Sharing out the pieces of a shattered empire 5

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire was brought to an end when the German-Turkish alliance was defeated in the First World War. Its former territories in the Middle East became independent states or temporary mandates of European powers.

Efraim Karsh, reviewing a new book* on the subject, corrects errors of fact on which its author relies – and which have been all too generally accepted.

The corrections are important, so we reproduce the entire article:

A century after the catastrophic blunder that led to the destruction of the then longest-surviving empire on earth, culpability is still ascribed to the European powers. Rather than view the Ottoman entry into the First World War on the losing side for what it was – a failed imperialist bid for territorial aggrandizement and reassertion of lost glory – the Muslim empire has been portrayed as the hapless victim of European machinations, driven into the world conflict by overbearing powers eager to expedite its demise and gobble up its lands.

Emblematic of the wider tendency to view Middle Easterners as mere objects, whose history is but a function of their unhappy interaction with the West, this conventional wisdom has proved remarkably resistant to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans is no exception to this rule.

To begin with, in an attempt to underscore the Ottoman Empire’s untenable position on the eve of the war, Rogan reproduces the standard depiction of the protracted period preceding the empire’s collapse, or the Eastern Question as it is commonly known, as the steady European encroachment on Ottoman territory. “The looming prospect of a European general war”, he writes, “raised the imminent threat of a Russian annexation of Istanbul, the straits, and eastern Anatolia – and the ultimate dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire among the Entente Powers. France was known to covet Syria, Britain had interests in Mesopotamia, and Greece wished to expand its grip over the Aegean.”

Reality, however, was quite different. Far from setting their sights on Ottoman lands, the European powers had consistently shored up the ailing Muslim empire for well over a century, saving it time and again from assured destruction – from Muhammad Ali’s imperialist bid of the 1830s, to the Balkan crises of the 1870s, to the Balkan war of 1912–13. And it was none other than Russia that acted as the Ottoman Empire’s latest saviour, halting its former Bulgarian subject at the gates of Istanbul, not once but twice: in November 1912 and March 1913. Several months later St Petersburg joined London and Berlin in underscoring “the necessity of preserving the Turkish Realm in its present form”.

All this means that by the outbreak of the Great War, the Ottoman Empire was scarcely a spurned and isolated power in danger of imminent destruction. Rather, it was in the enviable position of being courted by the two warring camps: the German-Austro-Hungarian Central Alliance wished its participation in the war, while the Anglo-French-Russian Triple Entente desired its neutrality. So much so that on August 18, 1914, less than a month after the outbreak of hostilities, the Entente’s ambassadors to Istanbul assured the Grand Vizier of the empire’s continued survival were it to stay out of the war, while the British Foreign Secretary vowed the preservation of Ottoman territorial integrity “in any conditions of peace which affected the Near East, provided she preserved a real neutrality during the war”. Five days later, at Ottoman request, the three powers put down this pledge in writing.

Had the Ottomans accepted this guarantee and kept out of the war, their empire would have readily weathered the storm. But then, by the time the Entente made its far-reaching proposal, Istanbul had already concluded a secret alliance with Germany that had effectively transformed it into a belligerent. This, nevertheless, didn’t prevent it from maintaining the false pretence of neutrality vis-à-vis the Entente, or even feigning interest in joining its ranks, while at the same time laying the groundwork for war and exploiting Berlin’s eagerness for the immediate initiation of hostilities to extract substantial military and economic benefits.

Preserving the myth of immaculate Turkish victimhood, Rogan claims that “the Ottoman leadership had no wish to enter a general European conflict” and was grudgingly driven to the German embrace by the Entente’s indifference, if not hostility, to its predicament. His proof is the supposed French rebuff of an alliance proposal, allegedly made during a visit to Paris in July 1914 by the military leader Djemal Pasha, as well as the British requisition of two warships commissioned by the Ottomans. “The British decision to requisition the ships was treated as a national humiliation in Turkey and ruled out the possibility of any accord between Britain and the Ottoman Empire”, Rogan writes. “The very next day, 2 August 1914, the Ottomans concluded a secret treaty of alliance with Germany.”

