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24th October

McMahon-Hussein Correspondence

The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence was a protracted exchange of letters (July 14, 1915 to January 30, 1916) during World War I, between the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, concerning the future political status of the Arab lands under the Ottoman Empire. The Arab side was already looking toward a revolt against the Ottoman Empire and the British encouraged the Arabs to revolt and thus hamper the Ottoman Empire, which had become a German ally in the War after November 1914.

Origins and ramifications

The Damascus Protocol

On his return journey from Istanbul in 1914, where he had confronted the Grand Vizier with evidence of an Ottoman plot to depose his father, Faisal bin Hussein visited Damascus to resume talks with the Arab secret societies al-Fatat and Al-'Ahd that he had met in March/April. On this occasion Faisal joined their revolutionary movement. It was during this visit that he was presented with the document that became known as the 'Damascus Protocol'. The document declared that the Arabs would revolt in alliance with Great Britain in return for recognition of Arab independence in an area running from the 37th parallel near the Taurus Mountains on the southern border of Turkey, to be bounded in the east by Persia and the Persian Gulf, in the west by the Mediterranean Sea and in the south by the Arabian Sea.

Early in April 1914 Abdullah asked the British High Commissioner in Cairo, what would be the British attitude if the Arab Ottomans revolted. The British response, based on its traditional policy of preserving "the integrity of the Ottoman Empire" was negative. However, the entry of the Ottomans on Germany's side in World War I on November 11, 1914, brought about an abrupt shift in British political interests concerning an Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

Following deliberations at Ta'if between Hussein and his sons in June 1915, during which Faisal counselled caution, Ali argued against rebellion and Abdullah advocated action, the Sharif set a tentative date for armed revolt for June 1916 and commenced negotiations with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.

The letter from McMahon to Hussein dated 24 October 1915 is key. It stated on behalf of the Government of Great Britain that:

The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation. Subject to that modification, and without prejudice to the treaties concluded between us and certain Arab Chiefs, we accept that delimitation. As for the regions lying within the proposed frontiers, in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to interests of her ally France, I am authorized to give you the following pledges on behalf of the Government of Great Britain, and to reply as follows to your note: That subject to the modifications stated above, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca.

The Arab Revolt

McMahon's promises were seen by the Arabs as a formal agreement between them and Great Britain. Lloyd George and Aurthur Balfour represented the agreement as a treaty during the post war deliberations of the Council of Four On this understanding the Arabs established a military force under the command of Hussein's son Faisal which fought, with inspiration from 'Lawrence of Arabia', against the Ottoman Empire during the Arab Revolt. In an intelligence memo written in January 1916 Lawrence described the Arab Revolt as
beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic 'bloc' and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [Sharif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be … harmless to ourselves … The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion (emphasis in original).
The Arab Revolt began in June 1916, when an Arab army of around 70,000 men moved against Ottoman forces. They captured Aqabah and cut the Hejaz railway, a vital strategic link through the Arab peninsula which ran from Damascus to Medina. This enabled the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Allenby to advance into the Ottoman territories of Palestine and Syria.

The British advance culminated in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918 and the capitulation of Turkey on 31 October, 1918.

The Hogarth Message

In January 1918 Commander David Hogarth, head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was dispatched to Jeddah to deliver a letter written by Sir Mark Sykes on behalf of the British Government to Hussein (now King of Hejaz). The message assured Hussein that
The Entente Powers are determined that the Arab race shall be given full opportunity of once again forming a nation in the world. This can only be achieved by the Arabs themselves uniting, and Great Britain and her Allies will pursue a policy with this ultimate unity in view.
and with respect to Palestine and in the light of the Balfour Declaration that
Since the Jewish opinion of the world is in favour of a return of Jews to Palestine and inasmuch as this opinion must remain a constant factor, and further as His Majesty's Government view with favour the realisation of this aspiration, His Majesty's Government are determined that insofar as is compatible with the freedom of the existing population both economic and political, no obstacle should be put in the way of the realisation of this ideal.
The meaning of the Hogarth message, and in particular whether it modified the commitments made in the Balfour Declaration is still debated, although Hogarth reported that Hussein "would not accept an independent Jewish State in Palestine, nor was I instructed to warn him that such a state was contemplated by Great Britain".

The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement did not call for Arab sovereignty, but the French and British agreement did call for 'suzerainty of an Arab chief' and 'an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other allies, and the representatives of the sheriff of mecca. Under the terms of that agreement, the Zionist Organization needed to secure an agreement along the lines of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement with the Sharif of Mecca.

Declaration to the Seven

In the wake of the Balfour Declaration and the publication by the Bolsheviks of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement seven Syrian notables in Cairo who were members of the newly-formed Party of Syrian Unity issued a memorandum requesting from the British Government a "guarantee of the ultimate independence of Arabia". The Declaration to the Seven issued on 16 June, 1918 in response stated the British policy that the future government of the regions of the Ottoman Empire occupied by Allied forces in World War I should be based on the consent of the governed.

Allenby's assurance to Faisal

On 19 October 1918, General Allenby reported to the British Government that he had given Faisal,
official assurance that whatever measures might be taken during the period of military administration they were purely provisional and could not be allowed to prejudice the final settlement by the peace conference, at which no doubt the Arabs would have a representative. I added that the instructions to the military governors would preclude their mixing in political affairs, and that I should remove them if I found any of them contravening these orders. I reminded the Amir Faisal that the Allies were in honour bound to endeavour to reach a settlement in accordance with the wishes of the peoples concerned and urged him to place his trust whole-heartedly in their good faith.

Anglo-French Declaration of 1918

In the Anglo-French Declaration of 7 November 1918 the two governments stated that

The object aimed at by France and Great Britain in prosecuting in the East the War let loose by the ambition of Germany is the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.
According to civil servant Eyre Crowe who saw the original draft of the Declaration, "we had issued a definite statement against annexation in order (1) to quiet the Arabs and (2) to prevent the French annexing any part of Syria".

British Cabinet Eastern Committee

Years later, historians and scholars searching through the declassified files in the National Archives discovered evidence that Palestine had been pledged to Hussein. The Eastern Committee of the Cabinet, previously known as the Middle Eastern Committee, had met on 5 December 1918 to discuss the government's commitments regarding Palestine. Lord Curzon chaired the meeting. General Jan Smuts, Lord Balfour, Lord Robert Cecil, General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and representatives of the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty, the Wax Office, and the Treasury were present. T. E. Lawrence also attended. According to the minutes Lord Curzon explained:

"The Palestine position is this. If we deal with our commitments, there is first the general pledge to Hussein in October 1915, under which Palestine was included in the areas as to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future . . . Great Britain and France - Italy subsequently agreeing - committed themselves to an international administration of Palestine in consultation with Russia, who was an ally at that time . . . A new feature was brought into the case in November 1917, when Mr Balfour, with the authority of the War Cabinet, issued his famous declaration to the Zionists that Palestine 'should be the national home of the Jewish people, but that nothing should be done - and this, of course, was a most important proviso - to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Those, as far as I know, are the only actual engagements into which we entered with regard to Palestine.

Following World War I

During the war, thousands of proclamations were dropped in all parts of Palestine, which carried a message from the Sharif Hussein on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect 'that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs.'

It was a well known fact that France wanted a Syrian protectorate. At the Peace Conference in 1919, Prince Faisal, speaking on behalf of King Hussein, did not ask for immediate Arab independence. He recommended an Arab State under a British Mandate.

The Council of Four

The British Notes from the Council of Four Conference Held in the Prime Minister's Flat at 23 Rue Nitot, Paris, on Thursday, March 20, 1919, at 3 p.m indicated that Lloyd George considered the McMahon-Hussein Agreement a treaty, and that it had been the basis for the 1916 Sykes-Pichot Agreement. Lord Balfour was also present.

The notes revealed that:

  • '[T]he blue area in which France was "allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they may desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab State or Confederation of Arab States" did not include Damascus, Homs, Hama, or Aleppo. In area A. France had been "prepared to recognize and uphold an independent Arab State or Confederation of Arab States'.
  • Since the Sykes-Pichot Agreement of 1916, the whole mandatory system had been adopted. If a mandate were granted by the League of Nations over these territories, all that France asked was that France should have that part put aside for her.
  • Lloyd George said that he could not do that. The League of Nations could not be used for putting aside our bargain with King Hussein. He asked if M. Pichon intended to occupy Damascus with French troops? If he did, it would clearly be a violation of the Treaty with the Arabs. M. Pichon said that France had no convention with King Hussein. Lloyd George said that the whole of the agreement of 1916 (Sykes-Picot), was based on a letter from Sir Henry McMahon' to King Hussein.
  • Lloyd George, continuing, said that it was on the basis of the above quoted letter that King Hussein had put all his resources into the field which had helped us most materially to win the victory. France had for practical purposes accepted our undertaking to King Hussein in signing the 1916 agreement. This had not been M. Pichon, but his predecessors. He was bound to say that if the British Government now agreed that Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo should be included in the sphere of direct French influence, they would be breaking faith with the Arabs, and they could not face this.

