A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin
Britain took Baghdad in March 1917. That was the easy part. Everything that followed was the hard part. Just like the US in more recent history. That this region (along with central, Southeast and East Asia) has been of continuous interest for the Anglo-empire is not coincidence; that the result of each invasion is quite similar is also not coincidence.
I am going to take the lazy way through this post; I will allow Fromkin to do the talking; I will leave it to you, the reader, to make the connections.
Major-General Stanley Maude led his Anglo-Indian Army of the Tigris forward into the Mesopotamian provinces in December 1916, and in a methodical campaign captured Baghdad on 11 March 1917.
[The proclamation] pointed, however vaguely, toward an Arab Middle Eastern confederation under the leadership of King Hussein – a Sunni Moslem, although most of the inhabitants of the provinces of Basra and Baghdad were Shi’ite, and the differences between the Sunnis and Shi’ites were profound and more than a thousand years old.
Sir Percy Cox raised the same issues in a different way when he asked who the Arab leader of Baghdad was going to be…It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces.
The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces, and the commercial predominance of the Jewish community in the city of Baghdad made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.
The compromise formula at which the British had arrived might have been expressly designed to arouse dissatisfaction and unrest: having volunteered what sounded like a pledge of independence to an area that had not asked for it, the military and civil authorities of the occupying power then proceeded to withhold it.
It was an inauspicious beginning and suggested the extent to which the British government did not know what it was getting into when it decided to supersede the Ottoman Empire in Asia.
Although Clayton had been the first to make much of the Arab secret societies, even before the outbreak of the Ottoman war, he consistently ignored what they told him: they did not want to be ruled by Christians or Europeans – not even the British.
Having converted from anti-Arab , anti-Jew, anti-Armenian to pro-Arab, pro-Jew, pro-Armenian, [Sykes] knew no way but one to keep faith with his new friends – with a whole heart.
“It is an attempt to change in a few weeks the traditional sentiment of centuries.”
She concluded that no one in Baghdad or Basra could conceive of an independent Arab government…This was a far cry from the proclamation drafted by Sir Mark Sykes on the liberation of Baghdad…
…Lord Kitchener asking, “Wahhabism, does that still exist?” and Sykes answering, “I think it is a dying fire.”
By the autumn of 1918, the armies commanded by Hussein’s sons were reckoned by British sources to total only a few thousand trained troops. In public the British claimed that vast numbers of Arabs had flocked to the standard of the Hejazi princes; in private they had a different story to tell…his following was estimated at only 1,000 regulars, 2,500 irregulars, and possibly several thousand more from Bedouin tribes, and their fighting qualities were rated as “poor.”
“At the same time it must be said that 90% of the Sherif’s troops are nothing more than robbers…”
Clayton’s endeavors, beginning in 1914, to arrive at an understanding with separatist leaders from Baghdad and Damascus had foundered on their objection to being ruled by non-Moslems….That Feisal had agreed to the Allied program might carry no weight with them.
[Sykes’] concern was that Syrians might not accept the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the terms outlined by Sir Henry McMahon to the Sherif Hussein.
Toward the end of 1917 Sykes cabled Clayton: “I am anxious about Arab movement. Letters indicate difficulty of combining Meccan Patriarchalism with Syrian Urban intelligentsia.”
[Clayton] replied to Sykes that “There is no doubt a very real fear amongst Syrians of finding themselves under a Government in which patriarchalism of Mecca is predominant.
Britain was neglecting the Arab secret societies.