The birth of the Middle East
Eugene Rogan talks Ottomans, the Arab Revolt and self-determination.
The First World War is too often known in the West only from the Allied side of the trench. This one-sidedness was something Eugene Rogan, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, sought to correct in The Fall of the Ottomans, a compelling history of the collapse of that once great empire of the east during the Great War and its aftermath.
But to explore the fall of the Ottomans, as they fought and failed alongside the Central Powers, is to do something else, too. It is to dig into the rise of what we know now of as the Middle East, to understand how the First World War and its aftermath gave birth to a violently remade region, with new borders, new territories and, as we are now only too aware, new conflicts.
To explore the Ottomans’ involvement in the war, the nature of the Arab Revolt, and the fatal postwar partitioning and creation of the modern Middle East, the spiked review caught up with Rogan. Here’s what he had to say.
review: From the middle of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was famously known as the sick man of Europe. Even if it hadn’t entered the war, was it not in danger of losing its Arab lands anyway?
Eugene Rogan: In writing The Fall of the Ottomans, I came to the conclusion that the Ottoman Empire, however sick it might have appeared to European observers, showed remarkable tenacity and vitality. If it hadn’t entered the war, it would have survived well into the 20th century as an Ottoman Empire. And I think that Empire would have included the Arab lands.
You did have societies working within the Arab lands in the early 20th century, and some outside it like the Young Arab Society, which wanted to rewrite the social contract between Turks and Arabs. They had begun agitating for a better deal, for Arab cultural rights and political rights; they wanted Arabs to be prioritised for jobs in the Ottoman bureaucracy in the Arab lands; they wanted Arab conscripts to serve in the home provinces and not be sent off to far away frontiers; they wanted Arabic to be re-installed as an official language, on a par with Turkish. And what they really hoped for, alongside all these other political objectives, was a dual monarchy on the Austro-Hungarian model — an Arab-Turk Ottoman Empire.
So I think that while there was certainly a challenge from the Arab world, it wasn’t a challenge that had grown critical in the way that Balkan nationalism had in the years just before the First World War, breaking up the Ottoman Empire.
review: So the Ottomans entered the war in 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. Is it fair to say they did so to save the Empire?
Rogan: There was a line of thought that said, in a general European conflict, Russia posed an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire. It was well known in Istanbul that the Tsarist government had plans to seize Istanbul, or Constantinople as the Tsar saw it, and the strategic waterways between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And it planned to annex them to the Russian Empire, as both cultural capital in the shape of Istanbul, the seat of Orthodox Christianity before Turkish conquest, and for the economic benefit to Russian trade. In the context of a war in which Russia was allied with Britain and France, control over the waterways would allow Russia to move men and material to prosecute war more effectively. So the Ottomans were in no doubt Russia had a real cultural and economic geostrategic interest to claim these territories.
Some in the Young Turk administration therefore felt it was essential to conclude a defensive treaty with a power that would protect the empire from Russian ambitions. They couldn’t do it with France and Britain — which were already allied to Russia. So Germany was the only credible power with which to conclude an alliance to protect the Ottomans from Russian ambition. That’s what drew the them into the war.
review: Did the British state stir the Arab Revolt in 1916 to undermine the Ottomans?
Rogan: Absolutely. it was an attempt to open an internal front against the Ottomans after the British had tried and failed to do so on two other different fronts. By the time the Arab Revolt is agreed and launched, the British had been forced to withdraw from Gallipoli in defeat, and an entire British campaign force had been forced to surrender in Mesopotamia at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916.
The British were desperate to knock the Ottomans out of the war, but didn’t have the troops on the Ottoman front, given the priority of the Western font. So they hoped to use an Arab revolt as a way of weakening the Ottoman Empire from within.
review: In doing so, were the British encouraging Arab nationalism?
Rogan: It is an interesting question, because the last thing British imperial authorities wanted was to encourage any form of nationalism, least of all Arab nationalism, because it would undermine Britain’s position in Egypt, and what were growing British ambitions in Ottoman-Arab territories, particularly in Mesopotamia.
