The Arab Provinces and the Early Period of the War
Even though the Ottoman Empire did not formally enter the war until the beginning of November 1914, it had signed a secret treaty with Germany in August. This important decision was taken by a small group of Committee leaders and signified the beginning of the monopolization of political power by a narrow circle within the CUP. The CUP general assembly was dissolved following the outbreak of the war, enhancing the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of Committee leaders who constituted what amounted to a shadow cabinet. The actual cabinet, itself dominated by the Committee, endorsed decisions that originated in the CUP Central Committee, which replaced legislative acts normally deliberated upon in Parliament. One result of this decision-making process was the considerable narrowing of the scope for the exercise of political influence by Arabs who had been given positions in Parliament and other high offices.
The impending entry of the empire into the war triggered a number of developments. In October the British administration in Egypt sounded out Sharif ‘Abdullah about his father’s willingness to render support to the British, in case Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. Some Arab leaders once again turned to the British and the French authorities contemplating a separate peace. The Decentralization Party in Cairo resolved to initiate a revolt against the government and received French and British pledges for assistance. Between the outbreak of war in Europe and Ottoman entry into it, members of the Decentralization Party (including Iskandar ‘Ammun and ‘Abd al-Ghani al-‘Uraysi) received the promise of “20,000 rifles, three warships to cover the rebels, and French officers to direct the action” as other members, Rashid Rida and Rafiq al-‘Azm, negotiated conditions for cooperation with the British authorities and received 1,000 Egyptian pounds to send emissaries to the Ottoman Arab provinces to incite the revolt. Pro-British leaders in Beirut broached to the British consul their desire for the extension of Egyptian rule to Syria. They separately drafted a petition addressed to Khedive Abbas II urging him to take on the leadership of an Arab government as a British dependency.
Most Ottoman statesmen had desired a wartime alliance with the Western European powers. “Innumerable snubs” by Britain and France, however, forced the Ottoman government, which feared isolation, into an alliance with the Central Powers. With the conclusion of this alliance, geostrategic considerations left the Arab provinces most vulnerable to British naval incursions. Once Russia formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of November, Britain quickly proceeded to a two-pronged attack against Ottoman positions in the Arab districts to the north of the Red Sea and in the Persian Gulf.
In the tempest of the war, Britain was less interested in lasting political arrangements than in revolts that would tie down and undermine Ottoman military forces. Moreover, it intended to circumscribe rather than expand the role of the khedive. Thus, to the disappointment of the Decentralization Party, the British authorities refrained from a commitment to secure the independence of Arab areas outside of the Peninsula, and thus frustrated the initiative of the Decentralization Party.
Gerald Fitzmaurice, formerly dragoman at Britain’s İstanbul embassy, recommended reviving the Arab movement with British “prodding” from Kuwait or Baghdad, or with French provocation from coastal Syria. In Greater Syria support for Britain was uncertain. Baghdad, on the other hand, “since the majority Shia here have never been reconciled [to Ottoman rule],” offered opportunities. As for the Hijaz, on the eve of the Ottoman entry into the war, it seemed to British authorities in Cairo “almost certain that the Sharif of Mecca [had] now definitively thrown in his lot with Turkey [as] part of a general pan-Islamic movement.” Fitzmaurice, too, argued that the Hijaz should be left outside the sphere of British activity.
Thus, no sooner had the Ottoman Empire entered the war than did the British establish contacts with ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Misri in the hopes of inciting a rebellion within the disaffected Arab nucleus of the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia. ‘Aziz ‘Ali, of Circassian ancestry and Egyptian background, had been a prominent officer in the Ottoman army until he fell out with Enver Pasha, with whom he had had a long-standing rivalry. Like Enver and Mustafa Kemal (another officer with whom Enver had personal rivalries), ‘Aziz ‘Ali had distinguished himself in the Libyan War. Known as an Ottomanist partial to a federal Turco-Arab arrangement, ‘Ali was a cultural Arab who, like Sa‘id Halim and Mahmud Shawkat, had non-Arab ancestry. Unlike these two, however, he involved himself with secret Arab societies while continuing to perform distinguished service in the Ottoman army. Even as a cofounder of Al-qahtaniyya in 1909 and founder of Al-‘ahd in 1913, ‘Aziz ‘Ali remained an Ottomanist, as Majid Khadduri’s revisionist study of his life and career demonstrates. Because of his differences with Enver and the Ottoman government, he left İstanbul for his native Cairo in the spring of 1914. In August 1914 he had an audience with a British official in Cairo, to whom he broached the idea of an Arab state under British tutelage. The British authorities, who did not entertain such a notion in August, would reestablish contact with ‘Aziz ‘Ali after the Ottomans entered the war. Torn between his conflicting loyalties and possessing an unrealistic view of his influence among Arab leaders, ‘Aziz ‘Ali was not prepared to be a pawn of the British and ultimately proved to be ill-suited for the role that the British expected him to play in inciting Arabs to a rebellion.
