WORLD WAR I IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE EUROPEAN LAND-GRAB AFTERWARDS

WORLD WAR I


Allied Soldiers in Gaza in World War I

World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918. Turkey joined World War I on the German side in hope of dividing the spoils of a defeated Russia. By joining the Germans, the Ottomans unwittingly put the entire Middle East up for grabs if the Germans and Ottomans lost.

Initially the Allies seemed poised to take Istanbul (Constantinople). The Russians were worried what would happen if the British controlled the Bosporus and asked for a promise that Constantinople would be Russia's if Turkey lost. Britain and France were worried they might lose Russia as an ally and agreed. In return the czar agreed to support British and French claims to the other parts of the Middle East.

In the late 19th century, Germany began taking an interest in the area and started work on the Berlin-Baghdad railroad, which was still under construction when World War I broke out. German had also helped the Ottomans build the Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Medina.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman territories had become the focus of European power politics. During the previous century, enfeebled Ottoman rule had invited intense competition among European powers for commercial benefits and for spheres of influence. British interest in Iraq significantly increased when the Ottomans granted concessions to Germany to construct railroad lines from Konya in southwest Turkey to Baghdad in 1899 and from Baghdad to Basra in 1902. The British feared that a hostile German presence in the Fertile Crescent would threaten vital lines of communication to India via Iran and Afghanistan, menacing British oil interests in Iran and perhaps even India itself. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

See the Ottoman Empire

See Arab Revolt

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ; Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net

British Advances in the Middle East in World War I

The Ottoman army fought mainly British forces in the Middle East. A British declaration put an end to Ottoman sovereignty in 1914 and placed the country under British protectorate. Initially it looked as if the Ottoman army might oust the British in Egypt but later a British and allied army advanced into Palestine and by the end of the war occupied all of Syria. In the meantime time, the British Indian army and other Commonwealth force were dispatched to the Middle East. They landed in the Persian Gulf and moved into present-day Iran and Iraq and occupied Basra, Baghdad and eventually Mosul. These forces had captured all of Iraq by the ends of the war. In the battle for Nasiriya, British forces lost 500 men at the hands of the Ottoman Turks partly because they were overconfident and their supply lines were stretched too thin.


Turkish army transport in Egypt in 1915

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Kitchener was recalled to London as secretary of state for war. By 1915, as British military fortunes in the Middle East deteriorated, Kitchener saw the usefulness of transferring the Islamic caliphate- -the caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad, was the traditional leader of the Islamic world--to an Arab candidate indebted to Britain, and he energetically sought Arab support for the war against Turkey. In Cairo Sir Henry McMahon, the first British high commissioner in Egypt, conducted an extensive correspondence from July 1915 to January 1916 with Husayn, two of whose sons--Abdullah, later king of Jordan, and Faysal, later king of Syria (ejected by the French in 1920) and of Iraq (1921-33)-- were to figure prominently in subsequent events. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Israel: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In a letter to McMahon enclosed with a letter dated July 14, 1915, from Abdullah, Husayn specified an area for Arab independence under the "Sharifian Arab Government" consisting of the Arabian Peninsula (except Aden) and the Fertile Crescent of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In his letter of October 24, 1915, to Husayn, McMahon, on behalf of the British government, declared British support for postwar Arab independence, subject to certain reservations and exclusions of territory not entirely Arab or concerning which Britain was not free "to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France." The territories assessed by the British as not purely Arab included: "The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." As with the later Balfour Declaration, the exact meaning was not clear, although Arab spokesmen since then have usually maintained that Palestine was within the pledged area of independence. Although the Husayn- McMahon correspondence was not legally binding on either side, on June 5, 1916, Husayn launched the Arab Revolt against Turkey and in October declared himself "King of the Arabs."

