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Dan Simonds

Binghamton Journal of History Submission.

May 16, 2007

WWI & the Partition of the Ottoman Empire: Mandates as a Pretext for Imperial Domination

Originally Submitted for WWI Senior Seminar (HIST 486C), Fall 2006.

Course Instructor: Ryan Pederson.

The advent of the nineteenth century found the Ottoman Empire, once a tri-continental power, faced not only with the question of decline, which was arguably no longer even a question, but with the far more daunting question of imminent dissolution. In 1856 the decaying empire was admitted into the “Concert of Europe,” thus assuring that the empire would be maintained, “tottering but intact,” at least for the time being.[1] With the rise of Germany as a great power, the Concert of Europe broke down and the continent divided into hostile camps.[2] The outbreak of war in 1914 left Ottoman statesmen with the choice of which alliance it would join. Ottoman neutrality was not an option, as neutrality made partition by the winning side inevitable.[3] Unfortunately for Ottoman leaders, they entered the war on what would prove to be the losing side. Five years later, the victorious powers divided the former empire into imperial possessions, drawing borders where they had never before existed. At this juncture, Gertrude Bell – widely recognized as one of Great Britain’s leading authorities on the Middle East, wrote to her old friend Aubrey Herbert

O my dear they are making such a horrible muddle of the Near East, I confidently anticipate that it will be much worse than it was before the war…It’s like a nightmare in which you forsee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can’t stretch out your hand to prevent them.[4]

As she wrote in April 1919, Liberals and Labourites clashed with conservatives in Britain over annexation and international supervision regarding conquered territories, while an exceedingly powerful colonial lobby struggled to assert its influence over Prime Minister Clemenceau in France. In the realm of international diplomacy, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George were involved in a fierce debate regarding their rival imperial interests, while both statesmen cringed at Woodrow Wilson’s calls for internationalization and “self-determination.” As these statesmen deliberated over virtually every aspect of the pending mandates, Great Britain’s promise to establish an independent Arab state fueled emerging Arab nationalism, and unrest brewed throughout the former Ottoman territories.

The cauldron of animosities which would continue to boil long after the Peace Conference resulted from empty and often conflicting wartime promises, misplaced rhetoric, and a total disregard for the people of the former Ottoman Empire. During the Paris Peace Conference, the delegates formed the League of Nations as a new means of international diplomacy in world affairs. Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter established a mandate system for societies they deemed “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”[5] The self proclaimed “advance nations,” were to take on the “responsibility” of “ensuring the well-being and development of such peoples.”[6] Thus, the sole duty of the British and French in their Middle Eastern mandates was “the rendering of assistance…until such a time as they are able to stand alone.”[7] Furthermore, it was required that “the wishes of the communities must be a principle consideration in the selection of a mandatory.”[8] British statesman Arthur Balfour articulated his nation’s contempt for the wishes of Arab communities in his response to Edwin Montagu’s statement “Let us not for Heaven’s sake, tell the Moslem what he ought to think, let us recognize what they do think.” Balfour replied “I am quite unable to see why Heaven or any other Power should object to our telling the Moslem what he ought to think.”[9]

British and French disregard toward the will of the former Ottoman subjects was manifested in the decisions reached at the San Remo Conference of April 1920. Tracing British and French planning on the Middle East from 1914 to the San Remo Conference illustrates the way in which the mandates system was developed to serve as a mediator both in the domestic sphere – between colonial ambitions and calls for no-annexations, as well as in the international sphere – between Wilson’s principle of “self-determination,” and British and French plans to extend their imperial empires. It is the position of this paper to illustrate that “ensuring the well-being and development” of the former Ottoman territories came secondary to guaranteeing British and French interests in the region. Consequently, the mandates fostered gross instability in the region, much of which reverberates to the present.

. . .

