A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bone of Contention, Part II: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: The Controversy Over Two Decades

The reasons for the dispute over the October 24, 1915 letter of McMahon to Hussein were implicit in Part I: Britain agreed, or appeared to agree, with the demands for Arab independence made by Sharif Hussein, subject to certain geographic reservations: the districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, which had substantial Turkish populations, and the "portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." Reading that in English, one would naturally assume that it is excluding Lebanon (an exclusion Hussein would contest elsewhere in the correspondence), but did it also include Palestine, as Britain would insist? From the Peace Conference in 1919 through the London Conference of 1939, Arab spokesmen and His Majesty's Government would bicker for two decades (and in many books since) over what was promised to whom, and what was excluded. As we approach the centennial of what I called perhaps the most contentious single text in Modern Middle Eastern History (though UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 is arguably a close second) this is the second part of my series on the letter and its attendant controversy. It looks at the controversy itself. Tomorrow we'll try to discern how the letter was written, and by whom, and what was originally intended.

The critical issue was the use of the word "districts" in the original English text, which appears as wilayat in the Arabic text dispatched to the Sharif. A wilaya is usually  province, equivalent to the Ottoman term vilayet, derived from the Arabic. Part I contains the full text of the letter in English and also the Arabic text of the critically contentious passage.

The problem is if you substitute vilayets for "districts" in the English, multiple ambiguities occur. In Arabic, wilaya can vary in meaning from province to some smaller administrative district depending on the country, but from 1867's "Vilayet Law" onward, in Ottoman administrative practice it was the highest-level or first order administrative division. There was a hierarchy of other administrative districts brlow the level of vilayet, but vilayet was not a generic, vague term like "district" in English.

Here is where the problem arises. If you substitute vilayet for "district" in the reservation, you would get "portions of Syria lying to the West of the vilayets of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." 

There was no "Vilayet of Damascus," but a "Vilayet of Syria" (or Sham), based in Damascus. There were no Vilayets of Homs or Hama, both of which were part of the Vilayet of Sham; there was a separate Vilayet of Aleppo and a Vilayet of Beirut. (The Islamic State which calls its provinces wilayat, does ironically have provinces named for these cities.) So what did "the district of Damascus," etc. mean: everything west of a line running from Damascus through Homs and Hama to Aleppo? That would mean the intention was to exclude Lebanon. Or, as the British would claim, everything west of the Ottoman vilyet of Syria/Sham, excluding all of Palestine?

This may seem like a lawyer's hairsplitting, until you realize that the whole history since 1915 of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan can be argued to stem from this debate. Though, as I have noted in Part I, no one seems to have questioned why Britain had the right to promise captured Ottoman territory to anyone.

Ottoman administrative districts (Wikipedia)

Whatever McMahon, or those who wrote the letter he signed, may have intended to exclude in 1915, and McMahon later would be quoted as saying he didn't intend to exclude Palestine,  by the postwar era Britain insisted  that he, or a least His majesty's Government,  had intended to exclude all of Palestine as well as Lebanon. The 1922 White Paper (the "Churchill White Paper," issued by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, by now Winston Churchill), already was dismissive of the claim that McMahon's pledge included Palestine:
With reference to the Constitution which it is now intended to establish in Palestine, the draft of which has already been published, it is desirable to make certain points clear. In the first place, it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty's Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty's Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir. Henry McMahon's pledge.
But the letter mentions neither the Vilayet of Beirut or the Sanjaq of Jerusalem. By the time of the 1922 White Paper, it was already clear that Britain's various commitments during the War were not always reconcilable, as tensions between Zionist settlers in Palestine, buoyed by the Balfour Declaration, and the local Arab population, feeling McMahon had pledged Arab control of Palestine, were already rising.

As polemics increased between the two sides in Palestine, now under British Mandate, and White Papers and Royal Commissions proliferated, contention continued over the October 24, 1915 letter in particular, and the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in general.

George Antonius
George Antonius, a Lebanese-born Greek Orthodox who spent years working for the Mandate Administration before breaking with it, was a prominent Jerusalem intellectual (while his wife Katy would remain a prominent socialite in her later widowhood), became an outspoken advocate of the Arab cause. In the wake of the Arab General Strike and Revolt of 1936, he wrote that staple of Modern Middle East courses, The Arab Awakening, in 1938, a classic history of the rise of Arab nationalism (or, as some argue, at least the Hashemite version thereof). The book made the Hussein-McMahon correspondence a key part of its argument and marked one of the first, if not the first, publications of the full English text. It remains the classic statement of the Arab argument.