So my argument is that the British tried to satisfy the Hashemites who, headed by Sharif Hussein bin Ali, were leading the fight against the Ottomans, with a religious rather than temporal power, offering them the caliphate. This would have advanced British interests in stripping the Ottomans of their religious legitimacy, given the Ottoman sultan claimed caliphal authority over Sunni Muslims worldwide
Indeed, it was as caliph that the Sultan had declared the First World War a jihad, calling on Muslims everywhere to rise up against Britain, France and Russia. The British were really concerned about how that might play with the 80million Muslims in India, as well as the 15-20million living in Egypt. They were worried about how the caliphate might be used to weaponise Islam in the war. If they could get the Hashemites, as the descendants of the prophet Muhammad, living in Mecca, to accept the caliph, it was win-win.
There are no monuments in the villages of Syria or Lebanon commemorating their fallen in the Great War. They don't relate to it
But the Hashemites were not satisfied with just religious titles. They made it clear that their mandate, from the Arab societies, was to lead an Arab-wide call for separation from the Ottoman empire, as an Arab kingdom. That model came from the historic antecedent of the early Islamic empires, such as the Damascus-based Umayyads, or the Baghdad-based Abbasids. And it had a logic to it, so the British had to concede to the Hashemites’ demands because their hand was so weak at that moment in 1916.
But the last thing the British wanted to do was to encourage Arab national aspirations, or to create an Arab kingdom. So I think the language in the agreements in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence – a series of letters exchanged during the war in which the British government seemingly agreed to recognise Arab independence after the war in exchange for the Hashemites launching the Arab Revolt – was left deliberately vague to leave wriggle room for postwar realities.
review: You mention the British fear of the power of the Caliphal call over Muslims worldwide — do you think they overestimated its strength?
Rogan: In hindsight, yes, but at that moment, you could understand British concerns. On the one hand the British had recent historic memory of Islam being weaponised in that way, certainly if you think of the Mahadist uprising in Sudan, in which Earl Kitchener, who was now minister of war, was involved, and, more pertinent still, the Singapore Mutiny in 1915, in which mainly Indian Muslim soldiers turned against the British. So the threat of jihad was really credible to people in high office in Britain.
Their mistake, of course, was to assume that Muslims behave in a collectively radical way. It is an assumption Westerners often make about Islam. And it is wrong. And it is part of what also drove the Ottomans’ German allies to push the sultan to call for jihad, because they also believed Muslims would respond in a collective way, and it explains why Britain overreacted. The irony of course is that it left British warplanners responding more actively to the call for jihad than global Muslims.
review: Moving to the aftermath of the war and the Arab Revolt — to what extent was the postwar division of Arab lands driven by the interests of the French and the British?
Rogan: I think the logic behind the wartime partition was to try to strike agreement between the European imperial powers over how to divide up Ottoman territory while avoiding imperial conflicts after the war. So the logic of partition was not to establish a stable Middle East, as a new regional system in international relations; it was to preserve the balance of power between the British and the French, and for a while the Russians, too — although they pulled out after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 and disavowed any extra-territorial claims.
In an age in which US President Woodrow Wilson’s call for national self-determination found wide take-up in Asia and Africa, and informed the demands made by Arab people after the fall of the Ottomans, you also have Britain and France disregarding that call, making false assurances to people in the Arab world that their right to self-determination will be respected, that Britain and France are only there to preserve the order until a new order can be implemented.
So during the course of 1919-20, political activists in the Arab world increasingly rise up in protest as they realise that what they’re getting is not political self-determination, the right to determine their own political future; rather, what they’re getting is Britain and France deciding their futures for them, imposing territorial divisions and creating a new form of statehood under the league of nations, called a mandate.
Although Egypt was not a part of that mandate, Egypt, too, aspired to independence after the war, and when its people realised their hope was to be frustrated, there was a huge nationwide uprising. This was watched with great interest in Iraq, where people had their own concerns about Britain not withdrawing from former Ottoman territory. And so in 1920, you have a mass, near nationwide uprising in Mesopotamia.
Britain and France then have to take serious military action to tame the frustration of Arab peoples, denied the right to forge their political future, and faced by a mandate system in which they had no say in, which they did not want, and which they were willing to die to try to prevent taking place.
review: You look at the map of Arab lands before the First World War and what becomes the Middle East after it. And it is a completely different set of territorial divisions. What was the basis for these territorial entities?
