6/2/1919 Emir Faisal seeks a promised kingdom

Britain has found itself in a bit of sticky wicket in the Middle East, where its contradictory promises to the French and the Arabs are now coming home to roost. Today the awkwardness is laid bare when Emir Faisal appears before the Paris Conference to advance the claims of his father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca (self-declared King of the Arabs). Faisal does not speak English, but he has the British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence to translate for him. Faisal is seeking the Arab kingdom promised to his father, a greater Syria that would stretch from the Anatolian border all the way down to the Arabian peninsula. This unfortunately clashes with French ambitions in the Middle East and the Sykes-Picot agreement on the region’s partition. The French have a particular attachment to the area around Mount Lebanon, where francophile Maronite Christians live, and are keen both to create a larger Lebanese entity under French control and to use this to expand into Syria proper.

As can be imagined, the French are hostile to Faisal’s presentation. Wilson is curiously indifferent. The British meanwhile are in an embarrassing position. They would like to support their Arab client, but they dare not risk a rupture with France. If they have to choose, then Faisal will be disappointed.

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Emir Faisal and his delegation. Lawrence is to his right. (Wikipedia: Faisal I of Iraq)

3/1/1919 Emir Faisal and Chaim Weizmann reach an agreement on Palestine

Britain encouraged the Sharif Hussein of Mecca to revolt against the Turks by promising to establish to create an Arab kingdom out of Turkish Syria (the region between Anatolia and the Arabian peninsula). However the British later declared in favour of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, partly to appeal to Jewish opinion in Britain and the United States. These promises are not entirely consistent with each other (or indeed with other arrangements Britain has reached with France). Now Chaim Weizmann, a leading British Zionist, meets in London with Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussain, to see if some kind of accommodation can be reached between then.

Weizmann and Faisal do indeed reach an agreement, signing a document in English (translated for Faisal by T.E. Lawrence, his British advisor). They commit to supporting Jewish immigration into Palestine while acknowledging the rights of Arabs living there and leaving the Muslim Holy Places in Jerusalem under Muslim control. Boundaries between Jewish Palestine and the future Arab state will be demarcated by a commission, while the Zionists commit to advancing the economic development of Arabs living in their area.

Faisal adds one slight addendum in Arabic, affirming that the agreement will be null and void in the event that the promised Arab state fails to be established.


Faisal and Weizmann at a previous meeting (Wikipedia: the Faisal–Weizmann Agreement)

Faisal & Weizmann’s signatures and Faisal’s caveat (Wikipedia: the Faisal–Weizmann Agreement)

3/10/1918 Allenby lays down the law to Faisal

The people of Damascus are still celebrating their deliverance from Turkish rule, though incidents of looting carried out by Bedouin followers of the Arab army may have dampened the mood somewhat. Now Emir Faisal arrives, intent on staking his father’s claim to the city as capital of the Arab kingdom promised by the British. After riding triumphantly into the city on horseback, he meets Allenby in the Victoria Hotel. The two have not met previously. It is not a meeting of equals, Allenby disabusing Faisal of any notions he might have developed. Faisal is informed that the Balfour Declaration means that Palestine is outside his father’s domain, while Lebanon will be coming under French control in line with the Sykes-Picot agreement. The flag of Sharif Hussein, Faisal’s father, can continue to fly in Damascus, but so long as the war continues all formerly Turkish territory will be effectively under British military control.

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Emir Faisal and General Allenby (Syrian History)

1/10/1918 The fall of Damascus #1918Live

The success of Allenby‘s offensive against the Turks has led to a collapse of their position in Palestine and Syria. Having cleared the Turks out of northern Palestine and seized the Transjordan town of Amman, British and Commonwealth forces are pressing on towards Damascus, the centre of Turkish power in the Levant. Also racing towards Damascus are Arab followers of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, self-declared King of the Arabs; these men are a mix of regular troops and Bedouin tribesmen who have attached themselves to the cause of the Arab Revolt. Hussein himself is an old man and has remained in southern Arabia, but his son Faisal is with the Arab army.

