James Barr is interested in uncovering Middle Eastern political intrigues. Like many of his favourite characters such as Picot, Sykes or Churchill, he has travelled many times in the region and developed an acute fascination for its’ contemporary history. More particularly he keeps a straight focus on how the foreign powers’ influenced and shaped the area. His first book published in 2006, Setting the Desert on Fire, told the story of T.E. Lawrence and his British backed up expedition that started in 1916 to gather the Arab tribes in the Gulf and march up to Damascus in the hopes of creating a wide Arab nation. Through this first publication James Barr proved a talent for describing diplomatic machinations with much detail and punch.
In A line in the Sand, he writes the story Franco-British rivalries over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He chose to explore the period that runs from the First World War until the creation of the state of Israel, in 1948. He tries to show although they were technically allied powers, competition and suspicion always prevailed in their attitude towards the Middle Eastern questions. Caring very little about the Arabs, the Jews or the stability of the region; they were actually battling insidiously to secure their own interests, thus planting the seeds for the sometimes-chaotic situations we face today, "What makes this venomous rivalry between Britain and France so important is that it fuelled today’s Arab-Israeli conflict" (p.4). James Barr takes on a factual political approach to unveil every little detail of the conspiracies that forged today’s Middle East.
Although this topic has been covered many times by historians, politicians and journalists, James Barr’s input is what the author Patrick Seale identified in his review of the book as "spice". It took four years of research to give birth to that book. Four years during which James Barr crossed piles of primary and secondary sources. With a lot of work done in Britain he also travelled to dig into France’s military and diplomatic archives, to Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the world. Finally he received the help and support of preeminent personalities such as Henry Laurens or the descendents of François Georges Picot.
As a result A Line in the Sand is a very detailed and precise account of about half a century of diplomatic tensions and hypocrisy. With a witty use of quotations, Barr manages to portrait the main political figures of the time with humour (Sykes describes Gertrude Bell as " a silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass” p. 9), which emphasises, as Michael Pye put it in his review, the "tension between policy and action’’.
Three designs over one nap
The book divides into four parts that follow the strict chronology of the events. The first part named "The Carve up 1915 – 1919" describes how the French and British interests in the region first entangled. During the First World War, France and Britain were allied under the Entente, their first goal was to defeat the common enemy: the Ottoman Empire. Once this was done, they were to divide its remains between themselves.
The British interests in the region at that time were very "practical". They wanted to keep the Suez Canal safe for the route to India and pump oil. Since in 1912, Churchill had decided, as Lord of Admiralty, to have the Royal Navy float with oil instead of coal. They therefore needed to control the east banks of the Red Sea and what would become Transjordan and Iraq. The French interests followed the French interpretation of an empire whereby the colonies tend to become an extension of France itself through acculturation. They wished to preserve the close ties they had with the Christians in the Levant (mainly Lebanon) and the cultural influence they had been spreading since the crusades in Syria. They also had a few commercial interests (like the silk industry p.22) and had invested much in the infrastructure of that region.
An arrangement between the young British Mark Sykes and the French François Georges Picot was hereby concluded: "Sykes sliced his finger across the map that lay before them on the table “I should like to draw a line from the "e" in Acre to the last "k’ in Kirkuk" he said" (p.12). North of that line would go to France, south would go to Britain and "the Holy land" should be put under international control.
However the United State’s doctrine of "self determination" was going very much against that and neither the French nor the British has the military power to fight off the Turks since they were already very busy fighting the Germans in Europe.
Two alternative plans therefore emerged. In a letter between McMahon and the Sheikh Hussein, the British promised the Arabs that if they could put down the Ottoman Empire, they could then build an Arab nation for themselves. T. E Lawrence and Hussein’s son Faisal led that Arab uprising against the Turks.
The last plan was what we now know as Balfour’s promise. Neither the British nor the French were happy with the idea that Palestine should go under international rule, to overcome this without causing US complaints, the British came up with the idea to support a Zionist emigration movement towards Palestine. It went along the lines of "self determination" and assured British control over the area.