While Husayn and McMahon corresponded over the fate of the Middle East, the British were conducting negotiations with the French over the same territory. Following the British military defeat at the Dardanelles in 1915, the Foreign Office sought a new offensive in the Middle East, which it thought could only be carried out by reassuring the French of Britain's intentions in the region. In February 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement (officially the "Asia Minor Agreement") was signed, which, contrary to the contents of the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, proposed to partition the Middle East into French and British zones of control and interest. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Palestine was to be administered by an international "condominium" of the British, French, and Russians (also signatories to the agreement).*

British Fighting in the Middle East in World War I


British troops in Baghdad in 1917

In 1914 when the British discovered that Turkey was entering the war on the side of the Germans, British forces from India landed at Al Faw on the Shatt al Arab and moved rapidly toward Basra. By the fall of 1915, when British forces were already well established in towns in the south, General Charles Townshend unsuccessfully attempted to take Baghdad. In retaliation, the Turks besieged the British garrison at Al Kut for 140 days; in April 1916, the garrison was forced to surrender unconditionally. The British quickly regrouped their forces, however, and resumed their advance under General Stanley Maude in December 1916. By March 1917 the British had captured Baghdad. Advancing northward in the spring of 1918, the British finally took Mosul in early November. As a result of the victory at Mosul, British authority was extended to all the Iraqi wilayat (sing., wilayah-province) with the exception of the Kurdish highlands bordering Turkey and Iran, the land alongside the Euphrates from Baghdad south to An Nasiriyah, and the Shia cities of Karbala and An Najaf. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

On capturing Baghdad, General Maude proclaimed that Britain intended to return to Iraq some control of its own affairs. He stressed that this step would pave the way for ending the alien rule that the Iraqis had experienced since the latter days of the Abbasid caliphate. The proclamation was in accordance with the encouragement the British had given to Arab nationalists, such as Jafar al Askari; his brother-in-law, Nuri as Said; and Jamil al Midfai, who sought emancipation from Ottoman rule. The nationa- lists had supported the Allied powers in expectation of both the Ottoman defeat and the freedom many nationalists assumed would come with an Allied victory. *

When Gen Maude entered Baghdad in 1917, he said “We came as liberators, not as conquerors.” The British expected to be greeted warmly for getting rid of the Ottomans. They were not. The tribes greeted them with hostility and united, massacring tens of thousands of British soldiers. Maude died of cholera not long after he entered Baghdad. But The British ended up hanging around for quite some time.

World War I Fighting Involving the Ottomans in the Middle East

In the spring of 1915, the Allies undertook naval and land operations in the Dardanelles that were intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with one blow and to open the straits for the passage of supplies to Russia. Amphibious landings were carried out at Gallipoli, but British forces, vigorously opposed by forces commanded by Atatürk, were unable to expand their beachheads. The last units of the expeditionary force were evacuated by February 1916. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]


wounded at a Turkish hospital

In Mesopotamia the Ottoman army defeated a British expeditionary force that had marched on Baghdad from a base established at Basra in 1915. The British mounted a new offensive in 1917, taking Baghdad and driving Ottoman forces out of Mesopotamia. In eastern Anatolia, Russian armies won a series of battles that carried their control west to Erzincan by July 1916, although Atatürk, who was then given command of the eastern front, led a counteroffensive that checked the Russian advance. Russia left the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The new Russian government concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, under which the Ottoman Empire regained its eastern provinces.

Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the sultan's regent in Mecca and the Hijaz region of western Arabia, launched the Arab Revolt in 1916. The British provided advisers, of whom T.E. Lawrence was to become the best known, as well as supplies. In October 1917, British forces in Egypt opened an offensive into Palestine; they took Jerusalem by December. After hard fighting, British and Arab forces entered Damascus in October 1918. Late in the campaign, Atatürk succeeded to command of Turkish forces in Syria and withdrew many units intact into Anatolia.

See Arab Revolt

Scramble in Middle East at the End of World War I

As the United States entered the war in Europe assuring victory for the Allies, British forces in the Middle East advanced north from Suez and west from Baghdad. By October 1918 they had captured Syria and Lebanon and were ready to invade Turkey when the Ottomans surrendered.

During the war, events in Iraq were greatly influenced by the Hashimite family of Husayn ibn Ali, sharif of Mecca, who claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Aspiring to become king of an independent Arab kingdom, Husayn had broken with the Ottomans, to whom he had been vassal, and had thrown in his lot with the British. Anxious for his support, the British gave Husayn reason to believe that he would have their endorsement when the war ended. Accordingly, Husayn and his sons led the June 1916 Arab Revolt, marching northward in conjunction with the British into Transjordan, Palestine, and Syria. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Anticipating the fulfillment of Allied pledges, Husayn's son, Prince Faisal (who was later to become modern Iraq's first king), arrived in Paris in 1919 as the chief spokesman for the Arab cause. Much to his disappointment, Faisal found that the Allied powers were less than enthusiastic about Arab independence. *

Middle East at the End of World War I


Ottoman Empire in 1913 before the Arab Revolt and World War I

The Ottoman Empire lost its Arab provinces, as well a much of the rest of its territory, and was relegated to Anatolia. The removal of the Ottoman government took away the last bit of Muslim protection from European ambitions in the region.

World War I gave the European powers a much stronger presence in the Middle East and North Africa than before the war. With the power of Germany, Austria, Italy and Russia all reduced by the war or events after it, only Britain and France were left to stake claims in the Middle East and for the most part they divided up the region and didn’t challenge each other.

The Arab countries suddenly had the political structure that ruled them for 400 years and the religious authority, the caliph, that was their figurehead for 1,200 years, taken away. An Arab community that had traditionally viewed itself as unified unit suddenly was being divided and forced to construct political structures based on the units not the Arab or century whole.

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the French “controlled Syria and Lebanon under a League of Nations “mandate,” as the British controlled Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan—a division of spoils that shamelessly betrayed the wartime promises of Arab independence made (most famously by Lawrence of Arabia) to keep Arab insurgents fighting against the German-allied Turks. These countries were not colonies; the mandates were supposed to be temporary. But, almost a decade after the war, the occupying powers showed few signs of clearing out. The Druse had been brutally suppressed, and their mountainous area placed under martial law and officially closed to travellers. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” ]

British-French Aims in Syria and Iraq, 1918

The following statement — the Anglo-French Joint Statement of Aims in Syria and Mesopotamia, 1918 — was issued by the British Embassy in Washington at the request of the British Foreign Office: “The aim of France and Great Britain in carrying on in the Near East the war let loose by Germany's ambitions is the complete and final liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and the free choice of the native populations. [Source: New York Times, November 8, 1918]

“In view of following out this intention, France and Great Britain are agreed to encourage and help the establishment of native governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia actually liberated by the allies, and in the territories they are now striving to liberate, and to recognize them as soon as effectively established.

“Far from seeking to force upon the populations of these countries any particular institution, France and Great Britain have no other concern than to ensure by their support and their active assistance the normal working of the governments and institutions which the populations shall have freely adopted, so as to secure just impartiality for all, and also to facilitate the economic development of the country in arousing and encouraging local initiative by the diffusion of instruction, and to put an end to discords which have too long been taken advantage of by Turkish rule. Such is the role that the two Allied Governments claim for themselves in the liberated territories.

British Raise Hopes of Independence in the Middle East


participants of the Arab Revolt

In communications with Hussein and Arab nationalists, namely the MacMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16, the British encouraged Arab desires for independence. Some say this amounted to a British promise of Arabs independence for their help fighting the Ottoman Turks.

Explaining the reasoning behind the initiative, T.E. Lawrence wrote: “We could see a new factor was needed in the East, some power or race which would outweigh the Turks in numbers, in output and mental activity. No encouragement was given from history to think that these qualities could be suppled ready-made from Europe...Some of us judged that there was latent power enough and to spare in the Arabic peoples (the greatest component of the old Turkish Empire), a prolific Semitic agglomeration, great in religious thought, reasonably industrious, mercantile, politic, yet solvent rather than dominant in character.”

Middle Eastern Christians were at the vanguard of the nationalist and secular movements in the colonial and post colonial periods and in updating the Arabic language to the modern world. They had the most to gain by creating secular states as opposed to Islamic ones.

Plans for the Middle East After World War I

In exchange for helping the Allies defeat the Ottoman Turks, the Arabs expected to be granted independence. Instead they were double-crossed by a secret pact between the British and French.

In 1916, Britain and France reached a secret agreement (the Sykes-Picot agreement) that divided the territories of the dying Ottoman Empire between Britain and France in anticipation of victory. The British wanted to maintain their control of the Suez Canal, an important conduit for goods going back and forth between Britain and India, and they also didn't want the canal to fall into the hands of France, Russia, Germany or Italy.