The problem with these well-worn stories is that there is no shred of evidence of Djemal’s alleged overture (its only mention is in his memoirs, written after the war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire with the clear aim of exonerating himself from responsibility for this calamity), while the requisition announcement was made on August 3 – a day after the conclusion of the secret Ottoman-German alliance.

But even if the announcement had been made a few days earlier, it would have made no difference whatsoever for the simple reason that the terms of the Ottoman-German alliance had already been agreed on July 28. Moreover, it was the Ottomans rather than the Germans who had opted for an alliance within days of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 – weeks before the outbreak of hostilities; who were the driving force in the ensuing secret negotiations; and who largely prevailed over their German counterparts in deciding the alliance’s broad contours. As Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his more sceptical negotiators: “A refusal or a snub would result in Turkey’s going over to Russo-Gallia, and our influence would be gone forever … Under no circumstances whatsoever can we afford to turn them away”.

The truth of the matter is that the Ottoman Empire was neither forced into the First World War in a last-ditch attempt to ensure its survival, nor manoeuvred into it by an overbearing German ally and a hostile Entente, but rather plunged head on into the whirlpool. War, for the Ottoman leaders, was not seen as a mortal danger to be averted, but a unique opportunity to be seized. They did not seek “an ally to protect the empire’s vulnerable territory from the consequences of such war” but a powerful underwriter of their imperialist ambitions; and apart from their admiration for Germany and their conviction that it would ultimately be victorious, the Entente had less to offer by way of satisfying these ambitions, first and foremost “the destruction of our Muscovite enemy to obtain a natural frontier to our empire, which should include and unite all branches of our race” (in the words of the Ottoman declaration of war).

Just as the fall of the Ottoman Empire was not the result of external machinations but a self-inflicted catastrophe, so the creation of the modern Middle East on its ruins was not an imperialist imposition but the aggregate outcome of intense pushing and shoving by a multitude of regional and international bidders for the Ottoman war spoils in which the local actors, despite their marked inferiority to the great powers, often had the upper hand.

While Rogan occasionally alludes to this reality, these allusions are far too sparse and timid to break from the standard misrepresentation of the post-war regional order as an artificial Western creation. He aptly notes that “the map drawn by Sykes and Picot bears no resemblance to the Middle East today”, yet reiterates the standard depiction of the agreement as a colonial imposition rather than a British effort “to reconcile the interests of France with the pledges given to the [Arabs]” (to use Albert Hourani’s words), or indeed – the first-ever great power recognition of Arab right to self determination (well before President Woodrow Wilson turned this principle into a driving force of international politics). He similarly observes that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia (or the Hijaz, as it was then known) “achieved independence within frontiers of their own devising”, yet parrots the conventional wisdom that the imperial powers outlandishly “imposed the borders and systems of governments of most states in the region”.

In fact, most states in the region were established pretty much as a result of local exertions. The modern state of Iraq, to give a prominent example, was created in its present form (rather than divided into three states in accordance with the existing realities of local patriotism and religious affinities) on behalf of Emir Faisal of Mecca and at his instigation, while Jordan was established to satisfy the ambitions of Faisal’s older brother Abdullah. Likewise, the nascent Zionist movement exploited a unique convergence of factors to harness British support to its national cause, to have this support endorsed by the international community and incorporated into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, and to cling tenaciously to these achievements until their fruition in the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Eugene Rogan acknowledges that “the borders of the post-war settlement have proven remarkably resilient”. Yet he fails to draw the selfevident conclusion that this state of affairs reflects their congruity with local realities, instead echoing the common refrain that ascribes the region’s endemic volatility to the supposed dissatisfaction with these boundaries.

Had this actually been the case, Arab leaders would have seized some of the numerous opportunities they had over the past century to undo the post-Ottoman order and unify the so-called Arab Nation; and they could have readily done this by peaceful means rather than incessant fighting. But then, violence has hardly been imported to the Middle East as a by-product of European imperialism; it was a part of the political culture long before. And if anything, it is the region’s tortuous relationship with modernity, most notably the stubborn adherence to its millenarian religiously based imperialist legacy, which has left physical force as the main instrument of political discourse to date.

