The aim of the present work is to cover that complex process of redrawing of the map of the Middle East that began in 1914, with the entry into the First World War of an already declining Ottoman Empire, and that ended with the so-called final settlement of 1922, when the modern Middle East took definite form.
The beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire can be tracked back to the 1878 armistice, but it is with the XX century that we see the unfolding of those events that in 1923 will lead to the ultimate death of the “sick man of Europe” and to the emergence of modern Turkey.
Despite reckoning the crucial impact that those events had on the development of modern Europe and modern Asia, for reasons of space constraints they will not be touched here. The focus of the present work will rather be on how the Ottoman Empire’s entry into war gave to Britain and France the opportunity to intervene in the Middle East and to redraw its map to satisfy their imperialistic aspirations. Covering the most salient moments of that process of border-redrawing, the present work tries to explain how the Middle East we know came into being and to what extent the definition of borders and countries on part of France and Britain can explain today’s regional reality.
The first part of the work will focus on the agreements reached in the years 1915-1917, on whose terms and contradictions the region was then shaped.
The second part will focus on the territorial conquest of the Arab provinces in the Middle East and the subsequent redrawing of the region’s map.
1915-1917, Agreements and Pledges for a new Middle East
In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany. This decision opened for Britain and France, the two great powers now at war with the Sublime Port, new prospects of imperialistic expansion.
In particular, their designs of territorial conquest came to focus on the Middle East, a crucial region whose provinces had been part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years and had strategic importance for both Britain and France. For Britain, the Middle East was the land connecting Egypt and India; for France, the territory needed to secure control over the Eastern Mediterranean.
The war against Constantinople provided thus the two European powers with the long-awaited opportunity of conquest, and their imperialistic projects translated as early as 1915 in agreements and pledges aimed at defining the post-war partition of the Middle East.
The first agreement that the British Empire reached with respect to the Middle East and its post-war partition emerges from the correspondence begun in July 1915 between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, and Hussein, Sharif of Mecca.
Hussein ibn Ali was ruling Mecca on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, but his position began to weaken with the advent of the CUP triumvirate in Constantinople. For this reason, and for personal ambitions, Hussein allied with two Syrian secret societies (al-Fatat and al-Ahd) and drafted with them the Damascus Protocol to define the terms of an eventual anti-Ottoman collaboration with Britain.
Those conditions were contained in the letter that in July 1915 Hussein sent to Sir McMahon: in return for guiding an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, Hussein wanted an independent Arab State.
Britain showed interest in Hussein’s proposal because it needed a Muslim regional ally, and from that moment the correspondence became a negotiation on boundaries. Hussein requested the Arabian Peninsula, the provinces of Greater Syria, and the provinces of Iraq until Persia. McMahon accepted Hussein’s claims, but with two exceptions: the area lying west of a line connecting Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo (area object of France’s interest) could not be included in the future Arab State, nor could the Mesopotamian provinces of Basra and Baghdad (object of Britain’s claims). However, definite negotiations were postponed to the post-war period.
What it is worth noting of this correspondence is the extremely vague language used by McMahon in referring to territories, a calculated choice that allowed him to avoid specific commitments and to keep all doors open for better future arrangements.
The Sykes–Picot Agreement
Of the agreements that Britain signed in 1915-1917, the one with France influenced the most subsequent power games in the region.
The agreement was sought by Britain after the McMahon–Hussein correspondence made it necessary to negotiate a territorial arrangement with France in order to best address each power’s claims and – in Britain’s calculus – try to conciliate them with the pledges made to the Arabs.
In November 1915, Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes engaged in territorial negotiations. The result was an agreement signed on 16 May 1916, and later subscribed by Russia, presenting on a map each power’s zones of influence. The Iraqi provinces of Basra and Baghdad, painted in red, were put under British direct control; the Syrian coastal region, painted in blue, was under French direct control. Palestine, painted in brown, was to be placed under an international administration. In addition, the area stretching from Kirkuk to Gaza (zone B) and the ports of Acre and Haifa were under British indirect control; the triangle connecting Mosul, Aleppo and Damascus (zone B) was under French indirect influence. The independent Arab State promised to Hussein was presented as a State or confederation of States lying in the two zones of French and British indirect influence (zone A and zone B), with the only promise maintained being the conferral of the Syrian cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus.
The agreement was in clear contradiction with what had been previously agreed with Hussein, and it is in this contradiction that a major source of those disputes that characterized later regional developments has to be found.
The Balfour Declaration
The third agreement that came to influence – in this case permanently and dramatically – the final settlement of 1922, is the pledge made by Britain to the Zionist movement in November 1917 and contained in the document better known as Balfour Declaration.
