Sunday, August 08, 2021

Do You Know about Iltyd Nicholl Clayton?

Iltyd Nicholl Clayton cannot be ignored if one wishes to comprehend post-WW II British stratgey and diplomacy in the Middle East.

Offically, he was  Advisor on Arab Affairs to the British Government (1943–45). He was later Special Advisor to Head of British Middle East Office and served as Minister attached to the British Embassy in Cairo (1947–48). Between 1920-1928 he was in Iraq.

Just by the by, his older brother, Gilbert, was also a British Army intelligence officer and colonial administrator who served in the famous Arab Bureau, was Civil Secretary of Palestine from 1922 to 1925 and at one point briefly acted as High Commissioner.

Let me expand on him:

Daniel Rickenbacher

The Middle East Intelligence Centre (MEIC) was headed by Brigadier Iltyd Clayton, a mysterious figure, whose influential role in determining Britain’s Middle East policy has until recently been underestimated due to its clandestine character. The historian of British Arabists McLoughlin calls him “the greatest mover and shaker in planning Britain’s future role in the Arab world.” Clayton pursued a grand imperial strategy to secure Britain’s dominating influence in the Middle East in the post WWII era. His plans aimed at expelling France from the region and establishing a regional military alliance against the Soviet Union. Clayton opposed an independent Jewish State in the Middle East. Instead he envisaged a Jewish entity in a Greater Syrian state, which was to enter into a confederation with Iraq.

He had a hand in establishing the  Arab Office in Jerusalem and having Albert Hourani head its propaganda division. It targeted a Western educated and liberal minded audience. Hourani:

addressed them in a scholarly tone, using rational arguments rather than emotions to press his case. In ‘Is Zionism the Solution of the Jewish Problem’, one of the first publications authored by Hourani for the Arab Office, he contended that Zionism offers no solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’. Instead, Hourani opts for assimilation of Jews into Western societies.

Asher Susser's book review of Meir Zamir's

The French passed on to the Jewish Agency information on the plans of “the Arabists,” led by Brigadier Clayton, to partition Palestine between the neighboring Arab states and to encourage the Arabs to “join forces to prevent a Jewish state” (164). French and Zionist sources from late 1947 and early 1948 point to Clayton’s “key role in instigating the Arab-Jewish conflict in 1948”

From Meir Zamir 

The fact that the French followed closely the exploits of both Clayton and Azzam against France in North Africa is significant, as they both played key roles in provoking King Faruq to participate in the war against Israel...Nuri al-Sa’id, who had coordinated his initiative with Clayton, proposed that Britain persuade the US to withdraw its support for an independent Jewish state and renew its efforts to implement the 1946 Anglo-American Morrison-Grady cantonization plan...In coordination with Clayton, Azzam, Syrian Prime Minister Jamil Mardam and Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Sulh, they began a campaign to amend the Arab League Pact in order to consolidate military ties between its member states against the Zionist threat...In early January 1948, the Russian newspaper Izvestia warned that British agents, Clayton in particular – ‘the notorious British intelligence agent’ – were provoking an Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine to further Britain’s interests. Referring to criticism in the Arab world against the Soviet Union’s support for the UN Partition Plan, the article asserted that ‘ creating this artificial tension regarding the Palestinian problem, colonial reactionaries, like Clayton, are attempting to use it in order to slander the Soviet Union in the eyes of the Arab people’.


The Zionists saw Clayton as their most dangerous enemy. In reports from Eliyahu Sasson, Reuven Zaslani/Shiloah (Ben-Gurion’s Chief Intelligence Adviser) and from the Hagana’s intelligence, Clayton emerges as a key figure in the formation of the Arab war coalition. In fact, Ben-Gurion and his advisers directly warned MI6 in London of the possible outcome of the activities of their Arabist officers against the Jewish state. In a report sent by an MI6 officer to MI5 on his meeting with Zaslani on 16 February 1948, he wrote that the latter had stated: The immediate Jewish aim is to localize the conflict in Palestine, but if they fail in this because of – for instance – tacit British encouragement of the Arabs, and the surrounding Arab countries extend the area of conflict by participating actively in the operations against the Jewish state, the Jews will themselves make arrangements with minorities, such as the  Kurds, to stir up trouble to keep the Iraqis and other armies occupied.’ Zaslani then warned that ‘if this happened, the Russians would be sure to try and take advantage of the general state of unrest in the Middle East’.

Coming a month after Britain’s failure to ratify its treaty with Iraq, Zaslani’s warning, especially his allusion to the Soviet Union and the Kurds, should have carried some weight, yet Clayton in Cairo, Stirling in Damascus, Ambassador Alec Kirkbride and Glubb Pasha, Commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion, in Amman, Azzam in Cairo, and Nuri al-Sa’id in Baghdad, continued their efforts to form a coalition against the Jewish state. 


In discussions with Prime Minister Sidqi in August–October 1946, Eliyahu Sasson had made a similar proposal as part of his efforts to gain Egypt’s support for a Jewish state. Sasson had submitted his plan to Clayton, who thwarted it.


Azzam and Clayton coordinated their moves in the inter-Arab arena and in fomenting the conflict, first against the Zionist movement and later against the State of Israel. Azzam’s role, from September 1947 until May 1948, in forming the Arab war coalition and bridging the gap between Faruq and Ibn Sa’ud, on the one hand, and Abdullah and Abd al-Ilah, on the other, enabled Clayton and other Arabist intelligence officers to operate behind the scenes. A pamphlet sent to the French Embassy in Cairo, titled The Tragedy of Palestine, signed by ‘the National Guard’, sharply criticized Azzam for his role in Egypt’s defeat: We can finally establish that Glubb Pasha, the British Head of the Transjordanian Army, was given the responsibility to lead the Palestinian affair from the military perspective, and that General Clayton, with Azzam Pasha, was charged to lead it from the political perspective and through their malice, they compelled the President of the Egyptian Council to give in to their pernicious will.


Already in October 1947, French intelligence had reported to Zionist agents that Clayton and Sulh were instigating the organization of irregular forces under Qawuqji’s command to invade Palestine and attack Jewish settlements. At the December 1947 Arab League Conference in Cairo, Sulh told a French informer that ‘Clayton had proposed the establishment of ties between the British headquarters in Palestine and Fawzi al-Qawuqji, in such a way as to avoid a clash between Arab irregular forces and English Police forces, thus facilitating guerilla operations against the Zionists.’

And from the archives:

January 1, 1946 

President Quwatli to Cabinet members


From the President of the Syrian Republic to the noble Council of Ministers

The mission of General Clayton, head of the Special Section of Arab Middle Eastern Affairs, has two aims:

First: to convince us that Syrian unity will come about;...As for unity, he presents us with two plans: - Syrian unity including Syria, Transjordan and part of Palestine with a plebiscite on the nature of the regime and on the choice of king if the regime is a monarchy.

Quite a fellow.


L_King said...

Thank you for this. Meir Zamir's book was already in my "to read" list, this bumps it up in the queue. And I have to thank you for your recommendation of Seth Frantzman's PhD thesis. I'm about 1/3rd of the way through. There are some interesting implications wrt to overcounting Palestinian villages by including "daughter" villages as separate that I'd like to look into when I'm done - propaganda does favour exaggeration.

Would it be reasonable to say that Clayton's counterpart in the US State Department might have been Loy Henderson or Kermit Roosevelt? Both foreign offices, though rivals, did appear to have similar goals and policies in the Middle East. There's probably a book or at least a PhD thesis comparing the two organizations.

YMedad said...

Perhaps but layon was very much more independent of his political superiors.

L_King said...

More so than Henderson, perhaps, but less so than Kermit Roosevelt who appeared to be creating up US foreign policy on his own through contacts and field operations in Egypt, Syria and of course Iran. Syria underwent a large number of coups between the end of WW II and the rise of Assad - while Kermit was there and a player he never managed to back a winning horse. Kermit also funneled CIA and Aramco money into the American Friends of the Middle East. (ref: Hugh Wilford's "America's Great Game")

British influence appears to have peaked with the formation of the Arab League, so Roosevelt and Clayton's periods of influence weren't quite cotemporaneous, though there was some overlap of a few years.