But to acknowledge this would mean abandoning the self-righteous victimization paradigm that has informed Western scholarship for so long, and treating Middle Easterners as equal free agents accountable for their actions, rather than giving them a condescending free pass for political and moral modes of behaviour that are not remotely acceptable in Western societies. Sadly, The Fall of the Ottomans signals no such paradigm shift.

 

* The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan. The review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal.

A brief colorful history of the modern state of Syria (and its neighbors) 2

Until the end of World War I, the states of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan did not exist. The territory they now cover had been part of the Empire of the Ottoman Turks for some 400 years. The names Syria and Mesopotamia designated Middle Eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire, roughly where Syria and Iraq are now.

In World War I the Turks were allies of Germany. The Arabs were loyal to their Ottoman overlords, and were also on Germany’s side.

But the British incited sedition among some of them, bribing a man in high religious office to head a rebellion. The inducement they offered him was power and glory: rule of an Arab independency of undefined dimensions.

The man was Hussein Ibn Ali, of the clan of the Hashemites and the tribe of the Quraish, Sharif of the Holy City of Mecca, putatively a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The British gave him arms, supplies, subsidies and advisers. When he asked also for a firm definition of his dream-kingdom, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, sent him a “clarification” in a letter dated 24 October 1915, in which he made it clear that he could not make it clear. The British, he explained, could not promise territory to Hussein which the French might claim, and they did not know what the French might claim.

In 1916 the British and French agreed, in a secret document known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, on how they would divide up the territory between them once they had conquered it from the Turks. It was against the spirit of the times, when high principles were asserted against the old ideas of empire; principles which President Wilson of the United States set out in 14 points and became enshrined on the Covenant of the League of Nations. The new ideal was that never again would great powers impose their will on smaller nations.

In 1918, the British made another promise to the Arabs. It is known as The Declaration to the Seven. The “Seven” were from the Syrian region. They went to Cairo to ask the British what their intentions were in the Middle East. They were given a pledge that Britain would recognize “the complete and sovereign independence of any Arab area emancipated from Turkish control by the Arabs themselves”. It was an uncharacteristically precise promise.

It prompted the self-dramatizing Englishman, Colonel T.E.Lawrence, who had a highly romantic view of the Arabs (a view that has polluted the atmosphere of the  British Foreign Office ever since), to exert himself to lead Hussein’s forces to a decisive victory. He marched them to Damascus, but the Australian Light Horse Brigade got there first, and took the city from the Turks. Lawrence persuaded the British to pretend that his Arabs had conquered the city. So the British ordered the Australians to drift out and let the Arabs march in. This set a really bad precedent by which the Arabs expected always to have a fictional version of reality replace any facts on the ground which inconvenienced them. It also gave the Arabs as a whole a false understanding of their own military power and achievements. (If they had beaten the mighty Turks at Damascus, how could they not be victorious against the new little Jewish state of Israel in 1948?)

When the British, French, and Americans won the Second World War, the British set about fulfilling – more or less –  their promise to Hussein.

Hussein himself already ruled the Hejaz. His son Ali was his heir to that kingdom. (They were, however, to lose it in 1924,when Abdul Aziz al Saud conquered it. Saud was to join the Hejaz and the Nejd together and found a new state, Saudi Arabia, named after himself, in 1932.) But new kingdoms were created by the British for Hussein’s other sons, Abdullah and Faisal. They were to be called Syria and Iraq.

They made Faisal King of of the new state of Syria, and proposed to put Abdullah on the throne of a new state of Iraq. 

Faisal ruled Syria only from March to April, 1920. The French knocked him off his throne and threw him out of the country, whose destiny they claimed was rightfully in their hands. (The French were granted mandates over Syria and Lebanon.)

The British had to find another throne for Faisal, so they made him King of Iraq instead of his brother, and then considered what they could for Abdullah.

What remained in their power to give away – or so they made out – was an area of the Ottoman Empire to which the ancient Romans had given the name Palestine when it was still part of their empire. In July 1922, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate (also agreed on at the San Remo peace conference in 1920) over the Palestine region. The British pleaded that they needed it in order to carry out a promise they had made, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to let the region become a National Home for the Jews. According to the terms of the Mandate they were  to “settle Jews closely on the land”. But when they were confronted by the problem of Abdullah being kingdom-less, they found that there was no need to let Jews settle closely on all the land. So they presented three-quarters of it, stretching eastward from the River Jordan to a chosen line in the desert, to Abdullah and called it the Emirate of Transjordan.

