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The Making of a Conundrum: Origins of the Modern Middle East

The Making of a Conundrum: Origins of the Modern Middle East

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Published by: Rev. Fr. Thomas Bailey, OSB on Apr 26, 2011
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Thomas BaileyThe Making of a Conundrum: Origins of the Modern Middle EastIf one were to engage in nation building in the early twentieth century, some of the bestcharacteristics to add were democracy, constitutional law, commercial innovation, industrial production, and culture ± hallmarks of France and Britain. In the wake of the fall of the OttomanEmpire, the establishment of the mandate system by the League of Nations, from an European perspective, seemed to be an ideal solution for the creation of stable nations in the former Ottomans vilayets. The growth of nationalism in the new Turkish state, along with its hampered-evolution in the former provinces, and coupled with the dominating control of the Great Powers(United Kingdom and France) however, created modern states lacking internal cohesion. TheBritish and French drew the Fertile Crescent¶s states of Syria/Lebanon, Iraq/Kuwait, Jordan, andPalestine/Israel. A detailed study of each is not possible in this paper, so I will highlight insteadonly two: Syria (a French mandate) and Iraq (a British mandate).The final years of the Ottoman Empire brought a variety of nationalistic sentiments, allaimed at uniting the empire.
1
Of these, the Anatolian-Turkish identity proved to be the mostimportant ± it was around a Turkish national identity that Mustafa Kemal created the Republic oTurkey. The emphasis placed upon being a Turk meant there was little room for the Arabic-dominated provinces of the old empire in the new republican Turkey. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne recognized Turkish sovereignty over Anatolia ± 
 sine
Mosul ± in exchange for droppingall claims to other former Ottoman territories.
2
These eastern vilayets then were open to becontrolled by the victorious Great Powers along similar lines decided in the Sykes-PicotAgreement of 1916.
1
William L. Cleveland and Martin Burton,
 A H 
istory
 
of  
 
the
odern
iddle
Ea
 st 
, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: WestviewPress, 2009), 137-140.
2
Cleveland, 177-178.
 
Bailey 2
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, the Committee of Union and Progress, whichcontrolled the government in Istanbul, pushed an Ottoman identity. To this end they instituted a policy in 1909 that dismantled the
m
illet 
 
system and began to remove prominent Arab familiesfrom positions of power in the vilayets, often replaced with Turks loyal to the new regime.Intended to unite, its effect was to alienate the Arab population ± they saw themselves as distinctfrom their Turkish overlords.
3
Even throughout the war period, British agents manipulated theArabic identity in order to obtain Hashemite support against the Ottomans.
4
 When the Ottoman system of rule collapsed, the British and French were keenly aware owhat Rudyard Kipling called ³the white man¶s burden´ on behalf of the newly freed people. TheArab people living in the Fertile Crescent were developed, but were not seen as beingsufficiently developed to found modern nation-states without being ³subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory.´
5
Britain and France approached the issueof leadership in their mandates differently, however, they both consciously excluded the sameArab families that the Young Turks removed from power.France began its mandate over Syria by dividing it into five separate states, three of which (Lebanon, Alawite, and Druze) were created to foster separate identities in religiousminority groups.
6
The process helped to solidify differences, particularly between the MaroniteChristians and their Muslim neighbors. In addition, economic development could not flourish because the two larger Syrian states (Aleppo and Damascus) were landlocked.
7
Francehampered Syrian political involvement in their government by delaying electoral processes,
3
Cleveland, 137-138; 140-143.
4
Edward W. Said,
O
rient 
a
lis
m
, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 238.
5
League of Nations,
oven
a
nt 
 
of  
 
the
L
e
agu
e
 
of  
Na
tions,
 
Article XXII as quoted in Nigel Davidson, ³TheTermination of the µIraq Mandate,´
 I 
ntern
a
tion
a
A
 ff  
a
irs
(R
oy
a
nstit 
u
te
 
of  
ntern
a
tion
a
A
 ff  
a
irs
1931-1939)
12, no.1 (January 1933): 62.
 
6
George Antonius, ³Syria and the French Mandate,´
 I 
ntern
a
tion
a
A
 ff  
a
irs
(R
oy
a
nstit 
u
te
 
of  
ntern
a
tion
a
A
 ff  
a
irs
 1931-1939)
13, no. 4 (July-August 1934): 526; Cleveland, 218-221.
 
7
Antonius, 527.
 
Bailey 3
reserving final decision-making to French bureaucrats, and attempting to impose a constitutionwithout adequate consultation with the people it was to govern.
8
Unwittingly French policies, particularly the violent repression of the Druze revolt and the ceding of Alexandretta to Turkey,fused a Syrian national identity amongst the varied Muslim populations. At the core of thisidentity was a hatred for France. After achieving independence, the segregation enforced by theFrench was maintained in the establishment of two states: Lebanon and Syria. Within Lebanonthe Christian-Muslim tension remained, culminating in the 1975-1990 civil war.Unlike the French mandate of Syria, which was a single vilayet that France divided, Iraqwas the British combination of three (Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra) into one. The majority populations of each were not natural allies, separated by cultural identity and religiousadherence. In addition, the economic vitality of Iraq was hampered by the British decision tominimize Iraq¶s access to the Persian Gulf ± a decision that created tension and led to war in1990.
9
 British imperial policy toward Iraq favored indirect rule consisting of a monarch able to pit one group against another, though dependent upon Great Britain.
10
To achieve their aim of aclient state, the British chose Emir Faysal, a non-Iraqi Arab, as the new king in 1921. KingFaysal was in a precarious position; dependent upon the British for financial and military aid andyet aware that dependence lost him the support of the Iraqi people. And so at various times theBritish conceded minimal concessions to him in external affairs.
11
The control of the military
8
Cleveland, 222-223; Antonius, 530-531.
9
Helmut Mejcher, ³Iraq¶s External Relations 1921-26,´
 M 
iddle
Ea
 ster 
u
dies
13, no. 3 (October 1977): 345;Cleveland, 204-205.
10
Toby Dodge, ³Iraq: The Contradiction of Exogenous State-Building in Historical Perspective,´
Third 
orld 
 Qua
rterly
27, no. 1 (2006): 195.
11
Mejcher, 342.

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