Century of Violence What World War I Did to the Middle East
Part 2: Imperialistic Dealings
The Arabs fulfilled their part of the agreement. In June 1916, they began their insurgency against the Ottomans -- a decisive aid to the British advance from Sinai to Damascus via Jerusalem. Their revolt was energized by the British archeologist and secret agent Thomas Edward Lawrence, who would go down in history as "Lawrence of Arabia."
Britain, though, did not fully live up to its part of the deal. In a dispatch sent in early 1916, Lawrence wrote that the Arab revolt would be useful to the British Empire because, "it marches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic 'bloc' and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire." But in no way were the British thinking of the kind of united Arab state that Hussein and his sons dreamed of. "The states the Sharifs would set up to succeed the Turks would be harmless to ourselves . The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion."
Far more important to the British than their Arab comrades in arms were the French, with whom their troops were fighting and dying in untold numbers on the Western Front. "The friendship with France," British Prime Minister David Lloyd George later told his French counterpart Georges Clemenceau, "is worth ten Syrias." France was a colonial power that had long laid claim to the Christian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain would have preferred to control the region alone, but with their common enemy Germany bearing down, London was prepared to divide the expected spoils.
Even as McMahon was corresponding with Sharif Hussein, British parliamentarian Sir Mark Sykes was negotiating a contradictory deal with the French diplomat François Georges-Picot. It foresaw the division of the Arab provinces which still belonged to the Ottomans in such a way that France would get the areas to the north and the British those to the south. "I should like to draw a line from the 'e' in Acre to the last 'k' in Kirkuk," Sykes said as he briefed Downing Street on the deal at the end of 1916.
The so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement was an unabashedly imperialistic document. It took no account of the wishes of the peoples affected, ignored the ethnic and confessional boundaries existing in the Arab and Kurdish world and thus provoked the conflicts which continue to plague the region 100 years later. "Even by the standards of the time," writes James Barr, "it was a shamelessly self-interested pact."
The Balfour Redesign
The document initially remained secret. And by the time the Bolsheviks completed their revolution in Moscow in 1917 and made the Sykes-Picot Agreement public, the British had already signed another secret deal -- one which neither the Arabs nor the French knew about.
On Nov. 2, 1917, Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." There were several factors motivating the British to grant the oppressed Jews the right to self-determination and to give them a piece of the Ottoman Empire for that purpose. One of the most important was the accusations of imperialism against London that had grown louder as the war progressed. Not that the imperialists in the British cabinet shared such concerns. But it bothered them, particularly because one of the critics, Woodrow Wilson, had just been reelected as US president.
"Every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid," Wilson intoned in January of 1917 on the eve of America's entry into the war. At the time, Wilson was unaware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but the British suspected that they would ultimately have to come clean with their new ally. As such, the Balfour Declaration can be seen as an effort to guard against the expected US reaction to Britain's arbitrary redesign of the Middle East.
In the meantime, the British -- with the help of the Arabs -- were establishing military facts on the ground. Against stiff Ottoman and German resistance, they advanced across the Sinai and Palestine to Damascus. At the same time, they progressed up the Euphrates to Baghdad and occupied Iraq. Between 1915 and 1918, there were more than 1.5 million soldiers fighting in the Middle East, with several hundred thousand casualties -- not including the around one million Armenians who were killed or starved to death in the Ottoman Empire.
In October of 1918, World War I came to an end in the region with the Armistice of Mudros. The Ottoman Empire had been defeated and, with the exception of Anatolia, was divided among the victors and their allies. The "peace to end all peace" was forced upon the Middle East -- for an entire century.
When US President Wilson arrived in Paris in early 1919 for peace negotiations with British premier Lloyd George and French leader Clemenceau, he became witness to what for him was an unexpected show. The heads of the two victorious powers were deeply divided and engaged in a biting oratorical duel. The French insisted that they be given the mandate for present-day Lebanon and for the region stretching to the Tigris, including what is now Syria. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, after all, guaranteed them control over the area.
