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World War 1 and the Middle-East

Western imperialism stitched up the area, but it is unravelling

If Colonel Gadaffi were still running Libya there would not be mass migration across the Mediterranean, with thousands drowned because of unscrupulous traffickers. Gadaffi was guilty of the sin of all those secular dictators. He was too independent of ‘the West’. Britain and France, backed by America, bombed him out of existence. Their excuse was that he intended assaulting civilians in a provincial town. They got the cover of a UN Security Council resolution, which a weak Russia failed to veto. Now Libya is a failed state racked by civil war.

Where do these Mediterranean migrants come from? Many are from Syria, another state afflicted by civil war encouraged by the West. Since 2011 the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime have been covertly financed and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with the CIA and Israeli intelligence overseeing the details.

Recall the House of Commons vote which denied Tory Premier David Cameron permission to bomb Syria by 285 votes to 272 in 2013. Encouraged by the US, Cameron and France’s Hollande wanted to repeat in Syria the regime- change they had brought about in Libya two years before. It was surely Ed Miliband’s finest moment as Labour leader that he refused to go along. 30 Tories and nine Lib Dems voted against Cameron too. This House of Commons No in turn gave the US Congress the impetus to stop Obama’s impending assault on Assad.

In Syria the pretext was to be that Assad used chemical weapons against his foreign-financed rebels. If these rebels succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime, the country’s Christians, Alawites and many Shia Muslims are likely to have their throats cut.

The paradox now is that support for the Assad regime in Syria and its Shia-backed counterpart in Iraq looks like being the best hope of holding back the ISIS monster which these ‘rebel’ groups with their dubious sources of arms and finance have spawned. America needs Iran and its clients as allies, not opponents, in the region.

Najibiullah in Afghanistan, at the time of the Russian intervention there, was the first of the secular dictators America sought to overthrow by backing the mujahideen fundamentalists against him. Osama Bin Laden was on the US payroll then. Najibullah was executed by the Taliban in 1996.

Saddam Hussein was the second, overthrown by Bush and Blair in their 2003 invasion of Iraq. When Saddam ruled Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Christians lived peaceably side by side. Now Iraq too is well on the way to being a failed state, racked by the Shia-Sunni conflict which America encouraged until the tormented politics of the region spawned ISIS. Najibullah, Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi and Assad were certainly dictators but the West did not realise that worse could follow.

Since Bush invaded Iraq the USA has become self-sufficient in oil because of the fracking revolution. America no longer needs Saudi oil as it once did. This is the basis of Obama’s turn towards Iran, which in turn causes consternation among the Saudis and Israelis. The Saudi-Israeli response is to try to up Sunni-Shia antagonism further, building on what the Americans had started, seeking thereby to undermine Iran’s clients in the Iraqi and Syrian governments and in the Lebanese Hezbollah, in the hope of stymying a US-Iran deal.

A seminal book on the historical background to the region’s current anguished politics, is James Barr’s ‘A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that shaped the Middle East’.

The catastrophe in the Middle East is rooted in Western power-grabbing for the provinces of the Ottoman Empire a century ago in World War 1. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan were all Ottoman provinces then. The different religious communities had lived peaceably side by side in them for centuries. Getting hold of them was one of the war aims of imperial Britain and imperial France in 1914. It was why Britain and France pushed Turkey into an alliance with Germany in the first months of the Great War.

What was presented to British and French public opinion as a war to defend the rights of small nations and to prevent ‘poor little Belgium’ from falling under German rule, was seen by these countries’ Governments as an opportunity to expand their empires in the Middle East at the expense of the Turks. Britain particularly wanted to gain control of Palestine and with it the eastern approaches to the Suez Canal, that vital route to Britain’s empire in India.

The Bolsheviks published the secret treaties between the Entente Powers within a month of the 1917 Revolution, while simultaneously repudiating them and announcing Russia’s withdrawal from the War. The British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted.

The most important secret treaty was the agreement in March 1915, just one month before the Gallipoli operation, promising Russia control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles after the war, in return for Russian agreement to support British interests in Persia, next to India.

Britain had fought the Crimean War in 1854 to prevent Russia taking Constantinople and establishing itself on the Mediterranean. For the same reason Disraeli risked war with Russia in 1878 and sent the British Mediterranean fleet through the Dardanelles at the time.

In the lead-up to World War 1, however, a century of British rivalry with Russia – the “Great Game” that was given literary form in Kipling’s novel ‘Kim’ – was abandoned in order to induce Russia to join France in encircling Germany. Russia and France together were the only European land powers that could crush Britain’s rising commercial rival, Germany. As a seapower Britain could help in that defeat, but only land power and large armies could ensure a decisive victory.

In early 1915, with stalemate on the Western Front based on static trench warfare from the Channel to the Swiss border, the British and French Governments were worried that Russia might pull out of the war altogether in view of the pasting its armies were taking at the time from the Germans on the Eastern Front.

This was the political reason for the Gallipoli campaign, which began one hundred years ago last April and continued until it was aborted in January 1916. The British undertook it to keep Russia in the war. At the same time some historians contend that the British did not really want the Russians to take Constantinople, which they would do if Gallipoli succeeded. They suggest that the Gallipoli campaign was deliberately set up to fail and that that was the real reason for the disastrous way in which it was planned and conducted from the start. Could such cynicism have characterised Britain’s policy on Gallipoli? Some believe it could indeed, especially if it were mostly Australians, New Zealanders and Irish who were to die there.

The second important secret treaty, also at the expense of the Ottomans, was the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916. Britain promised the Arabs independence if they would rebel against the Turks. Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) helped the Arabs in their rebellion. The Kurds were promised independence too if they rebelled. But Lawrence was unaware of the activities of the French diplomat Georges Picot and British agent Mark Sykes who on behalf of their respective governments drew a line on a map of the region dividing the Ottoman provinces of the post-war Middle East between Britain and France, with the Russians assenting.

The map signed by the two of them is still in the archives. It shows a thick line going from the “A” in Acre to the “K” in Kirkuk, dividing the entire area between the Entente Powers after the War. Sykes-Picot agreed that Britain would get Palestine, Jordan and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the French would get Syria and Lebanon. Neither Arabs nor Kurds would get independent states.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the Balfour Declaration the following year, 1917, which in turn led to the modern State of Israel. In this British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised Lord Rothschild, leader of Britain’s Jewish community, that the British Government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. At the time Britain and France were desperate to get America into the war on their side. One motive for the Declaration was to appeal to the strong Zionists then advising President Wilson.

When America did join the war the first item of Wilson’s famous 14-point programme for a just peace was that there should no longer be any secret treaties between states. Wilson sponsored the League of Nations and, to placate the Americans, Britain and France agreed that the former Ottoman provinces carved up by Sykes-Picot should be run by them as League-mandated territories.

Today’s Middle Eastern politics derive from those events of 1914-1917. The main new factor added since is that the USA took over from Britain and France following World War 2, reducing these former imperial powers to the status of American satraps. •


Anthony Coughlan

Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin.