Middle East after World War 2

November 1, 2016
British troops depart from the

The Ottoman Empire in 1914 at the start of the warThe development of the modern nation states throughout the Arab world is a fascinating and heartbreaking process. 100 years ago, most Arabs were part of the Ottoman Empire/Caliphate, a large multi-ethnic state based in Istanbul. Today, a political map of the Arab world looks like a very complex jigsaw puzzle. A complex and intricate course of events in the 1910s brought about the end of the Ottomans and the rise of these new nations with borders running across the Middle East, diving Muslims from each other. While there are many different factors leading to this, the role that the British played in this was far greater than any other player in the region. Three separate agreements made conflicting promises that the British had to stand by. The result was a political mess that divided up a large part of the Muslim world.

The Outbreak of World War I

In the summer of 1914, war broke out in Europe. A complex system of alliances, a militaristic arms race, colonial ambitions, and general mismanagement at the highest government levels led to this devastating war that would claim the lives of 12 million people from 1914 to 1918. On the “Allied” side stood the empires of Britain, France, and Russia. The “Central” powers consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

At first, the Ottoman Empire decided to remain neutral. They were not nearly as strong as any of the other nations fighting in the war, and were wracked by internal and external threats. The Ottoman sultan/caliph was nothing more than a figurehead at this point, with, having been overthrown in 1908 and replaced with a military government led by the “Three Pashas”. They were from the secular Westernized group, the Young Turks. Financially, the Ottomans were in a serious bind, owing huge debts to the European powers that they were not able to pay. After trying to join the Allied side and being rejected, the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers in October of 1914.

The British immediately began to conceive of plans to dissolve the Ottoman Empire and expand their Middle Eastern empire. They had already had control of Egypt since 1888 and India since 1857. The Ottoman Middle East lay right in the middle of these two important colonies, and the British were determined to exterminate it as part of the world war.

The Arab Revolt

One of the British strategies was to turn the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects against the government. They found a ready and willing helper in the Hejaz, the western region of the Arabian Peninsula. Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the amir (governor) of Makkah entered into an agreement with the British government to . His reasons for allying with the foreign British against other Muslims remains uncertain. Possible reasons for his revolt were: disapproval with the Turkish nationalist objectives of the Three Pashas, a personal feud with the Ottoman government, or simply a desire for his own kingdom.

British and French control according to the Sykes-Picot AgreementWhatever his reasons were, Sharif Hussein decided to revolt against the Ottoman government in alliance with the British. In return, the British promised to provide money and weapons to the rebels to help them fight the much more organized Ottoman army. Also, the British promised him that after the war, he would be given his own Arab kingdom that would cover the entire Arabian Peninsula, including Syria and Iraq. The letters in which the two sides negotiated and discussed revolt were known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, as Sharif Hussein was communicating with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.

In June of 1916 Sharif Hussein led his group of armed Bedouin warriors from the Hejaz in an armed campaign against the Ottomans. Within a few months, the Arab rebels managed to capture numerous cities in the Hejaz (including Jeddah and Makkah) with help from the British army and navy. The British provided support in the form of soldiers, weapons, money, advisors (including the “legendary” Lawrence of Arabia), and a flag. The British in Egypt drew up a flag for the Arabs to use in battle, which was known as the “Flag of the Arab Revolt”. This flag would later become the model for other Arab flags of countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Kuwait.

As World War One progressed through 1917 and 1918, the Arab rebels managed to capture some major cities from the Ottomans. As the British advanced into Palestine and Iraq, capturing cities such as Jerusalem and Baghdad, the Arabs aided them by capturing Amman and Aqaba. It is important to note that the Arab Revolt did not have the backing of a large majority of the Arab population. It was a minority movement of a couple thousand tribesmen led by a few leaders who sought to increase their own powers. The vast majority of the Arab people stayed away from the conflict and did not support the rebels or the Ottoman government. Sharif Hussein’s plan to create his own Arab kingdom was succeeding so far, if it were not for other promises the British would make.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

Before the Arab Revolt could even begin and before Sharif Hussein could create his Arab kingdom, the British and French had other plans. In the winter of 1915-1916, two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France secretly met to decide the fate of the post-Ottoman Arab world.

According to what would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British and French agreed to divide up the Arab world between themselves. The British were to take control of what is now Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan. The French were given modern Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey. The status of Palestine was to be determined later, with Zionist ambitions to be taken into account. The zones of control that the British and French were given allowed for some amount of Arab self-rule in some areas, albeit with European control over such Arab kingdoms. In other areas, the British and French were promised total control.

Although it was meant to be a secret agreement for a post-WWI Middle East, the agreement became known publicly in 1917 when the Russian Bolshevik government exposed it. The Sykes-Picot Agreement directly contradicted the promises the British made to Sherif Hussein and caused a considerable amount of tension between the British and Arabs. However, this would not be the last of the conflicting agreements the British would make.

Source: lostislamichistory.com
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