Zionism as political movement aimed at giving a Jewish home to the Jewish people had been founded by Herzl in the late XIX century, but it was only with the First World War that it acquired international visibility and relevance. In particular, with the revolution in Russia and voices of a possible American intervention in the war, Jews began to appear politically relevant in the eyes of British politicians, who – perhaps overestimating the real influence Jews had – hoped to use Russian Jews to keep the country at war and American Jews to push the United States into the war.
On the wave of these considerations, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Arthur Balfour issued a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, where he stated that “[…] His Majesty Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to achieve this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine […]”.
With this document, Britain was in reality committing itself to much more than Balfour had probably foreseen in 1917, and put the basis for a clash of opposing nationalisms – the Zionist one and the Palestinian one – that would condemn to violence Palestine’s history.
1917-1922, From the Great Game to the League of Nations Mandates
The agreements presented above had the effect of defining the framework within which the British and the French shaped their power games in the following years. It is therefore necessary to focus now on how, once set the framework, they moved to conquest and partition the region.
The Ottoman grip on the Empire’s Arab provinces began to weaken in 1914, though the peak was reached in 1918, with the signature of the armistice of Mudros that put an end to the over 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East.
The withdrawal of the Ottoman rulers opened a new phase of the Arab history in which France and Britain, driven by imperialistic aspirations, occupied territories, set borders and created States, thus shaping the Levant we now know.
Iraq. From century-old religious diversities to a new, artificial political unity
The fighting in the Middle East began in Iraq, when in 1914 the British government of India conquered Basra. At that time, Britain had no clear project for Mesopotamia and the conquest was mainly aimed at securing the access to India. However, the little resistance posed by the Ottomans encouraged the British to advance further and in March 1917 British forces entered Baghdad. In 1918, Mosul also surrendered.
In less than four years the three Mesopotamian provinces of the Ottoman Empire fell to the British, who unified them in a single State called Iraq. By 1918, thus, a new political entity had emerged in the Middle East.
However, the artificial unification of what until that moment had been three separate provinces did not come without problems. The three provinces, in fact, were too diverse between them to constitute a single community.
Within the newly formed country, Arabs made up 80% of the population but were divided between Sunnis (who despite being the smaller group rose to political prominence) and Shias, who were the majority. The Kurds, present in the north, made up 20% of the population but since the earliest days of the new State embraced their fight for independence, incapable of recognizing themselves in an Iraqi State whose ethnicity, culture and language they did not share. Finally, there were Christian, Jewish and Yazidi minorities making up 8% of the population. Divisions between these different religion and regional communities soon became a constant in the life of the new State, taking in particular the form of Shia and Kurdish resistance to Sunni power.
The contradictions within the Iraqi mandate that the League of Nations awarded to Britain in 1920 were thus so many and so deep, that King Faisal was reported saying on his deathbed in 1933: “There is still no Iraqi people but an unimaginable mass of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea […] connected by no common tie”.
The country that the British created in the heart of the Middle East was built on a complex set of ethnic, religious, and regional diversities that inevitably put the bases for the ethnic and religious tensions that still today characterize relations between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and that make it extremely hard to have a government capable of giving representation to all Iraqis.
Palestine. The inevitable conflict between the new Jewish settlement and the traditional Arab presence
Britain conquered Jerusalem in 1917 and completed the conquest of the country over the following months. In 1920, it received from the League of Nations a mandate on Palestine that though was, in Rogan’s words, “doomed from the outset”.
The reason for that has to be found in the Balfour Declaration (whose terms were included in the preamble of the mandatory instrument), as it encouraged a Jewish mass immigration that brought Zionism in conflict with Palestinian nationalism. The waves of aliyahs, in fact, creating a new demographic reality, became a major cause of that violence that in the early ‘20s changed forever the internal dynamics of Palestine.
In this context, the British government proved unable to balance Jewish immigration and protection of the Palestinians’ rights, and little served the agreement between Weizmann and Faisal of 1919. Nor did Churchill’s White Paper of 1922 achieved more by trying to reassure the Arabs that the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine did not imply the imposition of Jewish nationality on all the inhabitants. The contrasting claims of Arabs and Jews had in fact by then grown too loud and deep.
The ultimate result of the Balfour declaration was thus the forced inclusion of two different communities with no points of contact within a same territory that inevitably turned into a battlefield on which an existential fight was (and still is) taking place.
Not surprisingly, many historians have defined Palestine as the “biggest British failure in the Middle East”. A failure that began in 1917 with a pledge to Zionism that could not be sustained without bringing contradictions in the region, and that was exasperated even more in 1921 with the partition of Transjordan. In the moment in which Transjordan was severed from the rest of Palestine, the initial plan of giving to the Jews the area West of the Jordan river, and to the Palestinians the area East of it, became unfeasible and the problem of partition of Palestine even tougher because 75% of the country had been given to an Arab ruler who though was not Palestinian.
Therefore, in 1922 the British territorial policy made the question of Palestine permanent, and brought to light the so-called “right to exist”.