Plans for reorganizing the Middle East were led by Lord Kitchener and his aide Sir Mark Sykes. They wanted stake a claim in the region first to keep their rivals from Europe, namely France which laid claim to Syria, from beating them to it. But they couldn't do anything because they needed all their man power on the front. Lord Kitchener began throwing out ideas of an Arab world run by Egypt, which in turn would be run by the British.

Treaties That Defined the Middle East After World War I

The defeat of Germany and the Ottomans in World War I resulted in Ottoman Turkey losing much of its territory, the fall of the sultanate, the liberation of the Arabs and a mad scramble in the Middle East for control of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, provided for the Arab countries, formally under Ottoman rule, to be provisionally recognized as independent in accordance with terms set up by the states given “mandates” over them. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, under Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant, Iraq was formally made a Class A mandate entrusted to Britain. This award was completed on April 25, 1920, at the San Remo Conference in Italy. Palestine also was placed under British mandate, and Syria was placed under French mandate. Faisal, who had been proclaimed king of Syria by a Syrian national congress in Damascus in March 1920, was ejected by the French in July of the same year. [Source: Library of Congress]


partioning of Anatolia (Turkey)


The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, written by the victorious Allies, broke up the Ottoman Empire. In January 1921, despite his failure at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill was appointed colonial secretary and put in charge of reorganizing the Middle East. Then a cabinet member who served as both the Air Minister and War Minister, he proposed reforming the Ottoman Empire because he saw nothing but trouble ahead in a region. No one took him seriously.

In 1919, as part of the Treaty of Sevres, the European Allies (namely Britain, France and Greece) proposed carving up most of what is now Turkey, giving most of European Turkey and western Anatolia to Greece, creating independent Kurdish and Armenian states, and giving the Turks virtually nothing: only Istanbul and parts of Anatolia. The treaty was signed by representatives of the Ottoman government and the European allies. The United States and Russia did not.

A nationalist movement organized by Ataturk rejected the Allied-imposed treaty and rebelled against its terms. This rebellion led to the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The Turkish heartland of Anatolia eventually grew into the modern Turkey and part of the Turkish Aegean coast was Italian territory for a while.

Sykes-Picot Agreement : 1916

According to mideastweb.org: “The Sykes Picot agreement, concluded in 1916, divided the Middle East into areas of influence for France, Great Britain and others, giving the French control over modern Syria and Lebanon. Most of Palestine was to have been under international control. Though the agreement mentions the possibility of cessions by either side to an Arab state, it in fact made it impossible for Great Britain to honor the promises made by Sir Henry McMahon to Sheriff Hussayn in 1915. The agreement excluded the districts "west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" as specified in the Hussayn-McMahon agreement, extending the line south so that Palestine was excluded from Arab control. However, the agreement also excluded two much larger areas that would be under direct British and French control, and split the Arab area into zones of British and French influence that would preclude full independence. [Source: mideastweb.org]

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) reads: “It is accordingly understood between the French and British governments: That France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab states or a confederation of Arab states (a) and (b) marked on the annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states. [Source: mideastweb.org]


Sykes-Picot agreement


“That in the blue area France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states. That in the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other allies, and the representatives of the sheriff of Mecca.

Areas Given Britain in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) reads: “That Great Britain be accorded (1) the ports of Haifa and Acre, (2) guarantee of a given supply of water from the tigres and Euphrates in area (a) for area (b). His majesty's government, on their part, undertake that they will at no time enter into negotiations for the cession of Cyprus to any third power without the previous consent of the French government. [Source: mideastweb.org]

“That Alexandretta shall be a free port as regards the trade of the British empire, and that there shall be no discrimination in port charges or facilities as regards British shipping and British goods; that there shall be freedom of transit for British goods through Alexandretta and by railway through the blue area, or (b) area, or area (a); and there shall be no discrimination, direct or indirect, against British goods on any railway or against British goods or ships at any port serving the areas mentioned.

“That Haifa shall be a free port as regards the trade of France, her dominions and protectorates, and there shall be no discrimination in port charges or facilities as regards French shipping and French goods. There shall be freedom of transit for French goods through Haifa and by the British railway through the brown area, whether those goods are intended for or originate in the blue area, area (a), or area (b), and there shall be no discrimination, direct or indirect, against French goods on any railway, or against French goods or ships at any port serving the areas mentioned.

