World War One sowed the seeds of today’s Middle East
The present day misery of Gaza, Syria and Iraq began in that war
As most people know, 2014 is the centenary of the start of World War One. A few people in Britain have attempted rewriting history to present a justification for this war. They are those who generally supported the costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in this present century. Others have embarked on a critical reflection about the horrors of a war that saw tens of millions killed and injured and question – looking at Gaza and Syria – whether the world has learnt any lessons at all.
It isn’t right to disrespect those who died in that war or their families’ recollections of individual acts of valor. But at the same time it isn’t wrong to disrespect the likes of Lloyd George, Kitchener, Curzon and Balfour who sent millions to die in a war that had little to do with ‘national security’; instead everything was to do with securing Britain’s position in Europe and interests across the world. The memories of the dead and injured are certainly not served by selective omission or rewriting of history.
So, it is worth reflecting on the legacies of this war that still resonates today. Namely that World War One shaped the chaos, oppression and conflict of the modern Middle East; and laid the seeds for the Zionist occupation of Palestine.
Sowing the seeds of misery – Sykes-Picot, Client-Regimes and the Abolition of the Caliphate
The modern Middle East is rife with wars, oppression and injustice. It is a series of nation states artificially constructed in the aftermath of World War One. They are ruled by client regimes, initially installed at that time, that serve themselves as well as a narrow elite and foreign interests – instead of serving the people of the region. These rulers are widely hated by the people they preside over. They use their armed forces for two main purposes. Firstly, to suppress their own populations – particularly when they see a flicker of political criticism or Islamic sentiments; and secondly to serve any Western military interests that are asked of them.
The most enduring of these client-regimes are the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Saudi Arabia was conceived in Britain’s foreign office around a century ago and has since then squandered huge amounts of material wealth. Its ruling family has enjoyed close ties with Britain and the United States ever since. Jordan is a similar family business, installed by the British after World War One. Britain installed members of the same family, widely seen as traitors to Islam and Muslims, to rule Iraq and briefly Syria – only to see their dynasty toppled in these places by coups and counter-coups variously sponsored by the Britain and the US.
It is worth reflecting that people living under the Ottoman state – even in its era of decline – enjoyed more stable and less oppressive lives than people living in the Middle East over the past century. For several centuries prior to that, under the Caliphate, the region was the home of a great civilization that presented a unique society in which communities of different racial and religious backgrounds lived peacefully and in harmony.
In his 2009 essay, ‘Islam and its Discontents’, Brenden Clifford of the Bevin Society wrote:
Islam, one of the major cultures of the world, has been without a state to uphold its position in the world-order for close on 90 years. The Islamic state was destroyed by Britain in the course of the war, which it declared on Germany in 1914. It has been argued that the destruction of the Islamic state was one of the purposes for which Britain declared war on Germany. And the destruction of the Islamic state appears to me to be the ultimate cause of the condition of the world which the USA and Britain call the War on Terror.
He reminds the reader that:
‘A little over a century ago the German Kaiser paid a state visit to the Ottoman Empire, met the Sultan, and declared that a strong Muslim state was a necessary part of any stable order in the world’.
German policy as set out by Count Von Moltke (later a Field Marshal of the German state) in his Essays, Speeches, And Memoirs, 1893 (Vol 1, p272) argued that it was possible to regenerate the Ottoman Empire as such from Islamic roots.
The British fear the impact of this in relation to its colonies – in particular in India – so pursued a policy of expansion of their Empire from India to Egypt. Indeed, once the Ottomans did enter the war, declaring it to be a Jihad, Kitchener had real fears this call would spread to India, Egypt and Sudan.
But at the outset of the war, the Ottoman policy was neutrality. It was in no financial or political position to engage in a war. However, Britain refused to accept this position and refused to accept any overtures of alliance with it – and set about provocation of the Ottoman state, particularly through allying with a hostile Russia.
By 5th November 1914, Britain declared war, in conjunction with Russia, by alleging an Ottoman attack on Russia in the Black Sea. Clifford writes scathingly that it was ‘an allegation made so obscurely and furtively that there is reason to suspect that it was comparable to Hitler’s allegation of a Polish attack on Germany in September 1939’!
Failing to see the expected rapid collapse of the Ottoman defences, Britain found allies in the form of Sharif Hussein – the ancestor of the Jordanian dynasty and Ibn Saud – the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia.
In 1916, under the Sykes Picot accord, the British and French governments agreed to a division of the spoils of the Middle East between the two states, drawing ‘a line in the sand’ between Acre and Kirkuk – the British to take what was south of the line, and the French what was north of it.
