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World War One and the Middle East Crisis

ImageSeveral national governments have chosen to observe the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014, Canada and Britain among them. To make best use of this upsurge in interest regarding the First World War, I have chosen to discuss how certain contemporary political issues are directly impacted by this catastrophic war. Possibly the most controversial and pressing issue of contemporary international politics is the relationship between Jews and Arabs inhabiting the Levant. Political upheaval in the Middle East can be directly traced to Allied actions following the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire subsequent to its collapse at the end of the First World War. Certain documents and pronouncements, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, began a chain of events which lead to an upsurge in Arab and Jewish nationalism which continues to destabilize the region, and threatens to draw the Great Powers into yet another cataclysmic war. This article will discuss the history of the Levant leading up and subsequent to the First World War, eventually concluding with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

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Map of the Turkish Empire in Asia

Mustafa Ataturk, Father of Modern Turkey

Mustafa Ataturk, Father of Modern Turkey

Postcard depicting the three Central Powers Leaders, Wilhelm, Franz-Josef, and Mehmed V.

Postcard depicting the three Central Powers Leaders, Wilhelm, Franz-Josef, and Mehmed V.

From the late Middle Ages until the end of the First World War, Turkey, the Holy Land, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States were united under the Sultan in Constantinople (Istanbul) in a political entity called the Ottoman Empire. During the Early Modern Period “The Turk” had become a fixture in the European cultural imagination. Though, following the defeat of the Turks by Jan Sobieski at the 1683 Siege of Vienna, the Turkish threat to Europe had largely subsided. There was a Greek Revolution which rekindled this spirit in the early 19th century, Greek rebels and their prominent supporters such as Lord Byron invoked the memory of Leonidas and Alexander, but by 1854 the British and the French were propping up Turkey against Russian expansion, and for much of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries the Turkish Empire was regarded by Western powers as a useful buffer against Russian and Austrian expansion in the Balkans and the Straits of Marmara. Feeling threatened by Russian expansion and British influence in Central Asia, Turkey joined the First World War on the side of the Central Powers with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Though, years of economic and political mismanagement had made Turkey a burdensome ally for Germany, and complete and quick destruction of the Turkish Empire was prevented solely by German military supplies and the personal tactical genius of Mustafa Ataturk, particularly at the Battle of Gallipoli and at Scimitar Hill. Ataturk would later become the first President of the Turkish Republic and a champion of secularization, education, and Westernizing the Turkish economy and culture.

Turkish troops at Gallipoli.

Turkish troops at Gallipoli.

The Anatolia region and Istanbul which eventually formed modern Turkey were not the primary issues for the Allied Powers following the war (though there was some support for Greece receiving parts of Anatolia, and issues with Cyprus following British naval withdrawal from the island). Given the desperate situation Britain was facing towards the end of World War One, her government made several mutually exclusive promises to varying interest groups regarding the nature of Ottoman partition. One of the earlier attempts at a solution to the Middle East question was a secret treaty known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed between several of the Allied Powers on 9 May, 1916. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a compromise drawn up by France and Britain, with Russia’s consent, by which the Middle East would be partitioned along Anglo-French oil interests. The French would take modern day Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel, while the British would take a crescent of territory from Kuwait, through Iraq, to the Sinai, Russia would receive the largely Orthodox Armenian and Kurdish region of Anatolia, and there would be an international zone occupied by the League of Nations roughly corresponding to modern Israel. However, the Americans did not like this as it cut them out of potential oil profits. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was eventually scrapped.

Border proposal under the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Border proposal under the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Young Kurdish man, ca. 1900.

Young Kurdish man, ca. 1900.

Given Britain had no foreknowledge of the outcome of the War, she made several different agreements at the time. Another issue was promises made by the branch of the Colonial Office known as the Arab Bureau. An agent by the name of Thomas Edward Lawrence was sent by the Arab Bureau to instigate rebellion against the Turks among the Arab tribes. Lawrence was picked up by the American Press, as the dashing British officer cast a heroic figure needed to drum up American support of the war; the mud-covered khaki-clad officers of the Western Front cast a much less heroic figure than the ostentatious Lawrence surrounded by his colourful Arab guerillas, Lawrence was known to have a flair for the theatrical. His life was eventually immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, staring Peter O’Toole. Lawrence and the Arab army destroyed Turkish infrastructure and harassed the Turks through Edmund Allenby’s march through the Holy Land. Lawrence and the Arab Bureau promised an independent Arab State in exchange for their support against the Turks. This is supported by a document known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, in which colonial administrator Sir Henry McMahon discussed possible partitions of the Middle East with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca. These letters discuss which territories the hypothetical Arab State would include, however, this correspondence specifically neglected to mention what would happen to the region known as Palestine. This was partly deliberate on McMahon’s part, as arrangements had been made been the British Government and an amalgam of several ideologically connected organizations known as the Zionist Movement.

Lawrence, and his colourful Arab guerrillas.

Lawrence, and his colourful Arab guerrillas.

Shariff Ali of Mecca

Shariff Ali of Mecca

British troops in Jerusalem during the Mandate Period.

British troops in Jerusalem during the Mandate Period.

