Roots of Middle East turmoil stretch back to WWI land grab, according to Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society author


Furious battles rage across the Middle East as insurgents capture territory in Iraq and Syria. Jihadists with tribal allegiances challenge government troops for supremacy.

While this could be a snapshot of today’s Middle East, the hostilities described above actually occurred some 100 years ago during World War I, as detailed in the book, “Lawrence in Arabia,” by Scott Anderson (McClelland & Stewart, 2013).

Anderson, a veteran war correspondent, novelist and non-fiction author, was the featured speaker at the March 19 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Grand Del Mar Resort in Carmel Valley.

Anderson’s book focuses on the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, a low-ranking British officer who became internationally famous as a battlefield commander for Arab rebels in clashes with soldiers of the Ottoman Empire — based in what is today Istanbul, Turkey — and helping to bring down that centuries-old imperial power.

Lawrence, an archaeologist with no formal military training, captured the public’s imagination through his wartime adventures, his later writings and such films as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the Oscar-winning 1962 biopic by director David Lean.

One theme of the book is that Britain and France, which greedily grabbed territory in the Middle East after the WWI Allied victory despite promising independence and autonomy to the Arab fighters who supported their war effort, created the conditions that led to today’s discord in the region.

“The modern Middle East was largely created by the British,” wrote Anderson. “It was they who carried the Allied war effort in the region during World War I and who, at its close, principally fashioned its peace. It was a peace presaged by the nickname given the region by covetous Allied leaders in wartime: ‘the Great Loot.’”

Essentially, argues Anderson, Britain urged Arab rebels to rise up against the Ottomans, to fight and die for the Allied cause, in exchange for a promise of an independent Arab state after the war. At the same time, however, Britain and France made a secret pact parceling out the same land between themselves. France was to get Syria and modern-day Lebanon, while Britain laid claim to Palestine and Iraq.

The resentments sparked by that betrayal carry over to this day, Anderson contended in an interview before his Literary Society speech.

“It created a culture of grievance throughout the Arab world against the West that’s never gone away,” he said.

As for Lawrence, who dressed in Arab garb and embedded himself with the rebels, he made two main contributions, said Anderson.

“I think if Lawrence hadn’t been there, the Arab revolt would have collapsed,” he said. Also, “He foresaw disaster if the British and French tried to impose their Western, Christian imperial rule on the Muslim-Arab world.”

But his warnings fell on deaf ears. “He’s the siren that wasn’t listened to,” said Anderson.

In seeking to avert disaster and achieve his own vision of Arab autonomy, Lawrence went so far as to commit treason by telling his Arab counterpart, Emir Faisal ibn Hussein, about the secret accord between Britain and France, according to Anderson’s book.

The book also touches on Lawrence’s own strange personality traits, such as his emotional coldness, even toward his own family members. After the war, Lawrence refused a knighthood offered by the king and queen of England — literally walking out of a ceremony staged in his honor at Buckingham Palace — and reportedly enjoyed placing one of the medals he had won around the neck of his friend’s dog, and walking the animal around his Oxford neighborhood.

At the end of the war, Lawrence held the rank of lieutenant colonel, but, seeking obscurity, he changed his name and re-enlisted as a private. He died in 1935 at age 46, just a couple of months after retiring from the military, from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident.

Anderson said he decided to write the book after spending much of the past 25 years as a correspondent in the Middle East. Whenever he had a conversation about the roots of today’s turmoil in the Middle East, he said, invariably people pointed to the peace terms and borders imposed by the Allies at the end of World War I.

Even the terrorist group Islamic State or ISIS has stated that it wants to undo the borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret land-grab deal between Britain and France, Anderson said.

Mainstream Muslim groups may fear and loathe ISIS, said Anderson, but they’d probably agree with the terrorist group’s position on Sykes-Picot.

“It touches a chord in people,” he said.