It’s one of the best-known scenes in cinema history. Colonel TE Lawrence, all piercing blue eyes and billowing white robes, crouches behind a sand dune with an army of Arab Bedouin soldiers at his shoulder. The train approaches and Lawrence detonates the explosive, blowing it into the sand. Then, in one of those classic “come, follow me, men” moves, he leaps over the top of the dune, gesturing his Arab army to follow.
It’s from David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. The script is taken from Lawrence’s own written account, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which some have challenged as rather enhancing his role in the Arab revolt. Indeed, it has been suggested that he was simply a seconded explosives expert embedded within Arab forces in an advisory capacity. But archeologists from the University of Bristol have recently discovered a bullet in the desert, at the site of the Halat Ammar train ambush, fired from precisely the type of gun that Lawrence used. And this apparently confirms Lawrence’s version of events.
But Lawrence’s greatest deception was not to his readers but to his Arab colleagues. To give this some context: It is 1917. Lawrence and the Arab army were fighting against the Turks who had taken the side of the Germans in the first world war. Lawrence, with backing from the British government, had promised the Arabs their own autonomous state on collapse of the Ottoman empire. This is why the Arabs were fighting alongside the Brits. But what Lawrence didn’t know – at first at least – was that back in 1916 a secret deal had been struck between the French and the British to carve up the Middle East in a way that totally ignored the wishes of the indigenous Arabs.
The Sykes-Picot agreement, creating long, diagonal straight lines across the desert, gave Syria and Lebanon to the administrative control of the French, and Palestine, Jordan, the Gulf and Baghdad to the British. As news of this deal leaked out to Lawrence, he had to wrestle with whether to tell his Arab army that they had been betrayed by British diplomats and that they would never have the state they were giving their lives for. Perhaps he never appreciated the whole truth about the Sykes-Picot deal until it was published by this newspaper in November 1917. But he knew enough to realise he was misleading his Arab friends. “I had to join the conspiracy and assure the men of their reward. Better we win and break our word than lose,” as he put it in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Lawrence refused his knighthood and other medals in protest at the way in which the Arabs had been double-crossed by the British. He even tried to kill himself. “I have decided to go off to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way,” he wrote to his station chief in Cairo. “We are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it.”
A century on, the effects of the Sykes-Picot treachery are still with us. Indeed, when Islamic State proclaimed the re-establishment of the caliphate, they did so with a video entitled The End of Sykes-Picot. And it’s interesting that the state they proclaim is not a million miles away from the one promised by Lawrence.
Currently, we are obsessed with destroying Isis, and understandably so. They are murderous thugs. But the underlying forces that press for a Sunni state that runs across the Sykes-Picot border – including large chunks of what we are still callingSyria and Iraq – will not disappear, no matter who is in charge or what name we give to them.
Yes, there is much more to Isis than the desire to undo the century-long effects of British and French colonialism. But that’s a key goal. And if Iraq ends up splitting into a Kurdish, a Shia and a Sunni bit, and if Syria ends up splitting with an Alawite strip along the coast, and a Sunni bit further east, then Islamic State may end up getting precisely what its name proclaims, even after it has been defeated. These new borders will be based on ethnicity and religion rather than 100-year-old imperial design. And, this time, I don’t think western intervention can stop it.