After much wheeling, dealing and double crossing between the two, the regions of Syria and Lebanon fell to France, whilst Transjordan, Iraq and the Hejaz went to Britain. The original agreements were meant to share Palestine. Britain managed to secure a mandate over the region, but was later forced by America and France to share the newly discovered oil revenues from Mosul shortly after the war.
The events of the war and the subsequent ‘peace conferences’ afterwards not only carved up the Ottoman state, it precipitated a collapse internally, ending with the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.
The following 90 years have seen wars between these artificially constructed states; repressive regimes tyrannising their people; the material wealth of the region haemorrhaging away from the people who had a right over it; and various periods of occupation.
From pre-Balfour Declaration to the Zionist Occupation of Palestine
Before World War One, British imperial strategists took account of the implications of potential scenarios within the Middle East. Addressing the 1907 Imperial Conference in London, Britain’s Prime Minister Henry Campbell Bannerman expressed these fears and called for a commission to look at the question of how to prevent the fall of their empire. The report recommended:
1) To promote disintegration, division and separation in the region.
2) To establish artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries.
3) To fight any kind of unity – whether intellectual, religious or historical – and taking practical measures to divide the region’s inhabitants.
4) To achieve this, it was proposed that a “buffer state” be established in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence which would be hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.
Retrospectively, this would appear to have become British Imperial policy from this time – prior to World War One – for several decades thereafter.
Within this context, Arthur Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild in 1917, expressing Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, becomes easy to understand.
There has been much debate over the years as to what extent the British government of the time really meant this expression of support.
Writing many years later, Sir Anthony Nutting believed that Balfour and others were complicit with the Zionist agenda to evict the Palestinian Arabs from the region – fitting very much with the pre-war policy recommendation to Bannerman to establish the ‘buffer state…populated by a strong, foreign presence’.
But other historians like Jonathan Schneer have viewed the promise to the Zionists as one of a complex series of bargaining moves that sought to variously ‘play’ Zionist Jews and the leaders of the Arab revolt, all in order to maintain British control over Palestine.
Schneer recognizes overlapping interests in that the Zionist movement wanted the Ottomans out of Palestine, whilst the British government wanted the Ottomans out of the whole Middle East – whilst conceding as little influence as possible to France.
His argument is that part of this bargaining process was that Balfour’s promise would tantalize American Jewry into lobbying for the United States to enter the war on Britain’s side against the Ottomans. Yet simultaneously, Britain was secretly negotiating a peace with the Ottomans, ready to ditch Balfour’s promise, in case they did not get support from the United States.
So in effect, at some stage or other between 1916 and 1918, Britain had offered Palestine to different interested parties at different times. As well as offering it to the Zionist lobby there was a dialogue to hand it to the Ottomans had Britain decided to settle for peace prior to American entry in the war. There had been a verbal promise to Sharif Hussein that it would be part of his territory, as well as having agreed to share with the French under the original terms of the Sykes Picot agreement.
According to historian James Barr the trust between the ‘allies’ of Britain, France and the Zionists was so poor – because of the feeling they had been made too many broken promises – that by 1945 the French were financing Zionist terrorists to attack British troops in Palestine (whilst British soldiers were helping to liberate France from the Nazis).
However, the client Arab regimes accepted humiliation and broken promises with servitude – and showed no real interest in defending or liberating Palestine. From the very first until today they have been the first line of support and defence for ‘Israel’.
One prime example was illustrated in Chaim Weizmann’s diary, where it is recorded that St John Philby, a former British intelligence officer and advisor to Ibn Saud, made a proposal that Ibn Saud should be offered a financial incentive of £20,000,000 in return for his support for a Zionist state. It seems the only reason this didn’t happen was because Weizmann didn’t want to proceed.
So much of the politics of today’s Middle East can be understood from the political intrigues surrounding World War One.
It is imperative that Muslims know the history of that disastrous era and learn real lessons from it in order to understand the neo-colonial games that are played today – that continue to wreak havoc over large parts of the world.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Barr, J – A Line in the Sand – 2011
Schneer, J – The Balfour Declaration – 2010
Clifford, B – Islam and its Discontents – 2009
Al-Rashid, M – A History of Saudi Arabia – 2010
Nutting, Anthony – Balfour and Palestine – A legacy of deceit – 1975
Weizmann, Chaim – The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann – Vol II
Rotberg, Robert – Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix