November 14, 2015


How the Middle East Got That Way : The seeds of much of the conflict in the Mideast today were planted by Britain and its Allies after World War I, when they carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire. (Sam Roberts, NY Times)

By the end of all the peace conferences in 1922, Britain and France had received "mandates" from the newly formed League of Nations to oversee much of the former Ottoman Empire, where they created several new states and installed figurehead rulers.

But even then, Colonel Edward House, Wilson's confidant, gloomily predicted that the lines drawn in the desert sand by European diplomats were "making a breeding place for future war."

Here's how events unfolded: 

"In 1919," the historian Margaret MacMillan recalls, "there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together."

The Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam had split centuries earlier over who would succeed Muhammad as Islam's leader.

But in creating the new nation of Iraq in ancient Mesopotamia, Britain cobbled together the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad (mostly Sunni), Basra (mostly Shiite), and Mosul (mostly Kurdish).

What kept Iraq together for more than 80 years was the autocratic rule of kings and dictators. In 1921, the British installed as king an outsider named Feisal, the son of the ruler of the holy city of Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia), who was a British ally during the war.

The monarchy was overthrown in 1958. After several military coups, the socialist Baath Party seized control in 1968 and brought to power Saddam Hussein, who was toppled by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003.

Since then, without a strongman holding Iraq together, rising sectarian violence has brought the country to the brink of civil war. [...]

In 1920, Syria became a protectorate of France, which claimed a special responsibility for safeguarding Christian enclaves in the Ottoman Empire. France carved out Syria's coastal region into the separate state of Lebanon, whose legitimacy the Syrians still don't recognize. Lebanon gained independence in 1943. Strife between Christians and Muslims developed, by 1975, into a 15-year civil war. The Lebanese invited Syria to intervene, but Syrian troops remained until 2005. They left after Syria was accused of ordering the assassination of a former Lebanese Prime Minister.

Under the Ottomans, Kuwait was at one time a district of Basra and was later overseen by Britain, until independence was granted in 1961. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, citing its historical connection to Iraq, and touched off the first Gulf War. A U.N.-sanctioned coalition, led by the U.S., liberated Kuwait early in 1991.

Today, three generations after the end of World War I, it seems that President Wilson's aide, Colonel House, was right in his dire prediction for the Middle East. The question is, will the conflicts there ever cease?

Professor Fromkin recalls that after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe struggled for 1,500 years over what form of Christianity to follow and whether Europeans should be ruled by popes or kings. He wonders why the Arabs should be any different.

Posted by at November 14, 2015 8:51 AM