Antonius' role was not limited to his book. He served as Secretary to the Palestinian Arab delegation to the London Conference of 1939, convened in the last months before war broke out in Europe to try to find a solution for Palestine in the wake of the Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, and other efforts.
The London Conference (1939)
The London Conference involved a Zionist delegation appointed by the Jewish Agency and an Arab delegation including Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, and Yemen, plus the aforementioned Palestinian delegation. The Arab delegation refused to meet with the Jewish delegation so the British conducted separate talks. Unless you have been on another planet you are aware no solution was found.

The London Conference could deserve a post in its own right, but for our purpose here the important product was a "Report of a Committee Set Up to Consider Certain Correspondence Between Sir Henry McMahon [His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt] and The Sharif of Mecca in 1915 and 1916," dated March 16, 1939, and setting out the two sides' position in detail. Antonius himself is said to have contributed heavily to the Arab Delegation's Brief, if not written it outright.

Annex A of the report is the Arab argument and Annex B the British response. These may be the best summaries of the two sides of the debate.  From Annex A (the Arab argument):
10. A good deal has been made of the possible constructions to be put upon the exact meaning of the word vilayet. The use of that word throughout the Correspondence calls for explanation. The word vilayet is the Turkish form of the Arab word wilaya. In Arabic, the word is used to denote a province, or region or district without any specific administration connotation. In Turkish, the word was borrowed from the Arabic to denote certain specified administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire with precise limits and boundaries. In a correspondence such as this which was conducted in Arabic, the word used was the Arabic term wilaya, and this use did not always necessarily correspond to a Turkish vilayet. For instance, the Arabic-text speaks of the wilaya of Mersin, the wilaya of Alexandretta, the wilaya of Damascus, the wilaya of Homs, the wilaya of Hama; and yet there were no administrative divisions in existence at any time in the history of these regions, which bore any of those designations. These phrases can only make sense if the word wilaya is read in its proper Arab significance of region or district without any reference whatever to administrative boundaries.
11. The English translation circulated by the United Kingdom Delegation shows the Arabic word ivilaya in its Turkish form of vilayet throughout. This is not only a misleading rendering, but it is also unjustified for another reason. The McMahon notes were issued from the Residency in Cairo in Arabic, and that Arabic text was itself a translation from an English original. In that English original the word used in several contexts was the word district, as is shown by the quotations in the White Paper of 1922 and in the Report of the Palestine Royal Commission (Chapter II, paragraph 5). It would avoid unnecessary confusion if the United Kingdom Delegation could see their way to restoring the term district wherever it occurred in the original English text.
12. The British Government's contention is that Palestine was excluded by implication, when Sir Henry McMahon notified the Sharif that "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" were to be excluded from the area of Arab independence. This contention was publicly sponsored by Mr. Winston Churchill in 1922, when, speaking as the Secretary of State for the Colonies, he tried to argue that the word districts in that phrase was to be read as equivalent to vilayets; and that, since the "Vilayet of Damascus" included that part of Syria—now known as Transjordan—which lay to the east of the River Jordan, it followed that that part of Syria—now known as Palestine—which lay to the west of the Jordan was one of the portions of territory reserved in Sir Henry McMahon's phrase.
13. An examination of the text shows that the British Government's argument is untenable. In the first place, the word districts in Sir Henry McMahon's phrase could not have been intended as the equivalent of vilayets, because there were no such things as the "Vilayet of Damascus", the "Vilayet of Homs" and the "Vilayet of Hama". There was one single Vilayet of Syria of which Damascus was the capital and two smaller administrative divisions of which Homs and Hama were the principal towns. Sir Henry McMahon's phrase can only make sense if we take his districts as meaning "districts" in the current use of the word, that is to say, the regions adjacent to the four cities, and his reservation as applying to that part of Syria—roughly from Sidon to Alexandretta—which lies to the west of the continuous line formed by those four cities and the districts immediately adjoining them.
14. Again, in his third note dated the 14th December, Sir Henry McMahon refers to the regions which he wished to exclude as being in "the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut". Had he had Palestine in mind, he would certainly have added "and the Sanjaq of Jerusalem". The fact that he did not goes to confirm the conclusion that the only portions of Syria which it was proposed at the time to reserve in favour of France were the coastal regions of northern Syria.
15. Lastly, in giving the pledge contained in his second note, Sir Henry McMahon stated that Great Britain recognised as the area of Arab independence all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca in which she was "free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France". Both in that note and in his subsequent note of the 14th December, he justified his exclusion of certain parts of Syria on the grounds of Great Britain's regard for French interests. If, then, Great Britain were to find herself at the end of the War free to act in respect of any portion of Syria which she had felt bound to reserve in favour of France, the reservation loses its justification and indeed whatever force it may have had when it was originally made; and that portion of Syria which was no longer destined to be included in the sphere of French interests—as was eventually the case with Palestine—must, in default of any specific agreement to the contrary, necessarily remain within the area of Arab independence proposed by the Sharif and accepted by Great Britain.