Rogan: Well, it varies widely. In a sense, the partition diplomacy kicks off in March 1915, when Russia reaffirms its claim to Constantinople and the straits, and in return France demands Cilicia and Syria as its quid pro quo for the Russian land grab. Britain didn’t have a clearly defined territorial interest in the Ottoman Empire at that point, but reserved the right to declare one.
The last thing the British wanted to do was to encourage Arab national aspirations, or to create an Arab kingdom
Now, Syria and Cilicia are actually Roman toponyms, and the boundaries where Syria and Cilicia would be? That’s where the Sykes-Picot discussion and agreement comes into it. It was an exercise in getting the French to put boundaries on those territories. So you ask on what basis were the boundaries drawn — well, it was based on French imperial desiderata: what were the lands they wanted to claim for the French Empire. And in return for acquiring those, the French acceded to Britain’s wishes to include Basra and Baghdad in Mesopotamia in the British Empire.
So you could say that the British were piecing together Ottoman provinces: Baghdad, Basra and, later, Mosul. Iraq emerges, therefore, as a sticking together of three Ottoman provinces.
Syria is not quite so clear cut. It comprises parts of the province of Damascus, taken from Ottoman territory, and added to the province of Aleppo, with Lebanon cut away entirely by fiat, because France wanted to make the largest possible territory it could for its Mnmenoite and other Christian clients.
So it was a combination of imperial imagining and Ottoman experience that went into the crafting of the Middle Eastern states. But ultimately the logic was to reach a balance of power between Britain and France so that in dividing the territory agreeably between themselves, they wouldn’t then disagree and go to war over the postwar settlement.
review: What did the Arab people in these new territories make of the new borders?
Rogan: I think they were always viewed as arbitrary. In many ways, the idea of a nationalism confined to Iraq or Syria or Palestine or Egypt was always seen as slightly illegitimate in the Arab world, against the bigger idea of an Arab nationalism, in which all Arab peoples come together as a sort of super state to advance the welfare of Arab peoples.
Arab nationalism in the 20th century emerged as legitimate precisely because it promised to dissolve the borders imposed by the imperial powers. The frontiers of the region had been seen as fundamentally illegitimate because they were an imperial legacy. This is something that Daesh, or ISIS, played on in 2014, when it drove across Iraq to claim Syrian territory, and notoriously said that it was ‘smashing Sykes-Picot’. In that moment, ISIS was trying to take the mantle of Arab nationalism, by defying this imperial legacy.
review: Just on the nature of Arab nationalism — it was never theocratic in the way ISIS’s was, was it? It was far more temporal, to use a word you used before, than spiritual.
Rogan: I would say secular national for Arab nationalism. I think its heyday coincided with a period in which religion was not seen as a political means of organising. And the standard of politics in the 1920s, 30s, 40s right through to the 1970s, would have been secular nationalist. Arab nationalist rhetoric was always couched in very secular terms.
ISIS was appropriating some of the symbolic power of Arab nationalism, binding Arab peoples together, and combining it with some pan-Islamic appeal, by calling the state a caliphate. So it was really trying to latch on to as much cultural capital as possible to give its movement the widest possible appeal.
It goes without saying that Arab nationalists would have found everything about ISIS anathema to their beliefs.
review: What of the Kurds in all this? What was their situation like under the Ottomans? Were they tolerated?
Rogan: They were more than tolerated. The Kurds really stood out as one of the best integrated groups within the Ottoman Empire. As they were in a multinational, multi-ethnic state, in which your religious affiliation was more important than your rights, the Kurds, as Sunni Muslims, had far more in common with their Turkish fellow Ottomans than other religious groups.
You don’t really see any form of cultural nationalism from the Kurds until the second decade of the 20th century. That is when the Kurdish cultural societies come together, and make claims for Kurdish culture. But even then this is not a broad-based national movement in any real sense.
