World War I and the Middle East State System

On 28 June 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was shot by a Serbian nationalist while visiting the city of Sarajevo. With the backing of its ally, Germany, Austria presented an ultimatum to Serbia. The Austrians demanded that the Serbs rein in nationalist and anti-Austrian movements in their territory. Then, even after the Serbian government agreed to the ultimatum, the Austrians declared war.

While Germany was allied with Austria, Russia was allied with Serbia. The Russians feared that they would be at a disadvantage if war broke out and Germany had completed its military preparations before them. The Russian tsar thus ordered a general mobilization. Germany also mobilized and, to avoid fighting both Russia and France at the same time, decided to launch a knockout blow against France by striking at France through Belgium. Because Britain was committed by treaty to Belgian independence, it declared war on Germany. World War I had started.

When we think of World War I, we generally think of trench warfare on the Western Front in France. It is important to understand, however, that World War I was truly a world war. As a matter of fact, although the British and French referred to the war as the "Great War" until World War II, the Germans coined the phrase "world war" early on to describe the conflict. German strategists understood that the war was being waged among rival empires with worldwide interests. These empires depended on their colonial possessions to maintain their strategic position and economic well-being. Colonies were also indispensable for the French and British military effort because both powers depended on them for manpower to replenish the depleted ranks of their armies. As a result, much of the globe was dragged into a war which had begun in Europe.

It has been estimated that the per capita losses in the Ottoman Empire and Persia were among the highest of all nations affected by the war. While Germany and France lost, respectively, about 9 and 11 percent of their populations during the war, estimates for Ottoman losses run as high as almost 25 percent— approximately five million out of a population of twenty-one million. These casualties occurred both on and off the battlefield. As a matter of fact, four out of every five Ottoman citizens who died were noncombatants. Included among these were one to 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire who died as a result of starvation and ethnic cleansing. While many Armenians believe the Ottoman government planned genocide at the highest levels, Turkish governments still claim that the tremendous losses suffered by the Ottoman Armenian community were an unfortunate accident of war. Although Persia was officially neutral in World War I, estimates put its per capita wartime losses in the same range as those incurred by the Ottoman Empire.


Stranger than Fiction

Good storytellers are averse to using coincidences as a plot device. They seem a lazy way to advance a narrative that is bogged down, and audiences are almost always offended at being treated so shabbily. Historians do not share this aversion. So here is a story that would make both storytellers and their audiences wince:

World War I was a seminal event in the history of the modern Middle East, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that set it off. The reasons for the assassination are complex and explaining them would require a vignette in itself. Anyway, on 28 June 1914, the archduke and his wife paid a visit to Sarajevo to inspect army maneuvers being held outside the city. After a brief inspection, the archduke was scheduled to give a speech at the Sarajevo town hall. Little did he or his security detail realize that six assassins were stationed at regular intervals along the archduke's route waiting for his motorcade to pass. When it did, the first assassin did nothing. Reports were that he lost his nerve. The second assassin was more proactive. He threw a bomb directly at the archduke, but as luck would have it the bomb had a timing device and, apparently, time was not yet ripe for it to explode. Besides, his aim was not particularly good. The bomb hit the side of the archduke's car, bounced off, and exploded as the car behind passed. A number of spectators died and others were injured, as were some of the occupants in the car. The motorcade sped away. The route's third assassin, realizing there was no point to his sticking around, abandoned his post to get a sandwich at a local sandwich shop.

After the speech, the archduke decided he would pay a visit to the injured who had been taken to a hospital. No one told the driver of the vehicle leading the motorcade about the change in plans, however. He thus began to take the scheduled route. One of his passengers realized the mistake and told the driver that the motorcade had to back up in order to get on to the right street. He stopped his car to shift gears. The second car, carrying the archduke, also stopped — a few feet in front of the sandwich shop and the surprised assassin who had just left it. Whether their eyes met, whether the archduke recognized for a fleeting moment what was about to come, is not known. The assassin reached into his pocket, pulled out a pistol, and shot the archduke and his poor wife dead.

How history might have changed had the assassin craved a drink instead of a sandwich.