In Basra Sayyid Talib renewed his bid for cooperation with Britain when he perceived that the Ottoman government would enter the war on the side of Germany. He wished to be recognized as the local ruler (emir) of Basra under British protection, but he could obtain only evasive answers to his plea, having apparently turned down prior overtures for cooperation. After the British forces occupied Basra in November, London saw no need to come to an agreement with Talib, whose reliability had remained suspect.
Upon entering the war, the Ottoman government took two measures with significant implications for the Arab provinces. First, on 11 November the sultan-caliph declared a jihad against the Triple Entente. Second, as the British forces occupied Basra, Cemal Pasha was sent to Damascus as governor of Syria and commander of the Fourth Army while continuing to hold his portfolio as minister of the navy.
In order to secure allegiance to the state, the government continued to resort to religious propaganda on the one hand and time-honored tactics of enticement and alliances on the other. The call for jihad was the culmination of the Islamic propaganda carried out by the Ottoman government since 1913. In appraising the effectiveness of the jihad, later historians have subscribed to the Entente’s counterpropaganda aimed at invalidating it: the call could not have had legitimacy, when the sultan himself was in alliance with Christian powers. It has also been argued that the Muslim subjects of the Entente powers did not incur the obligation, or possess the ability, to engage in jihad by virtue of being in subjugation. It is clear, however, that the jihad was not meant to pit the Muslims of the world against the Christian European powers, but rather to achieve more limited aims consistent with and supported by the ideological and political circumstances preceding it. It was, first of all, designed to increase domestic support for the government’s war effort, and, second, to provide an obstacle to the Entente’s mobilization campaign. As later events proved, both of these goals were achieved to a large extent.
The holy places in the Hijaz became a center of propaganda by virtue of being reference points to which all Muslims could relate. Sharif Husayn’s blessing in Mecca for the holy war would have been significant for its success. Yet the officially sponsored Islamist campaign also impinged on the traditional functions of the grand sharif, from which accrued his power and prestige. Thus, Husayn found himself under pressure to endorse and promote the jihad from the moment it was declared, but he refused to commit himself.
The few contacts that Husayn had with the British, and the few positive signals that he had received regarding cooperation, did not persuade him to throw in his lot with Britain. In contrast, cooperation with İstanbul had been proven useful in fulfilling his personal ambitions in the Hijaz. The initiation of the hostilities coincided with the pilgrimage season and cut the number of pilgrims by half compared to the previous year. (The fact that Britain discouraged its Muslim subjects from traveling to Mecca was an important factor in this decline.) The region’s economy, so dependent on the pilgrimage, suffered. The possibility that an İstanbul-sponsored call for jihad might find fertile ground in Arabia under these circumstances and steal the show from Husayn, if he failed to endorse it, deepened his apprehension.
Nevertheless, Husayn’s adoption of the jihad would have presented equally problematic prospects. The call was intended to create trouble for Britain among the Muslim populations in the colonies. Ottoman entry into the war had rendered the Hijaz particularly vulnerable to British aggression. Britain blockaded the Red Sea ports, leading to food shortages. It then prepared to land supplies in those ports, posing to the populations as the saviors. The endorsement of the jihad would have ruled out any maneuvers to mitigate British reprisals against the Hijaz. Even worse for the sharif, the Red Sea coast was the most exposed region of imperial territories, while Ottoman commitment and ability to defend it was precarious. Finally, an alliance with the British might have offered new and enhanced opportunities to Husayn for aggrandizing his power in Arabia.
