WWI Allied diplomacy & the Middle East

How did First World War Allied diplomacy impact the Middle East during the war and in the immediate post-war years?


The Middle Eastern region of the Ottoman Empire was frequently discussed in Allied diplomacy during World War I, particularly the area known as Palestine. It was claimed in actuality or agreement by a multitude of powers under various auspices: as part of the Ottoman Empire, as part of Syria (French, during Sykes-Picot negotiations), as an international zone (Constantinople Agreement, Sykes-Picot Agreement), as part of a new Arab state (McMahon-Hussein) and as a Jewish homeland (Balfour Agreement). The Entente powers were interested in this area for historical and geo-political reasons, Arab leaders saw the declining Ottoman Empire as a chance to assert an Arab nationalism for their own kingdom-building and Zionists grew more political in their pressure for a national home away from the anti-Semitism rife in (especially Eastern) Europe. Despite the League of Nation’s supportive process towards former Ottoman colonies’ autonomy, Britain and France remained imperially-minded as the mandatory powers and ultimately bore the results of hasty, haughty or war-focused diplomacy to the cost of the local Arab communities.

Early Zionism and the Middle East at the outbreak of war

‘Zion’ is clearly established in both Judaism and Christianity as an important and holy place for Jews. ‘Zion’ is first mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as a stronghold within Jerusalem which David takes, naming it the ‘city of David’ [2 Sam 5.6-9]. In Solomon’s time it was where the Ark of the Covenant was held [2 Chron 5.2] and ‘abides forever’ [Ps 125.1]. In the Christian Scriptures, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes Zion the ‘city of the living God’ [Heb 12.22]. For Muslims, too, Jerusalem is a holy city as the site of the Prophet Mohammed’s night journey from Mecca and subsequent ascension to heaven.[1] Since the time of Roman occupation of Palestine and the resulting diaspora, a return to the Promised Land and the re-establishment of a Davidic ‘Israel’ remained a dream of Jewish communities. This concept of Zionism had been developing amongst European Jews in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the more anti-Semitic east, and finally organised in the World Zionist Organisation under Theodor Herzl in 1897.[2] While initially lobbying for a Jewish national home, after the British offer of a settlement in Uganda in 1903, the Zionists were more explicit that their national home be in Palestine: ‘the ancient land of Zion’.[3]

At the outbreak of war, the Ottoman Empire ruled strategically significant parts of the Middle East, through the historical region of Palestine down along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula and through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Britain was concerned that the Ottoman Sultan had declared a jihad for all Muslims against the Allies in November 1914 and the impact it could have in its interests around the Empire: Egypt as a Protectorate and the mercantile and strategic importance of the Suez Canal, a hundred million Muslims in the empire and having faced local Islamic-inspired uprisings before the war in India and Sudan.[4] In response, the British devised a plan to attack the Ottoman Empire at Alexandretta and Gallipoli. Even though it made sense defensively as the only feasible place from which to launch an invasion against Egypt (and hence, the Suez Canal) and would further divide Turkish attentions if used with the Dardanelles invasion,[5] the Alexandretta mission was abandoned when the French learnt of the plan and feared that the British had designs on nearby Syria. As early as 1915, the Entente powers were plotting how they would divide the Ottoman Empire at the end of the war.[6] The Constantinople Agreement (18 March 1915) gave Russia the Turkish straits and Istanbul, France an undefined ‘Syria’ and Britain Persia.[7] While Gelvin acknowledges this agreement was limited in what it eventually provided post-war (Russia never received control of the straits and Britain and France only temporary mandatory control) it was important in that it established the precedent for Allied powers to expect reparation for the cost of war from the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern land.[8]

The French felt they had a ‘traditional claim’ on Syria and Palestine dating back to the Crusades. Thus, they stringently resisted any British incursion to the area, even as a legitimate wartime strategy. Field Marshal Hindenburg thought that if the Alexandretta-Dardenelles attack had been successful then it would have been an almost crippling blow to the Ottoman Empire’s war. Instead, France insisted their influence in the region persisted with all Europeans being called ‘Franks’, although Barr suggests this was used pejoratively by the local Arabs whose forebears had fought off the crusader invaders six hundred years before.[9]

