World War I may have ended in 1918, but the violence it triggered in the Middle East still hasn’t come to an end. Arbitrary borders drawn by self-interested imperial powers have left a legacy that the region has not been able to overcome.
Damascus, year three of the civil war: The 4th Division of the Syrian army has entrenched itself on Kassioun Mountain, the place where Cain is said to have slain his brother Abel. United Nations ballistics experts say the poison gas projectiles that landed in the Damascus suburbs of Muadamiya and Ain Tarma in the morning hours of Aug. 21, 2013 were fired from somewhere up on the mountain. Some 1,400 people died in the attack — 1,400 of the more than 100,000 people who have lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict.
Baghdad, in the former palace quarter behind the Assassin’s Gate: Two years after the American withdrawal, Iraqis are once again in full control of the so-called Green Zone, located on a sharp bend in the Tigris River. It is the quarter of Baghdad where the Americans found refuge when the country they occupied devolved into murderous chaos. Currently, the situation is hardly any better. On the other side of the wall, in the red zone, death has once again become commonplace. There were over 8,200 fatalities last year.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon that is so loved by all Arabs: The city has long been a focal point both of Arab life and of Arab strife. The devout versus the secular, the Muslims versus the Christians, the Shiites versus the Sunnis. With fighting underway in Libya and Syria, with unrest ongoing in Egypt and Iraq, the old question must once again be posed: Has Beirut managed to leave the last eruption of violence behind or is the next one just around the corner?
Two years after the revolts of 2011, the situation in the Middle East is as bleak as it has ever been. There is hardly a country in the region that has not experienced war or civil strife in recent decades. And none of them look immune to a possible outbreak of violence in the near future. The movement that came to be known as the Arab Spring threatens to sink into a morass of overthrows and counter-revolts.
That, though, is likely only to surprise those who saw the rebellions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria as part of an historical turn of events for the Middle East. To be sure, the unrest was a bloody new beginning, but it was also the most recent chapter in an almost uninterrupted regional conflict that began 100 years ago and has never really come to an end.
‘The Children of England and France’
In no other theater of World War I are the results of that epochal conflict still as current as they are in the Middle East. Nowhere else does the early 20th century orgy of violence still determine political conditions to the same degree. The so-called European Civil War, a term used to describe the period of bloody violence that racked Europe from 1914 onwards, came to an end in 1945. The Cold War ceased in 1990. But the tensions unleashed on the Arab world by World War I remain as acute as ever. Essentially, the Middle East finds itself in the same situation now as Europe did following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: standing before a map that disregards the region’s ethnic and confessional realities.
In Africa, Latin America and — following the bloodletting of World War II — Europe, most peoples have largely come to accept the borders that history has forced upon them. But not in the Middle East. The states that were founded in the region after 1914, and the borders that were drawn then, are still seen as illegitimate by many of their own citizens and by their neighbors. The legitimacy of states in the region, writes US historian David Fromkin in “A Peace to End All Peace” — the definitive work on the emergence of the modern Middle East — comes either from tradition, from the power and roots of its founder or it doesn’t come at all.
Only two countries in the broader region — Egypt and Iran — possess such a long and uninterrupted history that their state integrity can hardly be shaken, even by a difficult crisis. Two others continue to stand on the foundation erected by their founders: The Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finally united by Abd al-Asis Ibn Saud in 1932.
These four countries surround the core of the Middle East, which is made up of five countries and one seemingly eternal non-state. Fromkin calls them the “children of England and France:” Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine.
No group of countries, particularly given their small sizes, has seen so many wars, civil wars, overthrows and terrorist attacks in recent decades. To understand how this historical anomaly came to pass, several factors must be considered: the region’s depressing history prior to World War I, the failure of the Arab elite and the continual intervention by the superpowers thereafter, the role of political Islam, the discovery of oil, the founding of Israel and the Cold War.