Thus, the declaration of jihad further complicated the careful balancing act that the sharif had been practicing all along in order to maintain his political position and power within the broader interests of the Ottoman state. While his energy was now primarily directed toward buying time, the sharif also tried to blunt the cutting edge of the new factor of jihad. He made a special effort to display to the faithful that İstanbul had no monopoly over commanding religious sensibilities. He declared a war on bid‘a (innovation), a concept frowned upon in orthodox Islam, even expressing disapproval of trappings of contemporary urban life, from European-style women’s shoes to the telephone and automobile, all the while resorting to delaying tactics that would enable him to sit on the fence and to use noncommitment to his advantage. In December 1914 he told a British agent that “because of his position in the world of Islam and present political situation in the Hidjaz he could not break with the Turks immediately and that he was awaiting a colorable pretext.” Even German envoys, who must have been cognizant of these contacts, concluded that the sharif appeared to have been won over by Britain. His signals to Britain, indeed his later negotiations, comprised only one side of the waiting game that he played.
Sharif Husayn continued to be in contact with İstanbul as well as with Cemal Pasha after the latter took office as commander of the Fourth Army in Damascus in December 1914 and prepared for the first of the two ill-fated expeditions against the Suez Canal. Cemal wanted to mobilize the army units in the Hijaz for the canal expedition and insisted on this despite Talat’s reservations. Any troop movements that would remove Vehib, governor as well as commander of forces in the Hijaz, from Mecca was welcome to Husayn. To encourage the participation of the Hijazi army units in the war, the sharif also expressed his own willingness to contribute a Beduin force to the expedition. Cemal actively sought the sharif’s participation in command of his Beduin forces. This would not only have given a shot in the arm to the Egyptian campaign, but also it would have been tantamount to Husayn’s endorsement of the jihad. Cemal had organized the expedition as a contrived manifestation of Ottoman-Islamic unity, with the participation of separate units of 200 to 300 troops each from the Druze (led by Shakib Arslan), the Kurds (led by senator ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Yusuf), the Circassians, Libyan resistance fighters, and Bulgarian Muslims in a military force named Halaskâr Mısır Ordu-yu İslamiyesi (The Savior Islamic Army of Egypt). The sharif subsequently bowed out, though he continued to uphold his pledge to dispatch units under the command of his son ‘Ali.
The denouement of the rift between the sharif and the government, we are told, followed from events during the joint movement of Vehib’s forces and ‘Ali’s contingent from Mecca to Medina. One of ‘Ali’s men reportedly discovered documents that spilled from a case belonging to a member of Vehib’s escort. The documents revealed plans between Vehib and İstanbul “to depose Husayn and his family and to end the special position of the Hijaz.” When the disclosure was communicated to Husayn, he lost all hope of conciliation with İstanbul and not only ordered ‘Ali to stay put in Medina but also charged his other son, Faysal, to travel to the capital, ostensibly in order to make representations about the revelations but in fact to contact nationalists in Syria. While in Syria, Faysal also served as the conduit between his father and Cemal. If this chance incident in fact occurred, it is unlikely that the documents obtained by ‘Ali’s men would have constituted such apocalyptical revelations, as the sharif no doubt knew full well the governor’s feelings about his emirate. If the cache containing communications with İstanbul provided unmistakable proof for such, it may also have well contained some evidence of the constant temperance and amicable relations that İstanbul had urged to Vehib.
Following Ottoman defeat in the Sinai, the Entente powers engaged in deliberations to determine the political future of the Ottoman territories after the expected collapse of the Ottoman state. The Constantinople Agreement concluded in April 1915, based on diplomatic correspondence by Russia, Britain, and France, called for the establishment of independent Arab rule in Arabia. This agreement provided the basis for the secret correspondence that took place between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and Sharif Husayn between July 1915 and January 1916. Deceptive and controversial as the terms offered to Sharif Husayn were, the McMahon-Husayn exchange resulted in an alliance of the sharif and Britain against the Ottoman government.