As the war broke out in Europe, it was not yet clear which side the Ottomans would take. Although Great Britain had been the staunchest supporter of Ottoman territorial integrity up until the war, it was unlikely that they would side with an alliance which included their historic rival, Russia. When the Ottomans joined the Central Powers in October, Allied planners began to set their sights on various prizes which they hoped to acquire by right of conquest. Russian planners had long sought a warm water port, and since 40% of all Russian exports passed through the Turkish Straits, the prospect of such an acquisition was all the more compelling.[10] The Russian Empire had also long shown interest in Palestine, for the territory contained sites holy to the Orthodox Church while Orthodox Christians in the region looked to Russia to protect their interests from the French-backed Catholics.[11] France claimed “historic rights” to the territories which include modern-day Syria and Lebanon, as a protector of both the Maronite Christian population and French investments in railroads and silk production.[12] Great Britain, for its part, aimed to maintain control over the Suez Canal, protect communications to India and ensure post-war security for British investment and trade in the region.[13]

French colonial ambitions in the region led to the founding of the Amis de l’Orient – an affiliation of various colonial lobby groups, which was renamed the Comite de l’Orient in 1914. Within its ranks, the Comite included Etienne Flandin and Georges Leygues of the ‘Syrian party’ in parliament, an association which had planed for a Lebanese uprising even before the Ottoman Empire entered the war.[14] The French colonialists became preoccupied with British actions in the Ottoman Empire, regarding them as a potential threat to French imperial interests. This preoccupation would lead France to participate in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in April 1915.[15] Churchill’s original plan for the campaign included a British occupation of Alexandretta, touching a nerve with the French colonialists.[16] The French viewed such an action as a British attempt to gain a foot hold in the part of Asia Minor that had traditionally been regarded as part of the French sphere of influence.[17] Victor Augagneur, the French Minister of Marine, met with Churchill on 26 January 1915, agreeing to take part in the Dardanelles operation so long as Britain dropped plans to land at Alexandretta.[18] In a development indicative of the French cabinet’s lack of control over policies regarding imperial interests, Augagneur deliberately concealed the plans until 13 February. On 4 March, Russia formally demanded Constantinople, and an area on either side of the Straits, to which the British conceded almost at once. Theophile Delcasse, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been kept fully informed of the developments but, like Augagneur, failed to inform the cabinet in a timely fashion.[19] Kept in the dark until after the fact, the French government had no choice but to acquiesce and seek a quid pro quo, demanding Russian recognition of a French sphere of influence in Syria and Cilicia.[20]

Once the French had struck a deal with Russia, planning turned toward securing British approval of French colonial ambitions. The French consul-general in Beirut, Francois Georges-Picot, urged Delcasse that he must move quickly in negotiating with the British since the size of the British forces in the Middle East would be far greater than that of the French and thus, he argued, the right of conquest would fall far more with the British than with the French.[21] Delcasse had, in fact, attempted talks with England in March, but had found Sir Edward Grey “not very anxious to carve up Asia Minor in advance.”[22] Nevertheless, Picot was sent to the London embassy in preparation for future talks.

. . .

While the French moved to secure British acceptance of their colonial ambitions, the British were engaged in talks which promised to give control of these territories elsewhere. A series of letters known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, regarding an Arab uprising against the Ottomans in exchange for the promise of a future independent Arab kingdom, culminated in a fiery controversy following the Paris Peace Conference. Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt and Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, laid the framework for the British backed Arab uprising and the specific details of the future Arab kingdom in a correspondence beginning on 14 July 1915 and extending into March, 1916.

In the first letter to McMahon on 14 July Hussein proposed that the lands of the kingdom should be

Bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37 degree of latitude, on which degree fall Birijik, Urfa, MArdin, Midiat, Jezirat (Ibn ‘Umar), Amadia, up to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina.[23]

According to this plan the kingdom would include much of what today constitutes the modern Middle East. In McMahon’s reply on 30, August, he affirmed Britain’s desire for “the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants,” but continued that “With regard to the questions of limits and boundaries, it would appear to be premature to consume our time in discussing such details in the heat of war.”[24] On 9 September Hussein replied that “it is necessary to first discuss this point [the establishment of boundaries].” McMahon realized that Britain could no longer stall on the issue and replied “I have realized…that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance.” He then revealed the British reservation that

