Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Cairo Conference That Determined the Future of the Middle East

The Paris Peace Conference ensured there was no peace in the Middle East. Five years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, uprisings in Iraq and Syria were ruthlessly crushed by the occupying powers. Britain's military, overstretched in the postwar period, was particularly concerned about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Winston Churchill, colonial secretary, saw an opportunity to develop a new strategy for the Middle East and asked the cabinet to authorize a conference to find some new solutions. He received an approval and the conference opened in Cairo on 12 March 1921. During this conference, Churchill would help establish the government, ethnic composition, and political boundaries of Iraq and other portions of the Middle East.

Churchill with Some of the "40 Thieves" at
the End of the Conference

Forty experts on the region attended, (Churchill called them his "40 Thieves," including T.E. Lawrence, "Mother of Iraq" Gertrude Bell, A.T. Wilson representing the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, assorted High Commissioners, and Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard, present to make a pitch for the RAF taking over internal security in Iraq.

The two main issues on the agenda were the selection of Iraq's new monarch and the Arab response to the choice, and the second was the military situation in Iraq. Lawrence's argument for outsider Hashemite Kings in Iraq and Trans-Jordan based on the thinking that a non-native ruler could be independent of the rival allegiances was accepted. Feisal bin Hussein kAli al Hashemi, recently dethroned and banished from Syria, received the throne of Iraq with the understanding he would govern in consultation with the British High Commissioner. Feisal's brother, Abdullah, received the throne of Trans-Jordan. Lawrence was convinced this settlement gave the Arabs all Britain had ever promised.

With Churchill's support, Trenchard's air policing scheme won out. On the other big issue, British troops were to be phased out and replaced by an RAF-led "air policing" establishment in lieu of ground forces.

During the week-long proceedings, Britain also took on a League of Nations mandate for Palestine. By the summer, this would prove the thorniest issue for Churchill to deal with in the aftermath, as Chaim Weizmann's Zionists demanded a Jewish majority in the mandate, while Arab Christians and Muslims demanded a repudiation of the Balfour Declaration.

The only public announcement on the decisions made during the conference, was a report made by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 14 June 1921. It drew little comment from the press and the conference is barely mentioned in the published letters and autobiographies of the main participants.

Sources: Wikipedia, PBS

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