The Next Steps

WHILE SYKES WAS REPORTING to London, the Ottomans were pressing Grand Sharif Hussein to raise an army: They wished to throw his soldiers against the British at the Suez Canal. More important, they wanted him to endorse their call to jihad: His endorsement would inspire millions of British Muslim subjects in Egypt, Sudan, and India to rise up against their colonial infidel masters, making Britain’s worst nightmare come true.

The grand sharif prevaricated. He supported the jihad personally, he told the Turks, but a public declaration was too risky. It would result in an English blockade of his country and perhaps in bombardment of its ports. His people would starve or worse. Moreover the annual hajj would be endangered. He could not in this instance do as they requested. But he would raise troops for the attack on the Canal.

What he did not tell the Turks was that he was secretly dispatching emissaries to the main Arab leaders. Without divulging his own plans, he needed to know their intentions with regard to the war and their likely reaction if he took the English bait and did indeed launch a rebellion. Soon enough his messengers1 returned with answers. One sheikh hoped to enlist the Turks against the dangerous Ibn Saud: he would declare the jihad as a quid pro quo for Turkish support, but he protested his continuing love for the grand sharif. Another, the Iman Yahya, was noncommittal. The rest, however, including Ibn Saud, supported Britain against Turkey. Saud urged Hussein to ignore2 the Ottoman call to wage jihad. If the grand sharif decided to move against the Ottomans, then one or two of the great Arab chiefs might disapprove, but none were likely to oppose him actively.

In January 1915 Hussein’s oldest son, Ali, led a contingent of Hejazi volunteers into Medina. They were some of the troops his father had raised to take part in the Turkish attack on Suez, which was scheduled to commence on February 2. The Turkish vali of the Hejaz3 accompanied Ali. Somewhere between Mecca and Medina the vali misplaced his briefcase. One of Ali’s men happened upon it and brought it not to its rightful owner but to his own master. Naturally, given his father’s attitude toward the Turkish government, Ali opened the briefcase and read the documents inside. Probably he was not astonished to learn that the vali was playing a double game. Although outwardly friendly, this gentleman really intended to depose Hussein and to assert Ottoman control over the Hejaz. Immediately Ali, and the soldiers under his command, turned back to Mecca and brought the briefcase with incriminating documents to his father. The vali continued on to Suez where, on February 2, 1915, the British easily repulsed the Turkish attack.

As Ali was arriving back in Mecca, another young man, Fauzi al-Bakri, was setting out from Damascus for the same city. The Turks had conscripted him, but he belonged to a prominent Syrian family that had long been friendly with the family of Grand Sharif Hussein. As a result, the Ottomans awarded him with a decorative posting—they made him a member of the sharif’s personal bodyguard. Unknown to them, however, Fauzi had recently joined the Arab secret society al-Fatat. Just before his departure from Damascus, the society commissioned him to sound out the grand sharif. If Arab nationalists rose against the Turks in Syria and Iraq, would he consent to be their leader? And if so, would he send a deputy to concert plans with them beforehand?

Al-Fatat’s plans were well advanced already. Since the outbreak of war, its members’ views had altered considerably: Arab autonomy within the Ottoman Empire would no longer satisfy them, since the Ottomans likely could no longer protect Arabia from European imperialist designs. Now they believed that Arab interests required complete independence from Turkey. Thus the war hastened the society’s transition from Ottomanism to Arabism, as it hastened the development of revolutionary movements in Ireland, Russia, and elsewhere. In Syria, al-Fatat combined forces with the other major secret society, al-Ahd. Together the two groups planned a rising. Arab army officers stationed in Damascus would lead their soldiers into revolt. Syrian desert tribes whose sheikhs already belonged to the societies would join. The leaders hoped the revolt would spread to the Arabian Peninsula as well. Who would lead a rebellion there? They turned first to Ibn Saud, but he politely turned down their emissary—he had to deal with the disaffected sheikh to his north. And then the nationalists recalled the grand sharif of Mecca—and chose Fauzi al-Bakri to approach him.