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the district of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo [modern day Lebanon, Iraq, Palestinian occupied territories and parts of Syria and Jordan] cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.[25]

In addition the vilayets of Basra and Baghdad were to be under a temporary “special administrative arrangement.”[26] McMahon then guaranteed that “in the name of the Government of Great Britain…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 Sharif of Mecca.”[27] In the letter dated 5 November Hussein renounced insistence on inclusion of the vilayets of Mersina and Adana but pressed to keep the vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut.[28] McMahon replied on 14 December that in regards to Aleppo and Beirut, “the interests of our ally, France, are involved in them both, the question will require careful consideration and a further communication on the subject will be addressed to you in due course.”[29] On 1, January 1916 Hussein more or less acquiesced, but insisted “at the first opportunity after this war is finished, we shall ask you (what we avert our eyes from to-day) for what we now leave to France in Beirut and its coasts,” adding that “it is impossible to allow any derogation that gives France, or any other Power, a span of land in those regions.”[30]

The aforementioned letter by Hussein was the seventh in the correspondence of ten, and was the last to deal with the issue of the future Arab kingdom’s territories. The final three letters dealt solely with preparations for the uprising. The vast kingdom promised to Sharif Hussein of Mecca would be parceled away between the British and the French, leaving his sons with only nominal control of the post-war kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan.

. . .

At a meeting of the French Asian Committee (Comite de l’ Asie Francaise) on 18 February 1915, the committee abandoned its traditional policy of maintaining a sphere of influence within the Ottoman Empire, opting instead for establishing control over Cilicia and “la Syrie integrale,” a Syria which included Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.[31] Throughout the spring and summer of 1915, other sections of the colonial party began to push for “la Syrie integral,” including the Syrian party in parliament, led by Flandin and Leygues, who presented the acquisition of Syria as a matter of national prestige.[32] As mentioned, in March 1915 Delcasse had found that Britain was not yet ready to discuss partition of the Ottoman Empire. By October 1915, however, the correspondence between Hussein and McMahon had produced a promise of an Arab uprising in exchange for an independent state. Such a promise, of course, would first have to be discussed with the French.

On 21 October Sir Edward Grey asked Paris to appoint a delegate, and Francois Georges-Picot was promptly selected by Ambassador Paul Cambon.[33] Picot had intimate ties with the French colonial movement, as his father was the founder of the Comite de l’Afrique Francaise, and his brother Charles the treasurer of the Comite de l’Asie Francaise. Therefore his appointment guaranteed that the French government’s war aims in the Middle East would be those of the parti colonial.[34] Picot was scheduled to meet with Sir Mark Sykes, a wealthy aristocrat who dabbled in British diplomacy and had traveled in the Middle East from Cairo to Baghdad.[35] At the time of their meeting, the war was not going particularly well for the Allies, the Gallipoli landings had failed and in Mesopotamia a large Indian force had surrendered.[36] British military strategists had promised Arab independence, in the hope that the Arab Revolt could harass the Ottoman forces and cause them to overextend their armies.[37] In addition, British planners believed they could use the revolt to shore up their right flank as their armies invaded from Egypt.[38] In order to begin the offensive, however, the British would be forced to divert troops and resources from the Western Front, a move which would require the approval of their ally France.[39] As Arab independence had been offered to bring the Sharif of Mecca on board with British planning, so was Sykes-Picot offered to the French.

Picot drafted his own instructions for the meeting, which the new French prime minister and foreign minister Aristide Briand approved without amendment.[40] The ambitious French demands included the whole of Syria (including Palestine, Lebanon and Mosul) as well as Cilicia in Ottoman Turkey.[41] These French claims did not originate within the government, but rather, they were those of the French colonialists. The cabinet, it appears, did not even partake in the discussions.[42] On 3 January 1916, while the Hussein-McMahon letters had just established the boundaries of a future “independent” Arab state, Sykes and Picot provisionally agreed on a partition of the territories that were simultaneously being promised to Hussein. British and French imperial wrangling as early as 1915 is indicative of the fact that their ambitions stretched far beyond ensuring “well-being and development” in the region.

