The Sharif Husayn–İstanbul Correspondence
It is customary to start the historical account of twentieth-century, or “contemporary,” Middle East with three seminal, yet out of the ordinary, covenants: the agreement between Sharif Husayn and McMahon, which pledged a large independent Arab entity to the Hashemite family; the Sykes-Picot Treaty of May 1916, which contravened the first pledge and partitioned the Arab Middle East between Britain and France; and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which promised a Jewish national homeland in Palestine and spawned the Arab-Zionist conflict. In the midst of the historical narratives that focus on these agreements and their consequences, and, indeed, even on their precedents, Ottoman history tends to vanish.
At least the first of these agreements came as a result of a drawn-out correspondence in the second half of 1915, the backdrop to which was an even more protracted exchange between Sharif Husayn and Ottoman authorities that has been overlooked. An analysis of the correspondence between Sharif Husayn and İstanbul will posit the Ottoman government as well as Sharif Husayn as actors who sought out their options and best interests, and not as merely passive victims of Great Power intrigue.
The underlying tenor of the contacts between the sharif and İstanbul was suspicion, as the two sides engaged in a standoff. The interchange of telegrams and letters, however, revealed more than hollow pleasantry, cautious standstill, or guile. Both sides explored options in the midst of which novel policy initiatives took shape.
During the critical month of February 1915—as Cemal moved to the Suez, hostilities started in Gallipoli, and emergency measures forced the adjournment of Parliament—Husayn assured Enver Pasha, now deputy commander-in-chief, that he would protect the rights of the caliphate in the holy places, as long as attacks on his position and person were not tolerated. At this juncture, the bulk of the Ottoman forces in the Hijaz had been moved to the Suez. More important, their commander, Vehib, was recalled, soon to take command of the Third Army on the Eastern front. Even as Cemal Pasha urged İstanbul for the appointment of a farsighted and strong new governor in the Hijaz, the implications of Vehib’s transfer did not escape either side.
Events during the spring of 1915 did little to alleviate the sharif’s dilemma about his stance vis-à-vis İstanbul. With Vehib and a large portion of the forces that had been under his command having left in different directions, Husayn was more exposed to the British presence in the Red Sea. Whether he chose to cooperate with the British or not, it made sense for him to augment his personal forces. He proceeded to order the levying of armed Beduin from designated tribes.
Meanwhile, the British confined their naval activity and attacks to the northern coast near Medina and al-Wejh. The muhafız of Medina sent a unit of soldiers mounted on camels against the British, pleading to İstanbul at the same time for timely payment of stipends and sufficient food for the men and the animals. Cemal Pasha decided to transfer by train up to ten carloads of food from Damascus to Medina in order to preclude dangerous shortages in the Hijaz, the links of the province via the sea having been cut. Considering that Syria was afflicted by similar food shortages (soon to become a full-fledged famine), the dispatch of food from Damascus pointed to the importance Cemal attached to keeping the enemy pressure off of the Hijaz and thus maintaining Sharif Husayn in the Ottoman camp.
At the end of May Sharif Faysal visited Cemal Pasha at the army headquarters before returning from Syria to the Hijaz. He declared his family’s readiness to shed its blood for the Ottoman caliphate and promised to come back with a force of Beduin fighters in two months. Six weeks later, on 10 July, Sharif Husayn gave similar assurances. In reference to the jihad, he stated that he had not attempted to relieve himself of service to the holy war, but urged that his actions in the Hijaz demanded caution and prudence. He requested arms and money from the government. At exactly the same time, on 14 July, he commenced the infamous correspondence with McMahon.
Enver thanked Sharif Husayn for his determination to achieve unity of purpose and wrote, “So long as all Muslims act as one body against the enemy, divine victory will always be with us.” He added that 5,000 liras had been dispatched and the requested arms were being prepared. A few days later Enver Pasha wrote a letter to Sharif Husayn on the matter of organizing an Islamic society (Cemiyet-i İslamiye), presumably to advance Islamic propaganda in Arabia. Sharif Husayn’s response to this letter reveals more than a passing interest in the initiative. Cautious because of his relations with the British, he proposed the formation of either a highly secret committee of six or the use of the cover provided by a benevolent society that would operate under the name of Cemiyet-i Umumiye (Public Society). Enver asked Husayn to proceed with the second option, as long as the true objective of the society would remain secret.