“That in area (a) the Baghdad railway shall not be extended southwards beyond Mosul, and in area (b) northwards beyond Samarra, until a railway connecting Baghdad and Aleppo via the Euphrates valley has been completed, and then only with the concurrence of the two governments.

British Rights in Its Areas According to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916


Colonel Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) reads: “That Great Britain has the right to build, administer, and be sole owner of a railway connecting Haifa with area (b), and shall have a perpetual right to transport troops along such a line at all times. It is to be understood by both governments that this railway is to facilitate the connection of Baghdad with Haifa by rail, and it is further understood that, if the engineering difficulties and expense entailed by keeping this connecting line in the brown area only make the project unfeasible, that the French government shall be prepared to consider that the line in question may also traverse the Polgon Banias Keis Marib Salkhad tell Otsda Mesmie before reaching area (b). [Source: mideastweb.org]

“For a period of twenty years the existing Turkish customs tariff shall remain in force throughout the whole of the blue and red areas, as well as in areas (a) and (b), and no increase in the rates of duty or conversions from ad valorem to specific rates shall be made except by agreement between the two powers.

“There shall be no interior customs barriers between any of the above mentioned areas. The customs duties leviable on goods destined for the interior shall be collected at the port of entry and handed over to the administration of the area of destination.

“It shall be agreed that the French government will at no time enter into any negotiations for the cession of their rights and will not cede such rights in the blue area to any third power, except the Arab state or confederation of Arab states, without the previous agreement of His Majesty's government, who, on their part, will give a similar undertaking to the French government regarding the red area.

“The British and French government, as the protectors of the Arab state, shall agree that they will not themselves acquire and will not consent to a third power acquiring territorial possessions in the Arabian peninsula, nor consent to a third power installing a naval base either on the east coast, or on the islands, of the red sea. This, however, shall not prevent such adjustment of the Aden frontier as may be necessary in consequence of recent Turkish aggression.


Francois Marie Denis Georges-Picot

“The negotiations with the Arabs as to the boundaries of the Arab states shall be continued through the same channel as heretofore on behalf of the two powers. It is agreed that measures to control the importation of arms into the Arab territories will be considered by the two governments.

“I have further the honor to state that, in order to make the agreement complete, His Majesty's government are proposing to the Russian government to exchange notes analogous to those exchanged by the latter and your excellency's government on the 26th April last. Copies of these notes will be communicated to your excellency as soon as exchanged. I would also venture to remind your excellency that the conclusion of the present agreement raises, for practical consideration, the question of claims of Italy to a share in any partition or rearrangement of Turkey in Asia, as formulated in Article 9 of the agreement of the 26th April, 1915, between Italy and the allies.

“His Majesty's government further consider that the Japanese government should be informed of the arrangements now concluded.

Carving up the Ottoman Empire and Ending the Caliph

In March 1921, a ten-day conference was held at the Semramis Hotel in Cairo. Almost everybody who was anybody in the Middle East was there. On the agenda was what to do with the entire Middle East with the exception of Egypt, whose was fate was worked out separately by Britain and Egypt. [Source: David Fromkin, Smithsonian magazine]

The biggest point of contention was Syria. The British had placed it under the control of Prince Faisal, son of Hussein. After Syria declared independence, the French answered back by occupying all of Syria-Lebanon. Faisal was sent into exile and later became the ruler of Iraq.

Under the terms of mandates granted by the League of Nations, the Middle East was effectively divided up between France and Britain under "spheres of influence," with France setting up protectorates in Syria and Lebanon, and Britain setting up protectorates in Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan. The Arabs were outraged because they had been promised independence.

In November 1922, the Turks abolished the sultan, who was regarded as the caliph, the leader and unifier of all Sunni Muslims and the last of a line of rulers that dated back to Muhammad in A.D. 632. A brief experiment with a separate caliph didn’t work out. In March 1924, the caliphate was abolished. In the early 2000s, Osama bin Laden referred to the end of the caliphate as a humiliation dealt by the West against Muslims.