While Picot’s full ambitions were not realized, he regarded the agreement as the best obtainable at the time, and French Prime Minister Aristide Briand concurred. According to the draft, direct French control was to be limited to Cilicia and costal-Syria, while the Syrian interior was to be granted to the future Arab kingdom within a French sphere of influence.[43] Furthermore, the Syrian interior would exclude the ports of Haifa and St. Jean d’Acre, which were reserved for Britain.[44] Additional British possessions would include central and southern Mesopotamia, extending down into present-day Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf.[45] Palestine was to be internationalized in accord with Russian claims, to which the French conceded, adding that they might move to acquire it at a later date.[46] What remained was an area which included modern-day Syria – minus access to the Mediterranean, Jordan and Mosul in northern Iraq. The aforementioned territory was to be divided into spheres of influence, France’s sphere incorporating the remnants of Syria and northern Iraq, the British zone including Jordan and south-west Iraq. The plan was approved by the respective governments in May 1916, in blatant disregard to promises made, on behalf of the British government, to the Sharif of Mecca. Hussein, oblivious to the secret pact, launched the Arab Revolt a month later.

. . .

No sooner had the British signed on to Sykes-Picot than they began to regret it. Lord Curzon cursed “that unfortunate agreement which has been hanging like a millstone round our necks ever since.”[47] Lord Curzon joined fellow hardliner Alfred Milner in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, which took power in December 1916 and would prove to be far less accommodating to French colonial ambitions than Asquith’s government had been.[48] In March 1917 Alexandre Ribot returned as Prime Minister of France and found himself in an increasingly difficult position. The French colonialists had stepped up their pressure on the foreign ministry. As one British Foreign Office official reported “The French colonial party is at present extremely strong and active.”[49] The increased pressure came at a time when many British planners were working to dismantle the promises made by Sykes-Picot. Lloyd George, “a Liberal turned land-grabber,”[50] in the words of historian Margaret MacMillan, had already determined to “grab” Palestine.[51] On 6 April Sykes informed Picot, his former protégé, that “it would be advantageous to prepare [the] French for [the] idea of British suzerainty in Palestine by international consent.”[52]

As fears over British intentions mounted, the French colonialists continued to exert pressure on the government. In early May, Shukri Ganim founded the Comité Central Syrien, a colonial pressure group which included Georges Samne and P. Etienne Flandin.[53] On 23 May at an audience with Prime Minister Ribot, the delegation pressed for French military action in Syria and also raised the question of Palestine, presenting a petition calling for a French protectorate.[54] Pressure by the colonialists was futile, however, in light of the situation on the ground. The French army, stretched increasingly thin along the Western Front, was further demoralized by mutinies in May and June.[55] As British forces stood poised to capture the Ottoman territories, French colonialists realized the futility of pressing for revision of Sykes-Picot, an agreement which many planners on both sides regarded as obsolete. The Ottoman territories would fall to the British by conquest and throughout the summer, the colonial planning turned from revision of the agreement to preservation.

The French saw their position further weakened in November 1917 when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising the Jewish people a national home in Palestine. Throughout 1917, British and Zionist goals appeared to be converging. Chaim Weizman wanted a Jewish Palestine, which he argued would need protection for some years to come.[56] The Zionists preferred British protection over American or French protection, and thus appealed to British planners who hoped Palestine could be transformed into “an Asiatic Belgium” in a strategic location protecting the vital Suez Canal.[57] This made sense to Lloyd George, who gave his blessings to the declaration, dismissing as irrelevant any French claims to Palestine or, for that matter, any claims by the people who inhabited the land. One month after the Balfour Declaration, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force into Palestine, sweeping the Ottoman soldiers from the Holy Land. The French responded with a weak appeal to preserve internationalization.

. . .

