Fertile Crescent Unity Plans

views updated


PostWorld War I plans to unify the Arab lands in Asia of the former Ottoman Empire.

After World War I, various plans, differing in source and motivation, were advanced for the unification of that area of Arab Asia known as the Fertile Crescent. This followed the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the sanctioning by the League of Nations of mandates for France and Britain in 1922, to become effective in 1923, covering Mesopotamia and geohistorical or Greater Syria (which included Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan). The Fertile Crescent was a conceptual broad arc from Basra to Beersheba, embracing all the mandated territory; it was moderately fertile and, in addition to Arabs, included Kurds, the Druze people, Alawites, and other ethnic minorities.

Well before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, its Arab provinces in Asia had been edging toward regional autonomy. Such separatist aspirations were submerged in the expectation of a single independent Arab state, ostensibly promised during the World War I undertakings of Britain and France. By 1919, however, the Syrian national congress urged upon the investigating U.S. KingCrane Commission the reunification of geohistorical Syria as a separate entity. (In March 1920, Faisal, eldest son of Sharif Husayn of Hijazwho had cooperated with T. E. Lawrence [of Arabia] and British General E. H. Allenby in uniting Arab forces to take Jerusalem and Damascuswas proclaimed king of Syria by the Syrian national congress; he was deposed by the French in July 1920.) The AngloFrench repudiation of the congress's resolution and Britain's granting of the throne of Iraq to Faisal after his brief rule in Syria set in motion the first major effortpromoted by Faisalfor the unification of the crescent. Faisal recognized, however, that the sanction of Britain and France was essential. From neither was it forthcoming. France suspected the project of being inspired by Britain to undermine French influence; for Britain, maintaining the Entente Cordiale outweighed other considerations. Later, the French were to give Faisal momentary encouragement on his visit to Paris in 1931, since, following the signing of the AngloIraqi Treaty of 1930, which looked forward to the termination of Britain's mandate, the French saw possible advantage in Fertile Crescent unity. The project also drew support from the Aleppine People's Party and the Syrian monarchists; but the dominant National Bloc in Damascus favored the unification of Greater Syria on its own as a republic. One permanent obstacle to Northern Arab unification, whether under Hashimite auspices or not, was the rooted objection of Ibn Saʿud, king of Saudi Arabia (19321953).

Faisal's final plea for British support in 1933 had received no answer before he died three months later; Nuri al-Saʿid, his prime minister, pursued the cause, but in Iraq and elsewhere, Arab nationalism, which sought the union of all Arabs, exerted a more potent appeal for political theorists, such as the Iraqi Sati al-Husari. Amir Abdullah of Trans-jordan, Faisal's brother, was meanwhile brooding on his grand design for the unification of Greater Syria with himself as king, while in Syria itself a quite different movement for the cohesion of the "Syrian" people, on a wider interpretation, was being canvassed by the charismatic Antun Saʿada, a Lebanese-born Christian convinced that "natural" Syria, embracing in his view the whole crescent (if not more), enjoyed a particularism owed neither to Islam nor to the Arabs but to the ethnic mix within the region's distinctive environment. The aim of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which he founded, was to unify this Syrian people and defend its separatism. His appeal expectedly attracted non-Muslims; more remarkable was the number of influential Syrian Muslims who gravitated into his orbit. In 1938, after arrests by the French for inciting disorder, he fled to South America, returning to the fray in 1947. Before his departure, membership of the SSNP was alleged (improbably) to have reached 50,000. All these movements for Arab Federation, as the British authorities called it, were regarded in 1939 by London as subject to insurmountable obstaclesinternal rivalries as well as French, Saudi, and Zionist opposition. London's conclusion was to let natural forces take their course.

In July 1940, Amir Abdullah formally launched his Greater Syria plan, finding some support from Syrian ethnic minorities and even from Arab tribal and army factions; but the response of the British government, preoccupied with World War II, was unfavorable. In 1941, the emergence in Iraq of the anti-British Rashid Ali al-Kayani, with the exiled mufti of Jerusalem at his side, and the encouragement of the Axis powers, led to a new call for Fertile Crescent unity; but his briefly successful coup d'état in April was suppressed by British army intervention with Jordanian support. The expected military backing of the Axis had failed to materialize.

Britain's search for a posture that might strengthen its wartime position in the Middle East led in May 1941 to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden declaring his nation's "full support for any scheme of [Arab] unity which commanded general approval." Britain's high commissioner in Jerusalem, Lord Samuel, prompted by his Arab adviser, George Antonius, urged active support for Fertile Crescent unity and the abolition of the artificial frontiers imposed on Greater Syria after World War I. The authorities in London remained unmoved.

In December 1942, Amir Abdullah presented a new version of his Greater Syria scheme, in which "cultural union" with Iraq would lead to confederation of the two. The response of the rival Hashimite court in Baghdad was the launching by Prime Minister Nuri al-Saʿid of his so-called Blue Book, an elaborate scheme for solving all Middle East problems, in which a reunified historic Syria would join with Iraq to form the core of an Arab league open to allthe whole scheme resting on an international guarantee. Opposition from Ibn Saʿud and Amir Abdullah was instant; and Nuri's bid for wider Arab unity was trumped in Cairo where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas announced in March 1943 his intention of consulting all Arab governments with the object of reconciling ideas on Arab unitya ploy that gathered strength and led eighteen months later to the foundation of the Arab League on Egyptian terms. This was to forebode an end to all Fertile Crescent models, although their proponents by no means yet admitted defeat. Both Amir Abdullah and Nuri continued to propagate their respective schemes, Nuri now toying with a plan for Iraq's merger with Syria, where a number of old-guard politicians and transient strongmen gave him encouragement. Antun Saʿada, too, returning from exile in 1947, re-launched his own Fertile Crescent vision by organizing from Syria, with undercover support from its President Husni al-Zaʿim, a coup in Lebanon as a starting point. Zaʿim betrayed him, and Saʿada was executed in Lebanon. The zealotry of his SSNP partisans was to survive unabated and lead to a final futile coup attempt in Lebanon in 1963.

Further efforts by Iraq to revive its Fertile Crescent project in other modes were made in 1954 by Fadhil al-Jamali, the then prime minister, and again the following year by Nuri al-Saʿid on the basis of the ill-fated Baghdad Pact of 1955. Both were resisted by Syria; and the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the potent manipulator of Arab resistance to what he saw as continuing British imperialism ended any general Arab acceptance of Iraqi aspirations in the crescent. In response to Nasser's unification of Egypt and Syria in February 1958, the two Hashimite monarchies laid their jealousies aside and declared the Federal Union of Iraq and Jordan, seeking at the same time to revive the Fertile Crescent concept by detaching Syria from Nasser's embrace. Both initiatives failed, Hashimite rule in Iraq being violently overthrown in the July revolution.

Whether there was ever serious popular enthusiasm anywhere for the Fertile Crescent maneuvers of political leaders is questionable. What mostly animated vocal commoners was independence from the West; political configuration took second place. By the time independence was finally vouchsafed, national particularisms had begun to entrench themselves, as the provisions of the Arab League wisely recognized. Nonetheless, and despite the self-seeking ambitions of rival leaders, Fertile Crescent unity may be seen as a genuine cause, even if the facts made it a lost one. Its revival in the 1990s cannot be excluded in the light of such possible developments as a reconciliation between Syria and Iraq, the disintegration of Lebanon, the weakening of Hashimite control in Jordan, and the ending of superpower confrontation with its divisive effects. Nevertheless, many of the original obstacles remain.

See also Abd al-Aziz ibn Saʿud Al Saʿud; Abdullah I ibn Hussein; Allenby, Edmund Henry; AngloIraqi Treaties; Antonius, George; Eden, Anthony; Faisal I ibn Hussein; Fertile Crescent; Hashimite House (House of Hashim); Husari, Sati al-; Jamali, Muhammad Fadhil al-; Kaylani, Rashid Ali al-; Lawrence, T. E.; League of Arab States; Nahhas, Mustafa al-; Ottoman Empire: Overview; Saʿada, Antun; Syrian Social Nationalist Party; Zaʿim, Husni al-.


Dawn, C. E. The Project of Greater Syria. Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1948.

Hourani, Albert. Syria and Lebanon: A Political Essay. London: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Hussein, Abdullah ibn. The Memoirs of King Abdullah of Transjordan, edited by Philip P. Graves. London, 1950.

Khadduri, Majid. Independent Iraq, 193258. London: Cape, 1960.

Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley. Iraq, 19001950: A Political, Social, and Economic History. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley. Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Said, Nuri al-. Arab Independence and Unity. Baghdad, 1943.

Seale, Patrick. The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-war Arab Politics, 19451958. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Zuwiyya Yamak, Labib. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.

h. g. balfour-paul