A map marked with crude China graph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition – and folly – of the 100-year old British-French plan that helped create the modern-day Middle East.
World War I transformed the Middle East in ways it had not seen for centuries. The Europeans, who had colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, completed the takeover with the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The modern boundaries of the Middle East emerged from the war, so did the modern Arab nationalist movements and embryonic Islamic movements. With the onset of World War I, the French and the British sent armies and agents into the Middle East, to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries.
Sykes-Picot Agreement, also called Asia Minor Agreement, (May 1916), the secret convention made during World War I between Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas. Negotiations were begun in November 1915, and the final agreement took its name from the chief negotiators from Britain and France, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sergey Dimitriyevich Sazonov was also present to represent Russia, the third member of the Triple Entente. In the midst of World War I the question arose of what would happen to the Ottoman territories if the war led to the disintegration of “the sick man of Europe.” The Triple Entente moved to secure their respective interests in the region. They had agreed in the March 1915 Constantinople Agreement to give Russia Constantinople (Istanbul) and areas around it, which would provide access to the Mediterranean Sea. France, meanwhile, had a number of economic investments and strategic relationships in Syria, especially in the area of Aleppo, while Britain wanted secure access to India through the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. It was out of a need to coordinate British and French interests in these regions that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was born.
When World War I ended, new countries were born and borders were redrawn in the Middle East. But those changes were marked with missteps that have led to many of the conflicts that have made it one of the most volatile regions in the world. The British, French and Russians had been jockeying for position over the declining Ottoman Empire for decades before World War I. But as the war unfolded, Germany’s spreading influence in the region brought concern from all parties. Great Britain wanted to protect its interests in the region – mainly oil and mobility via the Suez Canal – so Britain and its most important colony, India, sent troops to Bahrain. On Nov. 5, 1914, France and Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The fight eventually moved east.
There were three main components to the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Arabia.
During World War I, the centuries-old Ottoman Empire mostly encompassed the areas around Turkey, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine (Israel hadn’t been created yet). Armenia was also part of the empire.
Persia (modern-day Iran) was divided into three spheres of influence before the war: Russian-controlled, British-controlled, and a neutral zone. During the war, it became a battleground for Russian, Turkish and British troops.
Arabia: This encompassed most of modern-day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Parts of it were fought over by the Ottoman Empire for a century prior to the war when power had gone back and forth, but the region remained relatively autonomous during World War I.
During the war, Arab rebels who wanted to be free from the Ottoman Empire asked the British for help. The British supported that request, with the help of France. When the war ended, the two European powers implemented a mandate system in the Treaty of Versailles that split up the former empire’s countries – much to the chagrin of those who lived there. The immediate post-war Middle East formed part of a Eurasia-wide arc of instability, which settled only in the mid-1920s. While the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution allowed France and especially Britain to expand territorially, both faced nationalist pushback. But although nationalisms emerged dominant across the Middle East, they were complex in practice and infused with transnational and international dimensions. The war had colossal costs. Between 1914 and 1918 one in six Ottoman civilians died, including 1.5 million Armenians in a state-led genocide, and hundreds of thousands were removed. Thereafter food and health remained precarious, also because of continued violence. States not only caused that violence but sometimes tried to help certain victim groups. Societal actors also mobilized to help victims.
Although the German attempt to take over Europe was stopped, the Middle East was also affected in the process. The Ottoman Empire, once the greatest Islamic power in the region, sided with Germany and declared war against France, Russia, and Great Britain in November 1914. Considering the Ottoman Empire a serious threat to the British Empire, London launched pre-emptive strikes and attacks to knock Turkey out of the war and take down the Ottoman Empire. The war ended with Great Britain occupying territory that would eventually become Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. ‘
One of the problems was that the state system that was created after the World War One has exacerbated the Arabs’ failure to address the crucial dilemma they have faced over the past century and a half – the identity struggle between, on one hand, nationalism and secularism, and on the other, Islamism (and in some cases Christianism).
The founders of the Arab liberal age – from the late 19th Century to the 1940s – created state institutions (for example a secular constitution in Tunisia in 1861 and the beginnings of a liberal democracy in Egypt in the inter-war period), and put forward a narrative that many social groups (especially in the middle classes) supported – but failed to weave the piousness, conservatism, and religious frame of reference of their societies into the ambitious social modernization they had led.
It is perhaps only proper to note that if Germany had won the war, the Ottoman Empire would have been expanded, subjecting many Arabs and other nationalities to its rule. And if the French and British had granted ‘self-determination’ to the inhabitants of this region, then the result would have been the balkanization of the area, with fragile and often antagonistic fiefdoms and kingdoms prevailing. It seems likely that, no matter how this war in the Middle East had been resolved, the region was destined to suffer instability and conflict in the years ahead.