Many of the casualties suffered by the Ottoman Empire and Persia succumbed to famine. In Mount Lebanon, for example, famine killed upward of half the population. This tragedy still plays a central role in the Lebanese national narrative, which claims that the (Muslim) Ottoman government intentionally created the famine by requisitioning agricultural products and tools from the largely Christian population. While requisitioning certainly aggravated the problem, it was in fact the French and British blockade of eastern Mediterranean ports that had created it. In Persia, tribal insurrections, the collapse of the political order, and the destruction of infrastructure so devastated agricultural production that it did not reach pre-war levels again until 1925.

World War I thus had immediate, tragic consequences for the populations of the region. But the war had other consequences as well. World War I was the single most important politicalevent in the history of the modern Middle East. This is not to say that the war changed everything. The great nineteenth-century transformation did more to revolutionize the social and economic relations of the inhabitants of the Middle East than did World War I. So did events during another period of immense change — the period stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s. Nevertheless, World War I did bring about a new political order in the region, one that has lasted to this very day. Four aspects of this new political order are particularly significant.

First, World War I brought about the creation of the current state system in the region. At the beginning of the war, the Ottoman Empire ruled, in law if not in deed, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt, parts of the Arabian peninsula, and a small sliver of North Africa. By the early 1920s, Turkey was an independent republic, the Asiatic Arab provinces of the empire had been divided into what would become separate states, Egypt had evolved from an Ottoman territory to a quasi-independent state, and much of the Arabian peninsula had been united under the control of the dynasty of ibn Sa'ud.

The ideological glue that bound together these states — and in some cases challenged them — was nationalism. After the war a variety of nationalist movements emerged in the territories previously controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Some of these movements were successful, others not. Nationalism itself was not new to the region. As the nineteenth-century Ottoman state extended its reach into the lives of its citizenry, many in the empire came to view themselves as part of expanded political communities, bound together by shared experiences and distinguishing traits. This is, after all, what nationalism is all about. But at the end of the war Ottoman nationalism—osmanlilik—was no longer an option. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, there no longer remained a political framework that could unite Arabs and Turks, the two largest ethno-linguistic groups housed within its boundaries. Nor was there a commonly accepted political framework to unite Arabs with one another. As a result, varieties of nationalism — Turkish nationalism, Arab nationalism, Syrian nationalism, Egyptian nationalism, and so on — spread throughout the region. Each nationalism claimed the exclusive right to command the loyalty and obedience of the citizens its proponents sought to govern.

One other nationalist movement achieved success as a result of the war: Zionism. Zionism might be broadly defined as Jewish nationalism. Zionists believe that Jews have the same right to self-determination as other peoples. More often than not, they have placed the site of that self-determination in Palestine. Although Zionism was a product of the nineteenth century, World War I brought the international Zionist movement its first real diplomatic success. In November 1917, the Zionist movement achieved recognition by a world power, Great Britain. This recognition accorded Zionism enough prestige and drawing power to ensure that it would not follow in the footsteps of hundreds of other nationalist movements that had appeared briefly, then faded into obscurity. During the period between the two world wars, Jewish immigration to Palestine soared. This led to the first large-scale intercommunal violence between Jewish settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of the region. Thus, World War I not only marks a milestone on the road to the establishment of the State of Israel, it marks the point at which the Israel-Palestine conflict became all but certain.

Finally, World War I brought about a political transformation in Persia. In the aftermath of wartime famine and political chaos, a military leader, Reza Khan, took control of Persia and established a political dynasty (if two rulers can be said to constitute a dynasty) that lasted until 1979. Reza Khan, who later adopted the title Reza Shah, and his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, centralized and strengthened the power of the state to an extent never previously accomplished in Persia. Their authoritarian but developmentalist strategy continues to influence economic, social, and political life in Iran to the present day.


State-Building by Decree

The states that emerged in the Middle East in the wake of World War I were created in two ways. In the Levant and Mesopotamia, the site of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, France and Britain constructed states. Guided by their own interests and preconceptions, the great powers partitioned what had once been the Ottoman Empire and created states where states had never before existed. The wishes of the inhabitants of those territories counted for little when it came to deciding their political future.

