The Middle East — How things got to where they are

Comprehending the prophetic significance of the modern quagmire that is the contemporary Middle East demands an understanding  of the Post World War I origins of the current nations carved out of the defeated Ottoman Empire by Anglo and Franco colonialism.

Much like its Roman and Byzantine antecedents acted, the Ottoman Empire modulated as an umbrella that united numerous ethnic groups under one camp. Its disintegration inspired aspirations for self-determination by some of these nations that post WW1 settlements for the Eastern theatre largely failed to reflect. Rather, arrangements were primarily focused on serving Anglo-French colonial interests. Beginning with the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which anticipated an Allied victory, British and French diplomats schemed on how to carve up Ottoman lands in the Middle East and North Africa amongst their spheres of influence. Their plans were often executed in a downright brazenly clumsy fashion that impacted future successor states. One such instance was when the border between French Syria and British Mandatory Palestine was demarcated with the device of a thick pencil which cast into doubt the delineation of major tributary sources of the Jordan river, resulting in the eruption of hostilities between Israel and Syria in the 1960’s over water around Tel Dan.

Following the San Remo Convention in 1920 it became clear that the strategy to achieve Anglo-French hegemony involved installing compliant powerful tribes that held enough sway in their respective regions to maintain order over a greater population which was mostly disenfranchised. The series of events which led to the creation of what became the Kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia illustrates this well. Originally the British Mandate for Palestine was to include the land east of the Jordan river known as Trans Jordan. However, in 1923 the Foreign Office ceded this territory to the Hashemites (creating a monarchy) as a reward for their perceived loyalty and demonstrated leadership during the Arab Revolt of 1917.  An overwhelming majority of the population inhabiting this area were non-Hashemite Arabs and Palestinian Arabs (their numbers bolstered when Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1953). In similar vein, the House of Saud came to be a dominant force in the Arabian Peninsula and was viewed as a stable power broker amongst tribal factions. So, it too was eventually established as a monarchy over the vast majority who weren’t tribally affiliated to them.

In Palestine the situation was murkier. The British made conflicting commitments to the Arab and Jewish communities. Motivated in part by seeking to gain the support of U.S. Jewish lobbyists to influence Congress to join the Allied War effort, His Majesty’s government issued the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine in 1917. Alongside this, official British correspondence with Arab leaders (concerning an insurrection against Ottoman rule during the Great War) created an expectation that this area would form part of a future independent Arab state. So, in this instance, clearly Britain principally was motivated by alliance building and it played in their favor to create a smoke screen of ambiguity regarding who would ultimately hold a position of power.

When it wasn’t politically and economically expedient, movements such as the Kurdish push for statehood were ignored. Here, it was determined that to remove Eastern Anatolia (with a large Kurdish population) from Turkey to form a state for the Kurds wasn’t worth renewed conflict. Under Ataturk, Turkey had already shown a willingness to fight when its territorial integrity was compromised and this led to the original Peace treaty of Sevres having to be replaced with the renegotiated treaty of Lausanne. Additionally, Britain was keen to retain control of northern Kurdish Iraq which held rich oil reserves around Mosul and so arbitrarily formed Iraq as a country composed of three distinct groups: Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Similarly, it wasn’t conceived by the French as practical to create a Druze state in southern Lebanon and south west Syria; as such a move was considered likely to inflame tensions with neighboring Maronite Christians and Allawi Muslims who also wanted their own country. France had already successfully quashed an Arab rebellion in Syria and was keen to temper strives for independence.

Overall it would be fair to surmise that neither in British nor French controlled regions was there much will to implement the body of customary international law recognizing the right to self determination beyond limited instances where it was unavoidable. In fact it could be argued that the Middle East’s borders were deliberately framed in such a way as to plant the seeds for perpetual conflict and ensure that future states were reliant upon the West for support and arms.

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