The first World War’s impact on the Middle East was significant, but the aftermath of the war shaped the region as we know it today.
The partition of the Ottoman Empire was arrived at through the process of wartime diplomacy, according to Eugene Rogan, a historian at Oxford University who spoke at the University of Oklahoma’s Teach-In on the First World War on March 7.
Russia staked a claim to Istanbul and waterways linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The French claimed Syria and Cilicia in modern day southeastern Turkey.
“Britain entered the first World War in the Middle East without any territorial ambitions, but they were balance of power empire sort of guys, so they reserved a right without prejudice to claim equally strategic territory once they'd made up their minds,” Rogan said.
Rogan said the British and the Sharifs of Mecca had a secret agreement called the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, in which Britain promised the creation of an Arab kingdom, but it would exclude the coast of Cilicia and Syria, as a way to honor their commitments to the French. It also let the British establish their growing influence around Mesopotamia, and created a wartime alliance in which the Arabs would revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Soon, the British realized they needed France to put specific boundaries on Cilicia and Syria.
“That's the background of Sykes-Picot. That was all it was about, to get the French to actually set the boundaries that Britain wouldn't queer relations with the French, while trying to make new allies with the Arabs. And that takes place, 100 years ago now, actually, in 1916,” Rogan said.
The following year, the British gave its support to the Zionist movement to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. Rogan says the British did this to renegotiate the Skyes-Picot agreement because they wanted a useful ally like the Zionists in Palestine to help them secure the Suez Canel and Egypt.
Rogan said the Paris Peace Conference of 1920 brought the final divvying up of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. France secures Syria and Lebanon, Britain secures Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan. The borders from that process, with very few exceptions, survive today.
“They've been stable boundaries that have left very unstable relations in the Middle East that have left the region one of the most volatile in the 20th century, and escalating conflict has led to a requestioning those boundaries in the 21st Century,” Rogan said.
Note: Special thanks to the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Oklahoma and audio engineer Richard Feinberg for recording this presentation.