Key Point: The Sykes-Picot Agreement, based on al-Faruqi’s distorted claims, was finally signed in May 1916. Thus, of the three documents most profoundly influencing the establishment of the Modern Middle East—the Hussein-McMahon letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration—Al-Faruqi directly and indirectly influenced the drafting of two.
“It began as a mistake.” Charles Bukowski’s terse opening line in his debut novel Post Office succinctly summarizes the dubious beginnings of Arab-West discussions on the future of the Middle East in 1915 during the First World War. In the spring of that same year, bogged down British and French forces were desperately battling the Ottoman army on the Gallipoli peninsula trying to force the Dardanelles and occupy Istanbul. Amid the fighting, a 25-year-old Turkish officer, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi, deserted to the British side on August 20, 1915. Trying to save his own skin and apparently determined to play a role in shaping the postwar future of the Middle-East, Al-Faruqi provided British intelligence with a host of assertions about himself and the Arab tribes under Ottoman suzerainty, which later turned out to be either wild exaggerations or plain lies.
British intelligence, however, took Al-Faruqi’s statements at face value, which led the British to promise a great deal to the Arabs in exchange for revolting against the Turks. This in turn directly influenced the negotiations over the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement that in many ways has been at the root of much of the political upheaval in the Middle East ever since. Thus, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi may very well be one of the greatest impostors in the history of international relations.
Born in Mosul, in modern day Iraq, in 1891 into the prominent al-Umari family, he joined the Ottoman army and graduated in 1912 from the military academy in Istanbul. After his commissioning he was assigned aide-de-camp to Fakhri Pasha, commander of the 12th corps of the fourth Turkish army stationed in and around Mosul, where he also worked with Yasin-al-Hashimi, a future prime minister of Iraq.
At the end of 1913, Al-Faruqi helped found the Mosul branch of al-Ahd, a secret society of army officers, dedicated to advancing Arab interests within the Ottoman Empire. The founder of al-Ahd was a Circassian Ottoman army officer, Aziz Ali al-Masri, who, despite being a leader in the Young Turkey Party, felt discriminated against by the Turkifying policies of the Young Turks. At the beginning of the First World War, al-Ahd merged with the Arab secret society, al-Fatat, and they jointly sent a message to Sharif Hussein of Mecca offering to start a rebellion against the Turks in Syria. Hussein was already in correspondence with the British on the same subject. Al-Faruqi at that time was also stationed in Syria and along with other members of the secret societies met Hussein’s son Faysal in May 1915 in Aleppo. On May 23 in Damascus, Faysal, representing his father, accepted the conditions on which the secret society would support Hussein’s rebellion (“The Damascus Protocol”). Faysal, however, judged al-Fatat’s strengths inadequate to the task without Western help.
Jamal Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman fourth army, got wind of the secret activities of the Arab officers in his force, and had Al-Faruqi, alongside other officers, imprisoned for 15 days, released due to lack of evidence, then sent to Gallipoli to fight the Allies presumably to get killed in the trenches. While serving in an infantry unit, Al-Faruqi managed to keep up his correspondence with fellow secret society members and learned that Sharif Hussein had sent the British a letter in August 1915, outlining his conditions for starting a revolt. These conditions were based on the Damascus Protocol. Sharif Hussein was no nationalist. He only reluctantly contacted the British and joined in the resistance because he had learned that the Young Turks conspired to replace him as Emir of Mecca after the war.
After Al-Faruqi’s defection, his knowledge of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence (Arthur Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner of Egypt, exchanged a number of letters with Hussein about a possible Arab revolt) made his subsequent stories believable to British military intelligence in Cairo. Coincidentally, Al-Faruqi’s arrival aided Anglo-Arab relations as things were going badly for Britain and her allies in the East, and policy makers were desperately looking for alternatives that would bring victory.
The campaign in Gallipoli, which eventually would cost Great Britain and France more than 250,000 casualties and losses, had ground to a halt. (The initial plan of attack had been borrowed from the Greek General Staff). The tremendous sacrifices of the British Empire and its allies forced the former’s hand to elevate its involvement in the Middle East “to give some sort of meaning to so great a sacrifice” as the historian David Fromkin put it in his A Peace to End All Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Among key decision-makers within the British Empire, however, the opinion was sharply divided over precisely what to do. The British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who only reluctantly diverted forces from the Western Front for the Gallipoli campaign, was nevertheless convinced that the British would have to carve out a large territory in the Middle East in order to protect Britain’s Indian Empire from French and, above all, Russian encroachment. He states in a memorandum in early 1915: “Old enmities and jealousies which may have been stilled by the existing crisis in Europe may revive . . .” putting Britain “at enmity with Russia, or with France, or with both in combination.”
Kitchener, the model of the Victorian empire builder and apostle of the “Great Game”, saw in the creation of a British dominated but nominally independent Arabian kingdom, which included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a bulwark against any religious infused outside agitations vis-à-vis Britain’s Muslim subjects in India. He also emphasized British involvement in Middle Eastern affairs in order to safeguard the Suez Canal and thus communication with New Delhi. This stood in sharp contrast to British policy in the past century that was focused on guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire and which still had supporters in the British government, most notably in the India Office and among the British colonial administration in India. The origins of this policy had been the containment of the ever expanding Russian Empire which had coveted Istanbul ever since Peter the Great, and which “Great Gamers” such at Kitchener saw as the principal adversary to Britain’s future imperial aspirations.
In June 1915, a few weeks after the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, Sir Mark Sykes, Kitchener’s personally appointed Middle East expert, was sent on a fact finding mission to the Balkans, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf to assess the political and military situation in the East. After his return he reported to the cabinet and Lord Kitchener in January 1916, amid the ongoing evacuation of imperial forces from the Gallipoli peninsular, that a powerful secret society within the Ottoman Empire and a native prince who could muster thousands of troops to fight the Turks was ready to strike on Britain’s behalf and turn the tide of the war in the East. Kitchener, politically compromised due to the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, seized the opportunity to push his idea of a British dominated but ostensibly independent Arabian kingdom through the cabinet. Kitchener and Sykes, however, along with his British colleagues in Cairo, had been duped by Al-Faruqi: there was no unified Arab opposition to Turkish rule, nor was there an all powerful secret society active behind enemy lines. How had Al-Faruqi tricked the British?
During a series of interrogations in the summer and fall of 1915 Al-Faruqi claimed that he was speaking for Sharif Hussein and was a high representative of al-Ahd, an organization so secretive that it had an unbreakable cypher and such a powerful force within the Ottoman Empire that 90 percent of Arab Officers serving in the Turkish army were members of the organization. In addition, he stated that al-Ahd was spreading pro-British propaganda, and that he personally had persuaded many Arab officers to desert. He also stated that other Arabian chieftains (e.g., Ibn Saud) were openly supporting the movement and by doing so vicariously backing Hussein. The organization was particularly strong around Mosul and Baghdad, where the most important families of both towns were active members. Al-Ahd officers had even been prepared to help a British landing in Alexandretta on the Syrian coast by starting a series of rebellions in that area but called it off in the end since the British never showed up.
Most importantly, Al-Faruqi stated that the Arabs could immediately establish an Arab empire covering the Arabian Peninsular, Iraq and Syria with Sharif Hussein as caliph and sultan of the realm. He also specified the geographical borders of the prospective empire and requested British help, which would be rewarded with an Anglo-Arab treaty granting special privileges to Great Britain in Arabia. Of even greater importance was his claim that the Germans were so afraid of al-Ahd that they already agreed to all their demands. It was Britain’s turn to act expeditiously or force the Arabs to side with the Turks and Germans.
As Eliezer Tauber has shown in his seminal study The Role of Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi – New Light on Anglo-Arab Relations During the First World War, none of Al-Faruqi’s claims proved true. First and most importantly Al-Faruqi did not represent Hussein—in fact the latter was not even aware of his existence in early October 1915. According to Tauber, al-Ahd had only 53 active members of which 42 were officers; according to Al-Faruqi, however, it had nearly 10,000. There is no evidence that the organization ever engaged in pro-British propaganda, nor that any of the other Arabian warlords had ever accepted Sharif Hussein as their leader. The organization neither had an unbreakable cypher, nor many members within the senior leadership of the Ottoman army. Al-Faruqi himself was a low-key member and without a mandate to negotiate on behalf of al-Ahd, although he may have subsequently received permission by al-Ahd’s founder, Aziz Ali-al-Mizri, to do so. There is also no evidence of any concessions by Germany to the organization. In fact the Turks, the day after the Al-Faruqi’s defection, executed various prominent members of the Arab society including members of al-Fatat. Eliezer Tauber concludes: “It can be seen that Faruqi’s words were very inexact, to say the least, being exaggerations at best and outright lies at worst.”
The British nevertheless believed him. The historian David Fromkin states that British officials in Cairo were especially prone to be duped since they, along with Kitchener, regarded themselves as experts on Arab Affairs. In that regard Fromkin states: “A characteristic flaw in the information-gathering conducted by Clayton and Storrs [two British officials in Cairo] was that they frequently accepted information supplied by a single informant without testing and checking it.” Fromkin quotes from John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle to capture the alleged orientalist spirit of British representatives in Cairo: “The truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of a remote peoples. Perhaps the Scots are better than the English, but we’re all a thousand percent better than anybody else.”
However, British intelligence supposedly did receive confirmation from other sources as this dispatch from the Arab Bureau (for which T.E. Lawrence was working) written in 1916 shows: “Information regarding the then position of the Arab party was obtained from Aziz Bey Ali El Masri . . . Mukhtar Bey in Athens, as well as from various intelligence sources available to the military authorities . . . ” High Commissioner McMahon in a note to British Foreign Minister Edward Grey also states: “The story fits in generally with what was already known to other sources.” What exactly these sources revealed is impossible to ascertain.