Fauzi arrived in the holy city late in January 1915 and quickly contrived a meeting alone with the grand sharif. Perhaps it was in the same great room at the top of the palace where Hussein had received X, the emissary from Cairo, for it is recorded that while Fauzi delivered the message from Damascus, the emir stared out the window over the rooftops of his city as he listened without comment, without even acknowledging the young man’s presence. The young nationalist, thinking no doubt that other members of the sharif’s bodyguard or household might be within earshot and might not be trustworthy, did not raise his voice above a whisper. When he finished, he slipped silently from the room. Hussein, seemingly, took no notice.

In fact, he had listened intently. He was accustomed by now to discuss important political matters with his sons, and a family council ensued. In comparison with Abdullah and Feisal, Hussein’s oldest son, Ali, played a minor role in these family conclaves, and the fourth son, Zeid, played little part at all. Feisal distrusted Western4 imperialist designs in the Middle East and had hitherto favored maintaining relations with the Ottomans. Abdullah, on the other hand, had held anti-Turk and pro-British views since at least early 1914. Abdullah largely accepted the Arab nationalist position, but his father remained, as always, more a pan-Islamist than an Arab nationalist, although increasingly doubtful that he could continue to cooperate with the Ottoman regime. Perhaps the contents of the Ottoman vali’s briefcase encouraged him to look favorably upon Fauzi’s invitation. At any rate, the result of the meeting was a decision to send Feisal to Constantinople, to convey to the Ottoman authorities his father’s outrage at the vali’s double-dealing. En route Feisal was to stop at Damascus and stay with the al-Bakri family. He was to meet clandestinely with representatives of the secret societies in order to gauge them and their plans. If appropriate, he was to sound them on their attitude toward the British, with whom the sharif had been in contact. Then he was to report back to his father.

It was an undertaking fraught with peril, but the tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted Feisal had been brought up (like his father and like all his brothers, for that matter) in an atmosphere of political intrigue that could on occasion turn deadly. Hussein was confident that Feisal could cope; Feisal was too. Not yet thirty years of age, he had gained military experience in his father’s prewar campaigns and was, according to David Hogarth, Hussein’s “most capable military5 commander.” “Clear-skinned as a pure Circassian,” Hogarth described him, “with dark hair, vivid black eyes set a little sloping in his face, strong nose, [and] short chin,” he seemed to the Englishman “far more imposing personally than any of his brothers,” although he was high-strung: “very quick and restless in movement … full of nerves.” Yet very much the son of his father, he could keep his face impassive and hold his tongue when necessary, or he could dissemble.

In Damascus the top Ottoman official was Djemal Pasha, minister of marine, commander of the Turkish Fourth Army, and along with Enver Pasha and Talaat Pasha, a member of the Young Turk ruling triumvirate. A formidable not to say intimidating figure, thick-set, black-bearded, with “a pair of cunning cruel6 eyes,” he already knew that Arab nationalists in Syria were planning an uprising. He had learned about it when the French dragoman brought the authorities the incriminating papers that the departing diplomat François Georges-Picot had left in the French consulate safe. Eventually Djemal would take ruthless action against those incriminated, but to begin with he merely directed his agents to keep close watch over them. At this stage he wished to win the goodwill of Syrians, not to provoke them.

Still, when Feisal arrived at the Kadem Station in Damascus on March 26, 1915, he was entering a city on edge, its atmosphere heavy with fear and intrigue. Djemal greeted him warmly, probably with sincerity, having no inkling of the young man’s double mission. A few years after the war, he wrote in his memoirs, “Although I had never7 believed in the honesty of the Sherif of Mecca, I could never have conceived that in a war, upon which the fate of the Khalifate depended, he would ally himself with the States which desired to thrust the Slav yoke upon the whole Mohammedan world.” Feisal vindicated his father’s wisdom in sending him. He neither said nor did anything to raise Djemal’s suspicions—rather the opposite. Already Djemal was planning a second attack upon the Suez Canal. Feisal made a speech to the Ottoman headquarters staff in which “he swore by the glorious8 soul of the Prophet to return at an early date at the head of his warriors and help them to fight the foes of the Faith to the death.”