Hussein-McMahon agreement & Arab Revolt

Sharif Hussein of the Hejaz (central Arabia, containing Mecca and Medina) sought greater power with the advent of World War I and through his son Abdullah approached Lord Kitchener, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, offering Arab resistance to the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, another of Hussein’s sons, Faisal, was in Damascus to assure Ottoman leaders of their support. At that point Faisal was a supporter of the Ottomans, but changed his mind during his trip to Damascus following the local Arabs’ unhappiness with the Turkish authorities.[10] Kitchener wrote to Hussein assuring independence and support for the Sharif against Ottoman aggression and that an Allied victory could see the Turkish Caliphs at Mecca or Medina be replaced by a true Arab (by implication, Hussein who, as a Hashemite a descendent of the Prophet). Mohs calls this the ‘first of the rhetorically soaring but highly ambiguous “promises”’ made during the war.[11]These promises were made in the understanding expressed by Arthur Brownlow fforde, a consultant from the Indian Consular Service to the newly established (British) Arab Bureau, that while the creation of a single Arab state was a ‘practical impossibility, there was no harm with sympathising with the ideal.’[12]

Upon the Ottomans’ entry into the war, Britain re-engaged Hussein in negotiations through Sir Henry McMahon, the new High Commissioner in Cairo, agreeing in deliberately vague terms to Hussein being king of a pan-Arab state after the war in return for Arab support during the war.[13] McMahon’s subtlety in the English language was too much for his translator who could not replicate the ambiguity of his ‘promises’ and thus Hussein misunderstood the vagueness and conditional nature of the ‘assurances’ he thought he had.[14]

For the British, the Emir of Mecca and Guardian of the Holy Places Hussein was an excellent figurehead and might be able to keep the Arabs on the Allied side if, as expected, the Turks proclaimed a jihad.**[15]** Hussein’s sons led the Arab Revolt from 1916-1918, later with the advice of Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Apart from self-aggrandisement,[16] Lawrence was also an accomplished guerrilla fighter and led a number of successful raids. The revolt was successful in liberating the Arab world from the Ottomans and brought a wave of Arab nationalism. Despite the McMahon deal and success of the Arab Revolt, Hussein was sidelined in the post-war carve up of the Middle East. He was forced to abdicate as caliph of the Hejaz in 1924 by Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia.[17] His sons Faisal and Abdullah, however, fared better. Faisal was set up as king of Iraq, gained independence in 1932 and his family ruled (with British support) until ousted in a coup in 1958. Abdullah was on his way to support Faisal hold Syria and got as far as Amman, when the British split their Palestine mandate, creating Transjordan and instituting Abdullah as king. Hussein’s great-grandson, Abdullah II, is the current king of Jordan.


When François Georges-Picot was informed of the British promises to Hussein at a meeting in London on 23 November 1915 he countered with an argument about the close France-Syria historical link and then the coup de grace, that Britain was furthering its imperialistic ambitions while its French Entente partner was bearing the burden of casualties on the western front.[18] This meeting came to no resolution but the British were alarmed at the possible rift developing and so assured France that any new Arab state would not include ‘Lebanon or any part of the world to which the French could lay distinct claim.’[19] Amazed at Picot’s success, French Prime Minister Briand told Picot he could relent, including giving up the worthless land around Jerusalem. A second meeting also came to nought as the British reneged and demanded Lebanon.