Transjordan. A new entity and new contradictions in the heart of the Levant
The birth of Transjordan is a peculiar one. Part of the British mandate of Palestine, in 1921 it was severed from the rest of the country and established as separate entity.
The decision taken by Britain in this sense was the result of a series of needs: prevent Abdullah from bringing turmoil into French Syria; confine the promise of a Jewish national home to the territory west of the Jordan river; prevent France from occupying a region whose status was not well-defined yet.
Abdullah, one of Hussein’s sons, entered Amman in 1920 with a group of Arab nationalists who wanted to liberate Syria from France’s gauge and restore Faisal in Damascus. In front of this potential threat to regional stability, Britain decided to intervene, to temporarily separate Transjordan from the rest of Palestine, and to offer its throne to Abdullah for what was to be a six-month period.
Like Iraq, then, Transjordan emerged as an artificial State created by Britain to serve its imperialistic interests in the region, with no justification in any previous political community there existent. The area, in fact, was since 1918, when the Ottomans had been driven out, a disordered area of tribal conflict, with a sharp line of division between townspeople, villagers and Bedouins that could not be brought coherently into the same community.
In October 1921, Abdullah should have begun to leave because the deadline was approaching, but in the end his request of staying was accepted by Britain, as London had not decided yet whether to detach Transjordan permanently from Palestine or to have it as a simple Palestinian province still part of the same country.
Keeping Abdullah in place, though, meant establishing a permanent, artificial entity (the State today known as Jordan) in a region already fractured along too many lines of division, and it meant adding – as we have seen – another element of complexity to the Palestinian territorial issue.
Syria and Lebanon. France’s imperialism across religious and regional division lines
In October 1918, the British forces entered Damascus, and Faisal, who had contributed by heading the Arab revolt that left from Hijaz in June 1916, was made King.
However, as decided in the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria was to be under French control and in April 1920 it was made a French mandate. In July 1920, French troops entered Damascus and forced Faisal into exile.
Once imposed its direct rule over the country, France adopted a policy of divide-and-rule that had the consequence of emphasizing the religious, ethnic and regional differences already existing within the State. The country was divided in four mini-States: Aleppo and Damascus, the two major cities in which opposition groups tended to coalesce, were divided; the Alawites were given a State around Latakia; and the Druze were given a State in the south. The purpose of this was to prevent the convergence of urban nationalists, and turn Alawites and Druze in supporters of the mandate by giving them some autonomy. In 1924, then, France decided to unite Aleppo and Damascus into a single State called the State of Syria (comprising also Homs and Hama) where political and social dynamics were in the hands of the Sunni, and other groups were isolated from politics. Moreover, divisions also existed between Arabs from Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.
The effects of this fragmentation realized by the French became evident at the time of unification and independence in 1942: Syria was an entity made of communities that after spending the last two decades apart suddenly found themselves sharing the every-day political and social life.
Looking today at how Syria’s internal fragmentation has been dramatically shaping the country’s recent history, it is not possible not to find a direct link between today’s sectarianism and the lines of political-territorial separation imposed by France in 1921.
In 1918, the French established their control on Greater Lebanon. This was carved out of the Province of Syria as independent State, and was centered on Mount Lebanon and its Maronite Christian community, to which France had been for centuries a “Christian protector”.
However, in 1921, France had more far-reaching plans in setting borders: it included also the cities of Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli and Tyre, that though were inhabited by Muslims. Knowing that Lebanon was not a national community but a mix of diverse communities, France adopted a system known as “confessionalism”: political offices were to be distributed among the religious communities according to their demographic weight. What happened though was that Christians were always favored, even if within the newly enlarged State they were not the majority anymore.
Such imbalance in the allocation of power created sources of religious tension that made it difficult to establish a cohesive national system of government and that were reflected in the bloodshed that invested the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when violence broke out between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority.
In Versailles in 1919 and in San Remo in 1920, it emerged how France and Britain, once occupied the Ottoman provinces of the Middle East, were engaged in drawing borders and partitioning those new States between themselves.
As shown above, across the Levant borders were drawn without taking into account the regional, religious and ethnic realities on the ground. Balfour, referring to the Versailles Conference, defined Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson as “three all-powerful, all-ignorant men, sitting there and carving up continents”. The result of their work was indeed the creation of the artificial states characterized by deep internal contradictions that we know today.
The present work is not trying to assert that all the causes of today’s “Middle Eastern question” are to be found in the post-1914 map redrawing: the Cold War Great Game, the post-’89 American interventionism, and the authoritarianism of many Arab rulers are in fact other major causes of destabilization. It is rather maintaining the impossibility to deny that the territorial redrawing of 1914-1922, bringing together diverse communities and creating new States with no other justification than imperialistic calculus, did put the bases for those internal religious and ethnic conflicts that have condemned to violence the history of the modern Middle East.
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