James Barr is the British author of the immensely successfully book A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, published in 2011. In many regards, though the book is six years old, it remains as relevant today as it was then, explaining how the post-World War I settlement helped define the modern Middle East, and examining how the British-French rivalry played into such dynamics. In a varied career, Barr has worked in politics, journalism, finance, and briefly as an analyst at the British Embassy in Paris. He now runs his own research business and is a visiting fellow at King’s College London. His forthcoming book, on Lawrence of Arabia, which will be published by Saqi books in November, was actually written before A Line in the Sand. In late September Barr spoke to Diwan, coincidentally just as the Kurdish referendum was about to take place—a further reminder of how the post-World War I settlement still defines regional realities today.
Michael Young: You’ve written a highly successful book on the British-French rivalry in the Middle East titled A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East. Did you ever expect that such a book would be as successful, and to what do you attribute this?
James Barr: I hoped it would sell well, but I never expected the book to be as successful as it has been. There are two reasons why the book has sold as well as it has. The first is that it tells an interesting story in an engaging way, using much material from original sources, some of which has never been published before. The book is all about people—and there are some very odd, interesting, and flawed characters in the story—and the consequences of their decisions. It starts with Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, but others, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Henri Gouraud, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle are all in there, as are Lebanese and Syrian politicians such as Bishara al-Khoury, Riad al-Solh, and Jamil Mardam. Also, the story is both familiar and yet surprising. Everyone knows about the rivalry between Britain and France. Fewer people know much about the effects that this had on the Middle East.
The second major reason is the book’s timing and the fact that it has plenty to say about Syria and Lebanon. This focus was deliberate. When I approached the publishers in 2008 the market was becoming saturated with books on Iraq, and I wanted to write something a bit different. The timing on the other hand was pure coincidence. The British edition was published in 2011, a few months after the first signs of discontent in the southern Syrian governorate of Dar‘a. Syria’s descent into chaos and the Islamic State’s claim in 2014 that it had finally destroyed the Sykes-Picot agreement sparked much interest in the origins of modern Arab states and the Sykes-Picot deal, and many people read my book as a consequence. The centenary of the agreement last year also provoked interest. Indeed, one French woman I read claimed that I had written the book to take advantage of the anniversary. I have to say that had I approached any publisher in 2008 claiming that they needed to publish a book to tie in with the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, their response would have been, “What?!”
MY: Why your interest in this particular period, and indeed the region?
JB: It was all very accidental. Since I was little I have been fascinated by castles and had always wanted to see the castles of Syria. In 2002 I got my chance. While I was there I noticed an eloquent piece of graffiti in Hama blaming the British for many of the problems of the region. I also saw the rusting locomotives of the Hijaz Railway in the southern part of Damascus, which sparked my interest in recent history. To my shame, I have to admit that until that trip to Syria I had not really appreciated how deeply World War I had affected the Middle East.
I ended up writing a book about Lawrence of Arabia, which was published in 2006. What interested me most about Lawrence was his fierce Francophobia, and that led me to write A Line In The Sand.
MY: The Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France was for a long time viewed by many Arabs as an imperial diktat to divide the Middle East. Yet it was never really implemented as originally conceived, and the borders it drew proved remarkably durable. With hindsight a century after the agreement, how would you assess its impact?
JB: Before I try to answer that I would say that I think that Sykes—and to a lesser extent Picot—would be astonished to know that we are still discussing their deal a century on. That’s because when they conceived it in 1915, they were trying to avoid an argument over the future of the region, sparked by Britain’s determination to land at Gallipoli, which revived old suspicions that threatened the Entente Cordiale.
I would also take issue with people who say that the postwar political settlement bears no resemblance to the deal. Certainly it is true that France was not strong enough to take control of eastern Anatolia and Britain did not carve out a state in southern Iraq, as the agreement suggested it should. But the fundamental point is that the two powers agreed to divide and rule the Middle East between them—which is exactly what then happened. No one expected those crayon lines to form the postwar borders—that may be why Sykes signed the map in pencil—but they were enough to provide the basis for a reassuring wartime deal.
In terms of impact, the most important consequence of the Sykes-Picot agreement was that it left the future of Palestine unclear. Both Sykes and Picot coveted that territory (Sykes’s reasons were more strategic, Picot’s more sentimental), and no sooner was the deal done than Sykes started working with the Zionists to try to subvert the agreement and bring Palestine under British control. Had Picot won the argument, it is possible that Sykes would have behaved no differently. But if Picot had conceded Palestine to the British at the start of 1916, it is hard to imagine that the British would have been even half as interested in courting the Zionists.
