Toward the end of WWI, as the Ottoman Empire’s collapse seemed imminent, French and British imperial designs turned to the Mideast. The two war allies arrived at a simple solution: the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement (later supported by the League of Nations), which gave France control of Lebanon and Syria, while the British received Palestine and Transjordan. Between them, the two divided much of Mesopotamia. But during the next three decades, things got more complex. The British endorsed Zionist ambitions in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration; oil was discovered in southern Iraq; and Arab nationalism led to revolts against both France and Britain during the 1920s and ’30s. British historian Barr (Setting the Desert on Fire) shows how the French and British tried to extend their influence, and undermine each other, in part by ingratiating themselves with various Arab and Jewish leaders and factions. Near the end of WWII, Britain’s Lord Moyne favored a “greater Syria” that would comprise Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Palestine. Conversely, after the war ended, members of the French government facilitated arms shipments to factions of the anti-British Zionist revolt. Barr’s extensive archival research, evocative historical vignettes, and a superb sense of narrative pacing produce a first-rate work. (Jan.)
A British historian methodically traces the pernicious ramifications of the French-British rivalry in Syria and Lebanon after World War I. Barr (Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918, 2008) carefully places the fragments of the Middle East puzzle together after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from the divisive, arbitrary British-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to the Zionists' use of terrorism to oust the British and establish the state of Israel in 1948. Reluctant allies against the Germans, the British and French had to divide the Ottoman spoils, and the agreement essentially "drew a line in the sand" from Acre to Kirkuk, the north falling under French protection and the south to the British. Both sides ignored the incipient rise of Arab nationalism, except when Sharif Hussein's revolt of June 1916 promised the British a way of undermining French influence in the region, with T.E. Lawrence being a convenient tool of organizing the Arabs. Meanwhile, the British were quietly promising the Zionists a homeland in Palestine as a way of courting the Americans. Britain's need for oil prompted a tidy exchange with the French: oil-rich Mosul and Jerusalem for the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine. Self-determination vaguely promised to the Arabs by the victorious powers at the close of WWI would only arrive after revolt against both British and French rulers, all while the Jewish emigration aroused the ire of the Palestinian Arabs. Barr sure-footedly wades through this political morass, noting some startling developments, such as Charles de Gaulle and the Free French's brazen tenacity in holding on to Syria and Lebanon, and French assistance in arming the Zionist terrorists against the British. A carefully constructed chronicle of a shameful imperialist carve-up.
An outstanding, revealing, and disturbing glimpse behind the closed doors of power politics.
Lively and entertaining. . . . [Barr] has thrown some light on hitherto unexplored corners.
Combines the narrative pace of a spy novel with meticulous archival research.