is technically a day late, or a day early perhaps (see below), it is an attempt to bring our centennial series on the Middle East in the Great War up to speed by returning to the Gallipoli Front where, from mid-October to mid-November, as decisions would be made which would lead to the decision to wind down and evacuate the Dardanelles force.

Gen, Sir Ian Hamilton
On October 16, months after the Gallipoli operation stalled following the Suvla landings in August, General Sir Ian Hamilton, the overall commander, was recalled by Lord Kitchener. Hamilton, despite being one of the more disastrous British generals in a war when Britain produced more than is share of disastrous generals, retired to write books of military memoirs and became head of the veteran's organization, the British Legion, for Scotland. He remained a pillar of the British establishment though, as a leader of the Anglo-German Association, he was an early admirer of Adolf Hitler. Having already been knighted in 1910, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of St. Michael and Saint George (GCMG) in 1919. To be fair, they say he wasn't bad in the Boer War. He lived until 1947 and died at 94.

Gen. Sir Charles Monro
Replacing Hamilton as the Commander-in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was General Sir Charles Monro, a veteran of the Boer War and the Western Front. He was also an advocate of the Western Front first approach, though he would end up commanding in the Salonika Front, Mesopotamia, and India before the war was over. As we'll see in the coming weeks, he would also be the advocate of withdrawal from Gallipoli. He arrived at Imbros, the staging area, on October 28, and at Gallipoli October 30, so posting today splits the difference.

He would find support from another direction: the growing demands of the Balkan Front. As I noted in discussing the Mesopotamian Campaign, Bulgaria had finally entered the war on the Central powers side, and promptly attacked Serbia, which was already partly occupied by Austria-Hungary, thus giving the Ottomans the prospect of a direct rail link with Vienna and Germany. Though a bit peripheral to the Middle East proper, the British and French sought to shore up a collapsing Serbia by landing a military force at Salonika (Greek Thessaloniki) in Greece. They did this despite opposition from a divided Greek government. In the end it was too late to save Serbia, so the rationale became defending Greece (whether it liked it or not) against the Ottomans and Bulgarians.

The French would send mostly colonial troops and the Russians and other allies would send token forces, and remnants of the Serbian Army who escaped through Montenegro and were evacuated by Italy would join them, but the obvious source of British Empire troops were the ANZAC, British, and Irish troops stuck at Gallipoli. Already on September 30 the 10th (Irish) Division left Gallipoli, landing at Salonika October 5. The troops on Gallipoli were clearly not going to take Constantinople, so Salonika, despite the crushing of Serbia, and were thus a potential source of troops.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bone of Contention, Part IV: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: A Few Loose Ends

After a few days' hiatus, I need to provide my promised final installment in my series on the 100th anniversary of the McMahon letter to Sharif Hussein of October 25, 1915. So far, we have already covered the English and Arabic texts themselves in Part I and the decades of debate over meaning that followed in Part II. Part III dealt with the question of who wrote and who translated the disputed letter. Now, a few of the loose ends.

First, it seems important to emphasize that at no point in the letter, or in the entire Hussein-McMahon correspondence, does the word "Palestine" actually appear. Nor do "Jerusalem," "Holy Land," or similar equivalents. Given the whole vilayet dispute over what land McMahon meant to exclude, why couldn't he have been clearer if he, or the London authorities for whom he spoke,  intended to exclude Palestine?

Second, in the subsequent correspondence, Hussein and McMahon (or his Arabists and the Foreign Office) were to bicker back and forth over the question of Lebanon and the Syrian coast, which were understood to be the areas Britain reserved in the interests of its ally, France. During these negotiations the British kept the commitment vague but never explicitly  included Palestine in the excluded territories. Hussein, or his son ‘Abdullah, who may have written his father's letters, never raised the Palestine issue either. Perhaps neither side was thinking about it yet, but that would change.

Third, I want to mention a point raised by a colleague with far more knowledge of Persian than my smattering of basic grammar. As I noted in Part III, Sir Ronald Storrs in his memoirs suggests that at least the earliest correspondence with ‘Abdullah and later with the Sharif was translated by his "little Persian agent," named Ruhi. While he doesn't address the October 24 letter directly, my colleague notes that in Persian, the word velayet, cognate with Arabic wilaya and Turkish vilayet, can have an even more generic and ill-defined application, as in the doctrine of velayat-e faqih. That could be a genuine reason for the confusion, or the whole explanation given by Storrs could be an attempt to excuse a deliberately ingenuous phraseology, but it seems a valid point worthy of consideration.

Finally, there is the thorny question of Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi. In the discussion of the cases laid out by the Arab and British sides' presentations on the McMahon correspondence to the London Conference in 1939, quoted at length in Part II, the British argued that they had made clear to Faruqi, who, they thought, was authorized to speak for the Sharif, that Palestine was excluded, and that Faruqi had indicated that this would not be a sticking point. To this response, the Arab delegation's response essentially amounted to, "Who's Faruqi?" A century later, it's still not a bad question.

Let's start with who he said he was. He was a lieutenant in the Ottoman Army, only 24 years old, but an aide-de-camp to Fakhri Pasha, Commander of the XII Corps, Fourth Army. He was also by his account a senior official of the Al-‘Ahd (the Covenant) secret society of Arab Ottoman officers based in Damascus, which in turn merged with another Arab nationalist movement, Al-Fatat, which British Intelligence called the Young Arab Society. When Prince Feisal, Sharif Hussein's son, passed through Syria, these groups signed the "Damascus Protocol," promising to support Sharif Hussein under certain conditions.

He claimed to be a direct descendant of the second Caliph, ‘Umar, whose sobriquet was al-Faruq.

In late summer of 1915, Faruqi, who had reportedly been transferred to Constantinople to get him out of his political maneuverings in Damascus, deserted across the British lines at Gallipoli and by September had arrived in Cairo, where he fell in with a group of Syrian and other Arab nationalist including Rashid Rida, ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Misri, and others. He also came to the attention of British Military Intelligence, led by Gilbert Clayton.

Presumably through the secret societies in Damascus, Faruqi was aware of the earliest rounds of negotiations between the Sharif and the British, and this convinced the British of his bona fides. Faruqi spoke little or no English so translation questions may be in play yet again, but the British certainly came to believe he spoke not only for the Damascus secret societies but directly for the Sharif. He reportedly told the British that 90% of Arab officers in the Ottoman Army were Arab nationalists, that Ibn Saud and other in the Peninsula backed Hussein, etc.

Up to this point the British had been coy in their courting of Sharif Hussein since they doubted he had support outside the Hejaz, but here was a defector claiming the whole Arab world was ready to throw off the Ottoman yoke. There seems little doubt that Faruqi's assurances helped propel the British to make the promises made in the October 24 letter.

Perhaps even worse, it has been suggested that in discussions with Mark Sykes, Faruqi seemed amenable to the outlines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Though Hussein had not seemingly heard of him, he gave Faruqi a position in 1916 as a negotiator, but both the British and Sharifians grew frustrated and dismissed him in 1917.

Did he ever speak for Hussein? Not at first, and not directly. Was he a complete fraud or, as this article puts it, "one of the greatest impostors in the history of international relations"? Well, he was at least the typical con man telling you what you want to hear.

Wikipedia gives his dates as 1891-1920, without sourcing, but that would make him only 29 when he died. Is it possible that all the legacies of the British multiple pledges in World War I and even Sykes-Picot are the legacy of one man who misrepresented himself and died before he was 30? Or did Faruqi have some real backing for his assertions? Or will we never know?

