From an outsider eyes, today’s Middle East is an increasingly unstable and dangerous place, a complicated melting pot of religious wars, ethnic conflicts, geographical tensions and competition for lucrative resources (oil, gas and water). The analysis and conclusions are diverse, ranging from the inability of locals to rule themselves to the nefarious involvement of foreign countries.
In his book ‘A peace to end all peace‘, David Fromkin sets out to describe in details the history of the creation of the modern Middle East, focusing on the short period of time between the beginning of the First World War and 1922. During this time, the world saw tremendous international disruptions, including in the Middle East where the Ottoman Empire was drawn into the war, beaten, destroyed and then arbitrarily replaced with ill-conceived settlements.
Yet it was never supposed to unfold in this manner. In the centuries preceding the early XXth century, the Western Powers had gradually conquered most of the world through force and trade, holding at their peak over 80% of the emerged land: Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania had all been occupied, divided and ‘Westernized’. The only place remaining untouched was the Middle East, a vast area just outside Europe under the control of the Ottoman Empire, an empire with roots reaching back to the 14th century.
Even though the Great Powers somehow agreed that this region would also eventually be divided between them, there was a tacit agreement not to invade it because of the potential larger conflicts it would create between the various empires: the rapacious appetite of Western powers was well-understood and held in check. Yet the temptations were sometimes too great: in the decades preceding the Great War, various countries defeated Ottoman forces and conquered regions (Egypt, Lybia, the Balkans…) of the empire. In addition, all powers competed for influence over finance, trade and industry at the Sublime Porte.
But the empire was still mostly left untouched. Indeed, the region was scarcely studied at all, to the point where no accurate maps were drawn, a fact that will sometimes seriously hinder Allied campaigns during the war. As the situation in Europe gradually tended toward confrontation, the Ottoman Empire, well aware of its internal weaknesses, started to look for Allies in a bid to modernize the country and bridge the gap with the Western world. After being abruptly turned down by the British, the Ottoman Empire chose to receive German training for their armies and thus sealed its fate in the eyes of Britain’s most ambitious man: Winston Churchill.
Following opening of the First World War, Britain (led by Churchill) declared war on the Ottoman Empire, even though the latter had no intention of going to war. Yet pressed by an aggressive Britain and its hands forced by Germans, the Sublime Porte was almost immediately faced with the might of the British Navy. Churchill, who believed a breakthrough in Southern Europe would allow to pressure the Central Powers, pushed for several attempts to break through the Dardanelles and force an Ottoman surrender.
But British commanders on the field performed poorly, mismanaging their assets and blundering repeatedly, and as a result were unable to get the upper hand, even when the Ottomans were at their breaking point. After several campaigns (including Gallipoli, the Iraq campaign, and the Palestine campaign) ended with high casualties for the British, Churchill was fired. In the meanwhile, the infernal bureaucratic machines he had started continued to unfold.
From the beginning of the war, British officials in India, London and Cairo fought each others to assert their own interests on the Middle East. London regarded the Middle East as a distant matter, India as an immediate security issue and Cairo as a potential new addition to the British empire. Even though they competed bitterly for influence, they all had one common factor: the constant presence of inexperienced, conspiracy-prone and badly informed key actors.
Early on, reports of potential Arab uprising against Turkish rule were exaggerated and misinterpreted as desire to be ruled by Britain, a fact that fitted conveniently with British officials’ own view of their country. In fact, the Arabs, predominantly Muslim, preferred to be ruled either by themselves or by other Muslims: being ruled by Christian Westerners was definitely out of the question.
As the Western Front well-known stalemate set in, the Allied looked for ways to divert resources from their opponents without sparing their own precious resources. Promises of territorial gains to Italy and Greece were made in order to get their entry into the war, but these desperate attempts only succeeded in setting up a race for control of Middle East, as various countries started to claim shares of the Ottoman empire even when the latter was not yet defeated.
Eventually, better British command in the Middle East and the collapse of the German army on the Western front favoured the Allies, who managed to turn Bulgaria in and thus cut off the Ottoman Empire from its much need supply lines from Germany. In addition, the collapse of Imperial Russia had seriously strained the German-Turkish partnership through the competition for Eastern Europe territories, in which the Ottoman Empire lost precious resources.
By the end of the war, only 2 empires remained: Great Britain and Turkey. Instead of letting the Ottoman Empire live, France and the UK decided to dissolve and divide it into various zones of influence. This fateful decision, triggered a few years ago with the offering of land grabs to various allies, would create bitter confrontations between the Allied as they tried to deliver, deny or negotiate on their wartime promises.
To avoid open confrontation with Wilson who had made his intentions clear in his 14 points, the European power acted under the disguise of national determination. Several commissions and on-site surveys were conducted to understand the local ethnic, religious and political situations mixes, but their findings were consistently disregarded by the Great Powers who were engaged in tense negotiations and horse trading, setting up their own borders according to their needs.
Lloyd George, emboldened by his success as the winner of the war, was determined to get as much land as possible from the Middle East (the potential for oil resources played a non-negligible part), even at the expense of its allies, and in particular the French. He manoeuvred adroitly, playing off the Americans, the Italians and the French, benefiting from troops on the ground and finally succeeded in securing most of his claims. For a brief moment in time, the British Empire became the largest empire in human history.
But the Muslim population started to rise up in a series of local revolt in opposition to its new Christian rulers. From Egypt to Iraq to Iran and Turkey, Wilson’s 14 points and various promises made during the war were put against military presence and lightly veiled direct rule by Western Powers. Yet instead of answering the desperate calls from the populations, the UK and France answered with force, believing in a major Bolshevik conspiracy. Yet these events unsettled Allied post-war plans and definitely degraded their legitimacy in those countries, eventually leading to a gradual withdrawal through the installation of more or less reliable local rulers.
At the same time, a young and ambitious Turkish general rallied the remnants of Turkish forces, armed them with help of the Bolsheviks and infused them with nationalism. Determined to hold onto the core of the Ottoman Empire, the Anatolia plateau, Mustaphal Kemal refused to bow in face of the various attempts to dismember Turkey. Instead, he beat back the Greeks (called over by the Great Powers to counter the Italians), managed to drive off the Western forces from Anatolia, and brought Britain to the negotiation table after a brief but tense stand-off. Pressured by a domestic opinion tired of war, Britain was forced to accept the creation of modern Turkey.
With budgets being squeezed following the end of the war, the Allied settled for a peace that no one believed in, with countries made up out of administrative convenience instead of local realities. Key players ignored the role of Islam as a centre of political and social life, preferring to impose a Western model upon ill-prepared populations. A peace to end all peace ‘ thus describes how the Great Powers fought, won and then lost the Middle East.
Today’s Middle East is still the same as a hundred years ago: fragmented, unstable and divided. In fact, as David Fromkin suggests, the region is still living in the aftermath of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, an event as significant as the fall of Rome, from which Europe took 1,000 years to recover from. The Middle East will of course not take as long to find a sustainable future, but we should remember how short 100 years are in history.
About Carlito Riego
"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi