A century of the San Remo Resolution, the agreement that transformed the Middle East

Conferencia de San Remo

A hundred years ago, a period of profound change and transformation began in the Middle East. The World War I ended four centuries of Ottoman rule over the Arab countries of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Two of the victorious powers, France and Great Britain, occupied the territories and set about to administer them with the approval of the League of Nations. This organization, a predecessor of the UN, was created in January 1920 with the aim of promoting international cooperation and resolving conflicts between states in a non-violent manner. Although the League of Nations was unable to prevent or mitigate many of the conflicts that preceded World War II, its founding is a landmark in the history of international relations.

April 25th was also the 100th anniversary of the signing of the San Remo Resolution. The event has gone relatively unnoticed, but it is essential for understanding the recent history of the region. The San Remo conference was one of many international meetings organized by the winning powers of World War I. The particular aim of this conference, which was attended by French, British, Italian and Japanese representatives, was to decide the fate of the territories occupied by the Ottomans. The resolution, barely a page long, decided the future of the territory where Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon are currently located. At the same time, it officially sanctioned the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, two of the three commitments reached by the British during the conflict. 

100 años de la Conferencia de San Remo

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed secretly between France and England in 1916 and leaked by the communist press a year later, established the division of the Ottoman territories into several spheres of influence. The agreement included Russian and Italian spheres of influence in Anatolia, but especially focused on the division of the Levant and Mesopotamia between the French, who would occupy Syria, Lebanon and Alexandria, and the British, who would administer present-day Jordan and Iraq. Palestine was left as an international zone. This was more or less consistent with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document by which the British had promised Baron Rothschild and the Zionist movement the creation of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine.

However, the San Remo resolution also meant the final cancellation of the third compromise reached by the British, an ambiguous promise to the sons of the Jerome Hussein of Mecca that they would be the leaders of a future independent Arab kingdom. In return for this promise, the British - and their famous agent T.E. Lawrence - had secured the support of numerous Bedouin troops in their campaign against the Ottomans. After the Ottoman withdrawal, Faisal, one of Hussein's sons, had managed to become strong in Syria and proclaim an independent kingdom. The resolution, signed a month and a half after the proclamation of the Syrian Arab Kingdom, gave the French carte blanche to take control of the country. At the end of July, French colonial troops destroyed the precarious Syrian army at the Battle of Maysalun. This was the beginning of the French Mandate of the Levant, which would experience different territorial organizations until the current borders between Syria, Turkey and Lebanon were finally fixed. 

The Mandates were the system designed by the victors of the First World War to administer the occupied territories to the Germans and Ottomans in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and "guide" them to independence. Influenced by the paternalistic ideology of the time and the "mission civilisatrice", the League of Nations divided these territories into three categories, according to how ready they were for self-government. The countries of the Middle East were designated as Class A Mandates, supposedly the most advanced and prepared for independence. In theory, the administering powers - in this case France and Great Britain - would merely help the local elites to lay the foundations of a modern state, although in practice the territories were governed almost like colonial possessions. With the exception of Iraq, which achieved independence in 1932 with Faisal as king - after his disarray in Syria, the British gave him a new position - the mandates of the Middle East did not achieve independence until World War II.

Most of the region's current borders were fixed during this period. Some reflect the administrative divisions of the Ottoman period, but others, such as those of Jordan or Iraq, are a product of the calculations of the colonial powers. The new borders separated territories that had historically been socially and economically integrated, such as Lebanon and Palestine, and united others that had not had much previous relationship, such as the province of Mosul and the Shiite regions of southern Iraq. These border changes would durably alter the movements of goods and people in the region and in some cases prevent the emergence of ordinary nation-states, as they integrated into the same political body regions and communities that had little to do with each other and whose elites would compete for power. 

One of the strategies followed by France and England was to rely on minorities to consolidate their rule. The Middle East has historically been a diverse and multicultural region, where different ethnic and linguistic groups - Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Assyrians, Armenian and Circassian refugees - and religious communities - Sunni and Shiite Muslims - have coexisted in a more or less peaceful way, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Druze, Ismaili, Alevi... During the Ottoman era there were violent and intense conflicts between the different groups, such as the civil war on Mount Lebanon in 1860, but the divisions between the different communities were exacerbated during the colonial era. Following the principle of "divide and rule", the British and the French relied on the various minorities to organize their armies and colonial administrations, which led to tensions and resentment between the ethno-religious communities. These tensions did not completely disappear after independence and in some cases would resurface strongly decades later, as in Iraq and Syria.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the San Remo Resolution laid the foundation for the Palestinian Mandate and, perhaps unwittingly, for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The agreement gave the British Empire the responsibility to implement "the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people" and to ensure that nothing would be done that would harm "the political and civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the political rights and status enjoyed by Jews in other countries". The document did not specify how the establishment of a national home for Jews would be compatible with respect for the rights of the natives, who had not been consulted about it and who felt discriminated against by British policies. Although there were examples of coexistence and collaboration, during the following two decades violent incidents between Arabs and new Jewish immigrants multiplied. The war of 1947-48 is, among other reasons, the result of this escalation of tension that was neither prevented nor avoided by British administrators, accused by some historians of exploiting differences for their own benefit.  

1920, and in particular the San Remo conference, marked the beginning of a new era in the Middle East. Although the Arabs had no representative at the conference and were not consulted on the allocation of territory, they have experienced its consequences over the last hundred years. This is not to say that the Arabs are merely victims without agency or responsibility for their history, but, if we are to seek the roots of much of the conflict that ravages the region today, we must remember the destabilising role of the West - and in particular of the British and French colonial empires - for a century now.