That, and like declarations, he made during the day. At night, when his ceremonial and official obligations could not be carried out, he was meeting in secret with emissaries from al-Ahd and al-Fatat at the home of the al-Bakri family. There in the eastern suburbs of the city, amid groves of apricot and pomegranate and walnut trees in full spring bloom, these emissaries told him of their aims and something of their plans. They impressed him deeply; in fact, they worked a revolution in his mind. Where previously Feisal had thought his father should stick with the Ottomans and have nothing to do with Arab nationalist schemes, now he thought his father should lead the Arab nationalist attempt to throw off the Ottoman yoke, even if it led to a strengthened role for Britain in the Middle East. Better the British than the Turks. He told the Syrians about his brother’s prewar meetings with Storrs and Kitchener and about the correspondence that had ensued. The conspirators talked long and searchingly about what should be their attitude, and the attitude of the grand sharif and his sons, toward England. Then Feisal took the plunge. On one of those scented spring Damascene nights, he swore the blood oaths of both secret societies.

From Damascus he traveled to Constantinople, arriving on April 23. There too he had to maintain a poker face. While meeting with leading Turkish politicians and military figures, he played the loyal subaltern. He complained to them that his father, the faithful grand sharif, had been betrayed by the vali with the briefcase. In turn Talaat and Enver, among others, explained that so far as they were concerned, Hussein would have nothing to fear if he publicly endorsed the jihad against Turkey’s enemies. Feisal promised to convey this message to his father with all sympathy. He paid his respects to the new sultan. “When he was received9 in audience by the sultan,” recalled Djemal Pasha, “he protested his loyalty and that of his father and family in words of such humble devotion that His Majesty could not have the slightest doubt about his honesty.” All the while, however, Feisal was longing to get back to Damascus to continue the discussions with the conspirators in al-Ahd and al-Fatat.

Within a month he had realized this aim and was again lodged at the al-Bakri residence on the outskirts of Damascus. As before, his days were taken up with courtesy calls, public appearances, and the like, but the clandestine meetings recommenced at night; Arab army officers quietly appeared at the back gates and slipped noiselessly inside. The discussions were more urgent than before. The plotters had set the fuse, they told Feisal. It remained only to light it. Feisal promised the support of the Hejazi tribes—without consulting his father. But “we do not need them,”10 answered the Arab chief of staff of the Twelfth Corps of the Ottoman Fourth Army. “We have everything.” All they wanted was for the grand sharif of Mecca to lend his prestigious support to their uprising and for Feisal himself, the grand sharif’s most effective general, to become their visible leader.

They had settled, too, the question of Great Britain’s role in their rebellion and its aftermath:

The recognition by Great Britain of the independence of the Arab countries lying within the following frontiers:

North: The line Mersin-Adana to parallel 37° N. and thence along the line Birejik-Urfa-Mardin-Midiat-Jazirat (Ibn Umar)-Amadia to the Persian frontier;

East: The Persian frontier down to the Persian Gulf;

South: The Indian Ocean (with the exclusion of Aden, whose status was to be maintained);

West: The Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea back to Mersin.

The abolition of all exceptional privileges granted to foreigners …

The conclusion of a defensive alliance between Great Britain and the future independent Arab state.

The grant of economic preference to Great Britain.

This was the Damascus Protocol, at once the foundation document and the lodestar of the Arab Revolt. It envisioned a federation of Arab countries organized within a single independent Arab state or empire, containing Palestine, and backed by Britain, which would receive in return economic preferences. Implicit in the document, Grand Sharif Hussein would preside over the great state. Feisal promised to bring the protocol to his father and to recommend that he accept it and leadership of the movement that had produced it. A scribe copied the protocol in tiny letters onto a small sheet. It was sewn into the lining of a boot worn by one of Feisal’s servants. Should some mishap befall the grand sharif’s son on his return journey to Mecca, the message would nevertheless be delivered. Feisal probably thought his father’s reaction would be positive; but whether Great Britain would accept the terms of the Damascus Protocol was something none of the conspirators could predict.

By the beginning of 1915 a new man was running Britain’s Cairo operation. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Arthur Henry McMahon replaced Sir Milne Cheetham, who had filled in briefly for the consul general, Lord Kitchener, detained by war work in London. The Foreign Office viewed McMahon as a placeholder for Kitchener too, but McMahon himself appears to have regarded the position as permanent. Strangely, although he had extensive experience of the subcontinent, where he had risen to become foreign secretary of the British government in India, he had no experience of the Middle East. “I cannot say that I know it more than an ordinary traveler would,” he confessed to an Egyptian journalist sent to interview him before his arrival in Cairo. “I don’t speak Arabic [but] … there are so many Arabic words in Indian languages—Persian, Afghan and Hindustani—which I know well.” Even so, near total ignorance of the relevant language seems an unlikely qualification for the top job in the world’s cockpit.

