A Peace to End All Peace

by David Fromkin

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A Peace to End All Peace

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1549

Syrian and Israeli troops occupy Lebanese territory. Israel claims the entire west bank of the Jordan River. Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Greece and Turkey, eye each other suspiciously. Muslim states in the Soviet Union agitate for independence, as do the Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Soviet and Western-backed troops fight for control of Afghanistan. Anyone seeking to understand these issues that fill the front pages of today’s newspapers should read A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922 (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989), for it describes the settlement of 1922 that led to the current conflicts in the Middle East.

Most of the book focuses on British activity in the region during and after World War I, and David Fromkin rightly links those twentieth century developments to the “Great Game” of the 1800’s, in which England sought to safeguard India, the jewel in its imperial crown, by controlling land and sea routes to the Asian subcontinent. England’s chief opponents in this game were Russia and France, its major ally the moribund Ottoman Empire. Although in Europe in World War I these roles were reversed, in the Middle East the situation was more ambiguous, as England continued its efforts to maintain the hegemony in the region. The settlement that followed the war would please no one. England’s allies felt cheated of plunder; native populations believed that their legitimate aspirations had been thwarted; all thought, rightly, that promises had been broken.

In large part dissatisfaction was inevitable because England made too many promises, so many that even its own officials—and certainly its allies—were confused about the government’s policy. A key example is the Sykes- Picot agreement concluded between England and France in 1916. As early as 1915 England regarded its Russian “ally” as a threat in the Middle East and sought to create a buffer by conceding Lebanon and Syria to France. In return, France agreed to give Britain a free hand in dealing with Hussein ibn Ah, Emir of Mecca. France believed that it was getting all of Syria and part of Iraq. Sir Mark Sykes thought that France would receive only a small part of Syria, the rest of which would be ruled by Hussein as a British client. Gilbert Clayton, head of British Intelligence in Cairo, objected to the agreement as giving too much to France and the Arabs. Sykes thought he was dividing the area as Clayton wished; Clayton believed that Sykes intentionally had undermined his position.

Another illustration of confusion was the Balfour Declaration. Fromkin claims that a mistaken premise of the British government was that the Jews controlled Islamic Turkey, as it later believed in a grand German-Turkish-Bolshevik-Islamic-Jewish conspiracy to seize the Middle East, perhaps the world. If Britain could gain Jewish support for its side, surely the Allies would win the war, so in 1917 it endorsed the Zionist position. Or did it? Having promised to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, England then created an Arab state east of the Jordan River; this new country contained three-quarters of the original Palestine. Throughout the postwar period the British army and bureaucracy remained more sympathetic to Arab than Jewish claims to the rest of the territory.

The Middle Eastern map that emerged in the aftermath of World War I did in many respects resemble what Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot had envisioned in 1916, but chance far more than foresight was responsible for that outcome. Fromkin’s is a tale of accidental judgments and casual slaughters, of purposes mistook fallen...

(This entire section contains 1549 words.)

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on the inventors’ heads. This description fits the whole of World War I as well as it doesHamlet (c. 1600-1601); it is particularly apt for developments in the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was weak, though it proved more resilient than anyone anticipated, defeating the British invasion of 1915 and driving out the Greeks from Asia Minor in 1922. While Winston Churchill, Fromkin’s hero in this study, recognized Turkey’s usefulness as an ally against Germany, no one else in the British, French, or Russian governments apparently agreed; seeking protection against European imperialism, Turkey at last turned to Germany in July, 1914. Germany, too, rebuffed Turkey at first, but Britain, suspecting an agreement between the two countries as war approached, seized two Turkish warships that had been built in England and were almost ready to sail. One of these, the Sultan Osman I, was the largest battleship in the world. On August 1, 1914, the day after the seizure (which Turkey knew about but Germany did not), Turkey offered the ship to Germany in exchange for an alliance. Germany then agreed. Had Churchill, as Lord of the Admiralty, not taken the ships, a desperate Turkey might have given them to Germany. Perhaps, though, Turkey would not have bartered them for protection if the ships were still available, and for want of an ally the country would have remained neutral.