Sir Mark Sykes had impressed the British Cabinet as a knowledgeable Middle East expert, albeit based only on his travel through the region, a smattering of Arabic and Turkish phrases and a degree of bravado. He proposed ‘a line in the sand’ be drawn from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk at the Persian border between French and British ‘protectorates’ of the land promised to Hussein[20]. As the British Government’s Middle East “expert”, he was brought in to privately negotiate a deal with Picot. The pair were able to find a way to ‘pay lip service’ to the Hussein-McMahon deal while using Sykes’s line in the sand. The French (‘Blue’) zone contained the northern areas of Syria, Lebanon and into Turkey while the British (‘Red’) zone covered Iraq and the Palestinian port of Haifa. Further, each had a ‘sphere of influence’ with Palestine as an international ‘Brown’ zone, although both recognised inherent problems in defence (Sykes) and as the potential for future conflict (Picot).[21]

Zionism & Balfour Declaration

Zionist lobbying combined with a deteriorating war outlook in 1917 to create the first seed of the State of Israel. Mistaken beliefs regarding the impact of an assurance of a Jewish home upon the involvement of the United States and Russia in the war, and under lobbying pressure from Chaim Weizmann, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, a wealthy and influential British Zionist.[22] It stated that the British Government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The correspondence did also state that this was not to impinge on the ‘civil or religious rights’ of those already in Palestine.[23] Whether Balfour and the Government envisaged how this would eventuate is unclear, although given the arrogance with which they decided the fate of other people and created new states throughout the Middle East (and, of course, much of the rest of the world in the previous two centuries), it is unlikely that the actualities of how this would play out in the dirt of Palestine between inhabitant Arabs and immigrant Jews was given much thought.

The Balfour Declaration is a clear example of where immediate war strategy over-rode any thought of post-war implications of that decision. It contradicted agreements the British had previously made with Sharif Hussein (McMahon) and France (Sykes-Picot) without consultation with either party. The belief in the British government was that there were key influential Zionists within the United States and Russia, hence it was a public declaration rather than secret like the other agreements that were made throughout the war. Although the US had committed to the war six months earlier, this was seen as an act to consolidate the alliance. In regards to Russia, it was hoped that the Balfour Declaration would move influential Jews to pressure the Provisional Government to keep Russia in the war. [24] The day following the Declaration saw the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The belief in influential Jews in the USA and Russia proved incorrect, and the Russians withdrew from the war a month later.[25]

Britain had captured Jerusalem in December 1917 from the Ottoman Empire and kept it under military occupation until it had been given the mandate for Palestine from the San Remo Conference (1920) and then the League of Nations (1922).[26] In this time period it brought together Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal, who then occupied Damascus, with Weizmann, the British Zionist. They agreed in January 1919 that Faisal would recognise the Balfour Declaration and agree to Jewish immigration to Palestine in return for the independence of Greater Syria and the protection of Palestinian Arabs’ rights. Weizmann committed the Jewish immigrants to working with the (Arab) Palestinians for the mutually beneficial economic development of the region. In another example of ambiguities, Cleveland and Bunton point out that Faisal did not agree to the creation of a Jewish state;[27] in recognising the Balfour Declaration he acknowledged only that Britain had expressed its support for a Jewish state in Palestine, but not that he was in favour of one.

Faisal was not alone in condemning the Balfour Declaration, or in declaring it ‘an honest … well-intentioned mistake’.[28]Wilson’s ‘closest advisor’ Colonel Edward House and British Jew Edwin Montagu saw the potential for conflict by imposing European Jews into a region of Arab Muslims.[29] Later, many of Truman’s advisors warned him of recognising Israel[30] and Monroe declared ‘it was one of the greatest mistakes in [British] imperial history.’[31] Yet Meyer and Brysac also suggest that from a Jewish perspective, it gave a warning of relying too heavily on Christian Zionists. In the years either side of the war, decisions would be made in London to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine from Germany. The USA was to be no better, Roosevelt promising Saudi king Ibn Saud to do ‘nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs’.[32]