A British dispatch boat brought McMahon and his wife to Alexandria, and a special train conveyed them to Cairo, where they were greeted with much pomp and circumstance. The newspapers reported that he had made a good impression. “His eye is kindly,” Sir Ronald Storrs remembered an Egyptian of the welcoming party remarking. Storrs himself wrote in his diary that McMahon seemed “quiet, friendly, agreeable,11 considerate and cautious,” estimates he would later considerably revise. Aubrey Herbert, then in Cairo, wrote of McMahon in his own diary: “He seems a stupid little man.”

In India, McMahon’s last posting, British officials strongly opposed Cairo’s plan for an Arab uprising led by Sharif Hussein. They especially opposed Kitchener’s suggestion that an Arab might repossess the caliphate from the Turks. That, they argued, would have disastrous repercussions among Muslims everywhere outside Arabia, not least in their own South Asia. Moreover they did not believe for a minute that the Arabs could organize or govern a great kingdom or empire. Specifically, they discounted the sharif’s personal influence and abilities. They already had relations with the principalities running along the Arabian coast of the Indian Ocean from Aden to the Gulf of Oman. Insofar as they favored any Arab leader for a larger role, it was Ibn Saud, who as chief of the sectarian Wahhabis could never become caliph. And they nursed annexationist dreams, which the establishment of a great Arabian state headed by Sharif Hussein would render nil. Having sent troops across the Indian Ocean into Mesopotamia, they intended to keep that territory after the war. They assumed that McMahon, so recently one of them, still supported their position. Having departed India, however, the new high commissioner of Egypt was not bound by Indian interests. Once he arrived in Cairo, Storrs, Clayton, Herbert, and other members of the British intelligence community went to work on him. He “understood our design12 at once and judged it good,” T. E. Lawrence recorded with satisfaction.

Despite McMahon’s ready acceptance of the plan, for six months it got no further. These were the months when Sharif Hussein was sounding the other Arab leaders and putting off the Ottoman demand that he endorse the jihad, and when Feisal was playing his dangerous double game in Damascus and Constantinople. Of some of these activities, the British had gleanings: They were aware of Hussein’s inquiry to Ibn Saud about the Turkish call for jihad, and of Saud’s advice to ignore it. Otherwise they knew little of the sharif’s thinking or activities. They were impatient for decisive action on his part, none more so than the governor general and sirdar of Sudan, Sir Francis Reginald Wingate. Although cut off from Cairo by distance (his address was the grandest in the British Empire—“The Palace, Khartoum”), Wingate knew of Kitchener’s offer to Hussein from Gilbert Clayton, British director of military intelligence for the Middle East, who was also his protégé, former private secretary, and despite his other duties, still his agent in Egypt.

Once Wingate digested the correspondence between London/Cairo and Hussein, he too understood the design and judged it good. In fact, he had favored something along the same lines since the outbreak of war. Like the Cairo men, India men, and London men, he doubted that Hussein could lead a great independent Arab kingdom: Wingate judged Arabia to be “scarcely an embryo13 [of a state] and during the process of conception and being actually born and indeed through the boyhood stages some nation will have to mother them.” But he believed strongly that an Arab rebellion would aid the British war effort. Moreover he cherished a secret personal ambition: that Cairo would “mother” a great Arab empire, as Delhi had “mothered” Britain’s empire in India, and that he would be its viceroy. In one cable after another, therefore, he urged first Clayton, then McMahon, and then, through McMahon, both Grey and Kitchener in London, to make Hussein an offer he could not refuse.

And so the cables poured into London. In those from Khartoum and Cairo, Wingate, Clayton, and McMahon all urged the British government somehow to induce Sharif Hussein to act; in those from Delhi, its viceroy, Lord Hardinge, urged the opposite, that the sharif not be encouraged. Wingate and Hardinge sent each other conflicting cables setting out their positions as well. Debate raged in the Foreign Office, but in the end Cairo and Khartoum prevailed. “You should inform14 Wingate,” Grey instructed McMahon, “that I authorize him to let it be known if he thinks it desirable that His Majesty’s Government will make it an essential condition in any terms of peace that the Arabian Peninsula and its Moslem Holy Places should remain in the hands of an independent Sovereign Moslem state.” Wingate undertook to spread the news “far and wide,15 and as it is now authoritative it will be believed and credited.”

But still the grand sharif remained silent.

Feisal returned to Mecca on June 20, 1915, and delivered the Damascus Protocol to his father. The family gathered in council yet again. This time it deliberated for an entire week, “one of the most difficult16 weeks of my life,” Feisal would later tell the Anglo-Arab historian George Antonius. Grand Sharif Hussein balanced on a knife’s edge: Depending on which way he jumped, the British would help or harm him, but so would the Turks, and it was not clear whose forces could help or harm him more. Even though Great Britain governed the mightiest empire in the world, Turkish forces were so far more than holding their own against it. Britain hardly seemed invincible. Nevertheless Feisal urged his father to jump in its direction and away from the Turks. The British Empire had great resources; it could sustain terrible losses and still win at the end; and the Syrian conspirators were well organized and powerful. Hussein should accept leadership of their movement and present the Damascus Protocol to the British. Abdullah agreed with his younger brother; even before the war began, he had been urging action against the Ottomans with British aid. But Hussein knew, perhaps better than his sons, how merciless would be the Young Turk response, especially during wartime. He hesitated.

In the end his religious beliefs proved decisive, or that is how he presented it afterward, in a typically convoluted justification: “God selected us17 to arouse our nation to restrain the unjust and to banish the insolent ones, the heretics, from the land and from among the true worshipers, requesting for them what we request for ourselves, namely to make us desire to follow what He [Muhammad] brought [Sharia, religious law as set forth in the Quran] and to drive the evil from our tribes and our Arab communities to whose race, language, customs, comforts and pleasures these heedless ones showed enmity.” Although he denied it, personal ambition cannot have been absent from his calculations. The British promised to guarantee his independence from foreign interference; their own role in the future Arabian state remained ambiguous, but surely that was better than the continual Ottoman scheming and plotting against him. Moreover the British seemed to be waving the caliphate before him as a further inducement to action. Whether Hussein truly hoped to become caliph at this stage, however, no one has established. Most historians think not.

Sometime in mid-July Hussein took the plunge, dispatching a trusted messenger18 to Cairo carrying two letters. The first was a brief note from Abdullah to Storrs, dated July 14, 1915, requesting that the British allow Egypt to send to Mecca stores of grain for the annual hajj; they had been held back for the past two years; their resumption “would be an important19 factor in laying the foundations of our mutual advantage. This should suffice for a person of your grasp.” The second letter, undated and unsigned but undoubtedly composed by Hussein since it dealt with the crux of the matter, was longer and uncharacteristically clear. Essentially it repeated the Damascus Protocol and asked quite simply whether the British approved it and warned that if they did not, “we will consider ourselves20 free in word and deed from the bonds of our previous declaration which we made through Ali Effendi [X].” Thus recommenced the fatal McMahon-Hussein correspondence, whose conflicting interpretations have divided Jews, Arabs, and Britons for nearly a hundred years.

Even before the sharif’s letter arrived, the British knew of its existence and something of its contents from Wingate, who had established his own line of communication with Mecca. “I think,” Wingate crowed to Clayton, “you will find21 that he will be strongly in favour of obtaining our assistance.” True enough. And when the messenger appeared in Cairo on or about August 22, he supplemented the written documents with an oral statement: “On handing [me] the letter22 at Taif, which was in the presence of his four sons, Ali, Abdullah, Faisal and Zeid, the Sherif told me to tell Mr. Storrs—‘We are now ready and well prepared.’ His son Abdullah then said: ‘Tell Mr. Storrs that our word is a word of honour and we will carry it out even at the cost of our lives; we are not now under the orders of the Turks but the Turks are under our orders.’”

Cairo was delighted—until it read the proposed borders of the new Arab state. Hussein had copied them word for word from the Damascus Protocol, but they were too expansive from the British point of view. “The Sharif had opened23 his mouth … a good deal too wide,” Storrs would write afterward. McMahon cabled London: “His pretensions24 are in every way exaggerated, no doubt considerably beyond his hope of acceptance, but it seems very difficult to treat with them in detail without seriously discouraging him.” Eventually, after much consultation with London, he tried to square the circle. “We confirm to you25 the terms of Lord Kitchener’s message … in which was stated clearly our desire for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants, together with our approval of the Arab Caliphate when it should be proclaimed,” he wrote to Hussein on August 29. But “with regard to the questions of limits, frontiers and boundaries, it would appear to be premature to consume our time in discussing such details in the heat of war.” This was the message carried back to Mecca.