Then the Ottoman Empire falls, the territory is divvied up, and the Kurds suddenly find themselves on different sides of several borders. Those who were in Iran were already outside Ottoman domains, but in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey, you had substantial Kurdish communities each cut off from one another, leaving the Kurds as possibly the largest national community to be denied a state. And consequently they have been in conflict with their host countries for much of the past 100 years, trying to assert their cultural claims, and achieve statehood in some, if not all of what they see as historic Kurdistan.
review: They were promised territory in the initial round of talks in 1918, weren’t they?
Rogan: Yes, in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, the first peace treaty between the victorious powers and the Ottoman Empire. It called for the creation of several autonomous zones, with architecture in place to allow them to seek independence. So in the Caucasus region in the north east of Turkey, there was to be an Armenian autonomous zone under Russian or American protection, and in south-eastern Turkey, there was to be a Kurdish autonomous zone.
It is surprising because the Kurds were implicated in the Armenian Genocide as one of the killer communities. So while the victorious powers excoriated Turkey for its role in the mass murder of Armenians, the Kurds were rewarded with territory to create a state. Here again, however, we see imperial priorities shaping the postwar settlement. For the British, the idea was to try to create client buffer states between Russian and British and French mandate territories.
The postwar partition of Arab lands created enduring boundaries, but those boundaries also fostered enduring conflicts
But it didn’t work out because the very strong nationalist movement of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk drove out all of these pretenders to Turkish territory. Most obviously the Greeks, which proved the longest battle. And in doing so, Tukey consolidated control over all of Anatolia and that little bit of Thrace, and then, in Lausanne in 1923, renegotiated the terms of the peace, by which time any talk of a Kurdish state had been struck from the record.
review: In terms of the future of the Middle East, do you think there needs to be some change to those postwar border agreements, given the trouble they have caused? (Although it is incredible they have lasted so long.)
Rogan: They have lasted a long time. I think the past century has made sovereign reality out of the borders imposed by the European imperial powers. And while I wouldn’t want to make them sacrosanct, I’m very suspicious of attempts by analysts in Europe or America to redraw the boundaries. I think we should be humble. The experience of Westerners drawing boundaries has not been successful. It hasn’t been a happy experience for the people of the region. They have been enduring boundaries, but they have fostered enduring conflicts.
So the way I would put it is that any changes to Middle Eastern borders should only come as exercises in self-determination. For instance, the Kurds peacefully declare intentions to statehood. They made one attempt a year ago. It was entirely legitimate, but entirely premature. They simply had too many enemies for that project to work. It was the wrong moment. They can leave that independence referendum as an indicator of their intentions, but there is still a lot of work to be done for there to be sufficient acceptance of Kurdish statehood in what is now northern Iraq and southern Syria without prompting huge conflicts. And I think that is the real issue: can overturning the postwar boundaries be done in such a way that it doesn’t provide the faultlines for the new conflicts to wrack the Middle East?
My view is that the borders more or less as they stand now will survive, but, with the emergence of a new age of statehood in a post-Arab Spring Middle East, a lot of the regionalisms will only be satisfied by a more federal system.
So take Libya, for example, which has now really broken down. It is no longer a unitary state. Regional interests will only be served if a strong set of regional governments is brought under a federal umbrella. I think the same holds for Iraq, in many ways. It won’t break up into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states. But I think there will probably need to be some form of federalism for Iraq to work. Syria, Yemen… each broken in their own ways. I don’t think the boundaries will change, but within these countries, there will need to be an acknowledgement of their internal, conflictual diversity, and the regional ambitions of local people to try to forge consensus states in the Middle East in the 21st century.
review: Finally, how is the First World War thought of today in the Middle East? Is there much in the way of commemoration?
Rogan: I think that outside of Turkey, just in the Arab world, people really don’t see the war as having been part of their history. It was a calamity imposed on them by the Ottomans. They see it as a part of their Ottoman history, rather than their world history. They don’t really remember the Arab men who served in the Ottoman army. There are no monuments in the villages of Syria or Lebanon commemorating their fallen in the Great War. They don’t relate to it. They view it as something that was imposed on them. They view it as the beginning of the calamitous 20th century.
Eugene Rogan is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, and the director of St Antony’s College Middle East Centre. He is the author, most recently, of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)