USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Toward a “Modern” Middle East

The Ottoman Empire fractured and fell after the First World War. The post-war treaties carved up the empire into a handful of states and French and British occupied zones, known as "mandates." The center of the Ottoman Empire, the region known as Asia Minor, saw a revolution against Ottoman authority by one of the most skillful of the Ottoman army’s generals, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk. The development of what would become the “modern” political structure of the Levant or Near East and the Middle East would be one of the most globally significant legacies of the First World War.

The process of negotiating a post-WWI solution to the territories of the Ottoman Empire among the entente powers began already during the war. The reasons for these secret negotiated agreements were primarily twofold. First, the major powers wanted to avoid direct conflicts between each other, which might have weakened the alliance against the Central Powers. This was particularly true of the alliance between the Western European powers and Russia. Russia’s collapse on the eastern front in 1915, the French and British feared, might push the empire to make a separate peace with the Central Powers. A British and French pledge of the Turkish straits and the city of Istanbul as a spoil of war, however, might help keep the Russians interested, especially since nearly half of all Russian exports traveled through this vital shipping lane. Likewise, as carrots to allies or potential allies, the French and British offered spoils of war from the Ottoman east. Italy and Greece, for example, were promised territory in Ottoman Anatolia. The second reason for the negotiations was to sure up local support against the Ottomans. Famously, the British made a deal with the leader of the Hashemite tribe to launch a rebellion against the Ottoman sultan in return for a pledge of support for a postwar Arab state under Hashemite leadership. Even more notorious, and this time public, the British pledged support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in the area of Palestine, thus winning support of Jews in the region and of Zionist organizations worldwide.

When the war ended, the wartime agreements were largely voided. Because Russia had been knocked out of the war in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution, the promises to it didn’t need to be kept. In addition, the Leninist state had condemned all imperialistic war aims and rejected territorial ambitions. The “new” Russia was also communist and therefore anti-religious, which lessened its interest in protecting Christian Orthodox sites in the Near East. Even if Russia had wanted to maintain an imperial presence in the former Ottoman zone, it would not have been able to, gripped as it was by devastating civil war.

Two primary impulses guided the western thinking about the Near and Middle East at the conclusion of WWI. The first and most important was the will of the two major victorious European powers, the French and the British. Because of its territorial positioning, occupying most of the region, the British had the upper hand. The second key impulse was the notion of "the will of the people" in the region, or at least the will of the people with power. In some states, like Egypt and Turkey, this will found expression in the creation of a new state, guided by notions of nationalism and emerging from a revolutionary moment. In other states, like Transjordan or Iraq, the “will” of the people reflected the limits of the possible in relation to the Western powers. The first of these two impulses, the demands of the European powers, was formalized in Paris in 1919 and captured in a chapter of the League of Nations. It would be known as the “mandate system.”  We see the language used in Article 22 of the League Charter reflects the spirit of prewar colonialism and nineteenth century empire-building: 
To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the last war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization and that securities for the performance of that trust should be embodied in the covenant. The best method of giving practical effect to this principle should be entrusted to the advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience, or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility…. Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent states can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of assistance by a mandatory [power] until such time as they are able to stand alone, the wishes of the communities must be a principle consideration in the selection of the mandatory.   
Despite the above, the wishes of the communities were entirely ignored. Broadly speaking, a state system emerged in the Near and Middle East that resembled what took place in central Europe, though it is fair to say that the divisions in the Near and Middle East were more ad-hoc, less logical, less firmly grounded in history and demographic reality. While “Poland” could be reimagined, despite its nonexistence as a state since the late eighteenth century, a state of “Iraq” (combing Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) could not: it had never existed before. While the Czechs had spent the previous one hundred years building or reinforcing a national identity and occupied some of the more advanced industrialized territory in Europe, the people who would become Jordanians had no national consciousness and occupied a zone totally devoid of economic promise, so much so that the newly minted king drew his royal stipend from London. To this day, Jordan receives nearly half of its GDP in the form of foreign aid. For a large portion of the Middle East, including what today we call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, the eventual state system reflected the competing interests of Britain and France over territory and resources, mixed together with a spoonful of realpolitik
Though the creation of the “modern” Near and Middle East can be seen as a collective endeavor, the unique circumstances in each area contributed to very different outcomes. In the remainder of the chapter, I will sketch out the basic outlines of the histories of the new Near and Middle Eastern states following the First World War.

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