In contrast, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt emerged as independent states as a result of anti-imperialist struggle (Turkey), coup d'état (Iran), revolution (Egypt), and conquest (Saudi Arabia). In each of these cases, the national myth recounting the deeds of a heroic leader or founding generation created a firmer foundation for nation-building than that enjoyed by the states created in the Levant and Mesopotamia.

To understand the origins of the states that emerged in the Levant and Mesopotamia, it is necessary to return to World War I. World War I drew the final curtain on the century of relative peace that had begun in Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to marking the end of the nineteenth-century European order, World War I marks a turning point in the relations between Europe and the Middle East.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, European powers acting in concert had taken responsibility for resolving the various crises brought on by the Eastern Question. True, European nations nibbled at the edges of the Ottoman Empire. The French picked away at North Africa, the British were ensconced in Egypt, and the Italians invaded the territory that is contemporary Libya in 1911. Nevertheless, the concert of Europe provided a protective umbrella sheltering the Ottoman Empire from total dismantlement.

There is no telling what the future of the Ottoman Empire might have been had the concert of Europe remained in place. However, the unification of Germany in 1871 disrupted the European balance of power and crippled the ability of


Sweaters, Sleeves, and the Crimean War

During the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Germany, the concert of European powers went to war only once to resolve a crisis originating in the Middle East: the Crimean War (1853-1856). The origins of the war were so murky that after its conclusion the government of one of the principal combatants. Great Britain, appointed a commission to determine what, in fact, it had been all about. In part the war began as a result of great power rivalry within the Ottoman Empire: The Orthodox Russians and the Catholic French quarreled over access to holy sites in Palestine. In part it began because of Russia's attempt to extend its patronage to all Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, even those who resided in the Ottoman Empire. When the Russians moved troops into Ottoman Moldavia and Wallachia (in present-day Romania), the Ottomans, British, French, and Piedmontese (!) launched a military campaign to drive them out. They chose the Crimean peninsula, of all places, as the site on which to challenge the Russians. After a truly abysmal showing by both sides, including the famous (and irresponsible) charge of the light brigade, the Russians backed down. In the wake of the war, the Ottomans were admitted into the concert of Europe. Henceforth, the European powers promised to act together to guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

However important its diplomatic and military effects, the Crimean War also deserves notice because of its impact on men's fashions. If not for the war, there would be no raglan overcoats or sleeves, named for Fitzroy James Henry Lord Raglan, the British field marshall in charge of the Crimea campaign. Nor would there be cardigan sweaters, named for James Brudenell, the seventh earl of Cardigan, who led the infamous charge of the light brigade. And lest we forget, there is the balaklava, named for the site of the famous battle in which the light brigade charged and the “thin red line”—the 93rd Highlander Regiment — held its position against a Russian attack. Balaklavas are knit caps that drape over the wearer's face, leaving only the eyes and mouth exposed. They remain the headgear of choice for bank robbers and terrorists the world over.

European states to act together on issues of common interest. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the concert of Europe no longer existed. Instead, on the eve of World War I European states divided themselves into two alliances. Britain, France, and Russia (and, after 1917, the United States) formed the core of the entente powers. Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire formed the core of the Central Powers. Other states in Europe and elsewhere also signed on to one alliance or the other.

The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers for several reasons. Not only did Germany enjoy extensive political and economic influence in the empire, the empire was unlikely to join any alliance that included its archrival, Russia. In addition, the Austrians, anxious to control Ottoman ambitions in the Balkans, actively solicited the empire's participation in the war on their side. For their part, the entente powers did not try very hard to attract the Ottomans to their side. Because the entente powers assumed that the war would be short, they believed that including the Ottoman Empire in their alliance would not affect its outcome. They also believed that attracting Greece and Italy into their alliance was more important (both countries laid claims to Ottoman territory) and that the Ottomans would make up their minds about which alliance to join based on the progress of the war.

