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As centenary commemorations draw to a close, WWI still affects the Middle East

Sir Mark Sykes (L) and Francois Georges-Picot (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

This year will see the last of the centenary commemorations of World War One. Remarkably few of such events held since 2014 have considered the war in its “World” context. They have usually emphasised the “Britain versus Germany” narrative, played out in the muddy fields of north-west Europe. However, five million civilians were killed in battles across the Middle East, as were 1.5 million Ottoman-German troops, and 1.25 million on the Allied side. They fought and suffered in campaigns across the Sinai Peninsula and Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Persia, southern Arabia and, infamously, Gallipoli.

It’s not just that these deaths have been largely overlooked in the past few years of Great War remembrance – with exceptions such as the excellent history charity Away from the Western Front – but it is also that World War One remains completely unfinished business in the Middle East.

This is not just lazy blaming of events a century ago for the failures of Arab leaders and their politically aspirant middle classes to seize their destiny. A war fought in Europe which ended by drawing a straight line from Gdansk to Palermo, and the Roma people being promised a national home that stood on top of Vatican City, would have produced an identical result.

As a semi-flippant but illustrative example, we need to ask ourselves why, in the twenty-first century, the flags of Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates are all basically copies of a single design by a British army officer serving during World War One? Step forward Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Sykes.

Sykes – he of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement – had first put the red, white, black and green down on paper as the flag of the “Arab Revolt”, an indigenous insurgency against the Ottoman Empire encouraged by the British Empire. Those suspiciously similar flags flying over so many government buildings across the Middle East today stand as testament to how the national identities of the Arab world owe a discomforting amount to Britain, a country which only ever directly controlled a fraction of the region at any one time.

Britain pledged “national freedom” for the Arabs, and it must be admitted that all of the states in the Middle East, whether under French or British influence, are sovereign nations today, as promised. Indeed, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have possibly become even more influential than the UK.

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Nevertheless, Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois Georges-Picot, drew lines in the sand to manufacture nation states where none had existed before and, for those who still insist that there is such a thing as “the Arab nation”, none should exist today. A hundred years on, many of those states suffer from internal fragility because of their arbitrary borders.

France was the ally of Britain and Russia against Germany and the Ottoman Empire; it was also far worse in its conduct as a colonial state. Its barbaric approach to the drafting of colonial subjects from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria into war service led to two notable trends. The first was to send these troops into action first wherever possible, so that French lives could be preserved as long as possible. The casualty rate for colonial troops was an estimated one in four; many fought on the Western Front in Europe.

The second trend was for disobedient colonial conscripts to be “decimated” by their French officers. This was the practice of executing at random every tenth soldier of a platoon or regiment on parade, regardless of who had broken military discipline. It was a practice last used during the Roman Empire.

The First World War also saw the seeds of Israel begin to take root in historic Palestine. In signing the Balfour Declaration favouring “a national home for the Jewish people”, decision-makers in Westminster were driven by a variety of motives. Few had anything to do with the wish to tackle anti-Semitism. It is almost certain that Christian evangelism, a yearning to have European control over Jerusalem and, yes, anti-Semitism were at the fore of the imperial mindset, along with the rather naïve desire to impress revolutionaries in Moscow and the staid Woodrow Wilson administration in Washington, both of which were viewed by British diplomats as “Jewish” operations.

The primary driver was the strategic need to protect the British Empire’s Indian interests, with a new, friendly and highly dependent colony positioned conveniently close to the Suez Canal.

Although Britain was experiencing the beginnings of a liberal opposition to anti-Semitism, in general Jews at the time were viewed unfairly, just as Muslims are today. They were too often regarded as shady manipulators of government and civil society intent on domination, prone to violent anarchist terrorism and possessors of despicable social mores; in short, they were generally undesirable in an otherwise “green and pleasant land”. Complemented by a racist belief that the Palestinians could not aspire to proper nationhood, it appears that a genuine desire to protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism came a distant last in the pecking order of British priorities.

It is apparent that none of Arthur Balfour’s calculations included the long-term impact of Britain being associated with the ethnic realignment of the Holy Land, not least in the Arab world, which has held back and at times hurt British interests ever since.

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Critics of Britain over the past century often confound themselves though. The common criticism of the Sykes-Picot borders such as those of Iraq and Syria, or the French borders drawn in North Africa, is that they were drafted without proper knowledge of ethnic and religious divides. The discomforting implication then is that such critics – who are often left-wing –  support ethno-states, or at least the drawing of borders along religious, linguistic or familial lines; ironically, they are also, generally, opponents of Zionism, the founding ideology of the Israeli “ethno-state”.

There is a clear paradox here. If the Arabs deserved their “nation states” to have borders based on ethnic lines – not the Sykes-Picot versions – why did the Jews not deserve the same?

It is the nature of that paradox which is emblematic of how the settlement that arose out of World War One in the Middle East was so evidently problematic, and remains so today. Indeed, fast-forward 30 years, and it is clear that Europe and the US did not bring World War Two to a fair and just end either.

While the post-1945 settlement was fair to Western Europe, countries in the east of the continent were handed over to Russia’s genocidal Josef Stalin. That issue was finally resolved by the early nineties, when all of those countries finally broke free of pernicious Russian imperialism.

In 2018, though, when we commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, it is clear that nowhere near that level of closure has been reached in the Middle East. In fact, it has not even begun to be reached. There is one consolation; there are a lot of pretty flags out there. As we enter 2018 with well-meaning New Year resolutions, we must make sure that flags aren’t the only impact on the Middle East that World War One is remembered for. The impact was far deeper, and is thus deserving of much greater effort to resolve the resultant regional problems.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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