Asking the People
The British, who were mindful of their own mandate in Palestine and who had just received more exact information regarding the immense oil riches to be had in Mesopotamia, were opposed. Granting France the mandate over Syria, after all, was in contradiction to the promises they had made to the Arabs at the beginning of the war. Furthermore, the British had fought the war in the Middle East essentially on their own, with almost one million soldiers and 125,000 killed and injured. "There would have been no question of Syria but for England," Lloyd George said.
Wilson proposed a solution. The only way to find out if the residents of Syria would accept a French mandate and those of Palestine and Mesopotamia would accept British rule, the US president said, was to find out what people in those regions wanted. It was a simple and self-evident idea. For two months, the Chicago businessman Charles Crane and the American theologian Henry King travelled through the Middle East and interviewed hundreds of Arab notables. Although the British and the French did all they could to influence the outcome of the mission, their findings were clear. Locals in Syria did not want to be part of a French mandate and those in Palestine were uninterested in being included in a British mandate. London had been successful in preventing the Americans from conducting a survey in Mesopotamia.
In August, King and Crane presented their report. They recommended a single mandate covering a unified Syria and Palestine that was to be granted to neutral America instead of to the European colonial powers. Hussein's son Faisal, who they describe as being "tolerant and wise," should become the head of this Arab state.
Today, only Middle East specialists know of the King-Crane Report, but in hindsight it represents one of the biggest lost opportunities in the recent history of the Middle East. Under pressure from the British and the French, but also because of the serious illness which befell Wilson in September of 1919, the report was hidden away in the archives and only publicly released three years later. By then, Paris and London had agreed on a new map for the Middle East, which diametrically opposed the recommendations made by King and Crane. France divided its mandate area into the states of Lebanon and Syria while Great Britain took on the mandate for Mesopotamia, which it later named Iraq -- but not before swallowing up the oil-rich province of Mosul. Between Syria, Iraq and their mandate area of Palestine, they established a buffer state called Transjordan.
Instead of the Arab nation-state that the British had promised Sharif Hussein, the victorious powers divided the Middle East into four countries which, because of their geographical divisions and their ethnic and confessional structures are still among the most difficult countries in the world to govern today.
Fatal and Long-Term Consequences
And they knew what they were doing. Just before the treaties were signed, the question arose as to where exactly the northern border of Palestine -- and thus, later, that of Israel -- was to run. An advisor in London wrote to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George: "The truth is that any division of the Arab country between Aleppo and Mecca is unnatural. Therefore, whatever division is made should be decided by practical requirements. Strategy forms the best guide." In the end, the final decision was made by a British general assisted by a director from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
The Arab world, of course, wasn't the only place where borders were drawn that local populations refused to accept. It happened in Europe too. But three factors in the Middle East led to fatal and long-term consequences.
First: Whereas many Europeans had begun to develop national identities and political classes by the beginning of the 19th century at least, World War I yanked Arabs out of their historical reverie. The Ottomans took a relatively hands-off approach to governing their Middle Eastern provinces, but they also did little to introduce any kind of political structure to the region or to promote the development of an intellectual or economic elite. On the contrary, at the first sign of a progressing national identity, the Ottoman rulers would banish or execute the movement's leaders. This heritage weighed on the Middle East at the dawn of the 20th century, and the region's pre-modern conflation of state and religion further hampered its political growth.
Second: The capriciousness with which France and Great Britain redrew the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire's former Arab provinces left behind the feeling that a conspiracy was afoot -- a feeling which grew into an obsession in the ensuing decades. Even today, the legend lives on that the mysterious buckle in the desert border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is the result of someone bumping the elbow of Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill as he was drawing the line. That, of course, is absurd -- but it isn't too far removed from the manner in which Sykes, Picot, Lloyd George and Clemenceau in fact carved up the region.
Thirdly: In contrast to Europe, the tension left behind by the untenable peace in the Arab world was not released in a single, violent eruption. During World War II, the region was not a primary theater of war.
But the unresolved conflicts left behind by World War I, combined with the spill-over effects from the catastrophic World War II in Europe -- the founding of Israel, the Cold War and the race for Persian Gulf resources -- added up to a historical burden for the Middle East. And they have resulted in an unending conflict -- a conflict that has yet to come to an end even today, almost 100 years after that fateful summer in 1914.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
- Part 1: What World War I Did to the Middle East
- Part 2: Imperialistic Dealings