The roots of chaos.
The war to end all wars began 100 years ago. However, its legacy of
deceit and unjust agreements are nowhere more palpable today than in the
Middle East where past and present have converged in this volatile time
in history. The political order created in the Arab Middle East by the
European powers during World War I, which held together for generations,
is crumbling. The United States, a self-designated heir to the British
and French empires, is mired in the Arab world of their making.
America, an ahistorical nation, has asserted itself in a region
where the past informs the everyday lives and politics of the people.
The Western powers, in pursuit of their interests, have made a mess of
To understand the chaos that defines the Middle East today, it's
important to examine the fragmented and dysfunctional political entities
and policies the European powers left behind. History can be a great
teacher, if government leaders are willing to be humble students.
Why's the Middle East become one of the world’s most
troubled regions? Why's Arab extremism become such a dominant force?
These questions can be answered by analysing three seminal events of
World War I: 1) The defeat and breakup of the Ottoman empire. 2) The
Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the redrawing of boundaries and the
creation of new Arab states after the war. 3) The Balfour Declaration,
expressing British support for the creation of the state of Israel in
Imperialism was at its zenith when World War I broke out.
Britain was unrivalled on the world stage. The Ottoman empire, rulers of
the Arab world for over five centuries, was in decline. Under the
Ottomans, the land they controlled had no defined borders, no central
government. No recognised leaders.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, the British and French opposed
the German-allied Ottomans by enlisting the help of Arab tribes that'd
been restive under Ottoman rule. The British promised a Hashemite from
Arabia, Sharif Hussein, that if the Arabs revolted against the Turks,
they'd've their independence at the end of the war. Faisal, one of
Hussein’s four sons and leader of the Arab forces, was promised the
throne of an independent Greater Syria, which included present-day
Eager for sovereignty, the Arab forces joined British troops in
defeating the Ottoman army from Damascus to the Mediterranean. Having
fulfilled their commitment, the Arabs expected the British to fulfill
their promise of independence.
Unknown to the Arabs, Britain and France brokered a covert deal
that directly conflicted with the promises made to them –. The
Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Diplomats Mark Sykes, representing
Britain. Georges Picot of France agreed to divide the hoped-for
Ottoman spoils. Not one Arab representative was present. Attempts to
keep the agreement secret failed when Russian revolutionaries found a
copy. Published it under Leon Trotsky’s direction in 1917.
Out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, new states with artificial
boundaries were crudely stitched together from the vanquished Ottoman
empire. For example, the British intent on staking their claim to
oil-rich Mosul, created the new state of Iraq by combining the Ottoman
provinces of Mosul, Basra and Baghdad. The new state threw together
Shia, Sunni, Christian, Jews, Kurds, Persians, Assyrians, Yazidis and
Turkmen. The British were indifferent to the problems that might arise
from combining a diverse population in a single, invented state.
Britain eventually won the mandate for what'd become Iraq, as
well as Palestine. France won control of the interior of Syria and the
Lebanese coast. The final terms of the British-French agreement was set
at the San Remo Conference in April 1920 –. Again without the knowledge
of the Arabs.
For the Arabs, Sykes-Picot and the agreement of 1920, dashed any
hopes for self-determination and unity.
Believing in the British promise of the throne in an independent
Syria -one that included, as he saw it, Lebanon and Palestine –. Faisal
marched into Damascus in 1919.
Unwilling to accept French overlordship, the Syrian Congress
proclaimed him king in March 1920. Facing this opposition, the French
shrank Syria to bring it under control. France’s Christian allies
were rewarded by enlarging the borders of Mt. Lebanon to include the
Bekaa Valley, Beirut and Tripoli. Thousands of Muslims were joined in a
state dominated by Christians. Faisal was expelled by the French in
France’s ill-considered policies left Syria with the memory of
lost land. Lebanon with ethnic tensions and war that continue to
define the country.
Rebellions also broke out in the area under British rule. Hoping to
subdue the insurgents and looking for a pliable Arab leader, the British
crowned the stateless Faisal king of Iraq in 1921. Made his brother,
Abdullah, king of Transjordan, today’s Jordan.
Tension continued in the newly created Iraq, with a population
unwilling to accept the British mandate or Britain’s Hashemite
minion, Faisal. The British penchant for drawing straight lines on maps
meant that the new borders failed to correspond to the actual tribal,
sectarian or ethnic distinctions on the ground. Discord continues in the
countries fashioned by Sykes-Picot, with concern that they may, as in
the case of Iraq, break apart.
British blundering continued. This time with a pledge in a private
letter to a private individual promising support for a Jewish homeland
in Palestine in 1917. it's spawned the world’s longest and most
The letter known as the Balfour Declaration is named after British
Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. It was addressed to Lord
Rothschild, a leading Zionist activist. Balfour wrote: “I've much
pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s
Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist
aspirations which has been submitted to. Approved by, the Cabinet.
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in
Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Will use their
best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being
clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the
civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in
Palestine. The rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any
other country. I should be grateful if you'd bring this declaration
to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”.
By signing the Anglo-American Convention of 1924, the United States
became a party to the Balfour Declaration.
The British government insisted publicly that “national
home”. didn't mean a “state.”. However, Zionist leaders
received stronger guarantees of support in private. The letter also laid
the foundation for future British policy and was used by the Zionists in
their increasingly aggressive pursuit of a Jewish state.
The British mandate of Palestine didn't include the right to give
away land that Arabs had lived on for a thousand years. Britain found
itself caught between conflicting promises that were impossible to
Resentment and hostilities rose over what Arabs saw as British
betrayal, deception and the invasion of their land. By the 1920s the
lines of conflict and tension had become clearly established.
The British Royal Commision of 1937 recognised for the first time
that its promise to Arabs and Jews were incompatible and the mandate
unachievable. It called for two states through partition. The goal of
their White Paper of 1939 was the establishment of an independent
Palestinian state within 10 years, the eventual end to Jewish
immigration to Palestine. The renunciation of their policy that
Palestine become part of a Jewish state. Yet, Jewish immigration to
Palestine increased rapidly as the Second World War dragged on.
In due time, the British government came to recognise the Balfour
Declaration as one of the greatest mistakes of its imperial history –.
and its solution to this dilemma was withdrawal. Britain requested that
responsibility for the Palestinian Mandate be shifted to the newly
created United Nations. The partition of Palestine by the General
Assembly in November 1947 won approval after heavy pressure from the
In May 1948, the United States voted for recognition of Israel as
an independent state. Angry demonstrations and armed conflict erupted
throughout the Arab world.
The feckless plan of the British and French to divide up the Arab
Middle East during World War I has greatly contributed to the tensions
in the region today. And like the World War I imperial powers, the
United States has inserted itself in a region with a tumultuous history.
The anger towards the former colonial powers is now directed at the
Washington finds itself stuck in a Middle East it's tried to make
in its image. Its wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its
unflagging support for Israel, have reignited a deep anger and militancy
in the Arab world.
Policies such as “status of forces agreements,”. Which
ensure that American troops aren't held responsible for crimes they
commit in host countries, further fuel resentment.
History weighs heavy in the Middle East. Memory is long. Like
the European powers, the U.S. government has arrogantly entered into a
region it knows little about at a time when the state order invented by
the European powers in the 1920s is eroding. The Obama administration
has learned that it's easier to start wars than to end them. American
military power can't fix the decades of mistakes made by external
powers. America’s presence in the Middle East has become synonymous
with war, destruction and betrayal.
The people of the Middle East will be trapped in the past until
Washington recognises and addresses the colonial history and policies
that have fed the mistrust. People will be bound by the past until the
perpetrators admit and accept responsibility for the pain they've
caused. Such an admission will go a long way in ending the suspicion and
discord. Moving the Middle East forward.
As the world’s leading power, the United States should
renounce policies based solely on self-interest and adopt policies in
the Middle East based on respect, inclusion, justice and fairness. Such
policies will go a long way in healing the scars of the past and
President Obama would be wise to remember the words of one of his
predecessors, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “I hope that our wisdom
will grow with our power. Teach us that the less we use our power
the greater it'll be.”. Ideas anyone? Tell us...