The Middle East and the toxic legacy of the Great War

Published in Editorial, Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Volume 25


The current situation in the Middle East reminds us of the ongoing toxic legacy of the Great War. In the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement of May 1916, in anticipation of the defeat of Ottoman Turkey, Britain and France, with the assent of Czarist Russia, carved up the Middle East into ‘spheres of influence’. After the war these took the form of the League of Nations mandates in Syria and Lebanon (France) and in Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq (Britain) and were to determine the international boundaries of the region to the present day. Needless to say, the principle of self-determination, much trumpeted by the Allies, particularly after the entry into the war of the United States in April 1917, did not apply. (And, of course, neither did it apply to Ireland.) So, for example, to this day the region’s 25–35 million Kurds are scattered over four separate jurisdictions (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran), a major source of instability.

In the meantime, while this secret carve-up was going on, the British were inciting Arab nationalists to rise up against the Turks. This eventually led after the war to the formation of an independent Saudi Arabia, heavily influenced by Wahhabism, an extreme form of puritanical Islam that is still a baleful influence today in ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates.

And on 2 November 1917 yet another contradictory ingredient was added to the mix with the Balfour Declaration, committing the British government to ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The Declaration also stated ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’, but we now know that that was ignored and that the end result was the establishment of the state of Israel and the continuing denial of the rights of the Palestinian population. It also provides the context for (but does not excuse) the widespread anti-Semitism and even Holocaust denial in the Middle East. This in turn has had the unfortunate consequence of equating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism or even Holocaust denial—a classic example of the ‘reverse engineering’ of arguments to anathematise an opposing position.

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