Hussein received it coolly and responded quickly (on September 9), angrily, and at length. Now he spoke as leader of an organized revolutionary movement, he emphasized, not merely for himself; the borders he had indicated were essential to the well-being of any future Arab state. George Antonius, who first translated and published the McMahon-Hussein correspondence in his classic account of the Arab Revolt and who knew and admired the grand sharif, described his writing style: “a tight network of parentheses,26incidentals, allusions, saws and apophthegms, woven together by a process of literary orchestration into a sonorous rigmarole.” Which is why we quote very selectively here. “The coldness and hesitation which you have displayed in the question of the limits and boundaries … might be taken to infer an estrangement,” Hussein charged. And a little beneath: “It is not I personally who am demanding of these limits which include only our race, but that they are all proposals of the people who, in short, believe that they are necessary for economic life.” And finally, driving home the main point: “I cannot admit that you,27 as a man of sound opinion will deny to be necessary for our existence [the borders suggested in the Damascus Protocol]; nay, they are the essential essence of our life, material and moral.”

The two parties had arrived at a seeming impasse. The matter might have rested there, for if the British declined to accept the borders Hussein wanted, then he might decline to launch the rebellion they favored. Perhaps Hussein could have continued to prevaricate, waiting out the war, albeit on the edge of the knife, without committing to either side. He had waited most of his life for the sharifate, after all. But as is so often the case in wartime, new and unexpected developments altered everything.

“I am a descendant of Omar28 Ibn El Khattab, the second Khalifa of El Islam who had the title of El Farug, which means separator. He was so called for having separated the right from the wrong. The descendants of Omar El Farug were all living in Damascus, but some centuries ago a part of them emigrated to El Mosul. At present there are thirty families of them living in El Mosul and twenty families in Damascus. I was born in El Mosul in 1891 …”

So begins the statement of Sharif Muhammad al-Faruki, an Arab lieutenant in the Turkish army who deserted to the British at Gallipoli in August, to tell them of the Arab plot and to enlist their support. By October the British had brought him to Egypt to be debriefed by their chief intelligence officer in the Middle East, Gilbert Clayton. Faruki told him: “I entered as Member in a secret Society started by the Arab officers in the Turkish Army … I have done several services and carried out several missions for the Society in Aleppo and environs.” But the reach of the secret society extended beyond Aleppo, Faruki assured the Englishman. It stretched to “Damascus and Beirut provinces … a branch being started in every important town or station.”

“We know well the real military situation of the two contending forces,” Faruki continued, “and we know that our siding with the Allies will diminish greatly the two forces of their enemies and will cause them immense trouble.” But he knew much more than that. “Moreover the English have declared publicly that they will help the Arabs against the Turks.” In addition: “We also found out that the Sherif of Mecca was in communication with the High Commissioner in Egypt, and the English are willing to give the Sherif the necessary arms and ammunition for the attainment of his object. That the English have given their consent to the Sherif establishing an Arab Empire but the limits of his Empire were not defined.” Faruki added that the secret societies had renounced allegiance to the sultan of Turkey and sworn instead to support Hussein. The grand sharif would lead their rebellion.

Faruki knew the terms outlined in the Damascus Protocol and, it would seem, even McMahon’s response to it. He had deserted in part in order to argue for the boundaries advocated in the protocol, and although he was not authorized to speak for the secret societies, he acted as though he were, and the British came to treat him as though he were. “A guarantee of the independence of the Arabian Peninsula would not satisfy,” Clayton reported glumly after talking with him, “but this together with the institution of an increasing measure of autonomous Government … in Palestine and Mesopotamia would probably secure their [secret societies’] friendship. Syria is of course included in their programme.” Faruki conceded that France possessed legitimate interests in Syria, but he insisted that French influence there be strictly limited. If it was not, then his societies would resist by force of arms. “Our scheme embraces all the Arab countries including Syria and Mesopotamia, but if we cannot have all [then] we want as much as we can get,” he declared imprecisely. More specifically, he said, the plotters insisted on keeping “in Arabia purely Arab districts of Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs.” Here is the first mention of a geographical caveat that would prove a stumbling block to all future understanding and goodwill. The formulation appears29 for the first time in a cable reporting on discussions with Faruki that McMahon sent to London on October 19, 1915.