While British and French imperialists battled one another for colonial possessions, a wave of anti-imperialist idealism presented a new challenge, both in the domestic sphere and on the international stage. In April 1917 the Independent Labor Party in Britain charged that “annexation of territory and people by force of arms is robbery and oppression,” and incompatible with international socialism.[58] Throughout the spring and summer of 1917 the Manchester Guardian editorialized against annexations and pushed for a new colonial policy arguing that “imperial aggrandizement” was inconsistent with Allied principles.[59] “Populations,” they argued “ought not to be bandied about without regard to their own wishes as if they were property.”[60] British Liberals and Laborites were united in calling for no annexations and internationalization of colonial affairs during the final years of the war. The Inter-Allied Labor and Socialist Conference met in London in February 1918 and went on record demanding that “the natives of all Colonies and Dependencies must be protected against capitalist exploitation, and that “administrative autonomy should be granted to all groups sufficiently civilized, and to others a progressive participation in local government.”[61] In Great Britain, the powerful and influential coalition of Liberals, Laborites and Socialists were a force that had to be considered and their calls for new colonial policies no doubt influenced the way in which mandates were later applied.

Even in France, where the Socialists pushing against annexation were a marginal power, Cachin was able to pressure Prime Minister Ribot into stating “we repudiate all annexations” because the international climate had shifted, yet another example of an empty wartime promise.[62] Despite this slight ideological divergence, attitudes in France were such that the bulk of French opinion still favored annexations.[63]

While imperial planners were generally able to overcome domestic ideological attacks, international developments came to constitute a far greater obstacle to their objectives. With the Bolshevik rise to power in Russia following the October Revolution, Lenin became a force on the international stage. On 8 November Lenin read his Decree on Peace before the Soviet Congress, calling for an immediate end to hostilities and a peace without annexations or indemnities.[64] A few days later Trotsky began to publish the Allied secret treaties, further embarrassing the Allied governments. In London, Lloyd George, understanding the need to conciliate Labor opinion, made yet another shallow war time promise, declaring that there should be no partition of the Ottoman Empire.[65] In the United States Woodrow Wilson felt that Lenin’s Decree on Peace should have been his own.[66] Accordingly, on 8 January 1918 Wilson issued his Fourteen Points. “Wilsonian idealism” struck a blow to British and French planners alike. Wilson’s fifth point established a principle that was to be a thorn in the side of imperial planners for decades, the right of self determination. Point five read:

A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.[67]

Wilson’s twelfth point specifically extended these rights to the people of the Ottoman Empire, stating “the…nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development.”[68]

Gaston Domergue articulated the French colonialist response, exclaiming that “The obstacle is America!”[69] While the British were equally outraged, both sides realized the necessity of paying lip service to the principle of self-determination. In both Britain and France, imperial planners began to talk the language of the Americans. Shifting gears, Domergue argued “we need a colonial empire to exercise, in the interests of humanity, the civilizing vocation of France.”[70] In London, Curzon argued that the British ought “to play self determination for all its worth, wherever we are involved in difficulties with the French, the Arabs, or anybody else, and leave the case to be settled…knowing…that we are more likely to benefit from it than anybody else.”[71]

Masking their distaste for self determination, the British and French issued a joint declaration to the Arabs on 8 November, assuring the Arab people that the goal of their campaign against the Ottomans had been “the complete and definitive liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations drawing their authority from the initiative and free choice of indigenous populations.”[72] The sincerity of the declaration must be placed under intense scrutiny, in light of later Franco-British actions in the region.

. . .

While the public declarations by the British and French had taken a new form in light of domestic and international developments, behind the scenes the imperial wrangling continued. The winter of 1917 saw the French colonial movement receive several crushing blows. Georges Clemenceau returned to power in November 1917. His earlier career was marked by bitter opposition to colonial expansion, which now took the form of indifference, mingled with shades of contempt.[73] Clemenceau viewed the war with a single-minded concentration on the Western Front, ending any hopes of a substantial French force being deployed in the Middle East.[74] While Clemenceau ignored both his foreign and colonial ministers, the parti colonial watched as the Egyptian pound became the currency in Palestine and then in Syria.[75] Picot rushed to Palestine in an attempt to protect French interests, but Sir Edmund Allenby and his occupation forces were found to be uncooperative.[76]

In April 1918 British forces under Arnold Wilson took control of Mesopotamia. With this development British troops controlled virtually every Ottoman territory up for partition. Among the British, two schools of thought emerged about what should be done with their acquisitions. The Anglo-Indian school of thought, represented by A.T. Wilson and Lord Curzon, argued that securing the empire’s communications with India required total British control over the Middle East, unhampered by calls for any Arab state or states.[77] The Anglo-Egyptian school supported by T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Commander Hogarth, argued that British control over empire communications should be assured by fostering the growth of Arab states with British advisors, in close alliance with Great Britain.[78]

While British actions in the Middle East continued to arouse fears about British intentions amongst the French colonialists, the British maintained an ominous silence in regard to their long term plans.[79] In the summer of 1918 the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Quai d’Orsay, warned that French public opinion would not accept that “France be deprived of benefits which were rightly hers by those who diverted their troops at the crucial moment.”[80] In similar fashion, Picot attempted to inform Sykes about the mood in France; the British refused to take Picot or the Quai d’Orsay seriously, refusing to hand over full powers to French representatives in the part of Syria promised to them by Sykes-Picot.[81]

With the decisive Allied breakthrough on the Western Front in August, the French colonialists launched a campaign to rally public support for their cause, utilizing the familiar device of national prestige. In order to placate the fears of their ally, on 30 September the British defined Picot’s rights and duties as French representative in the occupied territories and reassured the French that if Syria “should fall into the sphere of interest of any European Power, that Power should be France.”[82] The British then informed France that unfortunately, the Sykes-Picot agreement would have to be revised. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the British further asserted their position of dominance by insisting on negotiating the armistice with the Turks alone, infuriating even Clemenceau, who had claimed indifference to colonial affairs.[83]

Nevertheless, setting their differences aside, Lloyd George and Clemenceau met in December 1918, just before Wilson arrived for the Peace Conference. Under pressure from the colonial lobby, the Quai d’Orsay presented Clemenceau with a lengthy rationale for preserving Sykes-Picot, which he subsequently ignored.[84] During the meeting, of which no historical record exists, Clemenceau abandoned French claims to Mosul and Palestine; his generosity, many historians argue, was on account of promises made by Lloyd George to support French demands in Europe, particularly along the Rhine.[85]

. . .

As the Paris Peace Conference opened in January 1919, the delegates were faced with the daunting task of sorting out rival claims to the former Ottoman territories, as well as establishing the nature of the mandates system. Woodrow Wilson was the first delegate to issue a Paris Draft Covenant. In it, he described the League as “the residuary trustee with sovereign rights of ultimate disposal,” demanded approval of the mandates by the populations, gave the populations the right of appeal to the League, and gave the League “complete power of supervision and of intimate control.”[86] The draft was opposed by even the most anti-imperialist delegates. In a second draft, Wilson tried to remove some of the harshest wording, but was once again rebuked. Four days later the British delegation proposed a Paris Draft which would eventually become Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter. At a meeting of the Council of Ten on 30 January, Wilson tried to shame his adversaries and was once again reproved. The British Draft was adopted as part of the Covenant on 10 February, with Wilson’s sole contribution of the clause establishing the Permanent Mandates Commission, which provided a certain degree of League oversight regarding the mandates.[87]

Having established the mandate principle in theory, the Paris delegates turned to the more difficult task of putting it into practice. On 6 February Feisal, the son of Hussein bin Ali, and leader of the Arab revolt, called on the British to fulfill their promises from the Hussein-McMahon letters.[88] Caught between guarantees to both the French and the Arabs, Lloyd George delayed on withdrawing his troops from Syria.[89] Clemenceau, who had made numerous concessions to Lloyd George in December, was furious. He assured French President Raymond Poincare, “I won’t give way on anything any more, Lloyd George is a cheat.”[90] The deadlock continued throughout March. While the French wanted to use the mandates to claim Syria without granting Arab independence, the British wanted to use it to fulfill their promises to King Hussein and the Arabs.[91]

As the delegates stood at a stalemate, developments in other parts of the Ottoman Empire roused British planners into action. The rhetoric of self-determination had the unanticipated consequence of fueling nationalist movements in other parts of the world. Protests in Egypt turned violent following the arrest of several nationalist leaders. On 18 March, eight British soldiers were murdered and the British government reacted by imposing martial law and dispatching Allenby’s troops.[92] Likewise, in India, March and April saw huge demonstrations for independence in several major cities. On 13 April a panicked British officer ordered his troops to fire into a crowd in what came to be known as the Amritsar Massacre.[93] With the uprisings in Egypt and India spiraling out of control, Lloyd George began to realize the limits of British power.