Drawing Up Arab Borders

The modern borders for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan were drawn up by foreign diplomats after World War I and approved by the League of Nations. The current borders of the Middle Eastern nations were established by Britain and to a lesser France. Most of the borders were drawn up in 1922 by a British civil servant whose primary goal was to map out the Middle East to accommodate British military and administrative institutions. T.E. Lawrence later boasted that he, Churchill and handful of others mapped out the modern nations of the Middle East over dinner.

To protect Iraq from attacks by Ibn Saud, the leader of Saudi Arabia, Iraq was granted land claimed by Ibn Saud—all the land west of the Euphrates River to the Syrian frontier. To appease Ibn Saud, the British transferred the rights to two thirds of the territory of Kuwait, which had been virtually independent for two centuries. This land contained valuable grazing lands and oil. These were the borders that Saddam Hussein claimed were invalid when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The borders of the Middle East were drawn up based on British and French interests and ignored local history and traditions. Many of the problems that have subsequently arisen in Iraq, Kuwait, Israel and Palestine can be traced back to how the borders were drawn and the land was partitioned. The French drew a new border for Lebanon and Syria that paved the way for problems and civil war in the 1970s and 80s.


TE Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia's) proposal for partitioning the Middle East


Britain and the Creation of Iraq

After World War I, British forces occupied Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. As a matter convenience, Britain lumped the region around these cities into a single administrative area thereby inventing Iraq. Although parts of Iraq had been united under a single government at various times in the past, the entity that emerged in 1920 had never existed before as a state.

The bloodiest postwar uprising against the British took place in what is now Iraq after 1920. One British military commander later siad, “The mistake we made was not adopting repressive methods earlier” instead they “threw..the Sunni townsmen and the Shiite countryfolk together.

The bloodiest postwar uprising against the British took place in what is now Iraq after 1920. One British military commander later siad, “The mistake we made was not adopting repressive methods earlier” instead they “threw..the Sunni townsmen and the Shiite countryfolk together.

The British thought seriously of washing their hands of the entire area but in the end decided to stick it out because oil was discovered there in 1927 and they didn't want these oil fields to fall in the hands of the French or Americans.

Cobbling Iraq and Its Borders Together

Iraq was forged from of three incompatible Ottoman provinces: 1) a predominantly Shiite south; 2) the largely Sunni Arab provinces in central Iraq around Baghdad; and 3) the Kurdish provinces in the north.

The Mosul area in northern Iraq, with its rich oil fields, was claimed by Turkey and Syria. It was given to Iraq by the League of nations in 1926. Iraq never recognized the British-drawn border between Iraq and Kuwait.

The Iraq-Kuwait border was determined by British colonial administrators with little say from the Kuwaitis at conference in 1922. The southern border was a drawn with a red pencil by the British high commissioner so that Kuwait was given the oil-rich Burgan field. The neutral zone controlled jointly for a while by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was also rich in oil. Land claimed by Kuwait was given to Saudi Arabia and land claimed by Iraq was given to Saudi Arabia. Iraq, which has only one small outlet to the Persian Gulf, has traditionally claimed Kuwait as its own. In 1920, Kuwaiti troops with British help defeated an invading force for Saudi Arabia at the Red Fort at Jarah.


Map used at a meeting to draft the Sykes-Picos agreement


Britain and France Jostle Over Syria After World War I

The biggest point of contention between the British and French after World War I was over Syria. The British had placed it under the control of Prince Faisal, son of Hussein. After Syria declared independence, the French answered back by occupying all of Syria-Lebanon.

In the early 1920s, an attempt by members of Hussein’s Arab Revolt (the Lawrence of Arabia revolt), with British support, to create an independent state under Hussein’s son Faisal was put down by the French. Afterwards Faisal was sent into exile and later became the ruler of Iraq and two states were created: Syria and Lebanon. Britain hoped to install descendants of the Hashemite dynasty in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Only Jordan continues to be ruled by a Hashemite.

Syria was briefly independent from the end of World War I in 1918 to 1920 when the Middle East was divided up among the European powers.

Syrian nationalists were disappointed that: 1) Greater Syria was divided into Syria, Palestine, Transjordan; 2) Antioch was given to Turkey; and 3) other parts of Iraq and religious groups such as Shiite Muslims, Druzes and Kurds were split.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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