As soon as it became clear that the war would not be over quickly, each of the entente powers began to maneuver to be in a position to claim the spoils it desired in the Middle East in the event of victory. Russia had its eye on two prizes. The Russian government hoped to realize its long-standing dream of acquiring a warm water port by laying claim to the Turkish Straits. What made this dream all the more compelling was the fact that almost 40 percent of Russia's exports passed through the straits. Russia also had interests in the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Ottoman Palestine. Not only were sites holy to the Orthodox Church located there, Orthodox Christians looked to Russia to protect their interests against Catholics, whose interests were backed by France. France, on the other hand, claimed to have “historic rights” in the region of the Ottoman Empire that lies in present-day Syria and Lebanon. France based this claim both on its role as protector of Lebanon's Maronite Christian population and on its economic interests in the region, such as investments in railroads and in silk production.

In contrast to the single-mindedness of the Russians and the French, the British were a bit flustered about the spoils of war they sought from the Ottomans. After all, for much of the nineteenth century Britain had been the staunchest defender of Ottoman integrity. The British government thus appointed a special committee to determine its war aims in the Middle East. The committee was made up of representatives from a variety of ministries, from the foreign office to the India and war offices. Each of these ministries had different preoccupations. As a result, the committee returned with an eclectic wish list. For the most part, this list focused on Britain's long-standing obsession with the protection of the sea routes to India and on ensuring postwar security for British investment and trade in the region.

Starting in 1915, the entente powers began negotiating secret treaties that pledged mutual support for the territorial claims made by themselves or their would-be allies. By negotiating these treaties, entente powers hoped to confirm those claims, attract to their alliance outlying states such as Italy and Greece, and, as the war went on, keep the alliance intact by promising active combatants a payoff at the close of hostilities. For example, the British assumed that continued Russian pressure on Germany was the key to entente victory in Europe. To prevent Russia from signing a separate peace with the Central Powers and withdrawing from the war, the British and French negotiated a deal with the Russians. According to what became known as the Constantinople Agreement, Britain and France recognized Russia's claims to the Turkish Straits and the city that overlooked them, Istanbul. In return for their generosity, France got recognition for its claims to Syria (a vague geographical unit never defined in the agreement), and Britain got recognition for its claims to territory in Persia.

What makes the Constantinople Agreement important is not what it promised. Russia never got the straits nor did it remain in the war until the bitter end. France and Britain enjoyed only temporary control of the territories promised them. What makes the agreement important is that it established the principle that entente powers had a right to compensation for fighting their enemies and that at least part of that compensation should come in the form of territory carved out of the Middle East. Other secret treaties and understandings soon followed: the Treaty of London, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Treaty of Saint-Jean de Maurienne. All of them applied the principle of compensation. Sometimes the treaties and understandings stipulated that compensation should take the form of direct European control over territories belonging to the Ottoman Empire. At other times, the entente powers masked their ambitions by promising each other the right to establish or maintain protectorates or to organize zones of indirect control. In those zones, one European state would enjoy economic and political rights not granted to other states, but would not rule the zone per se. That would be the function of local power brokers who would receive the support of the European state in charge. In yet another attempt to arrive at a formula that would satisfy all entente powers, the alliance at one point committed itself to establishing an “international zone” in Jerusalem. This was done mainly to relieve Russian anxieties by making sure that no single Christian group would be in a position to deny another access to the holy sites.

Britain not only initiated or signed on to secret agreements, it also made pledges to local or nationalist groupings to assure their support or, at least, quiescence. For example, the British offered to shelter ibn Sa‘ud within a “veiled (secret) protectorate” if he would only remain out of trouble. Far more important for the story of state-building in the Levant and Mesopotamia were two other pledges that most historians regard as contradictory, despite the efforts of diplomats to square the circle after the war. In 1915, the British made contact with an Arabian warlord based in Mecca, Sharif Husayn. Husayn promised to delegate his son, Amir Faysal, to launch a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. In exchange, the British promised Husayn gold and guns and, once the war ended, the right to establish an ambiguously defined Arab “state or states” in the predominantly Arab territories of the empire. The negotiations between Sharif Husayn and the British led to the famous Arab Revolt, guided by the even more famous British colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). British military strategists championed the revolt because they thought it a useful way to harass the Ottomans and compel them to overextend their forces. They also believed the revolt would shore up the right flank of a British army invading Ottoman territories from Egypt. The leaders of the revolt, taking the British at their word, viewed it as a means to achieve Arab unity and independence from the Ottoman Empire. As we shall see later, the revolt was more successful in creating the legend of heroic Arab struggle and imperialist betrayal, in spreading the fame of T. E. Lawrence, and in advancing the careers of Peter O'Toole and Alec Guiness than it was in fostering Arab unity and independence.