Al-Faruqi’s statements had an enormous impact on the British. Gilbert Clayton, director of military intelligence in Cairo wrote a memorandum in which he called him a “leading spirit in the Pan-Arab Party”. He furthermore stressed that Sharif Hussein ’s territorial demands were, as now confirmed by Al-Faruqi, the will of all Arabs. Another British general sent a copy of Clayton’s memorandum to Lord Kitchener with a side note stressing that “a powerful organization with considerable influence in the army and among Arab Chiefs” had decided that the time to act has arrived. Numerous other letters were dispatched all urging the War Cabinet in Britain to act lest the Germans gain the upper hand and the British Empire be confronted by all out Jihad. The British had to strike “while the iron was hot” as General Wingate emphasized. The deserter Al-Faruqi managed to shake the British leadership out of their Gallipoli lethargy and rally them around his words.
Prior to Al-Faruqi’s arrival Hussein was merely considered one of many warlords from the Hejaz—Britain, for example, subsidized Ibn Saud, one of Hussein ’s most significant rivals—but now he had to be taken seriously as the leader of the recently exposed Pan-Arabian movement consisting of thousands of warriors poised for insurgency. Consequently, in a controversial letter from October 24 1915, McMahon promised Arab statehood to Hussein and loosely agreed to the boundaries—but with a few reservations—that Hussein had proposed in an earlier letter. Al-Faruqi was again the key figure in swaying British opinion. According to a October 15 telegram to British Foreign Minister Gray, McMahon, based on Al-Faruqi’s recommendation, included a slightly altered version of the following sentence in his October 24 letter to Hussein: “In so far as Britain was free to act without detriment to the interests of her present Allies, Great Britain accepts the principle of the independence of Arabia within limits propounded by the Sherif of Mecca;” McMahon replaced “present allies” with “our ally France.” This phrase was meant to assuage all sides involved; yet it turned out to be one of the most controversial sentences in the entire McMahon- Hussein correspondence, which to many exposed the West’s imperialist double-dealings. Comparing letters written by McMahon to Hussein prior to Al-Faruqi’s arrival Eliezer Tauber comments: “The differences are clear—the arrival of the deserter, Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi, caused a complete change in the attitude of the British toward Hussein.”
Even more grave misunderstandings arose when Al-Faruqi met with Mark Sykes in November 1915, who made a last stop in Egypt at the end of his fact-finding mission for Kitchener. Al-Faruqi, who previously had been adamant to keep France out of Syria, outlined French influence in the region—specifically interior Syria and Palestine—along with the British sphere of influences in Iraq. This discussion was the impetus for Sykes to commence negotiations with the French Diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot. Al-Faruqi’s influence was evident since he had consulted neither Sharif Hussein, nor al-Ahd on the subject of postwar European influence in Arabia. Mark Sykes hurried to London to report what he thought to be Sharif Hussein ’s and the Arabs’ position, not knowing that Hussein would never agree to the conditions laid out by Al-Faruqi, which ceded the districts of the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama to the French and Basra and Southern Iraq to the British. Hussein had opposed this allocation of territories in a previous letter to McMahon. Most prominently, Al-Faruqi also pressed for a British invasion of the Syrian coast since only then could the Arabs commence their revolt, which imparted to Sykes an additional sense of urgency.
And act the British did. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, based on al-Faruqi’s distorted claims, was finally signed in May 1916. Thus, of the three documents most profoundly influencing the establishment of the Modern Middle East—the Hussein-McMahon letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration—Al-Faruqi directly and indirectly influenced the drafting of two. David Fromkin comments: “. . . not only the McMahon letters, but also—more importantly—the negotiations with France, Russia, and later Italy that ultimately resulted in the Sykes-Picot-Sazanov Agreeement and subsequent Allied secret treaty understandings were among the results of Lieutenant al-Faruqi’s hoax.” For a brief but pivotal period in Anglo-Arab relations, young al-Faruqi managed to stay in the center of the dialogue over the Middle East’s future.
Hussein did appoint Al-Faruqi his plenipotentiary in July 1916 (Al-Faruqi had introduced himself to Hussein as a special confidante of the British). In his new official function Al-Faruqi continued to further poison the relationship between the British and Hussein claiming for example that the High Commissioner had promised to Hussein the title of “King of the Arabs,” stating the United States opposed a French occupation of Syria, or promising the British that Hussein could muster 160.000 to 250.000 fighters, all of which turned out to be falsehoods. By September 1917, the British and Hussein had tired of him, and he was dismissed from the latter’s service. A French diplomat laconically summed up the reasons for his sacking: “Nonchalance; the British paid him almost no attention; improper behavior; frequent drunkenness, and an Italian mistress.”