While the British fought desperately to maintain control over Egypt and India, Feisal, upon his return to Syria in May, began to agitate for independence. More specifically, he called on Arabs to “choose to either be slaves or masters of your own destiny.”[94] British military planners warned that they would be unable to control an uprising in Syria, thus prompting Lloyd George to withdraw British troops in September and allow the French to move in.[95] With the Syrian question finally resolved, the British and French were able to move toward an agreement.

At the San Remo Conference in April 1920 the British and French awarded themselves mandates: Palestine (including Jordan) and Mesopotamia for the British, Syria (including Lebanon) for the French.[1] [96] While the Franco-British struggle for Syria had ended, the French had not yet reached an understanding with Feisal, who on 7 March 1920 was proclaimed king of Syria within its “natural boundaries” (including Palestine and Lebanon), by the Syrian Congress.[97] A similar congress, claiming to speak for the people of Mesopotamia, likewise declared independence from British rule, proclaiming Feisal’s brother Abdullah as king and demanding that the British end their occupation.[98] Following an ultimatum, French troops under General Gourard moved into Damascus on 24 July, destroying a poorly armed Arab force and sending Feisal into exile; the French proceeded to shrivel Syria’s borders while swelling those of Lebanon, thus placing thousands of Muslims in a Christian dominated state.[99]

As the French asserted control over the recalcitrant Arabs in Syria, rebellions broke out in Mesopotamia, evoking a violent British response whereby expeditions burned villages and extracted fines, while the British air-force set a new precedent in colonial domination by firing machine-guns and dropping bombs from the air.[100] Once order had been restored, British planners looked for a more cost effective way to manage their colonial acquisitions. At a conference in Cairo in March 1921, British colonial secretary Winston Churchill decided that Feisal should be given the crown of the newly created kingdom of Iraq and his brother Abdullah the crown for Transjordan, both in close consultation with British advisors.[101] Feisal was officially crowned king of Iraq on 23 August, 1921.

. . .

Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter gives the official explanation for establishing the mandates system. The mandatory powers were to assist the people of the former Ottoman Empire who “are…not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”[102] The “advanced nations” (the mandatory powers) were to take on the “responsibility” of “ensuring the well-being and development of such peoples.”[103] Accordingly, the sole duty of the British and the French in the region was “the rendering of assistance…until such a time as they [the mandated people] are able to stand alone.”[104] Finally, it was required that “the wishes of the communities must be a principle consideration in the selection of the mandatory.”[105]

The way in which the mandate system came to be applied to the former Ottoman Empire demonstrates clearly that such justifications for establishing mandates were merely rhetorical guises for imperial ambitions. It is not difficult to recognize that the Arab people wanted a unified and independent Arab kingdom. The Sharif of Mecca made this known in his correspondence with McMahon. Furthermore, in March 1920 the Syrian Congress called for independence as well as a unified Syria, under the rule of King Feisal. These calls echoed the findings of Wilson’s commission of inquiry, the King-Crane commission, which spent the summer of 1919 traveling through the Middle East and found that an overwhelming majority of people wanted Syria to encompass both Palestine and Lebanon and that a similar majority wanted independence.[106] Furthermore, on 2 July, 1919 the Syrian General Congress at Damascus passed a resolution, which began by stating that “we ask absolutely complete political independence for Syria (a Syria including Lebanon and Palestine);” if a mandate were necessary they asked that it be the United States or Great Britain but added “We do not acknowledge any right claimed by the French Government in any part whatever of our Syrian country and refuse that she should assist us.”[107] Illustrating British contempt for the requirement under Article 22 that “the wishes of the communities must be a principle consideration in the selection of the mandatory;” Lord Balfour wrote

there are only three possible mandatories England, America, and France. Are we going ‘chiefly to consider the wishes of the inhabitants’ in deciding which of these is to be selected? We are going to do nothing of the kind. England has refused. America will refuse. So that, whatever the inhabitants may wish, it is France they will certainly have.[108]