While the negotiations that led to the Arab Revolt were held in private, the British government pledged support to another group openly, on the pages of The Times of London. According to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the British endorsed the Zionist goal of establishing a “national home” in Palestine for Jews around the world.

Historians disagree as to exactly why the British would make such a promise. Some assert that the British did so for strategic reasons. Because the Jewish settlers in Palestine would be far outnumbered by Muslim Arabs, they would remain dependent on the British and be more than willing to help the British preserve the security of the nearby Suez Canal. Others attribute the Balfour Declaration to a British overestimation of Jewish power in the United States and Russia. Britain wanted to maintain support in the United States for the entente side. It also wanted to keep Russia, which had just experienced a revolution, in the war. Thinking that Jews had a great deal of influence over the American president, Woodrow Wilson, and within the Bolshevik movement, the British figured a little pandering might go a long way. For his part, British prime minister David Lloyd George lists at least nine reasons for the Balfour Declaration in his memoirs. The most convincing is his assertion that “it was part of our propagandist strategy for mobilizing every opinion and force throughout the world which would weaken the enemy and improve the Allied chances.” In other words, it couldn't hurt — and might even help. As we know, the British underestimated the effects of the Balfour Declaration. Their wartime promise had consequences far beyond those they anticipated at the time.

While the secret agreements and pledges set a number of diplomatic and political precedents, they were relatively ineffective in determining the postwar settlement. There were a number of reasons why this was the case. First, the agreements were both ambiguous and mutually contradictory. Take the issue of Palestine, for example. According to the French reading of one of the secret agreements, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Syria was promised to France and Palestine was part of Syria. According to the Russian reading of the same agreement, Palestine was simply the territory surrounding Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was to be placed under international control. According to the Arab reading of the letters Sharif Husayn exchanged with the British government before the Arab Revolt, Palestine was to be part of the Arab “state or states.” And then, of course, there was the Balfour Declaration.

Changed circumstances also muddied the waters of the postwar settlement. For example, during the war Britain had launched attacks on the Ottoman Empire from India and Egypt. At the close of the war British troops occupied Iraq and parts of the Levant. This gave them leverage in postwar negotiations with other victorious powers. At the same time, the Russian Revolution brought to power a government that, in theory at least, opposed the imperialist designs of the tsarist government. The new Bolshevik government of Russia not only renounced the claims made by its predecessor, it embarrassed the other entente powers by publishing the texts of the secret agreements signed by Russia. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks were ideologically committed to atheism and thus had no desire make an issue about Orthodox access to Christian holy sites. In other words, now there was no need to “internationalize” Jerusalem. Finally, a nationalist revolt broke out in Turkey. This prevented the Greeks, Italians, and French from dividing Anatolia as they had arranged in the secret treaties.

One last obstacle to implementing the secret agreements came from the United States. When the United States entered the war on the side of the entente powers, President Woodrow Wilson announced his intention to make his Fourteen Points the basis of a postwar peace. Included among those points were a number of relatively benign ones, such as freedom of navigation on the seas. There were, however, three items that made European diplomats wince. Wilson's first point called for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at,” and an end to secret diplomacy. After the war, nationalist leaders in the Middle East would claim that this point invalidated the secret agreements. Wilson's fifth point stated that, when it came to independence of colonies, “the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight” with the colonial power. After the war, nationalist leaders in the Middle East would claim that this meant they should be consulted about their future. Finally, Wilson's twelfth point stated that “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured... an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” After the war, nationalist leaders in the Middle East would read into this point their right to self-determination (a phrase, interestingly, coined by the leader of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin, and only later picked up by Wilson). Increasingly frustrated British and French diplomats humored Wilson as best they could while they seethed in private. French president and foreign minister Georges Clemenceau reportedly scoffed at the Fourteen Points, remarking, “Even the good Lord contented himself with only ten commandments, and we should not try to improve on them.” Nevertheless, Wilson had let the genie out of the bottle, and delegates to the peace conference ending the war were beset by Kurds, Arabs, Zionists, Armenians, and others, all demanding their place at the table.

