The world will reflect on the 100th anniversary of the end of the first ever truly global conflict, the First World War, which left Europe and the Middle East scarred.
For Europe, the war never culminated in any outright victory and a second catastrophic one duly followed two decades later. For many Europeans, the images of the trenches, Verdun and the Somme cast an indelible feeling of futility and the senselessness of modern warfare. Memories of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles are little different.
Yet, Western public opinion is scandalously ignorant of the war outside of Europe. A noteworthy antidote to this is the vigorous “remember together” campaign in the UK, which highlights the service for Britain in the fighting of peoples of other faiths, not least the 400,000 Muslims from what is today Pakistan.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire marked the end of 400 years of dominating the region. Its crumbling authority and decline triggered the war itself, as rapacious external powers battled to ensure their interests and then exploit the moment. The “sick man of Europe,” as Turkey became known, had been bleeding power not least on the extremities of its frontiers. Starting with Napoleon in 1798, European powers had encroached more and more into Ottoman dominions, leading to the start of the most intensive period of colonial and imperial intrusion; an age of new states and national identities.
The British public imagination of the war in the Middle East is fixated upon colonial “heroes” such as Gertrude Bell, Mark Sykes and, of course, T.E. Lawrence. The metamorphosis of Col. Lawrence into the “great hero” of the Arabs, Lawrence of Arabia, arguably represents the first case of a major media celebrity, largely thanks to the efforts of Lowell Thomas’ newsreel footage, reinforced by David Lean’s Oscar-winning film of 1962. The Arabs were consistently edited out of the narrative as if they had no champions.
For the Middle East, the war encapsulates not futility but imperialism and treachery. Even though nobody is alive who remembers the war anymore, its impact continues to reverberate today. Who can forget the contrasting passions on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration a year ago — the great victory for the Zionist movement and the first great nail in the coffin for Palestinian dreams? It is still raw. For Palestinians, the betrayal is ongoing, something they rarely forget to mention in front of visiting British delegations to the Occupied Territories.
The nascent Arab nationalist movement likewise felt betrayed. British promises contradicted later promises and no independent Arab state was created. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points enshrined the right to self-determination, but Britain and France rode roughshod over this just as they did with post-war uprisings in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. British and French officials still believed the natives would be better off under their control.
In Syria and Iraq, the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 was the dirty deal that carved up their states between the rival colonial menaces of Britain and France. Daesh delighted in boasting how it had erased the Sykes-Picot borders at the peak of its powers, releasing a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot.”
For the Kurds, the post-war settlement smashed any hopes they had of an independent state. Who knows if this will ever come about but, as long as the Kurds feel discriminated against and repressed, their thirst for an independent state will only grow.
The First World War shaped the modern Middle East. The Second World War was also significant but it did not re-model the region in quite the same way. The borders of most regional states have their origins in the post-First World War settlement, including Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The drawing of Iraq’s borders followed colonial interests, not least the ever-increasing desire to control oil resources around Mosul. The make-up of the three provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul created an ungovernable state. French rule over Syria was one of continual territorial amputation carving off Lebanon and giving Alexandretta to Turkey.
British forces may have ultimately prevailed, but embarrassments at Gallipoli (that affected Winston Churchill even in the Second World War), Gaza and Kut Al-Amara in Iraq revealed that the great empire was no longer invulnerable. British arrogance led to ill-conceived campaigns that foretasted its diplomacy post-war. British commanders even portrayed themselves as “liberators” of Iraq. It may not have seemed so at the time, but this was the dying moments of the British Empire.
The ultimate question is whether the Middle East will ever be able to progress and resolve its conflicts without addressing all of the persisting post-First World War challenges. The second part of the Balfour Declaration regarding the rights of Palestinians is unimplemented and awaits a Palestinian state. The Kurds deserve, if not the same, at least genuine autonomy. For Iraq and Syria, perhaps only remodeled forms of governance, more decentralized and accountable, could lead them away from the cataclysmic disasters that have afflicted their peoples. Perhaps Europe may have recovered from the Great War but, for the Middle East, it is an ongoing tragedy.