Clearly, the mandate system was not created as a means to the ends articulated by Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter. Rather, it served as a domestic mediator between colonialists and the anti-imperialists who called for no annexations. Further, it provided a veil for imperial powers to practice a new form of colonial domination in an international community where notions of “self-determination,” began to take hold. Finally, it allowed Britain and France to control the resources, development and governance of the weaker societies on the pretext that they were helping to foster Arab independence, all while insuring continued imperial domination.



[1] In addition twenty-five percent of the oil profits from Mosul would be given to France.



[1] Donald Quataert. The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press,

2005), 56.

[2] James L Gelvin. The Modern Middle East: A History. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 175.

[3] Quataert, 60

[4] Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. (New York, NY: Random House, 2003), 400.

[5] Gelvin, 180-1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] MacMillan, 380

[10] Gelvin, 177

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C.M. Andrew and A.S. Kanya-Forstner. “The French Colonial Party and French Colonial War Aims, 1914-1918” The Historical Journal: Vol. 17, No. 1. (1974) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed, October 21, 2006), 80.

[15] Andrew, 81

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Andrew, 82

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Andrew, 83-4

[22] Andrew, 84

[23] Ralph H Magnus ed. Documents on the Middle East. (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1969), 12.

[24] Magnus, 14

[25] Magnus, 17

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Magnus, 18

[29] Magnus, 20

[30] Magnus, 22

[31] Andrew, 82-3

[32] Andrew, 83

[33] Andrew, 84

[34] Ibid.

[35] MacMillan, 383

[36] Ibid.

[37] Gelvin, 178

[38] Ibid.

[39] MacMillan, 383

[40] Andrew, 85

[41] Ibid.

[42] Andrew, 86

[43] Andrew, 85

[44] Ibid.

[45] MacMillan, 384

[46] Andrew, 85

[47] MacMillan, 383

[48] Andrew, 94

[49] Andrew, 92

[50] MacMillan, 382

[51] Andrew, 94

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] MacMillan, 416

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ernest B. Hass. “The Reconciliation of Conflicting Policy Aims: Acceptance of the League of Nations Mandate System.” International Organization> Vol. 6, No. 4 (1952): 521-536. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed October 1, 2006), 523.

[59] Hass, 522

[60] Ibid.

[61] Hass, 523

[62] Hass, 524

[63] Hass, 525

[64] A.J.P. Taylor The First World War: An Illustrated History. (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1972), 201.

[65] Taylor, 205

[66] Ibid.

[67] Arthur S. Link et al., eds.,The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 45(1984), 536. http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/51.htm (accessed October 21, 2006).

[68] Ibid.

[69] MacMillan, 386

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Hass, 526

[73] Andrew, 96

[74] Ibid.

[75] MacMillan, 385

[76] Ibid.

[77] Hass, 526-7

[78] Ibid.

[79] MacMillan, 385

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Andrew, 103

[83] Ibid.

[84] Andrew, 104

[85] MacMillan, 382

[86] Hass, 534

[87] Hass, 535-6

[88] MacMillan, 391

[89] MacMillan, 393

[90] MacMillan, 394

[91] Hass, 530

[92] MacMillan, 402

[93] MacMillan, 405

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid.

[96] MacMillan, 406

[97] MacMillan, 407

[98] Ibid.

[99] Ibid.

[100] MacMillan, 408

[101] Ibid.

[102] Gelvin, 180

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Gelvin, 181

[106] MacMillan, 406

[107] Gelvin, 216

[108] Wm. Roger. Louis “The United Kingdom and the Beginning of the Mandates System, 1919-1922.” International Organization: Vol. 23, No. 1 (1969): http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed October 1, 2006), 89.

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Last Updated: 11/19/14