A Peace to End All Peace
Perhaps most important, however, was the wanton resolution made by two European colonial powers, Britain and France, that ordered this part of the world in accordance with their own needs and literally drew “A Line in the Sand,” as the British historian James Barr titled his 2011 book about this episode.
It is still unclear where the Arab Spring will take us and what will ultimately become of the Middle East. Apocalyptic scenarios are just as speculative as the hope that the region will find its way to new and more stable borders and improved political structures. But where does this lack of legitimacy and absence of trust which poisons the Middle East come from? How did we arrive at this “Peace to End All Peace,” as Fromkin’s book is called?
Istanbul, the summer of 1914: The capital of the Ottoman Empire seems half a world away from the sunny parlor in the Imperial Villa in Ischl where Emperor Franz Joseph I signed his manifesto “To My People” on July 28 and unleashed the world war by declaring war on Serbia. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had controlled the southern and eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandretta to Arish, from the Maghreb to Suez. But Algeria and Tunisia fell to the French while the British nabbed Egypt; in 1911, the Italians established a bridgehead in Libya. By the eve of the Great War, the empire had shrunk to include, aside from today’s Turkey, only the Middle East, present-day Iraq and a strip of land on the Arabian Peninsula stretching down to Yemen.
It is these regions, south of present-day Turkey, that became the focus of the Middle Eastern battles in World War I. For 400 years, the area had wallowed deep in history’s shadow. But in the early 20th century, it rapidly transformed into the arc of crisis we know today — a place whose cities have become shorthand for generations of suffering: Basra, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza and Suez.
The protagonists of World War I were not fully aware yet that the Ottoman Empire’s backyard was sitting atop the largest oil reserves in the world. Had they known, the fighting in the Middle East would likely have been even more violent and brutal than it was. At the time, however, the war aims of the two sides were determined by a world order that would dissolve within the next four years: Great Britain wanted to open a shipping route to its ally Russia and to secure its connection to India via the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. The German Empire wanted to prevent exactly that.
Shifting to the Periphery
It remained unclear for a few days following Franz Joseph’s declaration of war whether the Ottoman Empire would enter the war and, if it did, on which side. But shortly after the conflict began, Istanbul joined Berlin and Vienna. On August 2, the Germans and the Ottomans signed a secret pact; a short time later, two German warships — the SMS Goeben and the SMS Breslau — began steaming from the western Mediterranean toward Constantinople. Once they arrived, they were handed over to the — officially still neutral — Ottoman navy and renamed Yavuz and Midilli; the German crews remained, but donned the fez.
With the arrival of the two battleships in the Golden Horn and the subsequent mining of the Dardanelles, the casus belli had been established: The Ottomans and the Germans had blocked the connection between Russia and its allies, the French and the British. Shortly thereafter, the Goeben, flying the Ottoman flag, bombarded Russian ports on the Black Sea. At the beginning of November, Russia, Great Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
In London, strategists began considering an attempt to break the Dardanelles blockade and take Constantinople. The result was the arrival of a British-French fleet at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula three months later. The attack, which began with a naval bombardment but soon included an all-out ground-troop invasion, failed dramatically. The Ottoman victory led to the resignation of Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and provided the foundation for the rise of the man who would later found modern Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The bloody battle also became a national trauma for Australia and New Zealand, thousands of whose soldiers lost their lives at Gallipoli.
The Allies’ defeat at Gallipoli marked a strategic turning point in the war in the Middle East. Because their plan to strike at the heart of the Ottoman Empire failed, the Allies began focusing on its periphery — targeting the comparatively weakly defended Arab provinces. It was a plan which corresponded with the Arab desire to throw off the yoke of Ottoman rule. In July 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner of Egypt, began secret correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Hejaz and of the holy city of Mecca. He and his sons, Ali, Faisal and Abdullah — together with the Damascus elite — dreamed of founding an Arab nation state stretching from the Taurus Mountains in southeastern Turkey to the Red Sea and from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border.
In October 1915, McMahon wrote Hussein a letter in which he declared Great Britain’s willingness — bar a few vague reservations — “to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca.”