A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

Syria: A Conflict Explored @ the Imperial War Museum

As part of its centenary the IWM is launching a new exhibition strand called Conflict Now to explore current conflicts around the world, seen through the eyes of artists, photographers, refugees, citizen journalists, war correspondents and so on.

Syria: A conflict explored

The first of these is Syria: A Conflict Explored which will comprise a series of exhibitions and events addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and will include events, seminars, discussions etc over the show’s run (until September 2017). The main element consists of two free installations in gallery 2 and gallery 4 on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Gallery 4 – Syria: Story of a Conflict

In gallery 4 is a small display exploring the origins and impact of the war. It consists of three elements:

1. Half a dozen or so artifacts including:

  • a lifejacket from a boatful of refugees from the war;
  • newspaper headlines in a British and American paper, referring specifically to the beheading by ISIS of British and American citizens
  • a mug and a plate with the images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next to Russian President Putin
  • cartoons by Ali Ferzat, a well-known political cartoonist in Syria until he over-stepped the mark by depicting members of the government, and was beaten up one dark night in Damascus and had his hands shattered… at which point he realised it was time to leave the country
  • one of the characteristic white helmets worn by the Syrian Civil Defence, the people who clear up after the bombings and shooting
  • a replica of a barrel bomb i.e. a metal barrel packed with explosives, petrol and scrap metal, onto which are nailed some crude fins so that it can be fired from a primitive mortar at ‘the enemy’

2. An eight-minute video giving a timeline of the war, how it developed from some acts of graffiti by dissident school kids in 2011 who were subsequently arrested and beaten which sparked protests against the regime.

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

The region known as Syria was part of the huge Ottoman Empire for centuries. With the collapse of that Empire and the creation of modern Turkey, the victorious Allies (France and Britain) inherited control of the Middle East and laid out borders which endure to this day, more or less. While Britain took control of Iraq and the Gulf States, France took colonial possession of Lebanon and Syria. In fact, Syria was under French rule for only 25 years, from 1920 to 1945, when, in the aftermath of World War Two, it was given independence.

Syria’s subsequent history has been marked by a bewildering series of military coups (1961, 1963, 1966, 1970) until power was seized by Air Force colonel and one-time Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad. Assad instituted an Arab Nationalist dictatorship over a country mostly populated by Sunni Muslims but with a significant number of minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis.

In fact al-Assad was himself an Alawite (a heretical form of Shia Islam) and packed his government with colleagues from this sect – which was just one cause of resentment against his long oppressive rule. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, educated as an eye surgeon in the West, and who commentators – ever over-optimistic about the Middle East – thought would relax the state regime and help Syria transition to a modern democracy.

Whatever hope there was of that was crushed when Bashar was forced to choose whether to let the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011 continue or crack down on them: the same dilemma faced by numerous dictatorial regimes in the past generation – Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Li Peng’s China and Honecker’s East Germany in 1989. Possibly prompted by those around him, by the survivors of his father’s dictatorship who had so very much to lose, he decided to crack down – and the rest is history.

As the government used increasing violence to repress the protests, the protestors took up arms, dissident military units turned against the government, America and NATO refused to be drawn in and supply heavy weapons to the rebels (on the reasonable grounds that these might well end up in the hands of anti-western Islamist forces), while the opposition forces fragmented into up to a thousand different militias, among which – predictably enough – hard-line Islamist forces emerged. Combined with President Obama’s strategy of withdrawing US troops from Iraq, a vacuum of anarchy opened up in northern Iraq and eastern Syria into which surged the new, super-violent ISIS militia.

While chaos spread across the country, the Kurds in northern Syria – just like the Kurds in northern Iraq – tried to declare independence and secede, as their forebears have been trying to do ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. As usual, the Kurds turned out to be the most disciplined and unified fighting force in the country, particularly effective against the Islamist fanatics, and the West and America accordingly gave them practical help.

But this outraged Turkey, nominally a member of NATO and Western ally, but which has been fighting a campaign against Kurdish secessionists in its far south-east ever since the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and has suffered a long series of attacks on civilians and police by Kurdish terrorists. While America and NATO dithered about their policy, trying to aligned themselves with the democratic opposition to Assad while also trying not to end up arming Islamist forces – in September 2015 Russia stepped in with an aggressive policy to support its long-term ally in the region, the Syrian government.

Russian President Putin has trodden a tricky line ever since, claiming at the UN and to the world at large, to be helping Assad combat ‘terrorists’ – while in fact Russian planes have quite openly attacked non-terrorist opposition forces, most recently at the heart-breaking siege of Aleppo.

Still, however murderous their impact has been on the ground, Russia has effectively staked its place as the key external player in a struggle which is overflowing with external interference. For I haven’t explained how the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia (backing Sunni insurgents) and Iran (backing the Syrian government) have also been supplying arms, soldiers and advisers to their respective sides.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Bringing all the warring factions in the country together to any kind of peace discussions is impossible, since many of the opposition groups refuse to accept Assad’s right to rule, while Assad refuses to talk to the opposition which he indiscriminately brands as terrorists, and the actual terrorists – ISIS and related groups – oppose both the others, wanting to establish a medieval caliphate in the region, while the fierce enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia also has to be mediated.

Just getting America and Russia to talk rationally about the situation would be a massive achievement, which doesn’t look likely any time soon, especially given President Trump’s unpredictability.

3. The third element in this gallery is a series of wall panels and photos giving the life stories of nine representative ‘ordinary’ Syrians. They are not happy stories. And somehow, they seem completely overshadowed, crushed, by the weight of the military, ideological and strategic forces which are tearing their country apart.

Gallery 2 – Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria

In gallery two (which is made up of four rooms) is the first UK exhibition of 60 photographs by award-winning Russian documentary photographer, Sergey Ponomarev (b.1980).

As a Russian i.e. a citizen of the government’s main ally, Ponomarev was able to enter the country and get access to areas most western journalists couldn’t. His photos are in colour, big and vivid. However, they are not images of the conflict per se. Unlike say, Don McCullin, who I’ve recently been reading about, Ponomarev doesn’t take images of fighting men, soldiers, militias and so on.

Instead his work concentrates on civilians living quite literally on the edge of the front line as it weaves to and fro across cities and towns – Homs, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus itself. The impact of the war is obvious enough in the shattered buildings all around, but is only implicit in the faces of the civilians, peering out the window at snipers, leaving their bombed-out apartments, trying to live normal lives in cafes and shops while their entire country is torn apart.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

There is no blood anywhere. It is the implicitness of the conflict which gives so many of the pictures their spooky, haunted quality. There’s a particularly haunting one showing the congregation in one of the rare Christian churches left, in Damascus, and you can see the haunted anxious expressions on their faces. It’s the third down on the left in the montage on this page:

In fact, these four rooms are divided into two distinct shows:

1. Assad’s Syria – the first three rooms feature 24 big – really big – colour prints of images of civilians, the result of visits Ponomarev made to government-run territory in 2013-14. Obviously lots of shots of people amid rubble, although also lots of pics of people trying to go about their everyday lives in cafes and churches. As I worked through the rooms, it dawned on me that these photos are dominated by buildings; many of the people are looking out of big windows, or are framed in vistas of buildings (destroyed or still standing), or are seen through windows or against pillars or staircases – and it’s the architecture which gives many of these photos their monumental effect (that and their enormous size).

2. The Exodus In the fourth and last room is a second distinct portfolio of work. There’s a bench where you can sit and watch a 14-minute slide show of 40 or so big colour images of Syrian (and other) refugees escaping across the sea from Turkey to Greece, then trying to get across the borders into Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, all hoping to get to Germany, the promised land of wealth, jobs and security.

These photos were taken between the ‘refugee crisis’ from June 2015 and March 2016. It was for this work that Ponomarev won the Pulitzer Prize (2016), the World Press Photo Award (2017) and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (2017). Obviously they are of people in extremes of desperation and distress but what also struck me was how beautifully framed and composed they all are.

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

If the Assad’s Syria photos rely on architectural features to create compositions, the Exodus photos – by their nature mostly taken outside, by the sea, in fields, railway stations, wherever the refugees gathered or were corralled by the police – these have a completely different feel because they use the shapes and patterns of human beings to give shape and compositional effect.

Boats, trains, buses intervene a bit, but it is mostly the forms and patterns into which groups of human beings naturally fall which Ponomarev picks out with unerring skill. In the photo above there is a diagonal line from the heads of the people in the boat following the rope heading to the bottom right hand side, enlivened by the two figures struggling through the water. I’m not saying it’s schematic or planned – just that Ponomarev has an extraordinary ability to see, frame and capture the patterns and shapes which naturally arise in human situations.

His photos are quite stunning.

The information in the first gallery, with its random objects, people’s stories and short film, you could pick up almost anywhere off the internet. Ponomarev’s photos, by contrast, are extraordinary, vivid, wonderfully composed, tinged by a distinctive blueish colour palette, haunting. They are well worth a visit just for themselves.

Videos

These days most exhibitions have at least one promotional video on YouTube or Vimeo: this exhibition has no fewer than twelve!


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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