The ‘suc­cess­ful fail­ure’ of the post-World War I Mid­dle East, By Louis Fish­man


This year marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the Con­stantino­ple Agree­ment, which was re­placed in 1916 by the Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment. With Rus­sian aban­don­ing its role, the Ot­toman lands were to be di­vided be­tween Great Bri­tain and France, de­spite the over­all will of the peo­ples liv­ing in the lands, who over­whelm­ingly ex­pressed their ob­jec­tion to the colo­nial rule, as doc­u­mented in the shelved 1919 Amer­i­can King-Crane Com­mis­sion Re­port A cen­tury ago, few could have imag­ined that the new borders the colo­nial pow­ers were busy draw­ing up would re­main in­tact for so long. How­ever, even if these borders have up­held the test of time, they cre­ated di­vi­sions within the re­gion that left a legacy of blood­shed and in­sta­bil­ity.

The Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment would make way for the birth of the “mod­ern Mid­dle East” and the foun­da­tion of four states: Syria, Le­banon, Iraq and Jor­dan. It would also lead to the foun­da­tion of the state of Is­rael and ex­ac­er­bate the Jewish-Pales­tinian con­flict, which dates back to the late Ot­toman era. In short, the Bri­tish and French colo­nial pro­ject for­ever changed the face of the for­mer Arab lands of the Ot­toman Em­pire. Dif­fer­ently to the newly cre­ated Arab coun­tries, the area that was left to the Ot­toman Em­pire took the road to in­de­pen­dence, which cul­mi­nated in Tur­key’s War of In­de­pen­dence and the dec­la­ra­tion of the Turk­ish Re­pub­lic in 1923.

Af­ter the French and Bri­tish man­dates were ap­proved by the League of Na­tions, the colo­nial pow­ers ex­tended their hold over the newly pos­sessed lands. In the years fol­low­ing World War I, how­ever, up­ris­ings spread through­out the coun­tries. From Iraq to Egypt (which had al­ready been oc­cu­pied by Bri­tain in 1882), from Syria to Palestine, it was clear that the only way the Bri­tish and French could rule was through ex­treme vi­o­lence, with up­ris­ings oc­cur­ring in all of their new (and for­mer, in the case of Egypt) hold­ings, such as the Egyp­tian Revo­lu­tion of 1919, the 1920 re­volt in Iraq and the 1925 Great Syr­ian Re­volt, which lasted two years.

In Palestine, vi­o­lence erupted nu­mer­ous times dur­ing the Bri­tish man­date (1920-1948), cul­mi­nat­ing in the 1936 Pales­tinian Re­volt, which lasted three years. How­ever, the Pales­tinian strug­gle was aimed not only at the Bri­tish, as it was with the other Arab states, but was also em­broiled in a strug­gle with the Zion­ist move­ment, which was busily cre­at­ing the in­fra­struc­ture for an in­de­pen­dent state. Im­por­tantly, Palestine had been promised to the Zion­ists in Bri­tain’s 1917 Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, de­spite the fact that Zion­ists were in a mi­nor­ity and the lo­cal Pales­tinian pop­u­la­tion had re­mained staunchly op­posed to an in­de­pen­dent Jewish en­tity in the land.

Through­out the strug­gles against Euro­pean colo­nial­ism, for­mer lo­cal iden­ti­ties de­vel­oped into new na­tion-state na­tion­alisms. These new iden­ti­ties

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