If you want to understand part of why the Middle East is such a volatile region today, a good place to start finding answers is the partitioning of the region between 1918 and 1920. The Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire in WWI, and needed to decide what would happen to areas previously under Ottoman control. These covered modern-day Syria, The Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Iran. Theoretically, their people could have gained independence, after years of being colonial subjects. However, this wasn’t to be. The British, French and Russians had signed a secret treaty in 1916 (the Sykes-Picot Agreement), whereby they had decided to carve up the Middle East among themselves (like a nice, oil-flavoured cake).
This secret agreement was extremely underhanded; the Allies supported Arab rebellions against the Ottomans during the war, and promised them they were fighting for self-governance. However, Arab oil fields, as well as other economic and political motivations, made them break their promise. To excuse this U-turn, western governments claimed the Arabs weren’t ready to govern themselves, and that they needed British and French control in order to progress.
The League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN) supported the signing of a second treaty, the Treaty of Sevres, in 1920, which legitimised the European presence in the Middle East. France was given a mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, while Britain was entrusted with Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).
Ostensibly, the Europeans were helping to build new, independent nations. In reality, the mandates were thinly disguised licences for imperialism. The governments they established were basically colonial governments with minimal local representation. Obviously, the local people were less than happy with these arrangements, and there was serious civil unrest across the Arab world.
The European response to this opposition was horrific and brutal. In 1920, the Iraqi people rose up against the British who had showed no signs of honouring their promise to grant independence, and were instead ruthlessly exploiting Iraq’s economic resources. The Iraqis rose up in full strength in an attempt to force the British to leave Mesopotamia. The British responded with a savage bombing campaign, dropping 97 tonnes of bombs on the rebels, and on some civilian targets. The Iraqi death toll is estimated to have been between 7,000 and 10,000. Needless to say there was a great deal of collateral damage.
In Syria the locals attempted to put a leader of their own choice, King Faisal, on the throne to try to escape colonial rule. The French responded in a similar fashion and crushed the rebels in 1920 at the Battle of Maysalun; once again thousands died and the French retained control. Admittedly, the Europeans did learn lessons from these uprisings and they did transfer some power back to local populations, but they still ruled indirectly through puppet leaders, and economic exploitation continued.
This isn’t nearly the full story, but even these examples show in part why historians generally agree that the actions of the Europeans in the decades after WWI set the negative tone for relationships in the Middle East for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also claimed by many that the colonial style of government and ruthless economic exploitation has had serious knock on effects. Western foreign policy has undeniably had an enduring negative impact on the population of the Middle East. That is why it is so important for us to be aware the events of 1920 today; it set the tone for East-West relations in the twenty-first century.
This doesn’t mean we should feel crippling guilt for something that happened so long ago. However, we should be more able to understand why there is so much hatred towards the West in places like Syria and Iraq. Children of these countries learn in schools about the past exploitation of their countries by western nations; for many it defines their perception of Europeans.
On our social media and on TV today discussion of the actual history of European foreign policy in the Middle East is woefully neglected. People are unaware of how far that policy has exacerbated or even created the problems of extremism and disunity. The example of partitioning and political and economic exploitation by the colonial powers after WWI does show that there were serious negative consequences for the countries of the Middle East. With a better understanding of this period of history, perhaps we can feel more empathy towards those suffering because of extremism or civil war.