Egypt's Low Turnout in Round One

What if they gave an election and nobody came? The first round of the first wave of Egypt's long-delayed Parliamentary elections brought an officially reported turnout of only 26.5% of voters. Now the first phase of elections involved only 14 governorates; the other nine will vote in November, including Cairo (though Giza, which is a major part of Greater Cairo, and Alexandria voted in round one). The turnout numbers, however, are based I believe on registered voters in those governorates that voted, not on totals. By contrast, turnout in he 2011 post-revolutionary elections was 64%. (On the positive side, nobody claims 99% turnouts anymore.)

Runoffs were taking place yesterday and today where needed, and it sounds as if turnoffs remain low, especially in Alexandria, suffering from serious flooding.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New Posts Coming Soon

I felt unwell yesterday and didn't post. New posts, including the final in my series on the McMahon letter, will be coming soon.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Egypt Closes Hussein Mosque During ‘Ashura to Prevent Shi‘a from Worship

Today marks the Shi‘ite observation of ‘Ashura, marking the death of Imam Hussein.Though Egypt has only a tiny Shi‘ite population, in recent years there has been considerable agitation by Salafi Islamists fearing the spread of Shi‘ism, and now Egypt has closed the shrine part of the large mosque of Sayyidna Hussein for several days to prevent Shi‘a from worshipping there. (On the anti-Shi‘a sentiment, see this article in the latest issue of The Middle East Journal.)

Sayyidna Hussein, the large mosque near the Khan al-Khalili, is one of several shrines in Cairo devoted to descendants of the Prophet, and dating from the (Shi‘ite) Fatimid Dynasty. Though it is a Sunni mosque, the Ministry of Awqaf apparently feared that it might be used for Shi‘ite rituals on ‘Ashura.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bone of Contention, Part III: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: Who Wrote It and Who Translated It?

Continuing with our discussion of the 100th anniversary of the contentious, notoriously ambiguous letter of October 24, 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Hussein of Mecca spelling out the boundaries (or more accurately, exclusions from the boundaries) of a future Arab state, we have already covered the English and Arabic texts themselves in Part I and the decades of debate over meaning that followed in Part II.

As Elizabeth Monroe put it quite succinctly in her Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956:
As to Palestine, it is galling to think how easily McMahon could have devised some form of words intimating to the Sharif how several faiths held that land in reverence, and that there must be multilateral agreement about it.
But he didn't. The odd ""portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo" exclusion is unclear about areas to the west of areas south of Damascus, given the ambiguity of the terms districts/wilayat, as we have discussed.

The ambiguity may have been intentional, a result of poor translation, or something else. Some historians, beginning with Emile Marmorstein,  have even suggested that the choice of "Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" is derived from a phrase in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book many educated britons might know at the time but one not likely in Sharif Hussein's library. T.E. Lawrence's biographer Jeremy Wilson attributes the phrase to Lawrence, but Lawrence knew Gibbon well. Still, adding Amman, Maan, or Aqaba to the list would have clarified that Palestine was excluded though none of those towns (in 1915) were of significant size to rank with Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.

This blog is not going to solve one of the historical mysteries of the past century in the Middle East of course. But in trying to discern the reasons for the confusion, two questions come to mind: who actually wrote the text of the October 24 letter, and who actually translated it into Arabic?

Who wrote the October 24 letter, and the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in general? Of course, the letter carries the signature of the High Commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.It is known that a draft was shared with Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary in London. McMahon took responsibility for the letter, but it is unlikely he was the primary writer.

McMahon (Seven Pillars)
McMahon did know something about defining borders: during his Indian days he had given his name to the "McMahon line" delineating the border between India and Tibet. But he was an India hand, and a third generation one at that, and knew little about the Arab world on taking up his position in Egypt. Like most serious diplomatic communications on which much was riding, the Correspondence, including the highly contentious October 24 letter, were likely cooperative products.

We have previously looked at the confusing welter of overlapping political and military authorities in Egypt alone, even if we exclude the rival Government of India and the Cabinet in London.

Ronald Storrs

The late Elie Kedourie and other historians have assumed that the likeliest candidate for the primary author is McMahon's "Oriental Secretary," that is, his chief Arab/Turkish specialist, Ronald Storrs. Storrs was unquestionably the key player in the opening rounds of feelers to Sharif Hussein and his sons before the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, and specifically says that he wrote some of the earlier overture messages to Hussein's son ‘Abdullah. In his Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs (the US edition is titled Orientations), he speaks in rather general terms of the ambiguities in the correspondence in ways that imply he was closely involved, and blames translation issues and a lack of knowledge of what London an India were doing:
Much play has been made by Arab and other critics with ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and "betrayals"; without entire justification but not without cause. Our Arabic correspondence with Mecca was prepared by Ruhi [elsewhere referred to as "my little Persian agent"], a fair though not a profound Arabist (and a better agent than scholar); and checked, often under high pressure, by myself. I had no Deputy, Staff or office, so that during my absence on mission the work was carried on (better perhaps) by others, but the continuity was lost. Husain's letters on the other hand were written in an obscure and tortuous prose in which the purity of the Hejaz Arabic was overlaid and tainted with Turkish idioms and syntax. Until Mark Sykes appeared in Cairo in 1916 we had but the slightest and vaguest information about the Sykes-Picot negotiations for the tripartite division of non-Turkish Turkey between France, Russia and England, later nullified (and divulged) by the fall of Russia; and there was far too little realization of Indian operations in Iraq and of Indian encouragement of Ibn Sa'ud. So far as we were concerned it seemed to be nobody's business to harmonize the various views and policies of the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty, the War Office, the Government of India and the Residency in Egypt. The Revolt, when it began, entailed the co-operation of at least three Military Commanders: the G.O.C.'s of Egypt, Iraq and Aden. After the withdrawal from Gallipoli the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, merged with the Egyptian, became the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under which, gathering up these threads with those of the Naval G.O.C. and the Sudan Government, was constituted the Arab Bureau, directed by D. G. Hogarth, of which T. E. Lawrence was a member.
While he neither asserts sole authorship nor specifically speaks of the October 24, 1915, letter Storrs clearly makes clear he was deeply involved. The mention of the Syrian towns has been ascribed to many hands, even Mark Sykes, who was not in Cairo (and note Storrs says Ciro was unaware of the Sykes-Picot talks).

Others who certainly played a role were Gilbert Clayton, the intelligence chief in Cairo who would certainly have had input, as would his staff.Jeremy Wilson quotes D.G. Hogarth to the effect that T.E. Lawrence, still only a second lieutenant at the time, was much involved with the negotiations.

Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor-General of the Sudan and Sirdar of the Egyptian Army (Commander of the Egyptian Army, a separate post from the Commander of British forces in Egypt). was also an early advocate of the Arab Revolt and is known to have had some input, though not really in the chain of command.

All these men, and the whole Intelligence Section, likely had input, but the likeliest scenario would seem to be that Storrs wrote most of the correspondence, subject to approval by McMahon and Grey.

