A century after Sykes-Picot

Eugene Rogan writes: The British wartime alliance with the sharif of Mecca would be concluded after months of increasingly anxious negotiations, with both sides driven by wartime fears. Sharif Hussein had reason to believe the Young Turks sought his overthrow. Moreover, to realize his ambitious goal of carving an independent Arab kingdom from Ottoman domains, he needed Great Power support. The British feared their recent string of defeats to the Ottomans would encourage colonial Muslims to rebel against the Entente Powers. War planners in Cairo and Whitehall hoped that an alliance with the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines would neutralize the appeal of the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s jihad at a moment when Britain’s military credibility was at its lowest point since the start of the war.

On the eve of the Arab Revolt, the Anglo-Hashemite alliance offered far less than both sides originally believed they were securing on first entering into negotiations. The British were not the invincible power they had appeared to be in early 1915 when first setting off to conquer Constantinople. The Germans had inflicted terrible casualties on the British on the western front, and even the Ottomans had dealt them humiliating defeats. Sharif Hussein and his sons had every reason to question their choice of ally.

Yet the Hashemites were in no position to bargain. All through their correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, Sharif Hussein and his sons had presented themselves as leaders of a pan-Arab movement. By May 1916 it was apparent that there would be no broader revolt in Syria and Iraq. The most the sharifs could do was challenge Ottoman rule in the Hijaz. Success depended on their ability to mobilize the notoriously undisciplined Bedouin to their cause.

Arguably, the alliance survived because the Hashemites and the British needed each other more in the summer of 1916 than ever. Sharif Hussein had strained relations with the Young Turks to the breaking point; he knew they would seize the first opportunity to dismiss—even murder—him and his sons. The British needed the sharif’s religious authority to undermine the Ottoman jihad, which officials in Cairo and Whitehall feared recent Turkish victories had strengthened. Whatever the results of a Hashemite-led revolt, the movement would at least weaken the Ottoman war effort and force the Turks to divert troops and resources to restore order in the Hijaz and possibly in other Arab provinces. For their own reasons, both the British and the Hashemites were in a hurry to launch the revolt. [Continue reading…]

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