The second impact is that, in dividing a map into British and French territories, the agreement created a border that ensured that the futures of the peoples on either side of it would start to diverge. As the border became harder to cross during the 1920s and 1930s because of the revolts in Syria and then Palestine, this encouraged, for example, Syrian landlords to sell their Palestinian estates, often to Jewish buyers. The eventual border it influenced cut Aleppo off from northern Iraq. It is no coincidence, for example, that the strongest support in Syria for the “Fertile Crescent” scheme of the 1940s and 1950s, which would have rejoined Syria and Iraq into a single entity, came from Aleppo.
The final impact is the psychological one, which the Islamic State tried to exploit. It’s the way that Sykes-Picot has become shorthand for the sense of betrayal created by the postwar settlement’s failure to take Arab aspirations into account, but also for the region’s vulnerability to foreign interference. However, that particular condition predates Sykes-Picot by many millennia.
MY: What surprised you the most in your inquiries into the British-French rivalry in the region?
JB: What got me really interested was my discovery that, during the 1940s, the French were secretly supporting Zionist terrorism in Palestine (and later in Paris) with both money and weapons. The Vichy French started doing this to cause trouble for the British from 1940, but the Free French continued the policy—partly because they and the Zionists both disliked the British and partly because the Free French were obliged to reemploy many former Vichy officials in the Levant, who carried on where they had left off. French determination to get their revenge grew as they realized the extent to which Edward Spears—Churchill’s representative in Beirut—was doing his utmost to help Lebanese and Syrian nationalists to force the French out.
MY: In reading your book one gets the sense that by the 1930s both Britain and France had unleashed reactions in the region that they could not really control. Was it the curse of the Arab world, then, to be under the control of two declining powers?
JB: I think the curse was to be under foreign rule, full stop. This came after the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had declared that imperialism could not continue, after T. E. Lawrence had strongly suggested that the Arabs had a good chance of achieving independence, and after they had had a tantalizing glimpse of self-rule in the months immediately after the war, before the French defeated the forces loyal to Faysal near Damascus.
What matters more than the fact that Britain and France were both in decline is the fact that they were resentful neighbors who could not agree on policy even though it would have been rational for them to have done so. This meant that they were unable to unite on a strategy to deal either with the insurgency in Syria that lasted from 1925 to 1928 or the revolt that convulsed Palestine a decade later. Neither wanted to help the other, for example, with extraditions of wanted suspects, because they knew that to do so would be immensely unpopular with their own Arab subjects. And of course the Arabs knew this and took advantage of it. That was why the Druze used the Jordanian oasis of Azraq as a hideout during the Syrian uprising. And it is why the ringleaders of the insurgency in Palestine in the 1930s based themselves in Damascus, where the French made no attempt to stop them raising money and running guns over the border.
MY: In November, Saqi books will be publishing your book on T. E. Lawrence. Forgive the question, but do we need another book on Lawrence of Arabia? And what will you bring that’s new?
JB: In fact I think the reason why Saqi liked the book is because there is more to it than just Lawrence. The book is really a history of the Arab Revolt, and although Lawrence is the central character, there is a lot about the other people who were involved, such as the Hashemites and the tribes who supported the uprising. I hope I’ve managed to produce a book that offers a broader perspective. Unlike some other writers on the subject, I travelled to Saudi Arabia and Jordan when doing the research and have seen many of the places involved in the story for myself.
MY: As you look at the Middle East now, could we say that we are still prisoners of the post-World War I arrangement for the region?
JB: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. But we are also showing the symptoms of something like the Stockholm syndrome. What I mean by that is that, whenever the question of changing the borders arises, as it has in the last few years, everyone seems to shy away from it, because they fear that whatever follows could be worse than the situation now. The history of Jordan in the 1950s is a good example of this. The country faced constant threats to its survival and yet ultimately its neighbors shied away from trying to break up the state because they were worried that their rivals might do better out of it than they would.
Of course there are people who are not happy with the post-World War I political settlement—most obviously the Kurds. It could be that the Kurdish referendum which has just taken place is the start of a major realignment, but I doubt it.
MY: As American power in the region declines, are we heading into a new phase where Western influence in the Middle East is dwindling, to be replaced by something else? If so what?
JB: I suspect that the extent of Western influence in the Middle East has probably been exaggerated for a long time, and what has happened in Iraq and Syria over the last fifteen years has revealed the limits of American power. I think the Syrian war provides some insight into what comes next. Russia, the Gulf states, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have emerged as the countries likely to shape the next phase of Middle Eastern history.
MY: Finally, what would you like to write about next? Another book on the region or have you had enough?
JB: I am just finishing a book on the Anglo-American relationship in the Middle East from the 1940s through to the 1970s. Essentially it is the story of the decline of Britain and the rise of the United States in the region. It should be out next year, I hope. That covers another 30-year period, just as the last book did. For the book after that I am wondering about something with a bigger scope but I haven’t yet made up my mind. One thing at a time.