Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The Middle East and the First World War

Commemorative events have already started in many European countries to mark the outbreak of the First World War. But few of them are looking at its Middle Eastern course and consequences, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the former European combatants in the First World War gear up to commemorate the centenary of its outbreak later this year, few voices have been raised regarding its extra-European course and consequences. In Britain, the government is apparently planning to put itself at the head of events designed to mark the outbreak of the war in August 1914, while in France events are being planned on a more decentralised basis. Towns and cities across the country have been keen to place on record their contributions to the war, starting with Paris where a centennial exhibition has already opened at the city’s town hall.

Similar preparations are being made in other European countries, since this was a conflict that sucked in almost every one of them. Only the Netherlands and Spain, among the larger players, managed to stay out for the duration. It seems that there will be few commemorative events in Germany, eventually defeated in the war after four years of struggle, or among the former Central Powers of Austria, Hungary and the other successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, though media reports have signalled significant public interest in them.

What the events planned in Britain and France have in common is that they seem to be focussed on the Western front, for many Europeans still the archetypal theatre of the war and the one that saw its most decisive battles. While this focus is understandable, given the bloodshed seen on the Western front throughout the four years of the conflict, it marginalises other theatres that also saw enormous upheavals. These include the eastern front, where the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires fought against the Russians, as well as the Balkans where in a sense the whole thing started with the assassination of an Austrian archduke one July afternoon in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. After 1915, when Italy entered the war, there was also the Alpine front between Italy and Austro-Hungary.

The war also included the Middle Eastern theatre where Britain scarcely waited for the former Ottoman Empire to enter the conflict on the side of the Central Powers before moving against Ottoman positions in Palestine, at first in a bid to protect the Suez Canal. Britain also invaded the Ottoman provinces in Mesopotamia in order to extend and consolidate its oil interests in Persia, and later there was the Dardanelles campaign in Anatolia itself, a disastrous attempt by British and British Empire forces to exploit what was thought could be Ottoman vulnerability.

While these campaigns were largely side-shows for the British, since it was always clear that the war with Germany, if it was to be won at all, would be won in France, for Middle Easterners they heralded a period of almost unprecedented destruction that precipitated the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and thus the end of one of the world’s last remaining non-European powers, and the passage of the Empire’s Arab provinces under British and French colonial control.

Despite the many changes that have taken place in the region since then, the Middle Eastern state system as it exists today was largely forged in the aftermath of the First World War. Moreover, many of the region’s most intractable problems, from the situation of minority populations to the on-going question of Palestine, have their origins in the arrangements forced on the region by the war’s victorious European powers or were significantly exacerbated by them.

CARVE UP IN THE ARAB WORLD: It was British intervention in the Middle East that helped prompt the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in retrospect just one of the war’s many ironies.

When the war started in 1914 the British quarrel was with Germany, ostensibly over German violation of Belgian sovereignty, and historically Britain had been far more likely to try to prop up Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean than to seek to destroy it. Within the framework of the 19th-century balance of power and its local version, the famous “Eastern question,” the real threats to the Ottoman Empire had lain with the French and the Russians, both of them suspected of coveting Ottoman territory. Britain, by contrast, had been generally eager to try to shore up the ailing Ottoman Empire, if only to frustrate French and Russian ambitions.

Yet, during the war Britain emerged as the Empire’s leading grave-digger, fomenting the revolt of its Arab provinces and in some cases directly invading them. As soon as the Ottoman Empire entered the war, Britain unilaterally changed the status of Egypt, occupied since 1882, by deposing the then khedive, Abbas Hilmi, thought to be pro-Ottoman, and replacing him with his uncle, Hussein Kamel, who was now declared to be the country’s sultan. Egypt’s last remaining links with the Ottoman Empire were severed when the country was declared to be a British protectorate, and British forces in the country, headquartered in Cairo, began preparing the ground for an offensive against Ottoman forces in neighbouring Palestine.

The Palestine campaign started with the reinforcement of the Suez Canal, heating up in January 1915 as a result of German-led Ottoman attacks on Sinai. While these attacks were successfully repulsed, they were evidence of Ottoman determination and Egyptian vulnerability, and they contributed to the large expansion of the British and British Empire forces stationed in Egypt and to actions designed to weaken and eventually destroy the Ottoman Empire.

In 1915, Sir Henry MacMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, effectively reversed previous policy by informing Hussein Bin Ali, sharif of Mecca under Ottoman rule, that Britain would support an Arab revolt against the Ottomans and apparently also the establishment of an independent Arab state. In correspondence that has since become famous for its ambiguity, MacMahon told Hussein in October 1915 that “as for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France… Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the sherif of Mecca,” a policy that at first translated into British financial, military and logistical support for ad hoc Arab forces and then the interventions of the Arabist T.E. Lawrence, later better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”.

However, everything seems to have turned on how far Britain felt “free to act,” since at the same time secret negotiations began with France, led on the British side by Sir Mark Sykes and on the French side by Francois-Georges Picot, regarding an eventual carve-up of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces between the two European powers. These negotiations, eventually leading to the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the provinces between them, the French receiving what are now Lebanon and Syria and the British taking what are now Iraq and Jordan and what was then Palestine, were not obviously compatible with the assurances given to Hussein by MacMahon, as became clear once the war was over and negotiations began in earnest at the 1919 peace conference in Versailles.

British assurances to the Arabs turned out to be trumped at every turn by the interests of her ally France, as well as by Britain’s own calculations of its interests. The UK historian Margaret MacMillan, author of a well-received recent account of the Paris peace conference, Paris 1919, quotes the British foreign secretary of the time, Arthur Balfour, as saying that “we have got into an extraordinary muddle over the whole subject, partly owing to the unreasonableness of the French, partly owing to the essentially false position in which we have placed ourselves.” However, this muddle, allowed to develop from war-time expedients such as those contained in the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence and the arrangements made by Sykes and Picot, nevertheless turned out to be to Britain’s advantage, even if it did nothing for the country’s reputation in the Arab world.

New states were created out of formerly Ottoman provinces, including Iraq, to be ruled over by Feisal, one of the sons of Hussein, under British supervision, Transjordan, to be similarly run, and Palestine, all three of them given the status of British “mandates” under a cobbled-together League of Nations system, the latter organisation also created by the peace conference at Versailles. Syria and Lebanon were placed under French rule. All this was very far from the post-Ottoman Arab state under Arab rule apparently originally envisaged by Hussein, and though the new system was an important outcome of the First World War it had not been part of any country’s war aims when entering it, least of all those of Britain.

According to MacMillan, “for the Arab Middle East the peace settlements [that ended the First World War] were the old 19th century imperialism again. Britain and France got away with it because the United States did not choose to involve itself and because Arab nationalism was not yet strong enough to challenge them.”

THE QUESTION OF PALESTINE: It was not only with regard to the incompatible sets of promises made by MacMahon and in the Sykes-Picot negotiations, implemented at Versailles, that Britain reinforced its reputation as la perfide Albion (perfidious Albion), at least as far as the Arabs were concerned.

This is because a further set of assurances had been given by Britain during the war, this time to the Zionist movement in Palestine, regarding post-war arrangements in that country when it was envisaged that it would come under British rule. According to an open letter addressed to Lord Rothschild and published by Balfour on behalf of the British government in November 1917, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Britain was in a position to act upon this statement, the so-called Balfour Declaration, after the establishment of British rule in Palestine. Perhaps it was made in late 1917 because of the renewed Palestine offensive being led against the Ottomans by the British general Sir Edmund Allenby at the same time. The situation on the Western front was still in stalemate, and Russia had been effectively knocked out of the war as a result of the October (Bolshevik) Revolution. British troops in Jerusalem by Christmas 1917 would have been an important morale booster – in fact Jerusalem was occupied by British forces on 9 December – and whatever the larger outcome of the war, still uncertain despite the entry of the United States on the Allied side in April 1917, it was becoming clear that Ottoman rule in Palestine was unlikely to continue much longer.

According to MacMillan, the idea was to create “an Asiatic Belgium,” a useful buffer state that would keep the French out of the remaining portions of the Levant and could “make propaganda among Jews, particularly in the United States” in favour of British interests. Despite the studied ambiguity of the Declaration’s phrasing – a “national home” was apparently not the same as a nation state – it was incorporated as it stood into the later British Palestine mandate, Articles 2 and 6 of which obliged the mandate authorities to establish “such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home” in Palestine.

For MacMillan, “the British had created their own dilemma by making promises they could not now fulfil. On the one hand they had supported a Jewish homeland on land largely inhabited by Arabs, and on the other they had encouraged the Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman rulers by promises of Arab independence.” Having made such promises the British now began to act on at least some of them, though not those that favoured the Arabs. According to the account given by the UK historian M.E. Yapp in his The Near East since the First World War, a standard history of the region, “the thrust of the [Palestine] mandate was plainly towards the fulfilment of the Zionist programme… unsurprising as the original draft had been prepared by the Zionist Organisation.”

It was obvious to many observers from the start that the situation would not be viable, Yapp writes, at least after the riots that broke out in Jerusalem and Jaffa in 1920-21. MacMillan points out that this was also the conclusion reached by the International Commission of Inquiry into the Middle East, appointed by US president Woodrow Wilson to look into the situation and report back in the summer of 1919. The Commission “recommended that the [Versailles] Peace Conference limit Jewish immigration and give up the idea of making Palestine a Jewish homeland. [But] nobody paid the slightest attention.”

According to Lord Curzon, Balfour’s successor as British foreign secretary, “Palestine will be a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with its mandate,” arguing, according to MacMillan, that Britain would do well to exit the country. What Curzon failed to mention was that responsibility for many of the problems experienced in Palestine lay with British actions during the First World War. In the same way that it is not possible to understand the shape of the Middle Eastern state system without reference to the decisions that gave rise to it during the First World War, so it is also not possible to understand the still-rankling question of Palestine without reference to British actions carried out there during the same four-year period.

CAMPAIGNS IN MESOPOTAMIA: Fascinating though developments in the Ottoman Empire’s western Arab provinces were during the four years of the First World War, the military campaigns in the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul were just as important and were to have as momentous consequences.

Even before the Ottoman declaration of war, British Empire forces from India had arrived in the Arabian Gulf in order to secure British oil interests in Persia, and in November 1914 these forces invaded and occupied Basra. Advances were made up the River Tigris to Kut Al-Amara in 1915 before the decision was made to press on to Baghdad and bring the whole country under what seems to have been envisaged as permanent British control. The campaign was a disaster, and following defeat at the Battle of Ctesiphon in November British forces fell back on Kut Al-Amara where they surrendered to Ottoman troops in April 1916.

However, the much-depleted Ottoman forces could not hope permanently to resist the ever-greater British Empire forces that were now flowing in from India any more than they could the parallel British campaign in Palestine. Immense forces – some 300,000 British troops – were deployed in Egypt by early 1917, and after the government in London had made the decision to stay in Palestine and Mesopotamia come what may in early 1917 similar numbers of mostly Indian troops were deployed in Mesopotamia.

These troops retook Kut Al-Amara in February 1917, entering Baghdad in March. Following a period of consolidation the campaign began again later that year, such that by the time the armistice was signed with Germany in November 1918 the British were in control of all the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces, including the Kurdish region around Mosul with its important oil fields. These provinces were later put together under British auspices to form the new state of Iraq in the post-war settlement, and some of the complexities that have since afflicted that country, including the sectarian question and the presence of significant ethnic minorities, were thus present from the start.

In forging the modern Iraqi state from the eastern Arab provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, Britain paid no more regard to the wishes of the local populations than it did in Palestine. “No one knew for certain whether Mesopotamia had oil in any quantity,” MacMillan comments, “but when black sludge seeped out of the ground and lay in pools around Baghdad, or gas fires flared off swamps in Mosul, it was easy to guess” that it had. Under these circumstances it was important for British policy-makers gathered at Versailles to ensure that the Kurdish northern areas of what is now Iraq were made part of the British mandate and access to them denied to the French to whom they had been promised under the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Perhaps MacMillan is correct in commenting that the British decision to unite the three former Ottoman provinces in a single state “did not make much sense… [since] Basra looked south, towards India and the Gulf, Baghdad had strong links with Persia and Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria.” But at the very least it is clear that this decision was not taken with the interests of the local populations in mind. “What we want,” she quotes a British official as saying at the time, “is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won’t cost very much… but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.”

That administration turned out to be the Kingdom of Iraq, founded in August 1921 with Feisal Al-Hashimi as monarch.


LONG-TERM OUTCOMES: It seems unlikely that the history of the First World War in the Middle East will be dwelt upon during this year’s commemorations in Europe.

For the western European former combatants, the war was mostly fought on the Western front, and discussion of its consequences has tended to focus on the contribution of the 1919 peace settlement to the outbreak of the Second World War. Successive German governments circumvented the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, its reversal being a major aim of the Nazi regime in Germany after 1933, and the other states who had signed the treaty proved unwilling to defend them.

In the Middle East, the arrangements made at the end of the war proved to be longer lasting. Indeed, according to Yapp “the outstanding political development, the greatest phenomenon of any sort in the Near East since 1923, has been the growth and consolidation of the state and the state system established in 1923” after the war’s peace-makers had done their work. Though there were of course major changes in the region after 1923, not least as a result of the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, these same states, weak and vulnerable in 1923, managed to establish themselves “firmly on the international map and [made themselves] dominant over society and the economy within their borders”.

It may be only now, as forces mount threatening the break up of numerous Arab states, among them Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, with Sudan recently also having broken in two, that the settlement arrived at after the First World War may be in danger of significant unravelling.

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