No one emerges with credit

This is my review of A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East by James Barr.

James Barr blends academic research with journalistic flair to remind us of the shabby deals and ostrich-like expediency which led to the crises still bedevilling the Middle East. Using anecdotes and well-judged quotations, he brings alive the out-dated imperialistic wranglings of Britain and France, both scrambling to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The "line in the sand" refers to the infamous Sykes-Picot Line agreed secretly in 1916, which ran from Acre on the coast to Kirkuk near the then Persian frontier, with no regard for the Arab tribes inhabiting what appeared to be mostly useless desert. The British were interested in Palestine and Jordan south of the line mainly as a means of securing Suez and the route to India. To the north, the French demanded what is now the Lebanon and Syria to ensure they did not lose out to the British in a land which might yield rich oil reserves. Matters went awry from the outset with T.E. Lawrence's famous assault on Damascus in Syria – a blatant attempt to undermine the Sykes-Picot agreement by enabling the Arabs to gain territory in land coveted by the French.

Barr opens with his shock on discovering how, while British soldiers were fighting in World War 2 to save France, the French were supplying arms to the Haganah, the Jewish militia dedicated to creating a separate state of Israel. However, the British seem to have been equally perfidious at times – agreeing with a shameful vagueness over details to support Sharif Hussein of Mecca in his ambitions for an Arab Empire to include Syria which lay north of the fatal line. As someone observed "we are rather in the position of hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it." The British desire to give Arabs independence in French-controlled Syria and Lebanon was always tempered by the reluctance to give Arabs in Palestine the same freedom – until it was too late.

Also, long before the French took the idea of a Jewish state seriously, the wily Lloyd George had come round to supporting Zionism in the hopes of encouraging American Jews to put pressure on the US to enter the First World War on the Allies' side, plus he thought the Jews might be of more assistance to the British in Palestine than the fragmented Arab tribes. Yet, by the 1940s, the situation was reversed with the British trying somewhat ineptly to protect the Arabs in Palestine and contain the violence of freedom fighters like the Irgun.

Barr does a mainly excellent job in steering us through the dramas of T.E. Lawrence, De Gaulle, the alarming Orde Wingate, plus a host of others who interfered in the Middle East, with varying degrees of understanding, cynicism, short-termism, and sadly often misplaced "vision". Concluding with the British evacuation of Jerusalem in 1948, Barr helps us to appreciate the complexity of the situation, all the different angles. Apart from the final quotation that "other people's countries…must be left to their own salvation," I do not recall that he suggests clearly the course that should have been taken, but this may be for the good reason that there was no clear solution.

Small improvements would have been the inclusion of a "timeline" of key events, a glossary of major players and groups involved, and perhaps a brief summary of the situation in Palestine in previous centuries, all designed to help anchor the "general reader".

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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