Fourteen Points & League of Nations

United States President Woodrow Wilson found himself in the position where he had a significant international voice, and yet his reason and dispassion was overwhelmed by the fury and fervour of Lloyd George and Clemenceau. In January 1918, Wilson outlined ‘Fourteen Points’ to shape the post-war peace. While this was seen by many as being the blueprint for Allied negotiation and settlement, Clemenceau was less impressed: ‘Even the good Lord contented himself with only ten commandments.’[33]

Relevant to the Middle East among Wilson’s points for international diplomacy were that there be no deals done in secret, that the non-Turkish nationalities under the Ottoman Empire be allowed ‘autonomous development’ and the establishment of an international body that was to become the League of Nations.[34] Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination (he also specifically names Austria-Hungary, Rumania, Serbia, Montenegro, Poland and that the boundaries of Italy be established according to ‘clearly recognizable lines of nationality’) ensured that much of the Paris Peace Conference was spent on how this was to be implemented.

Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant established the principle of recognising the independence of former Central Powers’ colonies, but where these peoples were not yet ready ‘to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’ the League established a system of Mandatory powers to guide these nations until ready for independence. Former Ottoman countries were ‘provisionally recognised’ until administrative assistance had been given to ensure their future independent stability. The article also explicitly states that the wishes of the local population were to be a ‘principal consideration’ in the selection and appointment of a Mandatory.[35]

The idealism expressed in the Covenant did not come to fruition for the non-Turkish members of the former Ottomans, however. An elected Syrian General Congress decided the area encompassing modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestinian Territories wanted to be independent and unified. If it had to have a mandatory, it was to be the United States as its first preference, or Great Britain, but it was not to be France. This was all ignored in favour of the Sykes-Picot division, separate countries were established and Syria was placed under a French mandate.[36] They immediately set up Lebanon as a separate, Christian, strategic state on the Mediterranean coast and split Syria into six mini-states, which was unsuccessful and reversed but caused fifty years of ongoing problems for future Syrian governments.[37]

Britain split its mandatory areas into Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. Transjordan was established as a new principality under Abdullah, based in Amman. As it was not part of Palestine, Jewish immigration was denied. For his support in the Arab Revolt and relinquishing Syria to the French, Faisal was given Iraq. Yet despite its oil, fertile ground, access to the Persian Gulf and even its independence in 1930 the mandate system ‘conspired against [Iraq’s] full economic and political development’ as it did also in Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan.

Palestine Mandate

British decisions continued to confuse the area. Sir Herbert Samuel was appointed the first high commissioner for the Palestine Mandate. Samuel was Jewish, and had stated at the Paris Peace Conference that the Zionist objective was to ‘make Palestine as Jewish as England [is] English.’[38] So despite the Declaration’s commitment to not prejudicing the rights of the six hundred thousand Arab Palestinians who were eighty five percent of the population, the Zionists had an ardent supporter as chief executive. Yet a White Paper (1922) stated that a Jewish national home did not mean a Jewish state, or Jewish nationality upon all inhabitants of Palestine, but that Jews had a right to develop Palestine as a centre based on race and religion.

Britain need not take all the blame for the early governance of the Palestine Mandate. To his credit, High Commissioner Samuel attempted to create a unitary state of Arabs and Jews with two proposals. Afraid that any combined government would recognise Jewish rights and the Jewish national home in Palestine, the Arabs refused to serve on either (despite the latter proposal having a Council of ten Arabs and two Jews) and thus power reverted to the High Commissioner and his bureaucracy, rather than devolving to the local population. Instead of working together to govern, the communities split further but with the Jews generally cooperating with the Mandatory government and thus generally benefiting from this closer relationship.[39]


World War I was the ‘single most important political event in the history of the Middle East’.[40] The war was responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled the area for four hundred years, established a number of countries which remain intact despite a variety of coups d’état, civil and regional wars, attempts at establishing supranational states and promised a ‘national home’ for Jewish people in their historical and biblical homeland. Throughout all this, British and French self-interest and complicity conspired to carve up the Middle East in the last act of quasi-imperialism, ignore international support for self-determination and set a lit menorah in the midst of the tinderbox of emergent Arab nationalism.