Sharif Hussein hopes to establish an Arab kingdom with Damascus as its capital; he knows that in the Sykes-Picot agreement the British have promised Syria to the French, but he hopes that if his followers can establish themselves in Damascus then facts on the ground will trump past agreements. Travelling with Faisal is the British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence, who is personally supportive of Arab ambitions versus those of the French.

In the end the first Allied troops to reach Damascus are a party of Australian cavalrymen who find that the Turks have abandoned the city. The leading citizens of Damascus have already taken down all Turkish flags and replaced them with emblems of Sharif Hussein. The British decide to hush up news of the Australians’ being the first into Damascus. For now the ambitions of Sharif Hussein and his son must be pandered to, so the British prepare for Faisal’s men to make a grand triumphant entrance to the city at which they will they formally receive the surrender of Damascus from the local notables.

19/5/1917 Faisal sends his agents north into Syria

Thanks to a steady inflow of British arms and money the Arab Revolt is now pretty secure in its dominance of the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. The Turks still have a garrison in place in Medina but it is unable to contest control of the region with the rebels. British aeroplanes are bombing the railway line to Medina, keeping the Turks there too undersupplied to bother the Arabs.

To the discomfiture of his British patrons, Emir Hussein of Mecca has declared himself King of the Arabs. Now his son Faisal prepares to extend his father’s writ north into Syria. He sends his cousin Nasir ibn Ali and other trusted associates to reconnoitre the region. They are to make contact with the rural tribesmen and also with the Arab nationalists in Damascus.

Travelling with Faisal’s men is British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, who has been liaising between Faisal and the British in Cairo. Lawrence has become sympathetic to the Arab cause. By now Lawrence is aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East between them. Lawrence dislikes the French and hopes to assist Faisal in staking a claim to Syria before the French are able to establish themselves there.

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T.E. Lawrence (Wikipedia)

30/3/1917 Faisal eyes up Syria

The revolt in western Arabia has taken over much of the Hejaz region. British aid is flowing in through coastal ports. Emir Faisal is now trying to turn his tribal host into something approximating to a modern army. He has recruited Arab officers captured as prisoners of war from the Turks to provide the nucleus of an officer corps for his army. Many of these are natives of Mesopotamia and had a prior involvement in secret Arab nationalist organisations.

The Turks retain one outpost in the Hejaz, the city of Medina. Fahreddin Pasha holds this for the Ottoman Empire and is determined not to abandon it. His garrison is too strong for the rebels to attack him there. While they have attacked the railroad to Medina, the rebels have not been able to completely sever Fahreddin’s supply lines.

With Medina unassailable, Feisal now begins to think of expanding his operations elsewhere. Perhaps the time has come for the rebels to start moving northwards into Syria.

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Arab troops (Wikipedia)

The Medina railroad (Wikipedia)

23/1/1917 The fall of Wajh and the advance of the Arab Revolt

Britain is supplying the Arab rebels through the Red Sea port of Yanbu. However the sea route there from Suez is long. If the rebels were to establish themselves in the port of Wajh, further north, it would be much easier to supply them. Wajh is also well situated to launch further attacks on the railway line to Medina, where a strong Turkish force remains in place.

The rebels and the British decide to launch a combined attack on Wajh. Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, rebel leader and self-styled King of the Arabs, will attack by land. The British navy supports his advance by placing water tanks south of the town to slake the thirst of Faisal’s army. The British will also land a small force of Arabs and British marines to the north of Wajh, to block any Turkish reinforcements.

Today is the agreed date for the attack on Wajh. The British ships arrive and land their men to the north of the town. There is no sign of Faisal, but the small advance party of rebels attack the town anyway. The Arabs are lucky: most of the Turkish garrison has already been withdrawn. Those that remain either surrender or retreat into the town’s mosque and fort, but they are soon dislodged by British naval artillery. Wajh is now in rebel hands.

And where is Faisal? The emir has been using his march to impress tribal leaders with the size of his army, thereby encouraging them to join his rebellion. When news of Wajh’s fall begins to circulate, the tribesmen flock to offer Faisal their allegiance.