As for the nature of the Arab state to be established, Faruki explained: “The Arab countries [are] to be governed by the principles of decentralization; each country to have the sort of Government which best suits it, but to be ruled by the Central government, i.e. the seat of the Khalifate. Sherif Hussein of Mecca to be the Khalifa and Sultan of the new empire.” Christians, Druze, and Neiria would have the same rights as Muslims in the new state, he promised, “but the Jews will be governed by a special law.” This did not augur well, but apparently the British saw no reason to query it.

Essentially Faruki was reiterating the sharif’s program as set forth in his most recent letter to Cairo. He added flesh to the bare bones of British knowledge about the secret societies, exaggerating their strength, the extent of their organization, and their influence; also his own importance. Nevertheless the British believed him. They believed too a further embroidery, one of breathtaking audacity—a threat, or rather a bluff, or to put it baldly, a falsehood. Clayton reported that Faruki had “stated that Turkey and Germany are fully alive to the situation and have already approached the leaders of the Young Arab Committee, and indeed have gone so far as to promise them the granting of their demands in full … The Committee, however, are strongly inclined towards England.”

Historians find no archival evidence that the Turks and Germans were prepared to grant the Arab demands. But really they have no need to search for such documents. Events soon would put the lie to Faruki’s assertion. By now, far from wanting to woo Arab nationalists, the Turks wanted only to destroy them, as a series of brutal trials, imprisonments, and hangings in Damascus would disclose within a matter of months.

In October 1915, however, Clayton believed that the Arab plotters were powerful and that Germany and Turkey were near to winning them over. He warned London: “To reject the Arab proposals entirely or even to seek to evade the issues [emphasis added] will be to throw the Young Arab party definitely into the arms of the enemy. Their machinery will at once be employed against us throughout the Arab countries … the religious element will come into play and the Jihad, so far a failure, may become a very grim reality the effects of which would certainly be far-reaching and at the present crisis might well be disastrous.” Note the italicized words: They must refer to McMahon’s attempt, in the letter of August 29, to postpone discussion of future boundaries. Now Clayton was repudiating McMahon’s strategy. He was pushing for defining the boundaries immediately and in a way that would satisfy Arab aspirations. He thought it was necessary if Britain hoped to outbid the Germans.

Why was Clayton so willing to accept Faruki’s embellishments? The young deserter’s arrival in Cairo was but one element of a remarkable and, for the British, not particularly happy conjuncture. He appeared before Clayton almost simultaneously with Hussein’s chilly letter of September 9. Faruki confirmed the sharif’s claims: He was speaking not merely for himself but for a larger movement; his ambitions were not merely personal; it really was the larger movement that had established the boundaries of the future Arabian federation adumbrated in his last letter. This confirmation was worrying enough, but, perhaps more important, Faruki’s arrival coincided with a torrent of bad news about the war: Bulgaria had entered it on the side of the Central Powers, affording them not only an increment of strength but a direct overland route from Germany to Constantinople. At Gallipoli, British losses mounted daily; morale there had plummeted; the British beachhead remained insecure, so that withdrawal seemed increasingly likely; but withdrawal was another word for retreat, and retreat was another word for defeat. Meanwhile in Mesopotamia, British forces were overextended, and soon would arrive devastating reports of disasters at Ctesiphon and Kut.

For all these reasons the Cairo contingent was disposed not merely to believe Faruki but to act upon the belief. Britain must enlist the sharif and his movement, or else Germany would. In memos and cables they stressed Britain’s dire predicament in the Middle East and the grim consequences of inaction. So did Wingate from Khartoum and Sykes at the War Committee meeting. McMahon prepared to write the most important letter of his career, one that would induce Hussein finally to throw down the gauntlet to Turkey. But if he thought he was resolving a difficult situation, he was profoundly mistaken. “Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs”: These place-names signified enormous complexities and ramifications; they would haunt his future, and everyone else’s.

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