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Victory in the Middle East for the Allies: 1916-18

Map of Middle East in 2000

The Middle East in the year 2000. Click to enlarge.

On June 10, 1916, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, fired a shot from the window of his palace, signaling the beginning of the revolt against rule by the Ottoman Turks. Within three weeks, Hussein's 5,000 warriors forced the 1,400 Turks stationed around Mecca to surrender.

The rebellion against the Ottomans continued in alliance with the British war effort. Hussein bin Ali's intention was to create a single unified Arab state across Arabia, including Palestine, to the Turkish border. Some Arab Muslims considered fighting alongside Christians as betraying Islam. Hussein's son, Faisal (portrayed by Alec Guinness in the movie Lawrence of Arabia), in charge of his father's rebellion, was motivated by Arab nationalism and a desire for independence from rule by the Turks more than he was by religious doctrine. He believed that he and his father had a right to power as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and he and his father ignored the criticism.

Hussein's forces were largely made up of Bedouin and other nomadic desert tribes who were only loosely allied and more loyal to their respective tribes than to any Arab nationalism. Faisal wanted to convince Arabs serving in the Ottoman Army to mutiny and join his cause, but few would do so until near the end of the war when it was more apparent who was winning.

The British in Egypt sent a young officer, Captain T E Lawrence, to work with the Arabs, and Lawrence succeeded in getting the Arabs to coordinate their actions with British strategy. They left the Turks holding onto Medina while attacking the Hejaz railway on many occasions. Then in the spring of 1917 the Arab forces moved north to seize Yenbo and Wejh on the coast of the Red Sea in what today is the northwest of Saudi Arabia.

In May 1917, Hussein bin Ali learned from the French diplomat, Picot, that France and Britain wanted to play a role in Arabia's future and that the two countries had already drawn up boundaries in Arabia. Picot was referring to the Sykes-Picot Agreement concluded the year before and still a secret at the time of their meeting. Picot tried to convince Hussein and his son Faisal that all would be well with such an arrangement, but Hussein was offended. He told Picot that he had received letters from leaders of all classes of Arabs promising true allegiance to him as their leader and protector. He complained that separating Christians from Muslims in Arabia would create divisions amongst the people and foster bigotry. He called for the wishes of the people of Arabia for independence from foreign rule to be honored, and he said that people who had recently been executed by the Turks had said just before their execution: "We don't mind. Our King ... will soon appear and avenge our death."

The British, French and Hussein went on with their war efforts, and in July an army led by Lawrence and the Bedouin chief Auda Abu captured the port of Aqaba (at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea).

On November 2, 1917, Britain issued its Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed that Palestine was to be "a national home for the Jewish people." It was wartime opportunism that involved making trouble for Germany, which had a sizable Jewish population.

The declaration read:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The Bolsheviks in Russia released a copy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, intending to embarrass the Allies regarding the issue of self-determination. The agreement's full text was printed in the Bolshevik's newspaper on November 23. This embarrassed the British, who had begun the war under the pretense that they joined the war fighting for the rights of Belgians. And there was President Woodrow Wilson who had entered the war believing in the right of people to self-determination.

In December 1917 the British and their Arab allies drove the Turks from Jerusalem. The British commander, Allenby, entered the city on foot out of respect for what was considered a holy city.

The Arabs continued fighting into 1918. In October they and the British took control of Damascus and Syria. In Damascus, people rejoiced at what appeared to be a liberation from Ottoman rule. The Ottoman's agreed to an armistice on October 30.

The British and French were making an effort to reassure Arab doubters about liberation. European influence in Arabia was described as "like a lighthouse" that guides a navigator. A senior British officer saw complaints about the presence of foreign (British) troops and a desire for complete independences as coming from a "small party" of "fanatical Muslims and 'Young Arab' hotheads."

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.