Meeting in Paris, entente peace negotiators attempted to unravel the conflicting claims of their governments and lay the foundations for the postwar world. The negotiators agreed to establish a League of Nations to provide a permanent structure in which international disputes might be resolved peacefully. Although the original call for a league can be found in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, the United States did not join it once it had been created. Nor, initially, were Germany or the newly established Union of Soviet Socialist Republics members. This weakened the league from its inception. But while the league failed miserably in its main mission — its peacemaking activities were unfortunately interrupted by the onset of World War II — its charter did sanction French and British designs for the Levant and Mesopotamia. Article 22 of the charter dealt directly with the region, establishing the so-called mandates system there:

To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the last war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization and that securities for the performance of that trust should be embodied in the covenant. The best method of giving practical effect to this principle should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience, or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility.... Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent states can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of assistance by a mandatory [power] until such time as they are able to stand alone, the wishes of the communities must be a principle consideration in the selection of the mandatory.

Accordingly, after World War I, France got the mandate for the territory that now includes Syria and Lebanon while Britain got the mandate for the territory that now includes Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Iraq. The phrase “territory that is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Iraq” is used here deliberately. The states known as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq had never before existed, but were created under the auspices of France and Britain.

The mandates system was a compromise solution to a problem that divided the “Big Three” powers at the conference. As the largest manufacturer in the world, the United States wanted a level playing field in trade. In other words, the United States wanted free trade (point three of Wilson's fourteen points) and an end to the system of imperial trade preferences — a system in which colonial powers had special trade privileges with their colonies. Britain and France, on the other hand, were perfectly happy with the colonial system as it stood. The mandates system broke the deadlock: Mandates were to be temporary “colonies” with equal access for all in trade.


French mandatory officials established a military academy in Damascus to train a “Syrian Legion.” (From: The Collection of the author.)

But conciliation was not for everyone. Contrary to the Charter of the League of Nations, the inhabitants of the region were never seriously consulted about their future. For example, the elected parliament of Syria that met after the war, the Syrian General Congress, declared that it wanted Syria to be independent and unified. By unity, they meant that Syria should include the territories of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. If Syria had to have a mandatory power overseeing it, a majority of the representatives declared, it should be the United States. Their second choice was Great Britain. For the representatives to the congress, France was unacceptable as a mandatory power. Nevertheless, a geographically diminished Syria went to France as a mandate.

But there was more. Although they had to report their activities to a special committee of the League of Nations, the mandatory powers had absolute administrative control over their mandates. They could sever and join the territories under their control as they wished. Thus, the French took their geographically diminished Syria and rubbed salt into the wounds of those who had put their faith in the League's pledges. The French created what they thought would be a permanent Christian enclave on the coast by severing Lebanon from Syria. They included in Lebanon just enough territory to make it economically viable and strategically useful, but not enough to threaten Christian dominance — at least for the time being. They then divided and redivided the territory of present-day Syria into up to six ethnically and religiously distinct territorial ministates. While the French soon abandoned their ministate experiment, the local leaders they supported in each of them would remain a thorn in the side of Syrian governments for almost half a century.

Even though the British and the French could sever and join territories under their control as they wished, implementing the mandates system was not as easy as planning it. Although the two mandatory powers played the major role in the creation of states in the Middle East, there was a third actor involved as well— the Hashemite family of Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In the wake of the Arab Revolt, troops under the command of Amir Faysal had occupied Damascus. Immediately after the war, Faysal tried to assume administrative control over the surrounding region as well. The French, supported by the League of Nations, opposed Faysal's pretensions and sent an army to Damascus to depose him. The first and last king of Syria was king no more.

The British reacted somewhat passively to the French dismissal of their client. Fearing that only France stood between them and a resurgent Germany, the British had no desire to jeopardize their relations with France over some trivial problem in the Middle East. As Lloyd George put it, “The friendship of France is worth ten Syrias.”

The French ouster of Faysal was only the beginning of a more complex story, however. Soon after the French took possession of inland Syria, another son of Sharif Husayn, Amir ‘Abdallah, began marching north from his home in Mecca to avenge his brother's humiliation. The British now faced two problems: what to do with their wartime ally, Faysal, and what to do about ‘Abdallah, who was threatening to make war on their more important wartime ally, France. The British persuaded ‘Abdallah to remain in the town of Amman, which was then a small caravan stop on the route to Syria, while they called a conference to determine what to do about the worsening situation in the Middle East. At the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British came up with a solution. To divert ‘Abdallah, the British divided their Palestine mandate into two parts and offered their new protege the territory east of the Jordan River as a principality. The territory lying across the Jordan River was first called, appropriately enough, Trans-Jordan (across the Jordan, from a European vantage point). ‘Abdallah made Amman his capital. Since Trans-Jordan was no longer part of the Palestine mandate, the British closed it to Zionist immigration. After independence in 1946, Trans-Jordan became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Descendants of ‘Abdallah have ruled Jordan ever since, and the present king of Jordan is his great-grandson. The territory west of the Jordan River (Cis-Jordan, or “this side of the Jordan”) retained the name Palestine. Although also a mandate, the British ruled Palestine like a crown colony until they withdrew in 1948. This territory comprises present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories.

While the British thus solved the problem of ‘Abdallah, they still had the problem of Faysal to contend with. Once again, the British came up with an inventive solution. They granted Faysal the throne of Iraq, a realm they created by joining together the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. The descendants of Faysal ruled Iraq until they were overthrown in 1958.

On paper, Iraq appeared to be a good idea. The northern territory of Mosul had oil, which would ensure the economic viability of the state and a ready supply of the valuable commodity for the mandatory power. Basra in the south provided the territory with an outlet to the Persian Gulf. The territory in between, irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, includes rich farmland that the British planned to use as a granary for its Indian colony. Ironically, however, the very mandates system that had created Iraq also conspired against its full political and economic development. In this, Iraq was not exceptional. The mandates system also frustrated the full political and economic development of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

In theory, the League of Nations had entrusted the territories of the Ottoman Empire to Britain and France so that the European states could prepare their charges for self-rule. Whatever the charter had said about “the sacred trust of civilization,” however, Britain and France accepted the mandates so that they could retain control over those areas in which they felt they had vital interests. In their shuffling and reshuffling of their mandates' territories, the two mandatory powers rarely gave much thought to ensuring their mandates were both economically and politically viable. The invention of Jordan, for example, solved a political problem for the British but created an economic nightmare: a country with virtually no economic resources. Since its earliest days, Jordan's economic survival has depended on the kindness of strangers. Foreign subsidies have maintained Jordan since 1921, when the British began paying ‘Abdallah a yearly stipend of five thousand pounds. Foreign subsidies increased steadily for the next half century, and by 1979 they provided over 50 percent of government revenue (by 2010 the figure slid to 45 percent).


Drawing Boundaries

In the aftermath of World War I, French and British diplomats created states and the boundaries separating them where none had previously existed. Sometimes, their decisions seem to lack any rationale. If you look at a map of Jordan, for example, you will see a strange indentation in its eastern border with Saudi Arabia. There is no reasonable explanation for that indentation. No river runs through the area, no mountain range forms a natural division between the two states.

Jordan (or Trans-Jordan, as it was then called) was created at the Cairo Conference of 1921. Winston Churchill, who presided over the conference as the British colonial secretary, later bragged that at the conference he had “created Jordan with a stroke of the pen one Sunday afternoon.” But why did it take the shape it did?

Churchill was a man who enjoyed a good meal, which, more often than not, meant heavy food topped off with brandy or whiskey. According to legend, Churchill began to draw the boundary dividing Jordan from Saudi Arabia after a particularly bounteous repast. Midway through drawing the boundary line, Churchill hiccuped and his pen deviated from the straightedge. Hence, according to the legend, the strange indentation in Jordan's border — and hence the reason why some Jordanians call the indentation “Churchill's hiccup” to this very day.

An apocryphal story, to be sure, but one that speaks to the artificial nature of the states created through the mandates system.

Iraq presents us with a different story. From its inception, the territory of Iraq has included populations with significant ethnic and religious differences. As we saw in Chapter 6, these differences took on new significance during the nineteenth century, when religious and ethnic affiliation became associated with political identity. It thus became a platform for asserting political claims. A majority of those living in mandated Iraq were Shi‘i Arab, although the ruling elites — Faysal and his cronies — were Sunni Arab. The northern area, Mosul, was inhabited in large measure by Sunni Kurds, many of whom would have preferred self-rule. As a result, Iraq was notorious for its political instability. Beginning in 1933, when Iraqi troops massacred a Christian group in the north called Assyrians, it also became notorious for dealing with political instability through violence. British policy makers well understood the problem they had created. Although Britain's responsibility toward its mandates was, according to the Charter of the League of Nations, the “rendering of assistance... until such time as they are able to stand alone,” upon discovering that the game was not worth the candle Britain abandoned its Iraqi charge. Iraq became independent in 1932, well before other mandates better prepared to withstand “the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” With an initial boost from the Royal Air Force, Iraq remained intact and under the authority of Sunni Arab kings, then Sunni Arab presidents until 2003.

The mandates system also stacked the deck against economic development in the mandated territories. European investors were reluctant to invest in territories their governments were contractually bound to surrender. What little investment was made in the mandates was made in colonial-style infrastructure, such as transportation networks necessary to send locally produced raw materials to European factories and markets. And because the mandates were temporary and supposed to pay for themselves, neither Britain nor France was particularly keen on investing public funds.

Then there was the question of what the counterinsurgency strategy of the mandatory powers did to existing patterns of land tenure and relationships of labor. The mandatory powers were suspicious of urban notables who had enjoyed wealth and local power under the Ottomans. This is because urban notables were prone to identify with one nationalist movement or another. The mandatory powers thus sought to counterbalance them by creating a loyal base among tribal leaders and rural notables. In return for their loyalty, tribal leaders and rural notables gained access to property. This simple exchange — property for loyalty — sparked the greatest Middle Eastern land rush since the Land Code of 1858. It also resulted in the accumulation of vast agricultural estates by the new rural gentry, as well as the transformation of once independent pasturalists and farmers into tenant labor. As we shall see in Chapter 15, the extent of the holdings of this gentry, coupled with their newness, would make land reform a key issue in Arab domestic politics during the post-World War II period.

The thinly disguised colonialism that underlay the mandates system and led to the creation of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq affected the legitimacy of those states as well. State-building in the Levant and Mesopotamia was initiated by victorious European powers rather than by the inhabitants of the region. No Washington or Garibaldi forged nations through wars of national liberation. No Valley Forge became a mythic symbol of nation-building. No indigenous Bismarck or Napoleon stirred patriotism through conquest. States in the Levant and Mesopotamia were plotted on maps by diplomats and received their independence in stages, usually after painstaking treaty negotiations. The correspondence between patriotic sentiments and the national boundaries of newly independent states was, at best, sporadic, and many among the Arab population of the region saw the division of the Levant and Mesopotamia into separate nations as debilitating and unnatural. Many still do. This is one of the reasons for the emergence and persistence of pan-Arabism in the region, the sentiment that stresses the unity of all Arabs and, in its political form, calls for the obliteration of national boundaries separating them. This is also one of the reasons why many in the region — even those who should have and did know better — could cast Saddam Hussein in the role of an Arab Bismarck after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

However much pan-Arabism might resonate with the populations of the Levant and Mesopotamia, however, it must be stressed that years of state-building have strengthened national allegiances and have transformed pan-Arabism from a blueprint for political action to a nebulous sentiment. This can be seen by tracking the fate of Arab unity schemes, particularly those involving Syria, the “beating heart of the Arab nation.” From 1946 through the 1960s, Syrian politicians seeking to exploit a popular issue proposed no less than nine schemes to unite Syria with various other countries of the region. Since the 1960s, there have been only three such proposals, and none of them recently. Throughout the region, crowds that had once demonstrated in support of Arab unification now march in support of the right of Palestinians to establish their own state, or in support of the Iraqi state's battle against what has been widely perceived to be foreign aggression. However rickety the foundations upon which it was built, the state system established in the Levant and Mesopotamia in the wake of World War I has held for almost a century.

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