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A Line in the Sand

An unsettling history of British and French machinations in the Mideast.

(Page 2 of 2)

To make matters more confusing, when the British and the Free French invaded Syria in 1941, the Vichy French forces in control of Damascus fought their fellow countrymen with a vengeance. In 1945, when the British intervened to stop French efforts to put down a Syrian revolt, DeGaulle seethed, telling a British official: “We are not, I admit, in a position to open hostilities against you at the present time. But you have insulted France.... This cannot be forgotten.”

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Barr, who is a British journalist, depicts the tenor of Anglo-French antipathy with telling research, engaging profiles of key players, and entertaining anecdotes. Of Sykes’ French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, he writes, “The British, in whom Georges-Picot’s ‘fluting voice’ and condescending manner triggered an allergic reaction, pointedly ... called him plain old ‘Monsieur Picot.’”  Touché.

While Barr travels some well worn historical territory, his use of recently declassified government materials infuses new details into the depth of the geopolitical intrigue that helped to form – or deform – the modern Middle East. Colonialism in the 20th century needed to be a bit more politically correct than it was during the unashamed scramble for African colonies in the previous century.  When the Bolsheviks make the Sykes-Picot Agreement public in 1918, the embarrassed British and French made the proper noises about helping the people of the region transition to self-rule.

But mainly they rigged what few elections or plebiscites that were held to install accommodating Arab rulers. The British established Sunni leaders in Iraq to rule a majority Shiite population and included in the newly created nation Kurdistan and the city of Mosul, which was well north of the Sykes-Picot line, not because it made sense for the locals but because there was oil up yonder. The British, in Orwellian fashion, also changed sides based on strategic considerations.

Supporting Zionism seemed like a good means of projecting influence in 1917 in Palestine, but by 1939, with Germany threatening the Middle East, the Arabs were deemed a better bet. British policy changed accordingly.

What was good for Britain and France – or what was perceived as such by them – was seldom good for the people in the region. Barr sums it up nicely: “Britain’s sponsorship of the Jews in Palestine and France’s favoritism of the Christians in Lebanon were policies designed to strengthen their respective positions in the region by eliciting gratitude from both minorities. The appreciation they generated by doing so was short-lived, but they deeply antagonized the predominantly Muslim Arab populations of both countries, and the wider region, with irreversible effects.”

David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s Books section.

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