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The Paris Peace Conference and Post-War Negotiations

The war ended in late 1918 and brought a long series of peace conferences and treaty conventions. Lenin and Wilson had laid down a challenge to the victorious Great Powers, and their popular idealism threatened to upset the terms of the settlement and the distribution of the spoils of the French and British victory. As historian Erez Manela has shown, Wilson soon recoiled from the anti-imperialist hopes his speeches and proclamations had provoked, but the news of the “Fourteen Points” and the dawn of a new world of justice and freedom animated discussion, hope, and protest throughout the world.23

Before the Paris Peace conference had convened, and before Wilson had arrived in Europe, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceu paid a four-day-long victory visit to his British counterpart, David Lloyd George. Clemenceu and Lloyd George drove together through wildly cheering crowds from the train station. Clemenceu was touched by the outpouring, and Lloyd George, with an artful instinct for negotiation, picked this moment to strike. Upon reaching the French Embassy, Lloyd George convinced Clemenceu to concede Palestine and oil-rich Mosul to Britain despite the Sykes Picot lines. For his part, Clemenceu claimed Syria, Cilicia, Alexandretta, and a percentage of Mosul oil for France. The deal was struck. Over the next twelve months, Clemenceu came to fear that the slippery Lloyd George and his Hashemite client Faysal would deny him Syria, but both powers ended up with what they privately apportioned in December 1918.24 Lloyd George eventually exclaimed to Clemenceu, “the friendship of France is worth ten Syrias.”25 By the time the Paris Peace Conference convened the next month, in January 1919, the partition of the Ottoman realms had already been decided secretly between Clemenceu and Lloyd George. If Wilson did not know, he soon suspected a backroom arrangement had been made.

The Paris Conference dealt principally with the terms of peace in Europe. In keeping with Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” however, the Conference did take up the partition of the Ottoman Empire, ostensibly in keeping with the principal of self-determination for Ottoman citizens and Zionists. The Conference delegates endorsed Wilson’s proposal to create an international body to help keep the peace, adjudicate disputes, and safeguard the interests of people subject to the military occupation of the victorious powers. Wilson’s proposed League of Nations would assume the legal trusteeship of territories separated from the Ottoman Empire or Germany, and which would be administered for the League of Nations by the mandatory powers, Britain or France. The League of Nations and the populations of the mandated territories thus assumed all the responsibilities and none of the benefits of national sovereignty.

The Peace Conference produced the Charter of the League of Nations. Article 22 dealt directly with those parts of the Ottoman state under Allied military occupation and expected to remain under some form of French or British rule.

To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the prin ciple that the well being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embo died in this Covenant.

The tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League.

Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised 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 text of the League charter, much of which had been written by Wilson himself, was already a grave disappointment to the inhabitants of the regions under discussion. Wilson had raised hopes he could not and would not satisfy. Telegrams arrived in Paris, Washington, and London, arguing forcefully for independence and the application of the principles of self-determination and consent of the governed.

Rustum Haydar, Faysal’s advisor, pointedly 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 principal. Very well! But you will allow me to say,

Gentlemen, that a secret agreement to dispose of these nations has been pre pared, about which we have not been consulted. I ask the Assembly whether this state of things ought to exist or not. 26

Clemenceau, sitting at the end of the table with Wilson at his right, ignored Rustum Haydar, and instead addressed a matter of mundane procedure before calling the day’s session to a close. Rustum Haydar had quickly grasped that independence was out of the question and the matter of defining the meaning of mandate would fall to the mandatory power itself. Wilson, who also witnessed the speech, was a product of the segregated American South, and was perfectly accustomed to a colonialist hierarchy of humanity in which men who traced their lineage to the states of northern Europe would decide the destinies and best interests of less-evolved peoples.

Rustum Haydar, by contrast, hailed from a cosmopolitan Ottoman background and had been born in 1889 in Baalbak, near Damascus, in the shadow of the world’s largest Roman temple. Haydar had received an elite Ottoman civil education starting with the state middle school in Baalbak, continuing at Maktab ‘Anbar at Damascus, and the Mulkiye civil service academy at Istanbul. From there he had proceeded to Paris, where he attended the Sorbonne. Educated in Damascus, Istanbul, and Paris, fluent and cultured in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and French, he delivered his speech in French, which, like Arabic or Ottoman, Wilson would not have understood without the aid of an interpreter.27

Claims of “self-determination” for smaller nations, a principal Wilson and Lloyd George had adopted, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps cynically, from the speeches of Trotsky, was to form a core of justification for the peace settlement. Before it was decided how the regions placed under League of Nations mandate were to be guided and governed, their population should be surveyed to determine their level of political consciousness and aspirations. Wilson appointed a commission to query the wishes of the populations under discussion in Ottoman Syria. His British and French counterparts worked quietly to avoid any public consideration of the wishes of colonial subject populations, and considered the commission an example of Wilsonian foolishness. The British occupation forces were apparently successful in preventing a commission from visiting Iraq or Egypt, but in spring 1919 two prominent Americans embarked on a commission of enquiry in Ottoman Syria.

Henry King and Charles Crane arrived by steamship at Jaffa in June 1919. They spent the next forty-two days traveling through the region. Their itinerary is almost incomprehensibly nostalgic since they traversed without hindrance or delay, by car, train, and motor yacht, through what would become, under the colonial settlement, six separate states or entities, including Turkey, Syria, Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Jordan. Despite the end of the Great War only months before, and the attending destruction and famine, the commission was able to drive by car in a period of two days from Haifa, to Acre, and Tyre, on to Nazereth, around Lake Tiberias, the Golan, and on to Damascus. The roads, ports, and rail lines were evidently in good and serviceable condition despite the official claim that the region was so undeveloped as to be “unable to stand on its own.” Due to fortified national borders, resulting from the 1920 settlement, the Arab Israeli conflict, and a long series of wars, no one has made such a trip for almost seven decades. Everywhere, the commission interviewed leading citizens. The commission visited thirty towns, meeting and interviewing prominent citizens, and received 1,863 petitions, many of which were duplicates in whole or in part. The majority (70 80 percent) of the petitions called for the territorial unity of greater Syria, absolute independence, and opposition to Zionism. Much smaller percentages indicated support for some form of mandate “assistance,” and low single digits indicated support for direct mandates in Lebanon. Slightly less than 1 percent supported Zionism.28

British and French officials blocked the King Crane commission report. The commission was not allowed to enter Iraq, and when its comprehensive report, complete with statistics, maps, and various analyses, was completed in August 1919, both governments ignored it and managed to convince Wilson to temporarily suppress it. Wilson had resolved to publish the report once the Senate had ratified the Paris Peace Treaty and joined the League of Nations. One of Wilson’s advisors claimed the president had “clean forgotten” he had sent the commission in the first place, and a few weeks after the completion of the report, in late September and October, a series of strokes incapacitated Wilson, and neither the Peace Treaty nor membership in the League was ever ratified.29 By the time the King Crane report was finally published, more than three years later, France and Britain were fully entrenched and acknowledged as the League of Nations mandatory powers over Syria, Greater Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine.30

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