Barr, James A Line in the Sand: the Anglo-French struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948, W.W. Norton, New York, 2012.

Cleveland, William L. and Bunton, Martin A History of the Modern Middle East, Fourth Edition, Westview, Boulder, Colorado, 2009.

The Covenant of the League of Nations, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, [online] available athttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp#art22, accessed 29 October, 2013.

Fisher, Sydney Nettleton and Ochsenwald, William The Middle East: A History Vol. II, Fifth Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997.

Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

Kaplan, Eran and Penslar, Derek J. (eds) The Origins of Israel, 1882-1948: a documentary history, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2011.

Meyer, Karl E. and Brysac, Shareen Blair Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East, W.W. Norton, New York, 2008.

Mohs, Polly A. Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt: the first modern intelligence war, Routledge, London, 2008.

Shapira, Anita Israel: a history, (trans. Anthony Berris), Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2012.

Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: a political, social and military history, Volume I: A-F, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2008.

Wilson, Woodrow “Speech on the Fourteen Points,” Congressional Record, 65th Congress 2nd Session, 1918, pp. 680­681 in Halsall, Paul (ed.) Internet Modern History Sourcebook, [online] http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1918wilson.asp, accessed 29 October 2013.


[1] Eran Kaplan and Derek J. Penslar (eds) The Origins of Israel, 1882-1948: a documentary history, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2011, p. 5.
[2] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, Fourth Edition, Westview, Boulder, Colorado, 2009, pp. 240-243.
[3] Sydney Nettleton Fisher and William Ochsenwald, The Middle East: A History Vol. II, Fifth Edition, McGraw‑Hill, New York, 1997, p. 383.
[4] James Barr, A Line in the Sand: the Anglo-French struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948, W.W. Norton, New York, 2012, p. 9.
[5] The main Ottoman front was against Russia in the Caucasus Mountains.
[6] Barr, pp. 10-11.
[7] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2008, pp. 177-178.
[8] Ibid., p. 178.
[9] Barr, pp. 11-12.
[10] Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: a political, social and military history, Volume I: A-F, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2008, p. 134.
[11] Polly A. Mohs, Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt: the first modern intelligence war, Routledge, London, 2008, p. 18.
[12] Mohs, p. 39.
[13] Tucker, pp. 134-135.
[14] Barr, pp. 20-21.
[15] Mohs, p. 18.
[16] Shapira, Anita Israel: a history, (trans. Anthony Berris), Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2012, p. 73.
[17] Tucker, pp. 134-135.
[18] Barr, pp. 22-24.
[19] Ibid., p. 24.
[20] Ibid., pp. 7, 26.
[21] Ibid., p. 26.
[22] Cleveland and Bunton, p. 244.
[23] Fisher and Ochsenwald, pp. 383-384.
[24] Cleveland and Bunton, pp. 243-244.
[25] Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East, W.W. Norton, New York, 2008, p. 121.
[26] Cleveland and Bunton, p. 245.
[27] Ibid., p. 245.
[28] Richard Cohen, ‘Hunker down with history’, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, July 24-30, 2006, p. 26, in Meyer and Brysac, p. 123.
[29] Meyer and Brysac, pp. 123-124.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1963, p. 43, in ibid.
[32] Meyer and Brysac, pp. 125-126.
[33] Gelvin, p. 180.
[34] Woodrow Wilson, “Speech on the Fourteen Points,” Congressional Record, 65th Congress 2nd Session, 1918, pp. 680­681 in Halsall, Paul (ed.)Internet Modern History Sourcebook, [online] http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1918wilson.asp, accessed 29 October 2013.
[35] The Covenant of the League of Nations, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, [online] available athttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp#art22, accessed 29 October, 2013.
[36] Gelvin, p. 181.
[37] Ibid., p. 181.
[38] Cleveland and Bunton, p. 245.
[39] Ibid., pp. 245-248; Shapira, pp. 76-78.
[40] Gelvin, p. 172.