Lloyd George was particularly anxious for M. Clemenceau to follow this. The agreement of 1916 had been signed subsequent to the letter to King Hussein. In the following extract from the agreement of 1916 France recognised Arab independence: "It is accordingly understood between the French and British Governments.-(1) That France and Great Britain are prepared to recognise and uphold an independent Arab State or Confederation of Arab States in the areas A. and B. marked on the annexed map under the suzerainty of an Arab Chief." Hence France, by this act, practically recognized our agreement with King Hussein by excluding Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo from the blue zone of direct administration, for the map attached to the agreement showed that Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo were included, not in the zone of direct administration, but in the independent Arab State. M. Pichon said that this had never been contested, but how could France be bound by an agreement the very existence of which was unknown to her at the time when the 1916 agreement was signed? In the 1916 agreement France had not in any way recognised the Hedjaz. She had undertaken to uphold "an independent Arab State or Confederation of Arab States", but not the King of the Hedjaz. If France was promised a mandate for Syria, she would undertake to do nothing except in agreement with the Arab State or Confederation of States. This is the role which France demanded in Syria. If Great Britain would only promise her good offices, he believed that France could reach an understanding with Feisal.'

The Zionist Organization also asked for a British mandate, and asserted the 'historic title of the Jewish people to Palestine'.

A Confidential Appendix to the report of the King-Crane Commission observed that 'The Jews are distinctly for Britain as mandatory power, because of the Balfour declaration' and that the French 'resent the payment by the English to the Emir Feisal of a large monthly subsidy, which they claim covers a multitude of bribes, and enables the British to stand off and show clean hands while Arab agents do dirty work in their interest.' The Faisal-Weizmann Agreement called for British mediation of any disputes. It also called for the establishment of borders, after the Peace Conference, along the lines of a map the Zionist Organization had submitted at Versailles. The area east of the Hedjaz Railway, including most of Transjordan, was not included in the territory that the Zionists had originally requested for the establishment of the Jewish National Home. see facsimile of the Zionist Map, at the mideastweb

The Zionist Organization's claim of title and their request for a strictly British mandate undermined the plans of the French and Italian delegations. They had aimed to establish their own control over Palestine under the justification of the pre-War Protectorate and the Holy See and the French Religious Protectorate of Jerusalem.

Independent Kingdom of Syria

On 6 January 1920 Prince Faisal initialed an agreement with French Prime Minister Clemenceau which acknowledged 'the right of the Syrians to unite to govern themselves as an independent nation'. A Pan-Syrian Congress, meeting in Damascus, declared an independent state of Syria on the 8th of March 1920. The new state included portions of Syria, Palestine, and northern Mesopotamia which had been set aside under the Sykes-Picot Agreement for an independent Arab state, or confederation of states. King Faisal was declared the head of State. The San Remo conference was hastily convened, and Great Britain and France both agreed to recognize the provisional independence of Syria and Mesopotamia, while 'reluctantly' claiming mandates to assist in their administration. Provisional recognition of Palestinian independence was not mentioned, despite the fact that it was designated a Class A Mandate.

France had decided to govern Syria directly, and took action to enforce the French Mandate of Syria before the terms had been accepted by the Council of the League of Nations. The French intervened militarily at the Battle of Maysalun in June 1920. They deposed the indigenous Arab government, and removed King Faisal from Damascus in August of 1920. Great Britain also appointed a High Commissioner and established their own mandatory regime in Palestine, without first obtaining approval from the Council of the League of Nations.

The League of Nations Mandates

The Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain, France and Russia of May 1916 (made public by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution) pre-dated the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate system. After the war, France and Britain continued to provide assurances of Arab independence, while planning to place the entire region under their own administration.

United States Secretary of State Robert Lansing was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris in 1919. He explained that the system of mandates was simply a device created by the Great Powers to conceal their division of the spoils of war, under the color of international law. If the territories had been ceded directly, the value of the former German and Ottoman territories would have been applied to offset the Allies claims for war reparations. He also explained that Jan Smuts had been the author of the original concept.

At the Paris Peace Conference, US Secretary of State Lansing had asked Dr. Weizmann if the Jewish national home meant the establishment of an autonomous Jewish government? The head of the Zionist delegation had replied in the negative.

Lawrence's post-war advocacy

Lawrence became increasingly guilt-ridden by the knowledge that Britain did not intend to abide by the commitments made to the Sharif, but still managed to convince Faisal that it would be to the Arabs' advantage to go on fighting the Ottomans. At the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and the Cairo conference in 1921 Lawrence lobbied for Arab independence, but his belated attempts to maintain the territorial integrity of Arab lands, which he had promised to Hussein and Faisal, and in limiting France's influence in what later became Syria and Lebanon were fruitless. However, as Churchill's adviser on Arab affairs (1921–2) Lawrence was able to lobby for a considerable degree of autonomy for Mesopotamia and Transjordan. The British placed Palestine, promised to the Zionist Federation in 1917, under mandate with a civilian administration headed by Herbert Samuel, and divided their remaining territory in the Middle East into the kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan, assigning them to Faisal and his brother Abdullah, respectively.

