Book review: Enemy on the Euphrates

G.
Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Wikimedia
commons. Some rights reserved.

In
1905 in a quiet Istanbul coffee house, 26-year-old Mark Sykes met with an
employee of a German engineering company that was surveying northern Iraq for
the planned Berlin to Baghdad Railway. The engineer passed a small notebook to
the young British Embassy employee, who, in exchange, handed over some money.

The
notebook contained details about possible oil deposits near Mosul, and Sykes
passed it on to his superiors who filed it away without giving it much thought.
A decade later the Great Powers would be scrambling for access to the Middle
East’s oil reserves and Britain would take over Iraq in what would turn out to
be its first occupation of Mesopotamia.

Since
the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the later eruption of the Arab Spring there have
been a slew of books on the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the
modern Middle East. Ian Rutledge’s Enemy on the Euphrates is a
welcome contribution to what otherwise might seem like an overcrowded field.

Its
main focus, as the subtitle suggests, is “The Battle for Iraq, 1914-1921”, but
it deals in great detail with the byzantine negotiations and deals, the
backstabbing and fighting, and the betrayals and murder that characterised the
carve up of “Asiatic Turkey”. It also vividly captures how the ground was
prepared for much of the violence in today’s Middle East.

Throughout
the 19th century the Ottoman Empire—the so-called “sick man of Europe”—struggled
to stay in one piece under the twin pressures of Great Power politics and separatist
nationalism. The 600 year-old Muslim autocracy suffered repeated military
defeats and new ideas about national self-determination were becoming
attractive to its various Christian minorities.

Seeking
to arrest its apparent decline it adopted technical innovations from its
competitors, further centralised power in the hands of the Sublime Porte and
promoted a new Ottoman identity that sought to unite Muslims and Christians.
This had very little effect, as did later attempts at promoting pan-Islamism
and pan-Turkism. The empire was finished and it was its entrance into WWI that
sounded the final death knell.

The
Allied powers did all they could to finish it off. They attempted to rally the
Arabs against their Turkish overlords by promising Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif
of Mecca, a rather ill-defined “independent Arab Kingdom”. This proved only
marginally effective and, despite the myths that surround the adventures of T.
E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia (who comes across as a clown in Rutledge’s
telling), most of the region’s population preferred to support the
Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul.

This
was probably just as well because the European powers had no serious intention
of allowing the creation of a genuinely independent Arab Kingdom. Sir Mark
Sykes, who was now in the War Office and a protégé of arch-imperialist Lord
Kitchener, and the French diplomat François Georges-Picot had secretly divided
up the Middle East into “spheres of influence” for Britain and France in what
would become the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Iraq
fell within Britain’s “sphere of influence”. There had been much deliberation
in London about Britain’s “economic and commercial interests” in the region and
there was no question that Iraq, or at least a part of it, would have to stay
under British control.

London’s
main concern was in defending the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s (APOC) oil fields
and pipelines in Abadan in southwest Iran. The government owned majority shares
in this corporation but, more importantly, the British navy was changing over
to oil-fired ships and so control over oil fields was going to be a major
strategic factor in the future. In order to guarantee this control they took
over Basra and then moved north to Baghdad and, as it became clear that there
was more oil to be had further north, Mosul.

By
the end of the war most of what is today modern Iraq was under British control
and it wasn’t long before the locals resented this. The occupation authorities
arrogantly dismissed their grievances—high taxation and forced labour, for
example—as unimportant. But soon the natives became difficult to ignore. Small,
localised uprisings broke out here and there. These were put down to external
agitators, such as Syrian nationalists, Kemalists or Bolsheviks, and it took a
while for the authorities to see what was under their noses. But by 1920 it
became impossible to deny what was going on: a full scale insurgency against
the occupying force had begun.

General
Haldane, the rather clueless General Officer Commanding Mesopotamia from
1920-22, hurried off a panicked telegram to the War Office in the midst of the
fighting. “Tribes who have risen appear to be affected by a wave of
fanaticism”, he wrote. “Neither they nor their leaders have in any instance
formulated any specific grievances and removal of all Government control
appears to be their sole expressed object.” Apparently, an end to British rule
wasn’t specific enough.

At
over 400 pages long, Rutledge’s tome is no small undertaking. But it is a
rewarding read. He writes with the literary skill of a novelist who has the
analytical mind of a social scientist. Enemy on the Euphrates is
full of multidimensional character studies and we are provided with insight
into all the major players, from Churchill to Hussein bin Ali and Gertrude Bell
to General Haldane.

At
no point, though, does he allow the drama of events to conceal the bigger
picture. This is a story of imperial arrogance and plunder, and the inevitable
reaction that it generates. There are many lessons here that, had they been
taken on board earlier, could have prevented much of the folly of the last 15
years. History rarely repeats itself, but it can often seem far too familiar.

Originally
published in the LSE
Review of Books on 30 June 2015.

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