Michael Berdine’s succinct analysis of his subject Sykes’s political involvement in the Middle East is also a reflection that can be extended to the present-day turmoil in the region. “As a man of his time and class,” he writes, “Sir Mark Sykes was an imperialist driven more by ego and political considerations than humanitarian reasons.”
His new book, Redrawing the Middle East – Sir Mark Sykes, Imperialism and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, draws upon historical archives to present a detailed account of the individual who played a major part in creating the instability that nowadays characterises the region, and of which Britain has so far failed to proclaim itself accountable. For Palestinians, Sykes’s diplomatic involvement spelled the loss of their homeland through colonisation.
Throughout his career, first at the War Office and later at the Imperial War Cabinet, the War Cabinet Secretariat and advisor to the Foreign Office, Sykes is described by the author as taking decisions “based on personal opinion rather than fact”. The web of violence unleashed by Sykes transformed Palestine into a battleground for foreign interests, particularly the battle between France and Britain, each wanting to retain exclusive rights over the historical land.
The detail provided by the author leaves no doubt as to the intent of Zionism to colonise all of Palestine. Tracing Sykes’s interaction with prominent diplomatic figures in Britain and abroad, the book is replete with references to a gradual revelation of intent. Revisions to the Sykes-Picot agreement, we are told, were approached by Sykes “with the accommodation of Jewish opinion.” It is of little surprise that leading Zionist Chaim Weizmann is quoted as describing Sykes as “one of our greatest finds.”
Accommodating the Jewish Zionist project was paramount, as revealed in the 1915 memorandum “The Future of Palestine”, in which British Home Secretary Herbert Samuel pressed for the annexation of the territory to the British Empire to provide “a solution of the problem of Palestine which would be… most welcome to the leaders and supporters of the Zionist movement throughout the world.”
Misconceptions and their portrayal formed the bulwark of diplomacy in that era. Berdine states that both Britain and the Zionists utilised misconceptions to further their political aims. For Sykes, the Allies’ victory in World War One and Zionist ambitions were interlinked. His intent was to secure a strategic base for Britain in the Middle East in the aftermath of the war, thus revealing yet another debate as to whether Sykes was pro-Zionist or cynically using Zionism to secure British and his own interests. The author leans towards the latter. However, it is clear that whatever philosophy Sykes harboured, the Palestinians were merely a pawn in the game and forced into subjugation for a simple reason. If the British had consulted Palestinians over the colonisation of their land, a revolt would have been a natural result. Berdine describes such a reaction as “an inconvenient fact” for Sykes, had his plans been revealed to the indigenous population.
Another notable and intentional decision by Sykes was his reference to Palestinians as “Syrian Arabs” in his communication with Lord Arthur Balfour. Berdine discusses this in terms of the long-term plan to divest Palestinians of their rights and part of Sykes’s campaign “to categorise them as non-indigenous people; hence, foreigners that had no special rights in the area.” Meanwhile, the British official’s approach to Zionist colonisation of Palestine focused on agrarian colonisation, which he viewed as the first step towards establishing a community and political system.
“For the Jews,” explains Berdine, “Sykes offered the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams while for the Arabs he offered only vague and nebulous promises.” The nature of such promises is a reference to the indirect inclusion of Palestinians as an appendage that fortified Zionist aims.
Read within the current context, the author’s historical narrative of colonial diplomacy behind the scenes allows the reader a better understanding of how one cannot speak today of Palestine without realising how its purported non-existence was enforced to pave the way for its replacement. Many references throughout the book focus on political influence derived from the Zionist project; indeed, Britain acknowledged that its standing in the Middle East post-war would be through Zionist influence.
Isolated critics of the colonial process were ignored, despite pointing out the anomaly, even as regards British interests, that it was carving out political power for an international ideology which, even in Britain, was mostly represented by “Zionist leaders of foreign birth”. This was articulated by Edwin Montagu, British Secretary of State for India and an opponent of the Balfour Declaration. Montagu — the only Jew in the Cabinet when the infamous declaration was written — warned against the British government’s willingness to accommodate more than “liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the inhabitants of that country who profess other religious beliefs.” Even so, unilateral and unequivocal support for Palestinians was missing. The concerns raised were still in favour of accommodating the Zionists’ political endeavours, thus leaving little space for Palestinians to assert their narrative, let alone their demands.
That Palestinians were deliberately excluded is a fact well portrayed by Berdine who, in his concluding remarks, says of Sykes that he was void of compassion for the indigenous people of Palestine, “seeing them as being of little use in his grandiose plans and otherwise intruders on the land they had occupied for millennia.” The author shows how the appropriation of the Palestinian narrative started well before the establishment of the colonial entity; for several reasons, which do not exclude purported humanitarian concerns for Jewish persecution, Palestine was an experimental zone and its true inhabitants were cannon fodder for cycles of exploitation. Berdine has succeeded in presenting a period in history that is all too often simplified by those controlling the dominant narrative in order to maintain the dynamics that promulgated the displacement of the Palestinians from their homeland.