The effects of World War I on the Middle East

In his book, A Peace to End All Peace, historian David Fromkin outlined the lasting effects of the way the breakup of the Ottoman Empire was handled. One of Wilson’s Fourteen Points had dealt with the need to redraw boundaries of countries that had been within empires so that ethnic groups would be given their own countries, but this was obviously not accomplished either in Europe or in southwest Asia. Here is a pretty good overview of this book which you should read.

The term “Balkanization” is often used to describe the kind of breakup that did occur. Balkanization means the breakup of a former country into many mutually hostile ethnic enclaves, as happened in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War. Since Yugoslavia is on the Balkan peninsula, the term is “balkanization.” The forces that led to the national boundaries that did occur included both native overlords as well as European powers seeking to advance their own aims in the region, as you will discover below.

From the BBC, there is an excellent site that explains the course of the war against the Ottoman Empire. Here is an excerpt from Professor David Woodward’s account entitled, The Middle East in World War I:

The Middle East during World War One

Professor David Woodward
The aftermath
General Allenby and King Feisal I

General Allenby with Iraq’s King Feisal I, c 1920 ©

“The war ended with the British occupying the territory that was to become Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. With the Ottoman Empire destroyed, Russia paralysed by foreign intervention and civil war, and French influence limited somewhat by their minor military role in the Middle East, Britain’s military success made her the dominant power in the region. The resulting settlement, which fostered an instability that continues to be a source of conflict today, generated much controversy at the time and has continued to do so ever since.

‘They believed that the western powers, especially the British, had acted with arrogance.’

Employing bags of gold, the diplomacy of Lawrence of Arabia, and promises of Arab independence, the British had encouraged an Arab uprising in 1916 against the Turks. Although the Hashemite Arabs were rewarded with considerable territory, they and other Arab nationalists believed that they had been ‘robbed’ when the British did not fully deliver on their pledges of independence. They believed that the western powers, especially the British, had acted with arrogance, drawing borders and creating nations with little or no regard for the wishes of the local inhabitants.

The fate of Palestine, occupied by the British, especially provoked Arab frustration and anger. (In 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, had supported a Jewish home in Palestine.)

But in important respects the Arab view of the peace settlement (which is supported by many western historians) is a caricature of what actually happened. In a revisionist work, Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh have made a convincing argument that many forces, both local and foreign, were at work at the time the settlement was agreed. In their words, ‘even at the weakest point in their modern history, during the First World War and its immediate wake, Middle Eastern actors were not hapless victims of predatory imperial powers, but active participants in the restructuring of their region.’

‘And if the French and British had granted ‘self-determination’…it is possible that the result would have been the balkanisation of the area.’

They argue, for example, that Iraq and Trans-Jordan were not simply British inventions, but owed their existence to a compromise between Hashemite imperial greed and well-intended British efforts to meet local needs and allay the fears and suspicions of their allies.

It is perhaps only proper to note that if Germany had won the war, the Ottoman Empire would have been expanded, subjecting many Arabs and other nationalities to its rule. And if the French and British had granted ‘self-determination’ to the inhabitants of this region it is possible that the result would have been the balkanisation of the area, with fragile and often antagonistic fiefdoms and kingdoms prevailing. It seems likely that, no matter how this war in the Middle East had been resolved, the region was destined to suffer instability and conflict in the years ahead.”

The entire article on the BBC website is actually quite good, and begins here. I strongly recommend it to you if you wish to understand the genesis of the problems the modern Middle East has faced as a legacy of imperialism. In fact, there are links to several other history articles on this page, and so if I were you, I would use this ( as one of my reference sources.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ruwaida on June 25, 2011 at 6:29 am

    how did the middle east come in the war???!!

    • Posted by Tom Sarsfield on February 10, 2013 at 6:34 pm

      Okay, so have to understand the shape of the Ottoman Empire at the time of its entrance into World War One. At the onset of WWI, most of the members of the upper parts of the government were still reeling over the loss of territory in the Russo-Turkish War in the 1880s. So, when the Germans offered them the chance to enter the war and regain lost land, the Ottomans naturally jumped at the opening (unfortunately, this nationalistic irredentism proved to be foolish, the Ottoman Empire ought to have stayed out and focused on much needed domestic reform). The Germans and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret pact on August 2nd, 1914 (such secret treaties would subsequently become illegal after the war.)

      The goal of the Kaiser was two fold: Divert the attention of the Russians away from the Eastern European front and cut off valuable resources around the Caspian Sea

      Mrs. Scoopmire can correct me if I am wrong or left anything out.

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