Review: A Line In The Sand

France and Britain clashing in a Middle Eastern arena

By Geoffrey Paul, September 12, 2011
Syria's Hafez Assad and France's Jacques Chirac in 1998

Syria's Hafez Assad and France's Jacques Chirac in 1998

By James Barr
Simon & Schuster, £25

Amazon lists more than 50 books on the modern Middle East. Do we need another? For sure even those only moderately familiar with the history of the region will know of the machinations before and after the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arab uprisings, British military victories and defeats (T E Lawrence, of course) plus imperial double-dealing on all sides, especially conflicting promises made to Arabs, Jews and allies.

It is all here. There seems scarce a relevant document, newspaper cutting, memoir or history book not filleted by author James Barr for some unknown or little-known detail to pack around the well-picked bones of the oft-told story. What makes this one different and provides its raison d'etre is that at its heart lies a tale of how perfidious Albion and duplicitous France sought to outwit each other while engaged in carving up the Ottoman Empire.

The book's title refers to that line (using topological licence) drawn in the sand by British politician and adviser, Sir Mark Sykes, and French diplomat, Françoise Georges-Picot - from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk - in their secret 1916 pact to split the territory to be wrested from the Turks into two separate domains of control and interest.

The French were to get Syria, from which they carved out Lebanon, the British that area within which they were to create Trans-Jordan and Iraq and, virtually, seize for themselves the territory known as Palestine, though they managed, against French opposition, to achieve the respectability of a League of Nations mandate to govern it.

It is their often clashing imperial ambitions, subterfuge, and even downright acts of hostility, they used against each other that is the major theme running through this book.

Barr suggests that the climax of the struggle between the two, which lasted right up to the establishment of Israel in 1948, was French support (at what level is not clear) for acts of Jewish terrorism against the British.

His most striking piece of evidence came from a report written in 1945 by an MI5 officer and never before published (and not sourced here). It was at the time when the Yishuv was struggling to get the first pitiful remnants of the concentration camps into Palestine, and Britain was resisting both Jewish and Arab unrest with tough, even brutal, measures.

Barr quotes the MI5 man as reporting, from top-secret sources, that it was known that "French officials in the Levant have been clandestinely selling arms to the Hagana and we have received recent reports of their intention to stir up strife in Palestine."

Barr, a newspaperman by profession, adds his own gloss to this suggestion: "In other words, while the British were fighting and dying to liberate France, their supposed allies the French were secretly backing Jewish efforts to kill British soldiers and officials in Palestine."

A shame, this; Barr could have left the reader to draw his own conclusions rather than include the comment in his prologue and thus draw a darkling suspicion of having written this often fascinating narrative to suit a preconceived outline. It inevitably colours what follows.

Geoffrey D Paul is a former editor of the JC

Last updated: 11:32am, September 12 2011