16. In a letter which appeared over his signature in The Times of July 23, 1937, Sir Henry McMahon declared that, in giving the pledge to King Husain, it was not intended by him to include Palestine in the area of Arab independence; and that he had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in the pledge was well understood by King Husain.
These declarations of Sir Henry McMahon's will not bear investigation. In the first place, Sir Henry's function was that of an intermediary charged with the task, not of framing policy, but of carrying out the policy laid down by his official chiefs and conveying it to the Sharif Husain in accordance with the instructions issued to him by the Foreign Office. Even if the intention behind the words used could be invoked as an argument to invalidate or distort the proper and ordinary meaning of the words he used, it is not Sir Henry's intention that might count but the intention of the responsible Minister— in this case, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—on whose instructions Sir Henry McMahon was acting. If intentions are to be taken into account despite the obvious and unmistakable meaning of the words used, then it would be necessary to search for such evidence as is available in the files of the Foreign Office to throw light on the Secretary of State's intentions. Some evidence on that point is already public in the speech which Viscount Grey of Fallodon delivered in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923. The relevant extracts from that speech are appended to this Memorandum, together with the remarks made by Lord Buckmaster on the same occasion. Viscount Grey makes it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the British Government's interpretation of the scope of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had given to the Arabs in 1915.
17. In the second place, leaving aside for a moment the question of the underlying intention and turning to the text itself, it will be found that the words used throughout the Correspondence can only be interpreted as meaning that Palestine was not, directly or indirectly, excluded from the area of Arab independence. The phrase "districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo", as stated in paragraph 13 above, could only have meant the districts adjacent to those four cities. It is also obvious that the Sharif Husain understood that the portions of Syria to be reserved were those lying immediately to the west of those four cities and no more. In his note of the 5th of November, 1915, he speaks of the Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut and "their maritime coasts"; while in his note of the 1st of January, 1916, he describes the regions proposed for exclusion as "the northern parts and their coastal regions", and, lower down in the same note, as: "Beirut and its coastal regions which we will overlook for the moment on account of France." Moreover, Sir Henry McMahon himself, in his note of the 30th of January, 1916, speaks of those portions of Syria which were to be excluded as "the northern regions", thereby showing that, at the time at any rate, he did not differ from the Sharif in regarding tic reservations as applying only to the northern coastal regions of Syria.
18. Lastly, there is the evidence provided by the Sharif's subsequent actions in regard to Palestine, which shows that he had always understood that part of Syria to have remained within the area of Arab independence. No sooner was the Balfour Declaration issued than he sent in an immediate protest to the British Government to ask for an explanation. This action and other actions taken by the Sharif in subsequent years may be held to fall outside the scope of the present Committee's investigation, which is understood to cover only the examination of the text of the McMahon Correspondence. But they are historic; I facts nevertheless; and in the light of those facts, Sir Henry McMahon's declaration that he had every reason to believe the contrary loses its force and indeed appears meaningless.
19. The contention that the British Government did intend Palestine to be removed from the sphere of French influence and to be included within the area of Arab independence (that is to say, within the area of future British influence) is also borne out by the measures they took in Palestine during the War. They dropped proclamations by the thousand in all parts of Palestine, which bore a message from the Sharif Husain on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs, and to ask the Arab population of Palestine to look upon the advancing British Army as allies and liberators and give them every assistance. Under the aegis of the British military authorities, recruiting offices were opened in Palestine to recruit volunteers for the forces of the Arab Revolt. Throughout 1916 and the greater part of 1917, the attitude of the military and political officers of the British Army was clearly based on the understanding that Palestine was destined to form part of the Arab territory which was to be constituted after the War on the basis of independent Arab governments in close alliance with Great Britain.
This is  rather full explication of the Arab side of the argument. Annex B summarizes the British response:
18. As regards (i), the view of His Majesty's Government has always been that the phrase " portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo " embraced all that portion of Syria (including what is now called Palestine) lying to the west of inter alia the administrative area known as the "Vilayet of Syria". 19. It is true that there were no Vilayets of Homs or Hama, but it is also true that both Damascus and Aleppo were the capitals of Vilayets, and the reference to Damascus should alone have sufficed to establish Sir Henry McMahon's meaning. The additional mention of Homs and Hama was evidently made because al-Faruqi* had mentioned them and to ensure that the intervening territory of which they were the most important towns should not be excluded from the area consigned to Arab rule. Obviously no reference was intended to non-existent Vilayets.
*Note: Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi was an Ottoman Army lieutenant and defector who persuaded British officials he could speak for the Sharifian cause, which the Sharifians would subsequently deny. The British cite him frequently in what follows. We'll return to him in a later part.
20. It is also true that the official Turkish name for the Vilayet of which Damascus was the capital was "Vilayet of Syria", but there should have been no misunderstanding of this phrase, especially as the writer of the letter had already found it necessary to use "Syria" (even though there was a Vilayet of that name) in order to describe comprehensively a vague geographical area evidently including the Vilayets of Syria and Beirut, the independent Sanjaq of Jerusalem, the Province of the Lebanon, and part of the Vilayet of Aleppo.
21. It may be worth adding at this point that the phrase "districts of Damascus, etc." would hardly have been desired by the Sharif to be taken to mean small areas immediately surrounding the towns in question (as one of the Arab spokesmen argued, if the Lord Chancellor has correctly understood him, at the first meeting) since if this had been the case the territory in which the Arabs would have been denied independence would have been brought much further east than on a more liberal interpretation of the phrase. The non-Arab territory would in fact have reached eastwards almost to the outskirts of Damascus and the other towns, and have covered substantial portions of Transjordan and considerable sections of the Hejaz Railway.
22. Nor is it denied that in one sense there was no territory east of the Vilayet of Aleppo and that if the letter of October 24th, 1915, was to be interpreted by the Sharif on the lines suggested by His Majesty's Government the area of Arab independence would not reach the Mediterranean, although the fact that it would not do so was not mentioned in the letter.
23. As regards the first point, it must be remembered that Sir Henry McMahon was not attempting to define with any great accuracy the eastward limits of the territory which he was excluding from the area of Arab independence, and he clearly used a phrase to define in a general way a stretch of territory lying along the Mediterranean coast some of which might lie outside, and some of which might lie inside, the "districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo", but all of which lay to the west or in the western parts of those districts.
24. As regards the second point, the Lord Chancellor does not feel that it is possible to base any conclusions on the fact that the exclusion of access to the Mediterranean for the Arab area of independence was not specifically mentioned by Sir Henry McMahon. If the areas which he defined as lying outside that area were so situated that access to the Mediterranean was denied there was no necessity to say so in so many words.
25. The Lord Chancellor has taken note of the argument based upon the fact that in his letter of December I4th, 1915, Sir Henry McMahon only referred to the possible exclusion from the area of Arab independence of the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and these two only, without any mention of the Sanjaq of Jerusalem or of other areas. But it seems clear that in referring to these two Vilayets, Sir Henry McMahon was merely replying to a point raised by the Sharif in his letter of November 5th, 1915, and it does not seem possible to draw any particular conclusion from this circumstance.
26. This no doubt leads to another point made by one of the Arab spokesmen: that seeing how much importance the Sharif attached throughout the correspondence to the Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and to the Vilayets of Mesopotamia, the Sharif would unquestionably have referred in even stronger terms to Palestine (or the Sanjaq of Jerusalem) had he had the slightest suspicion that it was being excluded from the area of Arab independence. This may well be the case, but surely the opposite conclusion can equally well be drawn, that the Sharif understood and accepted the fact that because of its special position as a country interesting all the world Palestine was a territory which had to be reserved for special treatment.
27. The same considerations apply to the fact that in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif referred to "the northern parts and their coasts". It is possible in this case again to conclude that Palestine was accepted by him as lying outside the area of Arab independence. But in any case, the words "northern parts" or "northern coasts" could legitimately be taken by the reader of a letter written in the Hejaz as meaning the whole Mediterranean coast.
28. The foregoing arguments with regard to the specific reservation are offered in order to show that in regard to each point of criticism it is possible to find a probable reason for what: Sir Henry McMahon had in mind. But the Lord Chancellor would not for a moment wish to suggest that this passage in the letter which Sir Henry McMahon sent on October 24th, 1915, on the instructions of His Majesty's Government was clear or well-expressed, or that any of the other territorial references (on either side) were clear or well-expressed, or that it is upon such arguments that His Majesty's Government rely in the presentation of their case.