But what about the translation, which was to cause so much confusion? To repeat the Storrs quote I cited above:
Our Arabic correspondence with Mecca was prepared by Ruhi [elsewhere referred to as "my little Persian agent"], a fair though not a profound Arabist (and a better agent than scholar); and checked, often under high pressure, by myself. I had no Deputy, Staff or office, so that during my absence on mission the work was carried on (better perhaps) by others, but the continuity was lost.
Storrs does not apply these remarks specifically to the letter in question, but it is his explanation for the subsequent confusion. Are we to believe that based in Cairo, then as now the largest Arabic-speaking city, in a critical negotiation with an Arab leader, translations were done by a "little Persian agent" who was "a fair though not a profound Arabist," and "checked, often under high pressure, by myself." Are we really to assume no native speaker of Arabic was consulted, merely a Persian and an English Arabist?

I'm not a specialist on Storrs or the period, and it's not clear this is intended to apply to the Hussein-McMahon letters, though the introductory lines appear to imply just that;
Much play has been made by Arab and other critics with ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and "betrayals"; without entire justification but not without cause.
"Ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and 'betrayals'" certainly seems to suggest he's talking about the October 24 letter and its controversy. "Ruhi," the "Persian agent" was  (presumably) not a native Arabic speaker. This seems to be the only statement I can find on how the translation came about, and it sounds like an after-the-fact excuse. If I'm missing something, please post it in the comments and I'll note it here.

Part IV will look some of the loose ends of the story.

Israeli Social Media and Satirists take aim at Netanyahu's "The Mufti Made Him Do It" Remarks

Binyamin Netanyahu's  somewhat bizarre assertion that Adolf Hitler had not planned on exterminating Europe's Jews until the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, urged him to do so has provoked both anger and derision in Israel and elsewhere. Ironically, it came just before his trip to Germany, where Angela Merkel made clear that Germans were in fact responsible and Netanyahu seemed to back off a bit. Hajj Amin was a singularly unpleasant character, an ally and cheerleader for Hitler; that's well-established.   But Hitler's intentions seem to have been well in train before any encouragement he may have received from the Mufti. I forget how many volumes the Nuremberg testimony occupies, but check them out. Also Mein Kampf, published 1925.

There has been plenty of humor on social media, especially from Israelis, at the odd prospect of a Prime Minister of Israel (not to mention the son of a historian) somehow seeming to lessen Hitler's guilt:
Not to mention claims that the Palestinians caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, or Eve didn't plan to eat the apple until the Mufti advised her to , or who really caused the Beatles to break up:

+972 Magazine has posted a couple of collections of these so far: Part I here, and "Part deux."

But of course, no Internet meme is complete without the requisite "Hitler learns ..." parody of the famous Downfall clip:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bone of Contention, Part II: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: The Controversy Over Two Decades

The reasons for the dispute over the October 24, 1915 letter of McMahon to Hussein were implicit in Part I: Britain agreed, or appeared to agree, with the demands for Arab independence made by Sharif Hussein, subject to certain geographic reservations: the districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, which had substantial Turkish populations, and the "portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." Reading that in English, one would naturally assume that it is excluding Lebanon (an exclusion Hussein would contest elsewhere in the correspondence), but did it also include Palestine, as Britain would insist? From the Peace Conference in 1919 through the London Conference of 1939, Arab spokesmen and His Majesty's Government would bicker for two decades (and in many books since) over what was promised to whom, and what was excluded. As we approach the centennial of what I called perhaps the most contentious single text in Modern Middle Eastern History (though UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 is arguably a close second) this is the second part of my series on the letter and its attendant controversy. It looks at the controversy itself. Tomorrow we'll try to discern how the letter was written, and by whom, and what was originally intended.

The critical issue was the use of the word "districts" in the original English text, which appears as wilayat in the Arabic text dispatched to the Sharif. A wilaya is usually  province, equivalent to the Ottoman term vilayet, derived from the Arabic. Part I contains the full text of the letter in English and also the Arabic text of the critically contentious passage.

The problem is if you substitute vilayets for "districts" in the English, multiple ambiguities occur. In Arabic, wilaya can vary in meaning from province to some smaller administrative district depending on the country, but from 1867's "Vilayet Law" onward, in Ottoman administrative practice it was the highest-level or first order administrative division. There was a hierarchy of other administrative districts brlow the level of vilayet, but vilayet was not a generic, vague term like "district" in English.

Here is where the problem arises. If you substitute vilayet for "district" in the reservation, you would get "portions of Syria lying to the West of the vilayets of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." 

There was no "Vilayet of Damascus," but a "Vilayet of Syria" (or Sham), based in Damascus. There were no Vilayets of Homs or Hama, both of which were part of the Vilayet of Sham; there was a separate Vilayet of Aleppo and a Vilayet of Beirut. (The Islamic State which calls its provinces wilayat, does ironically have provinces named for these cities.) So what did "the district of Damascus," etc. mean: everything west of a line running from Damascus through Homs and Hama to Aleppo? That would mean the intention was to exclude Lebanon. Or, as the British would claim, everything west of the Ottoman vilyet of Syria/Sham, excluding all of Palestine?

This may seem like a lawyer's hairsplitting, until you realize that the whole history since 1915 of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan can be argued to stem from this debate. Though, as I have noted in Part I, no one seems to have questioned why Britain had the right to promise captured Ottoman territory to anyone.

Ottoman administrative districts (Wikipedia)

Whatever McMahon, or those who wrote the letter he signed, may have intended to exclude in 1915, and McMahon later would be quoted as saying he didn't intend to exclude Palestine,  by the postwar era Britain insisted  that he, or a least His majesty's Government,  had intended to exclude all of Palestine as well as Lebanon. The 1922 White Paper (the "Churchill White Paper," issued by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, by now Winston Churchill), already was dismissive of the claim that McMahon's pledge included Palestine:
With reference to the Constitution which it is now intended to establish in Palestine, the draft of which has already been published, it is desirable to make certain points clear. In the first place, it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty's Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty's Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir. Henry McMahon's pledge.
But the letter mentions neither the Vilayet of Beirut or the Sanjaq of Jerusalem. By the time of the 1922 White Paper, it was already clear that Britain's various commitments during the War were not always reconcilable, as tensions between Zionist settlers in Palestine, buoyed by the Balfour Declaration, and the local Arab population, feeling McMahon had pledged Arab control of Palestine, were already rising.

As polemics increased between the two sides in Palestine, now under British Mandate, and White Papers and Royal Commissions proliferated, contention continued over the October 24, 1915 letter in particular, and the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in general.

George Antonius
George Antonius, a Lebanese-born Greek Orthodox who spent years working for the Mandate Administration before breaking with it, was a prominent Jerusalem intellectual (while his wife Katy would remain a prominent socialite in her later widowhood), became an outspoken advocate of the Arab cause. In the wake of the Arab General Strike and Revolt of 1936, he wrote that staple of Modern Middle East courses, The Arab Awakening, in 1938, a classic history of the rise of Arab nationalism (or, as some argue, at least the Hashemite version thereof). The book made the Hussein-McMahon correspondence a key part of its argument and marked one of the first, if not the first, publications of the full English text. It remains the classic statement of the Arab argument.

Antonius' role was not limited to his book. He served as Secretary to the Palestinian Arab delegation to the London Conference of 1939, convened in the last months before war broke out in Europe to try to find a solution for Palestine in the wake of the Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, and other efforts.
The London Conference (1939)
The London Conference involved a Zionist delegation appointed by the Jewish Agency and an Arab delegation including Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, and Yemen, plus the aforementioned Palestinian delegation. The Arab delegation refused to meet with the Jewish delegation so the British conducted separate talks. Unless you have been on another planet you are aware no solution was found.

