Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"A Line In the Sand" by James Barr (2012)

The Middle East is a puzzle of contemporary history, with a cast of governments, and officials, who have managed to turn the entire area into a global disaster waiting to happen. We often look back only as far as the late 1940's and the rise of Israel to statehood as the root of the problems there. This is a very short sighted outlook.

While the conflicts in the Middle East can be traced as far back as biblical times, the most influential events which have ravaged the region occurred in the years during the First World War. It was during this time, when T.E. Lawrence, under orders from General Allenby, united the Arab tribes in order to break the back of the Ottoman Empire. Even as the fighting was raging, a secret agreement; which came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement; drew a line in the sand from the Mediterranean Sea to the foothills of Persia. The land north of the line would go to France, while the lands south of the line would belong to the British. Nobody consulted the Arabs.

The British quickly took possession of the Eastern side of the Suez Canal and began their tepid backing of a Jewish state. The French, looking to maintain control in Lebanon and Syria, exploited the political chasm between the Zionists and the British. This was the true beginning of the conflict which rages in the Middle East to this very day, and as such it bears close examination. Mr. Barr, with this book, has done just that.

At the time, the French were very much concerned that the British were undermining their rule in the area, and the British were of the same opinion of the French. So, through a series of what can only be described as "political blundering", based largely upon a struggle between the two colonial powers in the area, the stage was set for the struggles which began almost immediately after the end of the First World War.

The French, of course, gained Lebanon and Syria; while the British retained control of Palestine, portions of Egypt and Transjordan, as well as Iraq. The British then created Kuwait as a way of cutting Iraq off from the sea, requiring Iraq to ship its oil through Kuwait, as well as paying a tax for doing so. Of course, this became the basis for the "First Gulf War" in 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The book also explores the role of Germany during the Second World War, and her efforts to seize Iraq from British control. The RAF, in support of this effort, bombed the Syrian airfields which were being used by the Germans to re-fuel their planes.

Mr. Barr has done an excellent job of tracing the conflict in the Mid-East to several pivotal events, most going back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. Peopled with such luminary figures as Sir Mark Sykes, and his French counterpart Francois Georges-Picot, along with David Lloyd George, T.E. Lawrence, and Winston Churchill, this book will provide the reader with excellent background in helping to understand the present day Middle East and just how it got so fouled up.

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