Iraq Must Go!

Charles Glass considers the history of ‘regime change’ in the Gulf

There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.
John Buchan, Greenmantle (1916)

As Lloyd George’s wartime Director of Information, John Buchan urged Britain to support an incomprehensible Eastern war with the cry: ‘The Turk must go!’ At the beginning of 1916, the Turk was not going anywhere: he held fast at Gallipoli, driving off the Allied landings in January, and accepted the surrender of a British Mesopotamian invasion force at Kut, south of Baghdad, in April. The Turkish war was both unsuccessful and unpopular. In the view of the new Imperial General Staff that Lloyd George created, it was also unnecessary. The generals preferred to concentrate their forces against the Hun and didn’t give a damn about Johnny Turk. As for the public, they had difficulty setting aside a century’s propaganda to the effect that the Ottoman Empire was a vital British interest – that the Turk, in other words, must stay.

Until the Great War, Johnny Turk was a plucky fellow who maintained order between the Suez Canal and India. If he chopped off a head or a hand from time to time, it was to keep the tribes in their proper place. Buchan, who shared the anti-native and anti-semitic prejudices of his time, did not explain how the Turk had changed his spots since the days when a British fleet restored Ottoman rule to Syria and saved the Sultan’s Crimean estates from the Tsar. Turkish dominion, in common with imperial rule throughout most of history, was as brutal and as beneficent as it needed to be to survive. It was far more cruel than the Egyptian regime installed in Syria by Ibrahim Pasha in 1832 and removed by Britain in 1841. At the time of the British policy change, it was no more ruthless than it had been during the Anglo-Turkish alliance against Russia from 1853 to 1856. Yet Turkey now had to relinquish the empire it had ruled for four centuries. Not because the Turk was brutal, but because Britain, along with its French and Russian allies, coveted the Ottoman domains.

Lloyd George wished to acquire two provinces above all: Palestine, on behalf of Jewish Zionists from Europe, for whom the fundamentalist chapel-goer had a messianic sympathy, and Mesopotamia – with Baghdad at its heart – for its oil and its position as the Arab world’s frontier with Persia, Afghanistan and India. (Some things have not changed.) Although the twin campaigns in Mesopotamia and Syria, which included Palestine, were similar Allied land-grabs, the differences were significant. Syria’s population sought independence from the Sublime Porte, Iraq’s did not. Syria wanted to remain united; Iraq for the most part preferred to retain separate identities for Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. Britain would divide Syria, and unite Iraq.

After General Townshend surrendered Kut on 29 April 1916, Buchan and the rest of the propaganda unit at Wellington House mobilised opinion for the liberation of Turkey’s non-Turkish subjects. They published horror stories of Turkish rapine, some true, but many fabricated like those of German atrocities in Belgium. These tales prepared the public for another go at the Turk – and a second attempt at Baghdad. Sir Stanley Maude invaded from the Persian Gulf, advanced north and concentrated his superior force to capture the city in March 1917. The British declared Maude the liberator and later erected a statue of him in the grounds of what would become the British Embassy.

Maude extended the fight north to Kurdistan and Mosul, and Britain began the organisation – indeed, the creation – of modern Iraq. Sir Percy Cox, his chief political officer, who later became the High Commissioner in Baghdad, and his assistant, Gertrude Bell, intrigued among the tribes and urban notables to bolster British rule: the unsought emancipator had come to stay. To administer a greater Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, the British imposed a centralised system on peoples accustomed to the autonomy afforded them by Ottoman weakness. ‘It was evident,’ David Fromkin wrote in his fascinating study A Peace to End All Peace (1989), ‘that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces.’

Gertrude Bell was certainly familiar with the population mix of both Syria and Iraq. She was the daughter of a County Durham baronet whose fortune came from coal. At the age of 31, with a First in history from Oxford, she left Britain to study the tribes of Arabia. She befriended desert sheikhs from Jerusalem to Persia, learned Arabic and returned to Baghdad with the new rulers in 1917. An ardent member of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League with Mrs Humphry Ward, she believed that an Englishwoman, however unqualified to vote for a Member of Parliament at Westminster, could direct the affairs of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turcomans and Jews. ‘I’m getting to be a dab hand at Arab politics,’ she wrote to her stepmother, Florence Bell, from Baghdad.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in