The London Conference could deserve a post in its own right, but for our purpose here the important product was a "Report of a Committee Set Up to Consider Certain Correspondence Between Sir Henry McMahon [His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt] and The Sharif of Mecca in 1915 and 1916," dated March 16, 1939, and setting out the two sides' position in detail. Antonius himself is said to have contributed heavily to the Arab Delegation's Brief, if not written it outright.

Annex A of the report is the Arab argument and Annex B the British response. These may be the best summaries of the two sides of the debate.  From Annex A (the Arab argument):
10. A good deal has been made of the possible constructions to be put upon the exact meaning of the word vilayet. The use of that word throughout the Correspondence calls for explanation. The word vilayet is the Turkish form of the Arab word wilaya. In Arabic, the word is used to denote a province, or region or district without any specific administration connotation. In Turkish, the word was borrowed from the Arabic to denote certain specified administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire with precise limits and boundaries. In a correspondence such as this which was conducted in Arabic, the word used was the Arabic term wilaya, and this use did not always necessarily correspond to a Turkish vilayet. For instance, the Arabic-text speaks of the wilaya of Mersin, the wilaya of Alexandretta, the wilaya of Damascus, the wilaya of Homs, the wilaya of Hama; and yet there were no administrative divisions in existence at any time in the history of these regions, which bore any of those designations. These phrases can only make sense if the word wilaya is read in its proper Arab significance of region or district without any reference whatever to administrative boundaries.
11. The English translation circulated by the United Kingdom Delegation shows the Arabic word ivilaya in its Turkish form of vilayet throughout. This is not only a misleading rendering, but it is also unjustified for another reason. The McMahon notes were issued from the Residency in Cairo in Arabic, and that Arabic text was itself a translation from an English original. In that English original the word used in several contexts was the word district, as is shown by the quotations in the White Paper of 1922 and in the Report of the Palestine Royal Commission (Chapter II, paragraph 5). It would avoid unnecessary confusion if the United Kingdom Delegation could see their way to restoring the term district wherever it occurred in the original English text.
12. The British Government's contention is that Palestine was excluded by implication, when Sir Henry McMahon notified the Sharif that "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" were to be excluded from the area of Arab independence. This contention was publicly sponsored by Mr. Winston Churchill in 1922, when, speaking as the Secretary of State for the Colonies, he tried to argue that the word districts in that phrase was to be read as equivalent to vilayets; and that, since the "Vilayet of Damascus" included that part of Syria—now known as Transjordan—which lay to the east of the River Jordan, it followed that that part of Syria—now known as Palestine—which lay to the west of the Jordan was one of the portions of territory reserved in Sir Henry McMahon's phrase.
13. An examination of the text shows that the British Government's argument is untenable. In the first place, the word districts in Sir Henry McMahon's phrase could not have been intended as the equivalent of vilayets, because there were no such things as the "Vilayet of Damascus", the "Vilayet of Homs" and the "Vilayet of Hama". There was one single Vilayet of Syria of which Damascus was the capital and two smaller administrative divisions of which Homs and Hama were the principal towns. Sir Henry McMahon's phrase can only make sense if we take his districts as meaning "districts" in the current use of the word, that is to say, the regions adjacent to the four cities, and his reservation as applying to that part of Syria—roughly from Sidon to Alexandretta—which lies to the west of the continuous line formed by those four cities and the districts immediately adjoining them.
14. Again, in his third note dated the 14th December, Sir Henry McMahon refers to the regions which he wished to exclude as being in "the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut". Had he had Palestine in mind, he would certainly have added "and the Sanjaq of Jerusalem". The fact that he did not goes to confirm the conclusion that the only portions of Syria which it was proposed at the time to reserve in favour of France were the coastal regions of northern Syria.
15. Lastly, in giving the pledge contained in his second note, Sir Henry McMahon stated that Great Britain recognised as the area of Arab independence all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca in which she was "free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France". Both in that note and in his subsequent note of the 14th December, he justified his exclusion of certain parts of Syria on the grounds of Great Britain's regard for French interests. If, then, Great Britain were to find herself at the end of the War free to act in respect of any portion of Syria which she had felt bound to reserve in favour of France, the reservation loses its justification and indeed whatever force it may have had when it was originally made; and that portion of Syria which was no longer destined to be included in the sphere of French interests—as was eventually the case with Palestine—must, in default of any specific agreement to the contrary, necessarily remain within the area of Arab independence proposed by the Sharif and accepted by Great Britain.
16. In a letter which appeared over his signature in The Times of July 23, 1937, Sir Henry McMahon declared that, in giving the pledge to King Husain, it was not intended by him to include Palestine in the area of Arab independence; and that he had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in the pledge was well understood by King Husain.
These declarations of Sir Henry McMahon's will not bear investigation. In the first place, Sir Henry's function was that of an intermediary charged with the task, not of framing policy, but of carrying out the policy laid down by his official chiefs and conveying it to the Sharif Husain in accordance with the instructions issued to him by the Foreign Office. Even if the intention behind the words used could be invoked as an argument to invalidate or distort the proper and ordinary meaning of the words he used, it is not Sir Henry's intention that might count but the intention of the responsible Minister— in this case, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—on whose instructions Sir Henry McMahon was acting. If intentions are to be taken into account despite the obvious and unmistakable meaning of the words used, then it would be necessary to search for such evidence as is available in the files of the Foreign Office to throw light on the Secretary of State's intentions. Some evidence on that point is already public in the speech which Viscount Grey of Fallodon delivered in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923. The relevant extracts from that speech are appended to this Memorandum, together with the remarks made by Lord Buckmaster on the same occasion. Viscount Grey makes it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the British Government's interpretation of the scope of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had given to the Arabs in 1915.
17. In the second place, leaving aside for a moment the question of the underlying intention and turning to the text itself, it will be found that the words used throughout the Correspondence can only be interpreted as meaning that Palestine was not, directly or indirectly, excluded from the area of Arab independence. The phrase "districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo", as stated in paragraph 13 above, could only have meant the districts adjacent to those four cities. It is also obvious that the Sharif Husain understood that the portions of Syria to be reserved were those lying immediately to the west of those four cities and no more. In his note of the 5th of November, 1915, he speaks of the Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut and "their maritime coasts"; while in his note of the 1st of January, 1916, he describes the regions proposed for exclusion as "the northern parts and their coastal regions", and, lower down in the same note, as: "Beirut and its coastal regions which we will overlook for the moment on account of France." Moreover, Sir Henry McMahon himself, in his note of the 30th of January, 1916, speaks of those portions of Syria which were to be excluded as "the northern regions", thereby showing that, at the time at any rate, he did not differ from the Sharif in regarding tic reservations as applying only to the northern coastal regions of Syria.
18. Lastly, there is the evidence provided by the Sharif's subsequent actions in regard to Palestine, which shows that he had always understood that part of Syria to have remained within the area of Arab independence. No sooner was the Balfour Declaration issued than he sent in an immediate protest to the British Government to ask for an explanation. This action and other actions taken by the Sharif in subsequent years may be held to fall outside the scope of the present Committee's investigation, which is understood to cover only the examination of the text of the McMahon Correspondence. But they are historic; I facts nevertheless; and in the light of those facts, Sir Henry McMahon's declaration that he had every reason to believe the contrary loses its force and indeed appears meaningless.
19. The contention that the British Government did intend Palestine to be removed from the sphere of French influence and to be included within the area of Arab independence (that is to say, within the area of future British influence) is also borne out by the measures they took in Palestine during the War. They dropped proclamations by the thousand in all parts of Palestine, which bore a message from the Sharif Husain on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs, and to ask the Arab population of Palestine to look upon the advancing British Army as allies and liberators and give them every assistance. Under the aegis of the British military authorities, recruiting offices were opened in Palestine to recruit volunteers for the forces of the Arab Revolt. Throughout 1916 and the greater part of 1917, the attitude of the military and political officers of the British Army was clearly based on the understanding that Palestine was destined to form part of the Arab territory which was to be constituted after the War on the basis of independent Arab governments in close alliance with Great Britain.
This is  rather full explication of the Arab side of the argument. Annex B summarizes the British response:
18. As regards (i), the view of His Majesty's Government has always been that the phrase " portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo " embraced all that portion of Syria (including what is now called Palestine) lying to the west of inter alia the administrative area known as the "Vilayet of Syria". 19. It is true that there were no Vilayets of Homs or Hama, but it is also true that both Damascus and Aleppo were the capitals of Vilayets, and the reference to Damascus should alone have sufficed to establish Sir Henry McMahon's meaning. The additional mention of Homs and Hama was evidently made because al-Faruqi* had mentioned them and to ensure that the intervening territory of which they were the most important towns should not be excluded from the area consigned to Arab rule. Obviously no reference was intended to non-existent Vilayets.