The Thrice-Promised Land

The debate regarding Palestine derived from the fact that it is not explicitly mentioned in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, but is included within the boundaries that were proposed by Hussein. Whatever McMahon had meant to say is irrelevant, because the actual terms used contained the pledges. Under customary treaty law, binding obligations are seldom supported by an Argument from silence.

The Arab position was that "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo..." could not refer to Palestine since that lay well to the south of the named places. In particular, the Arabs argued that the vilayet (province) of Damascus did not exist and that the district (sanjak) of Damascus covered only the area surrounding the city itself and furthermore that Palestine was part of the vilayet of 'Syria A-Sham', which was not mentioned in the exchange of letters. The British position, which it held consistently at least from 1916, was that Palestine was intended to be included in the phrase. Each side produced supporting arguments for their positions based on fine details of the wording and the historical circumstances of the correspondence. For example, the Arab side argued that the phrase "cannot be said to be purely Arab" did not apply to Palestine, while the British pointed to the Jewish and Christian minorities in Palestine.

Balfour had come under criticism in the House of Commons, when the Liberals and Labor Socialists moved a resolution 'That secret treaties with the allied governments should be revised, since, in their present form, they are inconsistent with the object for which this country entered the war and are, therefore, a barrier to a democratic peace.'

In response to growing criticism arising from the mutually irreconcilable commitments undertaken by the United Kingdom in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour declaration the Churchill White Paper, 1922 stated that

it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty's Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty's Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir. Henry McMahon's pledge.

In a 1922 letter to Sir John Shuckburgh of the British Colonial Office, McMahon wrote the following: "It was my intention to exclude Palestine from independent Arabia, and I hoped that I had so worded the letter as to make this sufficiently clear for all practical purposes. My reasons for restricting myself to specific mention of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo in that connection in my letter were: 1) that these were places to which the Arabs attached vital importance and 2) that there was no place I could think of at the time of sufficient importance for purposes of definition further South of the above. It was as fully my intention to exclude Palestine as it was to exclude the more Northern coastal tracts of Syria."

A committee established by the British in 1939 to clarify the various arguments observed that many commitments had been made during and after the war - and that all of them would have to be studied together. The Arab representatives submitted a statement to the committee from Sir Michael McDonnell which explained that whatever McMahon had intended to mean was of no legal consequence, since it was his actual statements that constituted the pledge from His Majesty's Government. The Arab representatives also pointed out that McMahon had been acting as an intermediary for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Grey. Speaking in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923, Lord Grey had made it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the Churchill White Paper's interpretation of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had caused to be given to the Sharif Husain in 1915. The Arab representatives suggested that a search for evidence in the files of the Foreign Office might throw light on the Secretary of State's intentions. In a speech delivered in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923, late Lord Grey had said:

" A considerable number of these engagements, or some of them, which have not been officially made public by the Government, have become public through other sources. Whether all have become public I do not know, but I seriously suggest to the Government that the best way of clearing our honour in this matter is officially to publish the whole of the engagements relating to the matter, which we entered into during the war.

The committee concluded:

'It is beyond the scope of the Committee to express an opinion upon the proper interpretation of the various statements mentioned in paragraph 19 and such an opinion could not in any case be properly expressed unless consideration had also been given to a number of other statements made during and after the war. In the opinion of the Committee it is, however, evident from these statements that His Majesty's Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine, and that these statements must all be taken into account in any attempt to estimate the responsibilities which—upon any interpretation of the Correspondence—His Majesty's Government have incurred towards those inhabitants as a result of the Correspondence.

See also

Notes

References

  • Biger, Gideon. (2004). The Boundaries of Modern Palestine, 1840-1947. London: Routledge. ISBN 0714656542
  • Choueiri, Youssef M. (2000). Arab Nationalism: A History. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0631217290
  • Cleveland, William L. (2004). A History of the Modern Middle East. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-4048-9 (see pp. 157-160).
  • Federal Research Division (2004). Syria: A Country Study. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1419150227
  • Friedman, Isaiah (2000). Palestine, A Twice-Promised Land. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 156000391X
  • Hughes, Matthew (1999). Allenby and British Strategy in the Middle East, 1917-1919. London: Routledge. ISBN 0714649201
  • Huneidi, Sahar (2000). A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, 1920-1925. IB Tauris. ISBN 1860641725
  • Kedourie, Elie (2000). In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations, 1914-1939. London: Routledge. ISBN 0714650978
  • Mansfield, Peter (2004). A History of the Middle East. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-303433-2 (see pp. 154-155).
  • Milton-Edwards, Beverley (2006). Contemporary Politics in the Middle East. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0745635946
  • Paris, Timothy J. (2003). Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule, 1920-1925: The Sherifian Solution. London: Routledge. ISBN 0714654515

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