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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

100 Years Ago This Week: The Middle East   

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From May 24th's edition of the WWI Centennial News Podcast, Episode 124:  

Let's jump into our centennial time machine and look at the Middle East 100 years ago with a report from podcast researcher and writer, David Kramer. A major challenge, and one that frustrates President Wilson time after time, comes from the wartime agreements between nations, oftentimes secret, that addressed short-term war needs but created long-term headaches. With that in mind, let's take a look at the Middle East.

sykes picotThe Sykes-Picot treaty divided the post-war Middle East into French and British ruled areasA prime example of what we're talking about is a 1916 secret agreement between the United Kingdom and France called the Sykes-Picot treaty. Under Sykes-Picot, France and England decide that France is going to control the Syrian coast in much of today's Lebanon. Meanwhile, England takes control of a large part of what was then called Mesopotamia. That's today's southern and central Iraq. Palestine is to become home to both Palestinians and Jews and by French and British agreement will be under international control. In addition, the inland portion of Syria, northern Iraq and Jordan are to be given some limited local rule but will be under the watchful eye of the French. Meanwhile, regardless of that treaty, as World War I wraps up, Britain, who already holds a lot of influence in Persia, today's Iran, decides to seize a big hunk of the new oil-producing region of Mesopotamia for their kingdom. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, now believes not only that the French shouldn't have oversight of such a large region, but that the international control of Palestine isn't really necessary. Britain can handle that on her own. In other words, Sykes-Picot is trashed.

The British now propose only a small area go to France and honor the 1917 pledge to reserve an area for the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Greece is at the center of two important secret agreements. The Allies reward Italy for entering the war on their side by giving them an island group currently belonging to Greece. At the same time, Greece is to gain the largely Greek-populated region of Smyrna on the Turkish coast.

The big three aren't worried about what Turkey thinks. After all, the Turks had been a large part of the Ottoman Empire and so had sided with the enemy, and although 100 years later there would be a national denial, now, in 1919, everyone is keenly aware that the Turks had an ethnic cleansing, also known as a genocide, of Armenians, Kurds and other non-Turks during 1915 and 1916. So in early March of 1919, the Supreme Council at the Paris Peace Conference, consisting of the US, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan, announces the complete elimination of the Ottoman Empire.

Big FourAmong the world leaders at the Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson (far right) was "expected to be the umpire," according to the New York TimesWhile the plan does provide for a new nation called Turkey, for the region, the Turks should be happy for that and expect no other favors. But they did. Like Germany, Turkey is deeply disappointed with the final outcome of the treaty and its virtual abandonment of the Wilson Fourteen Points. Greece and Turkey will meet on the battlefield just in 1920 to attempt to resolve matters left unresolved in Paris. Then, there's the Arab lands, which stand in part with the old Ottoman Empire and partly beyond. King Faisal bin Hussein of the Syrian region heads to Paris with T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, to seek Arab independence. Faisal with his father, the Sharif of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula, and his brothers have helped to forge the alliance with Britain through Lawrence during the war. But France's Prime Minister Clemenceau considers their demands as "absurdly extravagant."

At about the same time that Faisal is petitioning the Supreme Council in Paris, Chaim Weizmann and other Zionists plead their case for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Again, secret promises made during the war may have seen necessary at the time but now, return to haunt the British. Just imagine this. They had promised a homeland to the Jews in a region currently occupied by the very people they were simultaneously urging to revolt against the Ottomans. Meanwhile, they were also dangling a carrot in front of the Arabs for post-war independence within the very same region. It's a giant mess we're still trying to unravel today.

The New York Times in March of 1919 states, "It is clear that Wilson's expected to be the umpire." So Wilson suggests a fact-finding mission to get a real feel for the actual conditions and attitudes in the Middle East region. The findings of the mission contradicts a lot of what the British and French claim about the local desires. Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles just doesn't deal with it. Greece and Turkey are at war within a year. No independent states are created. The best that local petitioners receive is the Mandate System, which means a small degree of autonomy with overall control held by one of the colonial powers, each with its own designated region or mandate. When you really look at it, though the term used is "mandate," it's really just a new form of colonialism, leaving the local nationalists in the region with really little choice but to rebel and fight to gain their full independence.

And as far as Palestine, it's left to the League of Nations to finally approve the British mandate for Palestine in July of 1922. Britain divides it into two parts: Palestine west of the Jordan River and Transjordan, now known as Jordan, to the east. King Faisal's brother Abdullah is appointed the ruler in Transjordan, and his descendants continue to rule through the present day. So here we are today, 100 years later, still dealing with the fallout of the imperial hubris from the war that changed and shaped the world today.

By Dave Kramer, Writer and Researcher for the WWI Centennial News Podcast. 


“Does the Peace that Ended World War I Haunt Us Today?” BBC
“The Establishment of the Mandates System, 1919-1925,” Journal of Contemporary History, 7/79
“The middle East and the West: World War I and Beyond,” NPR
Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919, pp 381-426
New York Times, “Plan to Wipe Out Ottoman Empire,” March 3, 1919, p.3 
New York Times, “Smyrna Taken from Turkey,” May 16, 1919, p. 5
History Today, “Greece and the First World War,” July 10, 2013


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