*Note: Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi was an Ottoman Army lieutenant and defector who persuaded British officials he could speak for the Sharifian cause, which the Sharifians would subsequently deny. The British cite him frequently in what follows. We'll return to him in a later part.
20. It is also true that the official Turkish name for the Vilayet of which Damascus was the capital was "Vilayet of Syria", but there should have been no misunderstanding of this phrase, especially as the writer of the letter had already found it necessary to use "Syria" (even though there was a Vilayet of that name) in order to describe comprehensively a vague geographical area evidently including the Vilayets of Syria and Beirut, the independent Sanjaq of Jerusalem, the Province of the Lebanon, and part of the Vilayet of Aleppo.
21. It may be worth adding at this point that the phrase "districts of Damascus, etc." would hardly have been desired by the Sharif to be taken to mean small areas immediately surrounding the towns in question (as one of the Arab spokesmen argued, if the Lord Chancellor has correctly understood him, at the first meeting) since if this had been the case the territory in which the Arabs would have been denied independence would have been brought much further east than on a more liberal interpretation of the phrase. The non-Arab territory would in fact have reached eastwards almost to the outskirts of Damascus and the other towns, and have covered substantial portions of Transjordan and considerable sections of the Hejaz Railway.
22. Nor is it denied that in one sense there was no territory east of the Vilayet of Aleppo and that if the letter of October 24th, 1915, was to be interpreted by the Sharif on the lines suggested by His Majesty's Government the area of Arab independence would not reach the Mediterranean, although the fact that it would not do so was not mentioned in the letter.
23. As regards the first point, it must be remembered that Sir Henry McMahon was not attempting to define with any great accuracy the eastward limits of the territory which he was excluding from the area of Arab independence, and he clearly used a phrase to define in a general way a stretch of territory lying along the Mediterranean coast some of which might lie outside, and some of which might lie inside, the "districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo", but all of which lay to the west or in the western parts of those districts.
24. As regards the second point, the Lord Chancellor does not feel that it is possible to base any conclusions on the fact that the exclusion of access to the Mediterranean for the Arab area of independence was not specifically mentioned by Sir Henry McMahon. If the areas which he defined as lying outside that area were so situated that access to the Mediterranean was denied there was no necessity to say so in so many words.
25. The Lord Chancellor has taken note of the argument based upon the fact that in his letter of December I4th, 1915, Sir Henry McMahon only referred to the possible exclusion from the area of Arab independence of the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and these two only, without any mention of the Sanjaq of Jerusalem or of other areas. But it seems clear that in referring to these two Vilayets, Sir Henry McMahon was merely replying to a point raised by the Sharif in his letter of November 5th, 1915, and it does not seem possible to draw any particular conclusion from this circumstance.
26. This no doubt leads to another point made by one of the Arab spokesmen: that seeing how much importance the Sharif attached throughout the correspondence to the Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and to the Vilayets of Mesopotamia, the Sharif would unquestionably have referred in even stronger terms to Palestine (or the Sanjaq of Jerusalem) had he had the slightest suspicion that it was being excluded from the area of Arab independence. This may well be the case, but surely the opposite conclusion can equally well be drawn, that the Sharif understood and accepted the fact that because of its special position as a country interesting all the world Palestine was a territory which had to be reserved for special treatment.
27. The same considerations apply to the fact that in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif referred to "the northern parts and their coasts". It is possible in this case again to conclude that Palestine was accepted by him as lying outside the area of Arab independence. But in any case, the words "northern parts" or "northern coasts" could legitimately be taken by the reader of a letter written in the Hejaz as meaning the whole Mediterranean coast.
28. The foregoing arguments with regard to the specific reservation are offered in order to show that in regard to each point of criticism it is possible to find a probable reason for what: Sir Henry McMahon had in mind. But the Lord Chancellor would not for a moment wish to suggest that this passage in the letter which Sir Henry McMahon sent on October 24th, 1915, on the instructions of His Majesty's Government was clear or well-expressed, or that any of the other territorial references (on either side) were clear or well-expressed, or that it is upon such arguments that His Majesty's Government rely in the presentation of their case.
29. The best explanation which His Majesty's Government can give as to what was meant by the phrase "districts of Damascus etc." in the letter of October 24th, 1915, is that the phrase was borrowed from al-Faruqi and used in the same wide and general sense as that in which he himself used it, i.e. as one which covered the Syrian hinterland southwards to the Gulf of 'Aqaba.
30. But although His Majesty's Government consider that the specific reservation should have sufficed to exclude Palestine, they attach less importance to this point than to the general reservation.
31. The wording of the general reservation is, in view of His Majesty's Government, perfectly clear. It limits the area to which Sir Henry McMahon's pledge was to apply to:
    "... those portions of the territories therein (i.e. in the area claimed by the Sharif) in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, F
In other words, the pledge did not extend to any territory in which Great Britain was not free to act without regard to French interests on the date on which the letter was despatched, i.e. on October 24th, 1915. 32. It must also be made clear, since the point has been raised by the Arab members of the committee, that, in the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, any subsequent developments which may at later dates have modified the extent of the area in which Great Britain was free to act without detriment to French interests are irrelevant to a consideration of the extent of the area to which the pledge applied on October 24th, 1915 and has continued to apply ever since.
33. Now, if there is anything which is certain in this controversy it is that Great Britain was not free in October, 1915, to act in Palestine without regard to French interests. It may be perfectly true that under the influence of Lord Kitchener and others His Majesty's Government before and after the outbreak of the war were anxious to restrict the French claims on the Levant coast if they could find a legitimate means of doing so. But there is a great difference between desiring an object and attaining it. It can be stated as a fact that at the time of the Correspondence France claimed the Mediterranean littoral as far south as the Egyptian border and as far east as Damascus, and it was not until the Spring of 1916 that these extreme claims were modified as the result of discussions culminating in the so-called "Sykes-Picot" Agreement.
34. As has been stated, the Sharif must have realised the possibility and even the extreme probability of the existence of a French claim to Palestine, even if he did not know of it for a fact, and in view of the circumstances, and of the extensive British and religious interest in Palestine, the wording of the "McMahon pledge" ought surely to have suggested to him and to any other reader of the letter that Palestine was excluded from, or, to say the least, not clearly included in, the area of Arab independence.
35. There are some further points which must be noted in connexion with the Correspondence. In paragraph 2 of the Sharif's letter of November 5th, 1915, and in the fourth paragraph of Sir Henry McMahon's reply of December 14th, 1915, it is made clear that many important details regarding the territorial situation were left over for a later settlement.
36. Furthermore, in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif agrees to leave for future consideration the French occupation of "Beirut and its coasts". Whatever may have been meant by this phrase—and it might well be argued that the " coasts" of Beirut extended as far as the Egyptian border—it clearly excluded the coasts of Palestine as far south as the limits of the Vilayet of Beirut, i.e. as far south as a point just north of Jaffa. This in itself amounted to a provisional acceptance of a reservation of nearly half of Palestine.
37. The "Sykes-Picot" Agreement of May, 1916, has already been mentioned, as has also the fact that the claims of France at the beginning of the War extended over the whole of Palestine, as well as to Damascus and Aleppo. In this connexion it must be remembered that Sir Mark Sykes was definitely sympathetic towards the Arab cause and he must clearly have negotiated the agreement in the belief that the reservations in the pledge of October 24th, 1915, justified his concluding an agreement in the form which it eventually assumed. His Majesty's Government have no doubt that he was right.
38. Moreover, Sir Mark Sykes secured a great concession from the French negotiators as regards the Sanjaqs of Hama, Damascus and Aleppo, which, as a result of what al-Faruqi had said at a slightly earlier period, His Majesty's Government had reason to suppose were vital to the Arabs. It was an exceedingly difficult task to obtain this concession from the French Government and it was genuinely believed at the time that the arrangements would (to quote from an official report of the period) "adjust the fundamental divergencies of Arabs and French regarding Syria."
39. In the agreement Palestine was admittedly to be international. The Sharif of Mecca was, however, to be consulted, and the form of government was to be agreed upon with (amongst others) his representatives. These points are generally overlooked, but if they are taken into account it is difficult to see how the agreement can fairly be represented as a breach of faith with the Sharif. Moreover, as has already been emphasized, His Majesty's Government were not, in 1915, in a position to give the sovereignty of Palestine to the Arab people. They had to consult their Allies and other countries having interests in that territory just as they are now obliged to consult the members of the League of Nations.
So the two sides differed drastically in their interpretations, according to their own self-interests. But why was the language so ambiguous? Deliberately, to mislead, or through incompetent translation or ill-defined intent? Who wrote the letter (it wasn't McMahon)? Who translated it? Who was the mysterious Faruqi the British cite several times? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bone of Contention: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: Part I: The Text Itself

This coming Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of what is at least arguably the most contentious single text in Modern Middle Eastern History, or at least in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Sir Henry McMahon's letter to Sharif Hussein of Mecca dated October 24, 1915.

We have looked at the Hussein-McMahon correspondence previously, here, and here. On August 30, 1915, Hussein had written McMahon again, this time rather insistently asking for assurances about the borders within which Britain was prepared to recognize an independent Arab state, an issue on which McMahon had been evasive in the earlier exchange. On October 24, 1915, McMahon (British High Commissioner in Egypt), replied. Superficially, at least, his response seemed to reassure Hussein, but the specific exceptions listed by McMahon would haunt Anglo-Arab relations down through the birth of Israel. At the core lay a fundamental question: did the October 24 letter include or exclude Palestine from the area of the proposed Arab state? If it included Palestine, how to reconcile that with the subsequent Balfour Declaration about a Jewish National Home in Palestine and the Sykes-Picot agreement with France? As many clever titles about "Twice-Promised Land" or "Much-Promised Land" have implied, did the British promise Palestine to the Arabs, the Jews, and themselves? This, I suppose, could be called the "perfidious Albion" interpretation.

Or did one hand not know what the other was doing, given all the conflicting British authorities? Or was it a case of bad translation in which the Arabic and English texts didn't match? Or did the British deliberately keep the language ambiguous?

The issue was debated time and again in the various British White Papers and studies on Palestine between 1922 and 1939, and famously in George Antonius' 1938 pioneering Arab nationalist work The Arab Awakening, which I imagine many readers of this blog had to read in school.

This post will be in several parts because even after a century there are still disputed questions:
  1. Who wrote the disputed language? It certainly wasn't McMahon, who was an India hand. Mark Sykes, Ronald Storrs, Gilbert Clayton, and even T.E. Lawrence have been mentioned by various historians. It may have been a composite of the Intelligence Section in Cairo, soon to be the nucleus of the famous Arab Bureau.
  2. Who translated the original English into the Arabic sent to Hussein?
  3. Did McMahon understand the same thing that London intended about the pledge?
  4. Was it perfidious Albion, incompetence, confusion, or what that led to decades of argument over the wording?
  5. And finally, in our present hopefully post-Imperialist age (Niall Ferguson notwithstanding), what right did Great Britain have to promise the land to anybody at all, themselves, the French, the Hashemites of Mecca, or the Zionist movement,  as opposed to its actual inhabitants?
Before we address these issues, we need the text in front of us. Here is the official English text of the letter minus the flowery opening and closing salutations:
I have received your letter of the 29th Shawal, 1333, with much pleasure and your expressions of friendliness and sincerity have given me the greatest satisfaction.
I regret that you should have received from my last letter the impression that I regarded the question of the limits and boundaries with coldness and hesitation; such was not the case, but it appeared to me that the time had not yet come when that question could be discussed in a conclusive manner.
I have realised, however, from your last letter that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance. I have, therefore, lost no time in informing the Government of Great Britain of the contents of your letter, and it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you on their behalf the following statement, which I am confident you will receive with satisfaction:-
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:-
1. 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.
2. Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognise 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.
I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.
I have confined myself in this letter to the more vital and important questions, and if there are any other matters dealt with in your letter which I have omitted to mention, we may discuss them at some convenient date in the future.
It was with very great relief and satisfaction that I heard of the safe arrival of the Holy Carpet and the accompanying offerings which, thanks to the clearness of your directions and the excellence of your arrangements, were landed without trouble or mishap in spite of the dangers and difficulties occasioned by the present sad war. May God soon bring a lasting peace and freedom to all peoples!
I am sending this letter by the hand of your trusted and excellent messenger, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Arif Ibn Uraifan, and he will inform you of the various matters of interest, but of less vital importance, which I have not mentioned in this letter.
(Signed) A. H. McMAHON.

Now to the trouble-making part. McMahon, or whoever wrote the letter he signed, does not define the borders of the independent Arab state: instead it defined some are excluded from Sharif Hussein's claims:
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.
Subsequently, it notes that France also has claims in some of these regions. But what does "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" actually mean? It seems on the surface, in English, to exclude Lebanon, not Palestine. But the Arabic is different:

إن ولايتي مرسين واسكندرونة وأجزاء من بلاد الشام الواقعة في الجهة الغربية لولايات دمشق الشام وحمص وحماة وحلب لا يمكن أن يقال أنها عربية محضة. وعليه يجب أن تستثنى من الحدود المطلوبة

مع هذا التعديل وبدون تعرض للمعاهدات المعقودة بيننا وبين بعض رؤساء العرب نحن نقبل تلك الحدود

The term "districts" in English has been translated as ولايات , wilayat, basically "provinces," singular wilaya, Turkish vilayet. But there was no Turkish Vilayet of Damascus, or Homs, or Hama; only Vilayets of Syria and of Aleppo and Beirut (See Map Below). Britain would later claim they meant west of the entire Vilayet of Syria, but that isn't what the text says. The discrepancy, deliberate, inadvertent, or a consequence of poor translation choices, would prove to be a ticking time bomb.

Trudeau to Pull Canada's CF-18s Out of Iraq

 Canadian Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau has announced that he has informed President Obama that, in keeping with his campaign promises, he will withdraw Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets from the anti-ISIS bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Canada's contribution to the coalition campaign is known as operation Impact, but Canada will retain the special forces troops present as a non-combat training mission while ending combat operations. The RCAF CF-18s based in Iraq have also been used to carry out strikes inside Syria. No date has been announced for withdrawal of the aircraft.

Egypt's Latest "Inciting Debauchery" Case is About Words, Not Videos

Amid widespread reports of low turnouts in the first two days of the current Parliamentary elections, pro-government columnist Dendarawy al-Hawary, writing in Youm 7, lamented:
It is the bitter truth that Egyptian society, across all its sectors, was more concerned with discussing pornographic films... and everyone forgot the most important parliamentary election in Egypt,
That is almost certainly an exaggeration, and there may be far deeper reasons for the lack of turnout,  but it's true that the latest instance of someone being hauled into court on charges of "incitement to debauchery" (التحريض على الفسق) is not, as previously, a case of belly-dancers being charged for YouTube videos, but a talk-show host being charged with expressing an opinion. That opinion was to express concern about the poor (nonexistent) state of sex education in Egypt, and perhaps less wisely, to suggest that watching pornography might be a good way to educate oneself before marriage. Now she must appear in court.

Now, I've posted studies of the lack of sex education in Egypt, even among medical students,and there's little room to debate that there is little opportunity to learn factual, as opposed to fantasy, information about sex. I rather doubt that most pornography offers a realistic depiction of real human sexuality, but I don't think you should face jail for expressing an opinion contrary to mine.

An Egyptian TV personality and actress who goes by the single name Intisar and two fellow talk show colleagues started the fuss. Ahram Online's English language account:
Egypt's prosecutor ordered Tuesday the investigation of TV host and actress Entsar after complaints were submitted accusing her of lewdness, debauchery, and blasphemy in the way she discussed porn on her show, which aired on Al-Qahira Wa El-Nas channel.
The prosecutor also ordered investigations into Entsar's co-host, actress Heidi Karam, along with businessman and owner of Al-Qahira Wa El-Nas channel, Tarek Nour.
In the three police reports filed, complaints said Entsar, who is known for her daring TV roles as an actress, "called on her audience to watch pornography as it is very beneficial to educate youth before marriage."
During the nightly show, Nafsana (roughly meaning rancour) that focuses on women and social issues that aired last week, Entsar said that she herself watches pornography, a statement that many criticised and ridiculed on social media.
Entsar also said that sex education should be introduced in schools.
A third host in the show, Hoda, opposed the opinions of Entsar and Karam, saying that porn should be banned.
While there was no rush to support pornography, many commentators did support the idea of sex education in schools.  Social media also jumped into the controversy (link partly in Arabic.) As one blogger put it, as part of a post titled "Audacious? Yes, But High  Time":
The program “Nafsana” i.e. “Venting,” though an exact synonym may not exist in English, has three women stormily contradicting one another’s views on air. It has Intisar, Heidi, and ٍShaima bouncing ideas off one another about various Egyptians attitudes and issues. Intisar, the most outspoken, has ventured where no Egyptian woman, or man for that matter, has in the history of Egyptian television. She approves of porn as a way to calm young men, makes fun of the hijab and the many layers women choose to add on their heads, and allows herself to speak as she would privately amongst friends in the cosiness of her own living room, hardly ever an option on public TV.
This program may have gone too far since the reviews on social media are mostly condemning. We will have to wait and see how much heat can Tarek Nour, the owner of the TV channel, Al Kahera Wal Nas, take. It does sound as though Nour gave the presenters of Nafsana free reign to tackle any topic and its presenters have taken the bull by the horn on this one.
A clip in Arabic will be found at the end of this post.

Not only were complaints filed; Intisar will face the court on November 10, unusually quickly for Egypt's sometimes sluggish court system.  The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) issued a statement that said:
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has condemned the frequent complaints filed against artists for allegedly inciting debauchery, as well as the rapid referral of these complaints to courts.
Nasr City Misdemeanor Court has fixed November 10 for considering the first trial of Intisar, an actress, over an accusation of inciting debauchery, in a rapid response to the complaint filed against her on October 8, on account of her statements on Kahera we Nas (Cairo & People) satellite channel in connection with watching pornographic movies.
In that way, the name of singer “Haifa Wehbe” appeared again in the prosecution of artists. Al-Agouza prosecution, yesterday Monday, ordered the urgent probe of Decencies Investigation Department regarding Haifa Wehbe, owing to accusing her of inciting debauchery through the videos she is posting on the social networking websites and the TV channels,; according to the complaint filed against her last May. Also, a complaint was filed against two belly-dancers “Pardice” and “Shakira”, and accordingly, they were sentenced, last September, to 6 months in prisons, after convicting both of them of the same charge.
The Arabic Network has expressed its surprise over the rapid referral of the complaint brought against the actress “Intisar” to the court, while the referral of several cases and complaints to the competent courts are delayed, particularly the cases related to prisoners of opinion.
“The continual attack on actors and actresses for allegedly breaking with customs and traditions, and spreading immorality etc entrenches an anti-creativity freedom climate, and return us to the Inquisition era,” ANHRI said. “We should not separate this incident from that incident of upholding the verdict against Islam Al-Behairi, a researcher, due to his views contrary to the state’s official view of Islam. All these cases of crackdown waste the citizens’ right to freedom of expression and opinion- the right that is mainly established to protect the differing views prevailing in the society from predominance of the majority,” ANHRI added.
ANHRI calls on Egypt’s public prosecution not to give attention to those complaints, whose complainants are only seeking fame and media appearance; it rather urges the prosecution to do its main role in defending the citizens’ interests over cases need much attention than those.
Also, ANHRI calls upon the Egyptian authorities to review Article 269 bis of Egyptian Penal Code, since this vague article is used in most charges concerning inciting debauchery and spreading immorality.
ANHRI's English is a bit awkward; if you prefer, you can find the statement in Arabic here.

And finally, for those who can follow colloquial Egyptian dialect spoken very rapidly, judge for yourselves from the clip below:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Gideon Levy: "The Single-State Solution is Already Here"

It's hard to know what to say about the deepening cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, especially after the tragic killing of an Eritrean refugee apparently mistaken for an Arab attacker. The growing number of stabbings and the increasingly harsh crackdown in response is the sort of downward spiral that leads deeper into chaos, into disaster for both peoples.

Gideon Levy at Haaretz, long an advocate of a two-state solution, has a piece in Haaretz this week called "The Single-State Solution is already here." If you can't access he text at the link, here are excerpts from his conclusion:
We could go back to the two-state solution, of course. Not a bad idea, perhaps, but one that has been missed. Those who wanted a Jewish state should have implemented it while it was still possible. Those who set it on fire, deliberately or by doing nothing, must now look directly and honestly at the new reality: 600,000 settlers will not be evacuated. Without evacuation, there will not be two states. And without two states, only the one-state solution remains.
Now, of all times, out of the fire and despair, we must start talking about the last way out: equal rights for all. For Jews and Arabs. One state is already here, and has been for a long time. All it needs is to be just and do the right thing. Who’s against it? Why? And, most important, what’s the alternative?
 Not easy questions, and no easy answers. But as the abyss looms, questions both sides need to be asking.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why Everyone Needs to Learn Foreign Languages

Since I don't subscribe to Showtime, I've never actually seen Homeland, though I understand many think the show uses several stereotypes in its portrayal of the Muslim world. Certainly their research is lacking; when you hire someone to write Arabic graffiti for your set, you should make sure it doesn't say "Homeland is racist" and similar things before you actually air the episode.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fred Hof on Syria

Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council has a piece at Politico entitled "How I Got Syria So Wrong." Many may disagree, but Ambassador  Hof knows Syria well and knows US policy-making on Syria from the inside, so let me refer you to his article. (Full disclosure: I've known Fred since college.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part VI: Nixon Gets the Go-Ahead

This will conclude my series on Britain's disastrous decision to advance to Baghdad in October 1915, which would lead to the siege and disastrous surrender at Kut. Earlier parts concentrated on introducing the players in Mesopotamia/Iraq (Part I), the Indian Government and High Command (Part II), and the divided coalition Government in London (Part III), particularly the India Office and War Office. Part IV and Part V traced the debate over occupying Baghdad from the beginning to the October 6, when Sir John Nixon had been ordered not to advance beyond Kut though General Charles Townshend was already at ‘Aziziya, more than halfway to Baghdad (see map at bottom.)

Part V ended with Nixon pleading not to have to withdraw from ‘Aziziya, but his October 6 plea about Townshend's advance used the assurance, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome," to say that Townshend had been able to advance by land routes and towing barges, temporarily overcoming the lack of shallow-draft river steamers. London instead assumed all navigation difficulties had been solved. The debate in London shifted to reinforcing manpower, while Nixon still lacked steamers. This added a bit to the growing divergence in the debate between what was wished for politically and the military realities on the ground.

All the political forces in London (War Office and India Office), the campaign (Gulf Political Agent Percy Cox), and India recognized the propaganda value of taking Baghdad. India was nervous that Turkey and Germany might succeed in persuading the Amir of Afghanistan to attack India, virtually denuded by the export of Indian troops to France, Egypt, East Africa and Mesopotamia. A fall of Baghdad would also, it was argued have an affect on Persia/Iran, officially neutral but with parts of its territory occupied by Russian, Ottoman, and British troops and much of the rest under local or tribal forces, while the teenaged Ahmad Shah Qajar was well-advanced on his way to becoming the last of his dynasty.

The lure of Baghdad, as I have suggested elsewhere, had as much to do with the popularity of the 1,001 Nights as with the actual military value of an Ottoman provincial city.  It was the capital of Harun al-Rashid, not of Halil Pasha and Baron von der Goltz. But it was a potent lure. Percy Cox argued that for the Muslim world, and Persia in particular, the fall of Baghdad would be second only to the fall of Constantinople. And London was in the process of figuring out how to get its vulnerable troops off Gallipoli without disaster. So the temptation of taking Baghdad loomed even larger.

General Nixon had become even more confident that Townshend could take Baghdad with one quick push. (As we saw last time, Townshend begged to differ and was overruled.) Though the word "cakewalk" certainly existed at the time, I can't find anyone using it, depriving us of the wonderful ironies in which a French general in the 1950s and and an American general in the 1960s referred to a "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam.

In Nixon's defense, he was consistent in saying that while he could take Baghdad with his existing troops (though he was wrong), he could not hold on to it against a Turkish counteroffensive without at least one, and preferably both, of the Indian divisions in France.

Another complication that would reveal itself in the days after October 6, and would be criticized by the subsequent investigating commission, was the tendency of many of the principals (particularly in the India Office and the Indian Government) to communicate by "private" telegrams not shared with other responsible ministries or the field commanders. Thus there were private conversations the content of which many of the principals had not seen.

On October 7, Nixon reiterated that he could not retreat from his present position without disaster, but would not advance without assurance of reinforcement. Also on the 7th, Secretary of State for India Austen Chamberlain asked Nixon how much additional force he needed, not just to take but to hold Baghdad, and also informed the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, that the Cabinet was eager to take Baghdad and asking Hardinge (note: the Viceroy, not the field generals, though Nixon had been asked  a similar question) if one division would be sufficient. Cable traffic for the next day or two centered on whether one or two divisions would be required, as command wanted to assure success without weakening other fronts.

On October 9 Chamberlain telegraphed Hardinge in a private message,
Private. Hope to give you definite information as to possibility of reinforcement in a few days.Meanwhile Nixon should maintain his present position and be prepared to advance if reinforcements asked for can be sent to him. Please instruct him accordingly.
 On the same day, Nixon complained again about the transport problem, but the aforementioned  misunderstanding persisted, and the complaint seems to have made no impression.

On the 11th, Townshend informed his troops they were not to advance until further orders.

Sir Thomas Holderness
But other things were happening in the meantime. An "Inter-Departmental Committee" had been set up by Prime Minister Asquith to resolve the debate and to consider the issue of advancing to Baghdad. Chamberlain named his own deputy, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India Sir Thomas Holderness, as its Chairman. It included representatives of the India Office, War Office, Admiralty, and Foreign Office. On October 11, it delivered a report that was at best inconclusive and raised questions about taking Baghdad before reinforcement.

The Holderness Committee report, inconclusive as it was, went before the War Committee of the Cabinet (then widely known as the Dardanelles Committee) on October 14, 100 years ago today. Chamberlain, not normally a member, was in attendance. They had before them reports from the General Staff (very likely, as we have seen, echoing Lord Kitchener's views), favoring an advance on Baghdad but also requiring an additional two divisions. But apparently Lord Kitchener himself, unlike virtually everyone else, did not feel that holding on to Baghdad was essential and favored occupying it, destroying military supplies and withdrawing.

The Dardanelles Committee's recommendation of sending two Indian divisions from France was soon overtaken by events: the recall of General Sir Ian Hamilton from command on the Dardanelles, but the Indian Government remained uncomfortable with the idea of taking Baghdad if it had to then be evacuated.

On October 21 the War Committee issued a detailed study which suffered from the deficiencies that plagued the Mesopotamia campaign: poor intelligence and underestimating their adversary. The War Committee estimated that for at least the next few months Nixon would face no more than 9,000 Turkish infantry. Within a month at Ctesiphon, they would face twice that number. The British had a disdainful attitude towards their immediate opponent Nureddin Pasha and seem to have been unaware that Baron von der Goltz was now on the scene, with Halil Pasha in support in Baghdad.

On October 23, 1915, despite divided counsels, uncertainty about whether Baghdad could be held for long (no one then questioning that it could at least be captured), and only the vaguest commitment to (eventual) reinforcements, the Cabinet instructed the Viceroy to instruct Nixon, "Baghdad advance."

Baghdad would not be captured. Townshend would fall back to Kut and be besieged and relief was frustrated by the very lack of river transit the Cabinet thought had been resolved. Within six months, Townshend and his troops would surrender to the Turks in the worst defeat since Yorktown and the largest surrender of British Empire troops in history up to then (exceeded only by the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942). I'll continue the tale next month on the anniversary of the Battle of Ctesiphon.

Anyone wishing to consider modern parallels is of course free to do so, but it clearly was no cakewalk.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II