100 Years On: How WWI Shapes Today’s Middle Eastern Conflicts
On eve of centenary, historians say aftershocks of Great War continue to influence regional players
New countries were established, the balance of power shifted, and empires were dissolved. As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, historians argue this event more than any other has had the greatest influence on ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
“World War I is the most dramatic crossroads in the history of the Middle East,” Dr. Eliezer Tauber, a professor in Middle Eastern history at Bar-Ilan University and a world-renowned expert on the formation of modern Arab states, affirmed to The Media Line. “While WWII is viewed as more significant for European history, it had less of an influence on the Middle East than WWI.”
Tauber, who founded Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies and who has written extensively on WWI, refers to the war as a “traumatic event.”
“From the 19th century and up until WWI, the Ottoman Empire ruled over the majority of the Middle East,” he explained, noting that the new modern Arab states were formed as a result of the war.
One of the pivotal moments of the war occurred when the Ottoman Empire entered the fray as one of the Central Powers by carrying out a surprise attack on Russia in 1914. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V declared a “holy war” against Britain, Russia and France, but suffered a string of considerable defeats in ensuing battles. The setbacks the multi-ethnic empire suffered were used to justify ethnic cleansing in the form of the Armenian Genocide, which resulted in the murder of 1.5 million Armenians. When the war ended in 1918 and the Ottomans were roundly routed, their once-vast Islamic empire, which had endured for centuries, was dissolved.
Meanwhile, in 1916 Britain and France signed a secret accord known as the Sykes-Picot agreement aimed at dividing most of the Arab lands between the two European imperial powers when the war ended. France would rule over Syria and Lebanon, while Britain would take over Iraq and Jordan. Russia had it eyes set on other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Under the terms of Sykes-Picot, Palestine was intended to be under international rule.
However, one year later this last point was contradicted when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, a public statement of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which also marked a decisive moment in the history of the Levant.
“All the ongoing conflicts between these states are a product of the after-shocks of the Great War, which means that all the borders we know today were determined after the events that transpired during the war and in the years following,” Tauber declared.
The delineation of these modern states would come to be a determining factor in the conflicts that would follow, many of which have endured until today. But historians say that overviews of modern history have tended to ignore another important factor in the formation of Arab states as we know them: local tribal leaders.
“I prefer to think that the main influences are those that come [from within] the region, in terms of the ideas that came out,” Dr. Scott Lucas, a professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham, conveyed to The Media Line. “For example, King Salman of Saudi Arabia tried to organize a vast area outside of colonial influence.
“That to me is what’s important because ideas can always come from outside the region, but at the end of the day the lasting influence is from the people who live there.”
Lucas contended that while imperial influence in the guise of Sykes-Picot Agreement have had a lasting effect, the Great War was simply a catalyst for ideas and national aspirations that had already been forming for decades.
“It’s the story of what people in the region saw as their future,” he asserted. “Even if we focus on the colonial powers in many ways trying to hold [those aspirations] back – that becomes the key historical narrative of what we see today.”
Tauber agreed with Lucas that regional considerations had often been left out of the equation when examining the origins of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
“It was the will of the people living in the region, who didn’t view themselves as part of a bigger group,” Tauber explained. “Every individual, before he saw himself as an Arab, saw himself as part of some smaller group – Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese – and as a result of the local populations’ wishes, these different states were formed, rather than one large Arab state.”
For Dr. Spencer Jones, a Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire is the crucial turning point of the era because it mixed different ethnic and religious groups, thereby stoking tension.
“The creation of a range of diverse states from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire inevitably sowed the seeds of current conflict,” Jones stressed to The Media Line. “We see it most readily in the proxy wars being fought between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey for regional hegemony, and in the continuing struggles between Israel and Palestine.
“The seemingly endless friction in the region can be traced back to the decision to break up the Ottoman Empire.”