A Line in the Sand
An unsettling history of British and French machinations in the Mideast.
Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 in which the British and the French secretly connived to split the Middle East like a ripe melon, dividing what is now Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordon, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank between them. The fact that neither controlled or had any legitimate right to this vast expanse was of little import in London and Paris; they planned to seize control of it soon enough from the waning Ottoman Empire.Skip to next paragraph
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It was a facile agreement, to be sure, and dramatized the mad scramble for the region and its resources, but the game was already on when Sir Mark Sykes, a 30-something baronet who passed himself off as a Middle East expert, drew his infamous line in the sand connecting Acre on the Mediterranean coast with Kirkuk in the heart of what was then known as Mesopotamia. Decades previously Britain had taken control of Egypt and Cyprus, and World War I would be the catalyst for gathering more low hanging fruit. The security of the Suez Canal and access to oil, the fossil fuel of the future, were the prime motivations. Wherever the line was drawn, the Middle East was in for big changes.
In his second book, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948, James Barr vividly portrays the convoluted and often deadly game played by these ostensible allies. The locals were often a sidelight to this main event. If the Arabs were revolting in the Levant against the French, the British could hardly have been less helpful. Later, when the Zionists rose against British rule in Palestine, it was the French who were blasé, and then some – indeed, many were only too happy to aid Jewish terrorists bent on killing Britons.
The Brits may have helped France twice against the Germans, but they weren’t as keen on sharing the Middle East with their historic rival. France, for its part, was desperate to regain its pride and status as a world power after a bumpy century highlighted by its humiliating collapse in World War II. At times, the Syrian front seemed more important to Frenchmen like Charles DeGaulle than the fight against Hitler.
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