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Arthur James Balfour

The Zionist Movement was comprised of several organizations with the shared goal of the establishment of a Jewish state. Differing interpretations of how, why, and where the Zionist state should exist were fundamental questions for the movement; an offer to establish a Jewish State in British Uganda was narrowly rejected by an International Zionist Congress, mainly due to the hardline faction which demanded the Jewish state could only exist in the Levant. Prior to the First World War, there was a degree of small scale Jewish settlement in what would become Israel, however, this wave of immigration was very small; by 1914 there were roughly 90,000 Jews, 71,000 Christians, and 600,000 Muslims in Palestine. Several reasons for British support for the Zionist venture existed within the British government. Some, such as Orde Windgate who would eventually train Jewish irregulars, were Evangelical Christians who believed a Jewish return to Israel would hasten the Second Coming of Christ; this was a prominent reason for support among Americans as well. Others feared the influence of secular Jews in Socialist and Bolshevik movements, most notably Leon Trotsky, and sought to prop up Zionism as the secular manifestation of the Jewish soul rather than Socialism. Some in European governments supported the establishment of Israel for more unsavory reasons: many simply wanted the Jews somewhere else. Regardless, these movements and factions coalesced in on November 2nd, 1917 with the so-called Balfour Declaration, where the British Government announced its support for the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel following the end of the War. This Declaration became an important part of the subsequent Treaty of Sevres in 1920 which formally dismembered the Turkish Empire and created the “Mandatory System” which emerged in the Middle East in the post-War era.

Map of the Middle East under the Balfour Declaration.

Map of the Middle East under the Balfour Declaration.

Orde Wingate, centre with pitch helmet, would lead irregular forces in Burma during WWII.

Orde Wingate, centre with pith helmet, would lead irregular forces in Burma during WWII.

Under the auspices of the League of Nations, the Allied Powers created the French Mandate of Lebanon, and the British Mandates of Palestine and Mesopotamia; in addition, a Constitutional Ottoman Monarchy was created in Turkey, albeit this collapsed following Ataturk’s revolution in 1922. Also, Yemen and Armenia gained independence, and Cyprus was recognized as a British possession, being an important naval base for control of the Suez Canal, an important link between the Mediterranean and British India. The British Mandate of Palestine comprised of what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel. For the Mandate’s twenty year existence, Britain, amidst decolonization across the Globe, attempted to maintain a peaceful status quo between the Arab population, and the growing Zionist Jewish population in the Mandate, both of whom felt sidelined by the British due to greater political forces. However, attempts to establish either a Jewish or Arab state in the region were slow, and were immediately overcome by the outbreak of the Irish Civil War closer to home, which resulted in Irish Independence and the creation of Northern Ireland. Further progress was impeded by the Great Depression, the Rise of Hitler, and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. However, the British government later issued a White Paper contending the Jews could not do anything to molest the rights or property of the non-Jewish population. This was considered a betrayal by many of the Zionist hardliners, and militant factions within the Jewish population, such as the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang emerged to counter what they perceived as threats to the Jews in Palestine.

Members of the Haganah in training exercises.

Members of the Haganah in training exercises.

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Dead Arabs at Deir Yassim

The Post-War era saw Indian Independence and the acceleration of the decolonization process. In 1947, an inter-communal Civil War broke out in Mandatory Palestine between Jewish settlers and Muslim & Christian Arabs.  Jewish and Arab militants began inter-communal war against one another and the British occupying forces. The Stern Gang was a participant in one of the most surprising political alliances in history. During World War Two, the Stern Gang fostered connections with Nazi Germany, as they perceived them as enemies of the British, and believed anti-Semitism in Europe would increase emigration to Palestine, and many were admirers of Mussolini. The Haganah were often socialists, and the Irgun were a right-wing militia, best known for their bombing of the King David Hotel, and were a precursor to the Menachem Begin’s Herut Party, an eventual member of Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu’s Likud. Jointly, the Irgun and the Stern Gang participated in the Deir Yassin Massacre, where over 100 Arab villagers were killed. Deir Yassin was part of a larger strategy known as Plan Dalet, which forcibly removed much of the Arab population of Palestine. Some historians have considered the actions of the Haganah, the Stern Gang, and the Irgun during Plan Dalet as an example of ethnic cleansing. Regardless, by 1948 and the establishment of Israel, much of the Palestinian population was gone, historians supportive of the Israeli State often purport they simply got up and left. The result of the Civil War was the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine between the new State of Israel, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and a squiggly bit in the middle, called Palestine.

Palestinian refugees in 1948.

Palestinian refugees in 1948.

Irgun propaganda poster.

Irgun propaganda poster.

Monument to the Stern Gang in Israel.

Monument to the Stern Gang in Israel.

Whether one regards the events of 1947-48 as an ethnic cleansing or a voluntary exodus is a question of framing. Nevertheless, these issues highlight the importance of the First World War in our everyday lives and the politics around us. Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East occupy our televisions and radios on a daily basis, and it’s almost never good news. Politicians speak of these issues in terms of zero-sum games, often Israel is pointed to as the frontier of democracy against despotism, ignoring that many of those despots were established by Israel-ally America to support their interests in the region, such as Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak, former dictator of Egypt. With nearly one hundred years of almost perpetual warfare under its belt, it does not appear the Middle East is going to sort itself out anytime soon. In the time of Ancient Rome, there existed a Kingdom of Judea which acted as a client state to Rome. For a while, Rome tolerated the occasional religious revolt or social movement, such as the early Christians. This state existed until the reign of the Emperor Titus, when the Romans had simply endured enough and eventually abandoned it, leading to the scattering of the Judeans. How much Arab resentment, how much international condemnation, will America continue to endure?

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