Despite the agreement with Germany, Turkey sought to stay out of war, but events overtook intent. Two German warships being pursued by the British took refuge in Turkish waters on August 6, 1914. Britain saw the action as further evidence of German- Ottoman collusion, though Turkey hoped to use the ships as bargaining chips to wring concessions from Germany. To preserve its neutrality, Turkey bought the ships from Germany, which was reluctant to sell them; again Britain saw complicity where none existed. These ships proved costly to Turkey, for in October their German admiral shelled the Russian coast against Turkish orders. Before Turkey could apologize, Britain and Turkey were at war.

It was a conflict for which Turkey was ill prepared. Fromkin points out that England could have defeated the Ottoman Empire on March 19, 1915. With Turkey out of the war, southern Europe would be vulnerable to Allied attack. The collapse of Bulgaria in 1918, opening a southern front, prompted Germany to sue for peace. Might the war have ended three and a half years earlier, with the Czar still ruling Russia and the United States uninvolved in European affairs? Lloyd George and others believed so, but the British admiral did not press his attack against the Turks, who had run out of ammunition.

Instead he turned to the land forces, which also allowed victory to elude them and became bogged down at Gallipoli. To relieve its army, Britain encouraged an Arab revolt. The Ottoman Empire intended to remove Hussein ibn Ah from his post, so he was a willing partner when England approached him with its idea. Hussein was to accomplish little, but his alliance with Britain deeply affected the postwar settlements in the Middle East.

Britain expected a widespread Islamic uprising against Turkey. After the war T. E. Lawrence and the American Lowell Thomas would claim that tens of thousands of Arabs swept out of the desert to drive out the Turks. This illusion suited those British policymakers—such as Lawrence and Clayton-seeking to exclude France from Syria by saying that the Arabs had liberated the region themselves and so should control it but under British auspices. Actually, Feisal, Hussein’s son, led only a few hundred men into Damascus—after the Turkish forces had fled and Australian troops had already entered the city.

While there was no Arab revolt against Turkey, there were repeated uprisings against the British after World War I. Contrary to British belief, Arabs did not want to be ruled by outsiders, not even British outsiders. Less than a week after the Armistice in November, 1918, an Egyptian delegation asked Sir Reginald Wingate, British High Commissioner in Cairo, to honor the pledge of Egyptian independence made during the war. When Wingate refused, riots erupted. In April, 1919, the new Emir of Afghanistan asserted his independence from Britain. Nationalist leaders in Turkey rejected the terms of the Treaty of Sevres (1922). The second Syrian General Congress (1920) shunned the Sykes-Picot agreement and declared Feisal king of Lebanon and Palestine; a rebellion in Iraq left 450 British dead. England had destroyed the old Ottoman Empire, but it was less successful in assuming control of former Turkish holdings.

Had England been willing to commit large numbers of troops and much money, it might have done so, but war weariness and a postwar economic recession meant that imperialism would have to come cheaply or not at all. Churchill relied on airplanes and armored cars to maintain a measure of colonial control, but England was forced to concede independence to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt; it also had to watch idly as Turkey expelled Greece from Asia Minor.

Events overtook plans and treaties. The new world order that was supposed to emerge from the Great War was crumbling before the agreements establishing that order could be drafted. The Treaty of Sevres was signed by a Turkish government powerless to enforce its terms. The United States rejected a role in the Middle East and so left Armenia to be gobbled up by the Soviet Union. As Edmund Spenser wrote at the end of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), ”Times do change and move continually./ So nothing here long standeth on one stay.” London and Paris had assumed that they could decide the fate of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem. A Peace to End All Peace, like today’s headlines, shows how wrong they were.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

Booklist. LXXXV, August, 1989, p.1929.

Books. III, May, 1989, p.21.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, June 15, 1989, p.892.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 4, 1990, p.15.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 27, 1989, p.3.

The Wall Street Journal. August 23, 1989, p. A9.