All three plans were put into action simultaneously: According to a British head of military intelligence "It seems to me (…) that we are rather in the position of the hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it" (p. 32). As each one carried out his design, Faisal and Lawrence captured Damascus, Jews moved to Palestine, and the Entente beat Germany. When the time came to settle things at peace conferences, France struggled but received Lebanon / Syria, while the British took Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq.
The Arabs, although they had fought to liberate their land, were not given the nation they were promised. As the British concluded “we may have (had) to sell our small friends to pay for or big friends” (p.63).
"From the very day after the Armistice I found you an enemy of France" the French prime minister accused Lloyd Georges. "Well", his British counterpart volleyed "was it not always our traditional policy?" (p. 78).
Indeed the after war years led to even more back stabbing on both parts. The French had a lot of difficulties getting settled in Syria because nationalist movements had spread in hopes of reviving the promised Arab Nation and had even established a short lived government which Faisal headed. They received no help from the British, who quite on the contrary decided to back up a violent Druze revolt in order to undermine the French.
Bloody revolts in Iraq against the British rule led to the "election" of Faisal (who had recently been evicted from Syria by the French) as head of Iraq. It was according to Churchill "the best and cheapest solution" (p. 122) since the British could not afford to lose the prospected oil fields located in the northern parts of the country. The French were furious as they thought Faisal’s reign would stir even more nationalist revolts in Syria.
Tensions escalated as oil was finally found in north Iraq. A huge argument started around over whose territory the pipeline was going to run. The settlement of the dispute ended in favour of the British who had argued that exporting the oil from Haifa (in Palestine) would be more secure than getting it from Syria or Lebanon which were extremely unstable territories (the instability was however as the French suspected party fuelled by the British themselves). James Barr closes his second part by showing how after that, the French started instrumentalising the growing tensions between the Arabs and the Jewish immigrants in Palestine. The 1930’s saw the beginning of guerrilla / terrorist attacks from Arabs on Jews and vice versa.
From Second World War struggles to the creation of Israel
The two last parts of the book describe how the Second World War and the following years schemed present day Middle East.
The Second World War repeated the situation already experienced in WW1 whereby France and Britain allied against the common German enemy only this time, France was under occupation and the Middle Eastern affairs were dealt with by the pro-nazi Vichy Government. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine were thus plunged into theatrical struggle scenarios between Britain, the Free French (de Gaulle) and Vichy France. As the plot implied that the Free French and Britain sided together against Vichy to secure their interests, the old Franco-British rivalries carried on and personality conflicts emerge. De Gaulle, who acted often as a “king in exile” (p.201) highly irritated the British when he advocated French pride. A deep crisis in Lebanon forced the French to allow for independence in 1943 and to promise the same to Syria. The British played a large role in evicting France. As a last attempt to maintain its position in Syria, France severely bombarded Damascus. The cruelty of the attack made the Syrian President al Quwatli declare, "This generation of Syrians (…) will not tolerate seeing one Frenchman walk through the streets of Damascus" (p.306). The French were forced to grant Syria independence in 1946.
Meanwhile the tensions escalated in Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews as the Jewish immigration was accelerating. To calm the situation, the British imposed restrictions on the number of migrants. As a result, claim started for an independent Jewish state. Violence carried on and it seems that the French were rather encouraging it; they might even have backed it up. James Barr argues that Zionist groups like the Stern Gang received weapons and finances from France who wanted to destabilise Palestine as much as possible to force the British into a difficult position. The reason behind all this? Revenge. "It was the French who played a vital part in the creation of the state of Israel, by helping the Jews organise the large-scale immigration and devastating terrorism that finally engulfed the bankrupt British mandate in 1948".
After Second World War ended and the horrors of the holocaust were made public, "the Zionists were quick to advocate that they should be allowed to live in Palestine". Their demand was backed up by the United States. Shortly the British were forced to leave their territories in the Middle East and Israel was created in 1948.
Barr James, A Line in the Sand – Britain, France and the Struggle for the Mastery of the Middle East, London, Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Press reviews :
Seale Patrick, “How Britain and France redrew the map of the Middle East to satisfy their own interests”, Financial Times, 26/08/2011.
Pye Michael, “Book reviews: Empire of Sand: How Britain Shaped the Middle East by Walter Reid | A Line in the Sand by James Barr“ The Scotsman, 17/09/2011.