World War I began in the year 1914 and lasted through to 1918. While the war started off in Europe, with Germany attempting to become the supreme power in the region, its influence was not limited to that region. The Middle East too was severely impacted by the global turbulence. The Great War carved the history of the Arab world by triggering crucial political upheavals and changes in core beliefs.
The Ottoman Empire had been in power for over four centuries and had become the biggest Islamic power in the world. Neutrality in international conflicts, especially the Great War, had been a rule that the Empire had enforced upon itself. However, in 1914, it declared war on Great Britain, Russia and France, becoming actively involved in the war. The Ottoman Empire has suffered several defeats in its campaigns against Libya and the Balkans. While getting embroiled in an international conflict may seem unreasonable, the Ottomans were far too confident of Germany’s military capabilities. They saw the war as an opportunity to form an alliance with the growing imperial powers in Europe and regain lost territories in the process, maybe even expand its borders .
While Britain was aware that the Ottoman Empire had a massive army, they were uncertain of its capabilities. However, considering that it was a German ally, Britain initiated a pre-emptive strike by landing troops in Basra. The Central powers retaliated by attempting to seize the Suez Canal but faced defeat and heavy losses. Britain, wanting to push the Ottomans out of the war, further launched a naval attack against them. However, not being able to cross the Dardanelles, it was the British who faced defeat at the Gallipoli peninsula. The British responded to this embarrassment by initiating a modern weapons intensive offensive against Istanbul, a force that the Ottomans could not possible match .
In April 1916, the British strengthened their forces in Mesopotamia as well as Egypt and prepared to annex Palestine. By 1917, Britain was almost certain of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Baghdad was defeated on 11 March, which was followed by a blitz attack on Gaza. However, this proved to be a disaster and the British faced heavy losses. Allied forces were facing losses in Europe around the same time, with the March Revolution rendering Russian forces inert and the French army’s mutiny weakened the forces further. The burden of battling with Central Powers in the Middle East, hence, fell on Britain .
Strengthened by soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, General Sir Edmund Allenby conquered Jerusalem on 11 December 1917. After a few months of setbacks, Allenby was reinforced with soldiers from India. On 19 September 1918, he launched an artillery and air force offensive in the Battle of Megiddo and successfully defeated the Ottoman armies. He moved further, conquering Damascus on 1 October, finally taking Aleppo on 26 October. An armistice with the Ottoman Empire was brought into effect and marked the official fall of the Ottoman Empire .
It was discovered that the Syrians wanted independent rule under Faysal and, under no circumstances, wanted any involvement of the French. However, Palestine presented a much greater and sensitive problem. Supporting the Zionist claims would trigger a long term conflict among the Jews and the Arabs, a struggle that has continued to haunt the region in modern times. Hence, the commission decided to reduce Jewish immigration into Palestine and any claims to make Palestine a Zionist home land were not entertained . However, President Wilson died and the report remained unpublished for years.
Britain and France resolved their differences, with France gaining control over Syria and Lebanon while Palestine and Iraq fell into British hands. This distribution was agreed to by the French and British at San Marino, Italy, in 1920, while the Ottoman authorities signed the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920 . Further, all freed lands were placed under the ‘tutelage’ of a great power with the aim of learning effective governance. The great powers in turn reported to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations in an attempt to prevent exploitation of the freed people. Hence, none of the promises made to the Arabs were fulfilled, setting the stage for a political crisis that is continuing nearly a century later.
The French followed the imperialistic approach of divide and rule, and spilt Syria up into several smaller states. The most crucial of this carving into states was the separation of Lebanon. Syria and Lebanon continue to be at logger heads even today. The British tried to follow a more diplomatic approach when dealing with its territories. Although Husayn, of the Hashmites, ruled the Hijaz, his erratic behavior and growing discords, led the British to withdraw their support. They did not intercede when the Saudi Arabians invaded and annexed Hijaz. In order to curb growing revolts in Iraq, the British brought Faysal back, considering the fact that he was supported and respected by most of the Arabian tribes
However, Abdallah had won over Amman and, not being given the opportunity to rule Bagdhad, threatened to launch an attack of the French occupied Syria. In order to avoid further strife and revolt in an already volatile Arab region, the then Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill gave him temporary rule of that part of Palestine that lay on the Eastern side of the river Jordan. This arrangement was favored by the Zionists who saw it as an opportunity to gain permissions for Jewish settlements across Palestine, eventually leading to a Jewish state. However, the French looked at this development as a threat to its absolute rule over Syria and Lebanon .
In conclusion, the smaller tribes of Arabs had supported the British as well as the French in bringing down the Ottoman Empire. They had done so with the hope that, once the Ottoman rule was over, they would be granted independence and allowed to rule their lands as per their own principles of governance. However, once World War I was over and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, the Allied powers failed to keep their pledges and the Arabs found themselves to have been betrayed. Yet, this sudden exposure to international politics created awareness among the Arabs about the lack of political understanding and manipulation within their own ranks.
This awareness led to the Arabs to reconsider their political doctrines and methods and take measures to reconcile their development with the rest of their world. As a result, several smaller nations progressed at a faster rate than they had in the past and began to emerge as contenders for Allied power occupied territories. The tribes that had been betrayed turned into states that have continued to strive to regain lost territories. Of these, the Palestine – Israel and Syria – Lebanon conflicts have been the most pre-dominant. The entire Middle Eastern region has been a constant area of revolts and uprisings, with its political geography being re-arranged time and again. While the Arabs may have inter-personal discords, they are united in their negativity towards Western nations, which greatly hampers diplomatic solutions to various crisis’s even today. The short term political decisions made during and immediately after World War I, have had a severe and lasting long term impact on the Middle East.
Goldschmidt, A. Jr. and L. Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle east, Ninth Edition. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010.
Woodword, D. R. BBC History - The Middle East During World War One. 3 October 2011. 24 October 2011