World War I and the Middle East
World War I and the Middle East
The Great War, which was born from Germany’s desire to assert extra national authority and dominate Europe, had a profound effect on the geopolitical equilibrium not just in Europe, but on the Middle East as well. The now nonexistent Ottoman Empire was a significant player in this global drama, even though its conclusion saw the dissolution of an empire that had existed for four centuries. Its part began when it shifted its stance towards the conflict from total ambivalence to a compliance with the Germans that saw a jihad or holy war being declared against the allied powers of France, Russia and Great Britain.
Some context is in order. Prior to their engagement, the Ottoman Empire had recently been embarrassed by setbacks within the Libya and the Balkan regions. Thus, the Empire’s initial ambivalence seemed to be a rather calculated decision to avoid the potential economic and diplomatic consequences of global conflict. But German industrialists had impressed upon the Empire the heady aspirations of imperial glory and thus made the war look like an attractive opportunity to reclaim lost territories and incorporate new ones into the Empire.
Although the Ottoman Empire scored several crucial victories in the early years of World War 1 in Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, repression of Arab nationalism under the new Ottoman-German Alliance led to an Arab revolt stemmed from a political alliance between British officials and Arab leaders which essentially thinned out the forces of the Ottoman Empire and turned the tides against them. (Kamrava 28, 39) However, the downfall of the Ottoman Empire is not simply a concluding chapter in its imperial grand narrative, but a geo-political paradigm shift which profoundly affected the politics of the regions for decades to come.
The resultant formation of the League of Nations, which essentially institutionalized matters of political legality in international affairs, led to more than just diplomatic remonstrations and rebukes for the Ottoman Empire. The League of Nations Mandate carved up the territories of the Middle East into separate nations under the mandate of French and British powers, such that these territories had: “…reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone.
The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory. ” The Mandate divided the Ottoman Empire into Syria (under the supervision of France) and Iraq and Palestine (under the supervision of the United Kingdom). Although this redrawing of geo-political borders was purportedly done under the pretense of promoting peace, it was essentially a slap in the face to the Middle Easterners. They were basically told that they lacked the political maturity to govern themselves and required the French and British to watch over them. (Kamrava 36-38)
Today, the fragmentation of the Balkan region has planted the seeds for present day conflicts over cultural and religious differences. In the absence of imperial unification, these differences have become exacerbated to the point wherein distinct cultural, religious and national ideologies have become more entrenched than they have ever been. Additionally, the forceful willing of nations into being by the post-War policies of the United Kingdom and France created vast inequities among the people in the region, resulting in massive class disparities which continue into today.
For example, Iraq’s discontent towards Iran and Kuwait is becoming increasingly verbalized and frequently debated in many an international current affairs periodical. Armenians were also significantly impacted by the aftermath of World War I. Although they united as an independent Armenian Republic to the fight on the side of the Allies against the Ottoman Empire, following the war they suffered terrible economic conditions from within.
Following failed promises from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, they entered a coalition government under the Treaty of Aleksandropol, which effectively surrendered the northern area of Armenia to Russia and declaimed the Armenian population in Turkey. A religion and culture of some hegemony in millennia past had now become totally subjugated. World War I has also affected the relationship between Arabs and Israelis, which from the past century and even up to the present has experienced much conflict and tension.
Prior to the War, Palestine was under the control of the Ottoman Empire for a half century, but during the twilight years of the Empire, it began to espouse a kind of Turkish supremacy by valorizing Turks and giving primacy towards them. This in turn led to discrimination towards Arabs. As such, potential liberation from Imperial discrimination led to many Arabs supporting the Allies (along with Israelis and Jews) during the War, which gave rise to the aforementioned Arab nationalist sentiment.
But despite a mutual support of Allies amongst Arabs, Israelis and Jews, there was tension amongst them, further increased by the fact that following the War, the United Kingdom ran its made its biases further evident in its appointment of a non-Palestinian as king of Jordan, effectively making a majority of the indigenous Palestinians into second class citizens, while giving preferential treatment towards Israelis and Jews.
Also, although the United Kingdom ran its protectorate rather efficiently, the British government favored the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, as exemplified by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which was largely at odds with the interest of the Arabic population of Palestine.
This period also saw a concurrent increase in the numbers of Jewish and Israeli immigrants into Palestine. (Kamrava 42-43) This increase of Jewish immigrants was perceived by the Arab population of Palestine to be a threat not just in terms of Palestinian national identity, but in terms of economics and industry which fell under increasing control of Jews.
In short, the aftermath of World War I and the resultant British supervision of Palestine led to what Arabs felt was a discriminatory favoring of Israelis and Jews in the country. British mandate was basically regarded as giving undue preference to Israelis and Jews. Works Cited Kamrava, Mehran. The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since The First World War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.