Redrawing the middle East April 1920

Posted by RTH Real Time History on


It’s April 1920, and the victorious allied powers have gathered in a luscious villa in Italy for the San Remo Conference. They are there to decide the fate of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire – but this will not be easy, since wartime promises are about to catch up with them. 

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Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the Great War – as you can see filmed in our improvised COVID-19 shutdown studio which is my living room. Alright, during the First World War, the Middle East had seen extensive fighting between British and Ottoman forces. After the Ottoman defeat in 1918, much of the region was under Allied occupation – including the mostly Arabic-speaking regions of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. The fate of these Ottoman provinces had been the subject of intense political wrangling during the war, and would now be decided by the victorious Allied Powers and the League of Nations at the Conference of San Remo. So let’s take a look at how the map of the Middle East was redrawn exactly 100 years ago. 


Even before the war, European powers like France, Britain and Russia had been involved in Middle Eastern affairs as a way of projecting imperial power and furthering their economic interests. France and Russia saw themselves as protectors of Christian minorities in the majority Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the region was vital to international trade in silk, cotton and oil. For Britain, the Middle East was also key to its imperial security – as the primary sea route to British India was via the Suez canal. 

The involvement of the Entente Powers in the region was one of the factors that caused the Ottoman Empire to enter the war on Germany’s side in 1914. During the war, there were major campaigns waged between British and Ottoman forces in Palestine and Mesopotamia, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans. To help weaken the Ottomans, the British encouraged and supported an Arab revolt, led by Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi, the head of the powerful Hashemite family and the religious leader of Mecca.  In exchange for Hussein’s assistance, Britain promised an independent Arab kingdom under Hashemite control in the Ottoman Arab provinces. But the agreement between Hussein and the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon was deliberately vague, and left out important areas like Palestine and Lebanon. For Hussein, it was a promise that his efforts would eventually lead to a big reward.

But just as Hussein and McMahon were concluding their deal in early 1916, British diplomats were drafting a contradictory one with their French allies.


Britain was well-aware their deal with Hussein was a necessity of war, and went against the previous Declaration of London of 1914, which stated that any post-war division and parceling out of land would involve all allied powers, especially France. The British also knew that France would not be keen on Arab independence in areas that were important to French interests. Back in late 1915, French diplomat François Georges-Picot made France’s case clear to the Brits:

“Syria was very near the heart of the French and that now, after the expenditure of so many lives, France would never consent to offer independence to the Arabs, though at the beginning of the war she might have done so. It was unthinkable that the French people would acquiesce in the placing of Christians of the Lebanon under a Mohammedan ruler.” (Karsh and Karsh 223)

To solve the problem, the British arranged meetings between Picot and diplomat Sir Mark Sykes. Despite cautious beginnings, the talks went well, and resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916. This time, the British planned to divide up the Ottoman Empire after the war with France and Russia, rather than with the Hashemites. There would be an independent Arab kingdom including most of Syria and Mesopotamia – but it would be under French influence in the north and British in the south. The other parts of the region were to be divided up between Russia, France, and Britain.

But not everyone was on board with the new plan. British Brigadier-General George Macdonough, the director of military intelligence in the War Office, was one of the doubters:

“I must confess that it seems to me that we are rather in the position of the hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it. I personally cannot foresee the situation in which we may find ourselves at the end of the war, and I therefore think that any discussion at the present time of how we are going to cut up the Turkish Empire is chiefly of academic interest.” (Karsh and Karsh 225)

The Sykes-Picot agreement did not last long. By 1917, Russia was out of the war and the British armies were on the march. The British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised to make Palestine the basis of a new Jewish state, which made things even more complicated. Britain now positioned itself as a liberator of Middle Eastern peoples under Ottoman Turkish oppression:

“Many noble Arabs have perished in the cause of Arab freedom, at the hands of those alien rulers, the Turks, who oppressed them. It is the determination of the Government of Great Britain and the Great Powers allied to Great Britain that these noble Arabs shall not have suffered in vain.” (BNA CAB 23/2 WC 96, March 14, 1917. The “Proclamation of Baghdad”) (Provence 65)

Once the war was over, French and British troops occupied the region and began to bring food aid to the starving population, particularly in Lebanon. But political rivalries persisted. Prime Minister Lloyd George felt the French would gain too much from the Sykes Picot agreement since the British had done most of the fighting against the Turks. At the Paris Peace Conference, he told French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau:

“I wonder if you have any rights to make claims under [the Sykes-Picot] agreement, after having refused to take part in the effort that made its execution possible.” (Karsh and Karsh 248) 

The planned borders were once again altered in Britain’s favor, although France would still receive Syria. Lloyd George was candid as to the reason why when he said:

“the friendship of France is worth ten Syrias.” (Provence 68)

So as the war drew to a close, Britain and France had yet another secret agreement that clashed with the agreement between the British and Hashemites. But the latest Middle East plan was also doomed, thanks to the United States.


US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points hoped to establish a new status quo in international politics - one in which self-determination and national independence were supposed to organize a new world order. The League of Nations was to oversee the formation of new states, as well as ensure peace and safeguarding the interests of people in occupied areas – like Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Mesopotamia.

With the Peace Conference in full swing in 1919, Hussein had reason to be optimistic - despite the fact he had learned about the secret Sykes-Picot agreement. He eagerly sent petitions to the Paris Peace Conference in order to advocate for an Arab kingdom – under rule of his sons.

Unfortunately for the Hashemites, it soon became clear the principles of the League of Nations would not be applied equally to Europeans and Arabs. Although the former Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian provinces would be turned into new states, the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire were to fall under a system of mandates. 

Article 22 of the League of Nations charter spelled this out: 

“Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.” (The Covenant of the League of Nations) 


But it wasn’t clear what a mandate would actually be. Was it just an advisory relationship, or indirect colonial control? Hashemite advisor Rustum Haydar asked the delegates of the peace conference:

“What does the word mandate mean? We do not exactly know. I only wish to say that the nations in whose name I speak intend to remain free to choose the Power whose advice they will ask. Their right to decide their fate in the future has been recognized in principle. Very well! But you will allow me to say, Gentlemen, that a secret agreement to dispose of these nations has been prepared, about which we have not been consulted. I ask the Assembly whether this state of things ought to exist or not.” (Provence 69/70)

He did not receive a satisfactory answer from Clemenceau or Lloyd George. Initially, both Britain and France thought the mandate system could pose a danger to their plans for domination in the Middle East, but as the system developed it became clear that it could work to their advantage. If they could administer the new Arab states under the League of Nations mandate system, they could more easily justify their control to the local people. This method would even be cheaper than direct colonial rule, and once the US Congress refused to ratify the peace treaty and stayed out of the League of Nations, the path to British and French control of the Middle East opened up.


There was a small hitch, however. The League of Nations charter stipulated that the citizens of the mandates would be asked which country they wanted to be supported by. In the end, the British and French ignored the wishes of the people Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, but they nonetheless wasted no time in making themselves heard.


You see at first the League of Nations planned to survey local opinion before imposing the mandate system. However, by 1919, only a single US Commission – the King-Crane Commission – had arrived in the region. British and French authorities on the ground tried to interfere with the Commission’s work, but it still managed to get a broad overview of local attitudes.

Around 80% of people surveyed wanted a unified and independent Syria – although there was a 50-50 split between those who preferred a monarchy under Faisal, and those who wanted a democratic kingdom. Generally, respondents preferred Britain over France as a mandatory power, but American assistance was the first choice. The exception here was the support for France among Lebanese Christians. 55% of those surveyed were against mandates altogether, and less than 1% supported the Zionist program advocated by Britain.

This information was mostly gathered through nearly 2000 petitions that locals sent to the King-Crane Commission. Similar numbers of petitions were also sent directly to the League of Nations, and British and French authorities.

Occasionally, these petitions were sent by individuals, but usually they were from citizens’ societies and interest groups. For example, a carpenters’ guild in Tripoli, which was then part of Greater Syria, sent demands like these:

“We the undersigned members of the carpenter’s guild... request the full independence of the Syrian country within its natural borders based on the following conditions:
[…] Political independence of Syria […]
[…] We object the Section 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations concerning the mandate.
[…] We are against the Israelite migration to our country […]
[…] We refuse the request of some people that Lebanon gets its independence
[…] We demand a constitutional monarchy, civilian and decentralized, headed by Emir Faisal.” (King-Crane)
The carpenters wanted some help from the US. If the US refused, they said they would take British help – but not French.

For the most part, Britain and France didn’t bother to read the petitions they received, but the petitions sent to the League of Nations and King-Crane Commission would soon become a thorn in their sides. The sheer number of petitions prompted William Rappard, the American-born Swiss Director of Mandates at the League of Nations, to ask Secretary General Sir Eric Drummond for guidance in handling the complaints:

“I cannot bring myself to feel that we are doing our full duty toward the inhabitants of these territories. Their protests are certainly often naïve and badly worded, but I do feel that they can make out a strong case against the way in which they have been and are being treated…” (Provence 79)


Drummond’s reply was less than empathetic:

“The wishes of the inhabitants is only the concern of the mandatory power and not the council. I have continually stated that I do not think that documents such as these, which contain absurd allegations, should be circulated.” (Provence 80)


What was under-appreciated by the British and French didn’t understand was the role petitioning had long played in Ottoman society. The European powers tended to see the Ottoman sultan through an Orientalist lens – anything from the East was inferior, archaic or as an exotic novelty. However, by the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was becoming more representative, with an improved civil service and more participation from civil society. In fact, the Ottomans had been using petitions for centuries for subjects to ask for the Sultan’s help, often to keep local governors in check. To former Ottoman subjects in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, petitions were seen as a natural and effective way to communicate with power, but the British and French didn’t see it that way.

So it turned out that France and Britain, the new mandatory powers in the Middle East, were sometimes more distant than the Ottoman authorities they had replaced. In Syria’s case, it seemed its future would be decided by Britain, who had promised it to both the Hashemites and the French.


And the British themselves were split on what to do. The French were their colonial rival again now that Germany was defeated, but an independent Arab kingdom in Syria might threaten British plans for the region. General Allenby, whose forces occupied much of Syria, and T.E. Lawrence, that’s Lawrence of Arabia, both supported Emir Faisal Hussein, whose father had arranged his claim with British diplomat McMahon.

But Prime Minister Lloyd George now began to downplay the Arab contribution to the war, as he wrote in his memoirs:

“What the Arabs were apt to overlook is the fact that their contribution in the conquest of Palestine and Syria was almost insignificant compared with that of the British Empire. The Arabs only claimed that their army mustered in all 100,000 light cavalry. Eastern arithmetic is proverbially romantic.” (Lloyd George, p 668)


French claims were supported by calls for Lebanese independence from Lebanese Christians. At the forefront of this movement was Patriarch Elias Hoayek, the leader of the large Maronite Christian community and head of the 2nd Lebanese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Hoayek wanted Lebanon to be separate from Syria, and feared a new kingdom under Faisal would make unwanted territorial claims. He told the Paris Conference:

"[…] our wishes can be expressed in very few words: the independence of Lebanon restored within its natural borders, with the help and assistance of our long-time friend, France [...] All my efforts will be aimed at obtaining, in accordance with the Lebanese national will, the complete independence of my country with the help of France.” (Daily Le Temps)

The Maronite position was an advantage for France, which saw itself as the protector of the Christian population in Lebanon. However, the issue could not be settled before the Syrian question was answered, and calls for French-backed independence in Lebanon legitimized French opposition to Faisal’s proposed kingdom – even though 57% of local petitions did not favour Lebanese independence.

Tension gradually began to grow, and so the British decided not to decide. They withdrew their troops from Syria in 1919, effectively leaving Clemenceau and Faisal to sort out the problem for themselves. In reality, the withdrawal of British protection essentially handed over the initiative to the French and the Emir knew it. 

