The present day misery of Gaza, Syria and Iraq began in that war.
As people in Britain and Europe remember mark the anniversary of the armistice, there is little in the way of critical reflection about the horrors of a war that saw tens of millions killed and injured. One would question – looking at Iraq, Syria and Gaza – whether the world has learnt any lessons at all.
So it is worth reflecting on the legacies of this war that still resonates today.
In particular 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 Egypt, Iraq and briefly Syria – only to see their dynasty toppled in these places by coups and counter-coups variously sponsored by the Britain, France 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 feared 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.
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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