June 27, 2014


The Middle East That France and Britain Drew Is Finally Unravelling (John B. Judis, New Republic)

If you look at a map of the Middle East in 1917, you won't find Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, or Palestine. Since the sixteenth century, that area was part of the Ottoman Empire and was divided into districts that didn't match past or future states. The British and French created the future states--not in order to ease their inhabitants' transition to self-rule, as they were supposed to do under the mandate of the League of Nations, but in order to maintain their own rule over lands they believed had either great economic or strategic significance.

In 1916, as The Islamic State Report indicates, the French and British agreed to divide up the Ottoman Middle East in the event that they defeated Germany and their Ottoman ally. The French claimed the lands from the Lebanese border to Mosul; the British got part of Palestine and what would be Jordan and Southern Iran from Baghdad to Basra. After the war, the two countries modified these plans under the aegis of the League of Nations. At San Remo in 1920, the British got the territory that in 1921 they divided into Palestine and Transjordan and all of what became Iraq. (France gave up northern Iraq in exchange for 25 percent of oil revenues.) The French got greater Syria, which they divided into a coastal state, Lebanon, and four states to the east that would later become Syria.

These lands had always contained a mix of religions and ethnicities, but in setting out borders and establishing their rule, the British and French deepened sectarian and ethnic divisions. The new state of Iraq included the Kurds in the North (who were Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs), who had been promised partial autonomy earlier by the French; Sunnis in the center and west, whose leaders the British and the British-appointed king turned into the country's comprador ruling class; and the Shiites in the South, who were aligned with Iran, and who had been at odds with the Sunnis for centuries. After the British took power, a revolt broke out that the British brutally suppressed, but resentment toward the British and toward the central government in Baghdad persisted. In the new state of Transjordan (which later became Jordan), the British installed the son of a Saudi ruler to preside over the Bedouin population; and in Palestine, it promised the Jews a homeland and their own fledgling state within a state under the Balfour Declaration while promising only civil and religious rights to the Palestinian Arabs who made up the overwhelming majority of inhabitants.

In the new state of Lebanon, the French elevated the Christian Maronites into the country's ruling elite, and created borders that gave them a slight majority over the Shia and Sunni Muslims. In the land that became Syria, the French initially separated the Alawites (from whom the Assad family would descend) and the Druze into their own states and empowered the urban Sunni Muslims in Damascus and Aleppo. During World War II, Syria was finally united in the state that exists today.

From the beginning, these newly created states were engulfed by riots, revolts, and even civil war. Most of the early revolts were directed against the colonial authorities, but after World War II, when these states won their independence, the different religious denominations, ethnicities and nationalities fought each other for supremacy--the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites in Iraq, the Jews and Arabs in Palestine (and later Israelis and Palestinians), the Maronites and Muslims in Lebanon, and the Alawites and Sunnis in Syria. The resulting strife was not a product of the Arab character or of Islam. As University of Oklahoma political scientist Joshua Landis has noted, the turmoil in these lands was very similar to that which took place, and is still taking place, in the various states constructed and deconstructed in Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires and Germany's defeat after World War I.

Posted by at June 27, 2014 8:26 PM

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