29. The best explanation which His Majesty's Government can give as to what was meant by the phrase "districts of Damascus etc." in the letter of October 24th, 1915, is that the phrase was borrowed from al-Faruqi and used in the same wide and general sense as that in which he himself used it, i.e. as one which covered the Syrian hinterland southwards to the Gulf of 'Aqaba.
30. But although His Majesty's Government consider that the specific reservation should have sufficed to exclude Palestine, they attach less importance to this point than to the general reservation.
31. The wording of the general reservation is, in view of His Majesty's Government, perfectly clear. It limits the area to which Sir Henry McMahon's pledge was to apply to:
    "... those portions of the territories therein (i.e. in the area claimed by the Sharif) in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, F
In other words, the pledge did not extend to any territory in which Great Britain was not free to act without regard to French interests on the date on which the letter was despatched, i.e. on October 24th, 1915. 32. It must also be made clear, since the point has been raised by the Arab members of the committee, that, in the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, any subsequent developments which may at later dates have modified the extent of the area in which Great Britain was free to act without detriment to French interests are irrelevant to a consideration of the extent of the area to which the pledge applied on October 24th, 1915 and has continued to apply ever since.
33. Now, if there is anything which is certain in this controversy it is that Great Britain was not free in October, 1915, to act in Palestine without regard to French interests. It may be perfectly true that under the influence of Lord Kitchener and others His Majesty's Government before and after the outbreak of the war were anxious to restrict the French claims on the Levant coast if they could find a legitimate means of doing so. But there is a great difference between desiring an object and attaining it. It can be stated as a fact that at the time of the Correspondence France claimed the Mediterranean littoral as far south as the Egyptian border and as far east as Damascus, and it was not until the Spring of 1916 that these extreme claims were modified as the result of discussions culminating in the so-called "Sykes-Picot" Agreement.
34. As has been stated, the Sharif must have realised the possibility and even the extreme probability of the existence of a French claim to Palestine, even if he did not know of it for a fact, and in view of the circumstances, and of the extensive British and religious interest in Palestine, the wording of the "McMahon pledge" ought surely to have suggested to him and to any other reader of the letter that Palestine was excluded from, or, to say the least, not clearly included in, the area of Arab independence.
35. There are some further points which must be noted in connexion with the Correspondence. In paragraph 2 of the Sharif's letter of November 5th, 1915, and in the fourth paragraph of Sir Henry McMahon's reply of December 14th, 1915, it is made clear that many important details regarding the territorial situation were left over for a later settlement.
36. Furthermore, in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif agrees to leave for future consideration the French occupation of "Beirut and its coasts". Whatever may have been meant by this phrase—and it might well be argued that the " coasts" of Beirut extended as far as the Egyptian border—it clearly excluded the coasts of Palestine as far south as the limits of the Vilayet of Beirut, i.e. as far south as a point just north of Jaffa. This in itself amounted to a provisional acceptance of a reservation of nearly half of Palestine.
37. The "Sykes-Picot" Agreement of May, 1916, has already been mentioned, as has also the fact that the claims of France at the beginning of the War extended over the whole of Palestine, as well as to Damascus and Aleppo. In this connexion it must be remembered that Sir Mark Sykes was definitely sympathetic towards the Arab cause and he must clearly have negotiated the agreement in the belief that the reservations in the pledge of October 24th, 1915, justified his concluding an agreement in the form which it eventually assumed. His Majesty's Government have no doubt that he was right.
38. Moreover, Sir Mark Sykes secured a great concession from the French negotiators as regards the Sanjaqs of Hama, Damascus and Aleppo, which, as a result of what al-Faruqi had said at a slightly earlier period, His Majesty's Government had reason to suppose were vital to the Arabs. It was an exceedingly difficult task to obtain this concession from the French Government and it was genuinely believed at the time that the arrangements would (to quote from an official report of the period) "adjust the fundamental divergencies of Arabs and French regarding Syria."
39. In the agreement Palestine was admittedly to be international. The Sharif of Mecca was, however, to be consulted, and the form of government was to be agreed upon with (amongst others) his representatives. These points are generally overlooked, but if they are taken into account it is difficult to see how the agreement can fairly be represented as a breach of faith with the Sharif. Moreover, as has already been emphasized, His Majesty's Government were not, in 1915, in a position to give the sovereignty of Palestine to the Arab people. They had to consult their Allies and other countries having interests in that territory just as they are now obliged to consult the members of the League of Nations.
So the two sides differed drastically in their interpretations, according to their own self-interests. But why was the language so ambiguous? Deliberately, to mislead, or through incompetent translation or ill-defined intent? Who wrote the letter (it wasn't McMahon)? Who translated it? Who was the mysterious Faruqi the British cite several times? Stay tuned.

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