In negotiations between Clemenceau and Emir Faisal, it was decided that Syria would become a de facto state under the indirect control of France, which received generous trade concessions. But Faisal’s closest and most influential supporters were not as ready to concede to the French as their leader. Faisal was surrounded by the Syrian Congress, a coalition of Syrian intellectuals and politicians strongly in favor of an independent Syria, free from foreign control. They rejected Faisal’s deal with the French and demanded to crown Faisal king of a free Arab kingdom. Despite his misgivings, Faisal agreed, and was crowned King of Syria on March 7, 1920. To the French, this was intolerable, and they delivered an ultimatum to the new King: allow French control, or suffer the military consequences.

So it seemed by the spring of 1920 that war was brewing in the Middle East between two British allies. The post-war colonial world was proving more complicated than before 1914, and a more nuanced approach was needed. In April 1920, the San Remo Conference was held to officially resolve the question of Middle Eastern mandates.


The conference, was held at a luxurious villa in the Italian town of San Remo from April 19 to April 26. On paper, the goal of the conference was to formalize the system of mandates spelled out in the League of Nations charter. But it soon became clear that it would simply put the status quo into writing: indirect British and French control in the majority Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Only Britain, France, Italy and Japan attended the conference, though the US had observer status. There was little chance of British and French aims being challenged, as was made clear by the San Remo Resolution. The resolution stated that Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine would become Class A League of Nations mandates. The Class A mandates were meant for former Ottoman provinces that had, in the eyes of the League, shown a high level of development, but still needed to be ‘tutored’ by a mandatory power until they were considered ready for full independence.

Palestine was a unique case, and would be more directly administered by Britain to allow the creation of a Jewish homeland as proposed by the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist Organisation would administer parts of Palestine, and encourage and facilitate Jewish immigration to the region. The resolution stated this must be done without prejudice to the non-Jewish population. 

The exact borders of the new Middle Eastern states were left undecided by the conference, which left Lebanon and Transjordan as major question marks, since they had not been discussed in detail at all. Interstate boundaries would instead be established in the Treaty of Sèvres later in 1920. 

The Mideast mandates were to be overseen by the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission. As mandatory powers, Britain and France had to send the League annual reports about the progress of their mandates, and answer any questions the League asked them. The British and French hoped this arrangement would make their role more acceptable to international opinion, but in reality the League Commission had little real power over them. 

Although Class-A mandates like Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia were officially independent and supposedly retained more powers than Class B and C mandates, in reality they were little more than colonies. In the words of historian Michael Provence:

“The populations of the mandated territories thus assumed all the responsibilities and none of the benefits of national sovereignty.” (Provence 69)

Both Britain and France would use their powers to discourage any development of grassroots political activities for independence. control and limit any development of real grassroots representative feeling. As mandatory powers, they could veto laws or constitutions that didn’t suit their interests, or redefine electoral boundaries. This proved useful if they wanted to weaken  the vote of groups that opposed them, or strengthen those that did – often minorities like Arab Christians and Jews. voice of minority groups. Extrajudicial imprisonment, torture, and even executions were carried out, especially against intellectuals and former Ottoman civil servants.  


So with the signing of the San Remo Resolution, it seemed that Britain and France had gotten most of what they wanted - indirect control of an important strategic region without the expense of direct colonization.

But control of the post-Ottoman Arab Middle East would soon prove to be trickier and more expensive than the French and British expected. Although resistance to their control was at first mostly intellectual and peaceful, in the late spring of 1920, violence was about to return to Syria, Palestine, and the new state of Iraq.

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Bibliography and Source

  • Karsh, Efraim & Karsh, Inari, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923, (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1999)
  • “Dans Le Levant” Le Temps, August 31, 1919 issue,
  • Lloyd George, David, Memoirs of the Peace Conference, (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1939) vol. 2
  • “Mounted Rifles Units” New Zealand History,
  • Paris, Timothy J. Britain, The Hashemites and Arab Rule 1920-1925, (London : Frank Cass, 2003)
  • Provence, Michael, The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2017)
  • O’Neill, Robert, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VII - The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918, (Australian War Memorial, 1941)
  • “King-Crane Commission Digital Collection” Oberlin College Library.
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