Meet the Man Responsible for Today’s Middle East Mayhem

Middle East USA World

Key Point: The Sykes-Picot Agreement, based on al-Faruqi’s distorted claims, was finally signed in May 1916. Thus, of the three documents most profoundly influencing the establishment of the Modern Middle East—the Hussein-McMahon letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration—Al-Faruqi directly and indirectly influenced the drafting of two.

“It began as a mistake.” Charles Bukowski’s terse opening line in his debut novel Post Office succinctly summarizes the dubious beginnings of Arab-West discussions on the future of the Middle East in 1915 during the First World War. In the spring of that same year, bogged down British and French forces were desperately battling the Ottoman army on the Gallipoli peninsula trying to force the Dardanelles and occupy Istanbul. Amid the fighting, a 25-year-old Turkish officer, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi, deserted to the British side on August 20, 1915. Trying to save his own skin and apparently determined to play a role in shaping the postwar future of the Middle-East, Al-Faruqi provided British intelligence with a host of assertions about himself and the Arab tribes under Ottoman suzerainty, which later turned out to be either wild exaggerations or plain lies.

British intelligence, however, took Al-Faruqi’s statements at face value, which led the British to promise a great deal to the Arabs in exchange for revolting against the Turks. This in turn directly influenced the negotiations over the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement that in many ways has been at the root of much of the political upheaval in the Middle East ever since. Thus, Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif Al-Faruqi may very well be one of the greatest impostors in the history of international relations.

Born in Mosul, in modern day Iraq, in 1891 into the prominent al-Umari family, he joined the Ottoman army and graduated in 1912 from the military academy in Istanbul. After his commissioning he was assigned aide-de-camp to Fakhri Pasha, commander of the 12th corps of the fourth Turkish army stationed in and around Mosul, where he also worked with Yasin-al-Hashimi, a future prime minister of Iraq.

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