All the newly created Arab states fell short of Arab dreams. One was to flourish fairly well as a monarchy: the Emirate of Transjordan renamed itself the Kingdom of Jordan in 1949, when the Arab armies had failed to crush the new state of Israel, but the Transjordanian forces – known as the Arab Legion, under the able command of a British officer, John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha – had advanced across the River Jordan and taken control of what has ever since been called the “West Bank”. (Israel conquered it in its defensive war of 1968.)

The French held a mandate over Syria until July 1941. In September 1936,  a treaty of independence was  negotiated, but the French Legislature would not ratify it. Only when the British and Free French beat the forces of Vichy France in Syria and Lebanon in the Second World War, did Syria become an independent republic. But coups and attempted coups followed hot on each other, and the state was extremely unstable.

The Kingdom of Iraq also had a history of instability with numerous uprisings, massacres and assassinations. In 1958 the monarchy came to an end. The king, Faisal II, was eleven years old. His uncle, Abd al-Ilah, was  regent. He was an ambitious man. He had plans to dominate an Arab unity embracing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. In February 1958 he achieved a union between Iraq and Jordan, the two remaining Hashemite kingdoms. This was intolerable to the president of Egypt, Jamal Abd al-Nasser, who had just created a union of Egypt and Syria in the same  month. The union of Egypt and Syria under Nasser’s domination was intolerable to Abd al-Ilah.

Nasser had nationalized the Suez canal. Britain and France, who were joint shareholders in the Canal, lost their ownership of it. Nasser closed it to Israeli shipping. Israel saw this as a cause for war. Britain and France arranged with Israel that Israeli forces would strike into the Sinai on 29 October 1956, and they would invade Egypt on the pretext of restoring peace between the belligerents. President Eisenhower – unwisely – put a stop to the invasion when it had only just begun. America’s intervention allowed Nasser to pretend that he had won a victory, and felt encouraged to pursue his pan-Arab dream.

On February 1 1958, the union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic (UAR) came into being, with Cairo as its capital and Nasser as its president. Yemen was added a month later to form a confederation called the United Arab States.

Nasser’s agents and sympathizers went to work throughout the Middle East to spread his national socialist ideology. In Baghdad officers sympathetic to “Nasserism”  plotted the destruction of the Iraqi monarchy. In 1958, under pro-Nasserite leadership, a contingent of Iraqi troops despatched by the Regent  to quell a pro-Nasser uprising and civil war in Lebanon (actually put down by US forces) turned instead on their own ruling house. At dawn on 14 July 1958, the boy-king Faisal was murdered, along with his grandmother, his aunt, and others in the palace, including a helpless harmless orphan boy who lived with them.

Abd al-Ilah was dragged through the streets of Baghdad tied with ropes to the back of a truck, then – whether still alive or not when the tuck stopped – his body was dismembered with axes and his limbs and head tossed about by the hysterical mob. His trunk was hung from a balcony and chunks of its flesh were sliced off and thrown to the crowd below. The Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, disguised himself as a woman and tried to escape, but he was caught and killed, and his body flung down on a busy street to be driven over, squashed and broken by the cars full of exulting motorists. His successor too was murdered after five years in power, and his body was fed to dogs.

In 1961, Syria revolted against Egypt’s domination and reasserted its independence. So the UAE was dissolved, and Yemen released. Hafez Assad became president of Syria in 1971. Under his dictatorship, and after him the dictatorship of his son Bashar Assad, rebellion has been put down with ruthless massacres.

Or not put down, as is the case now that civil war rages; or war waged by numerous militias and terrorist groups against the forces of the state. There is no reason to expect a peaceful or stable Syria to emerge out of the chaos, whether Great Powers intervene or not. The Syrians have no precedent for peace and stability in their young unhappy country. 

 

Jillian Becker  September 9, 2013

Remembrance Day in Britain: ‘what was it all for?’ 1

 Ninety years ago today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the First World War came to an end. In Britain good men and women wear poppies in commemoration of that day, and of the ending of the Second World War. The poppy was chosen as a symbol of the sacrifice that the soldiers, sailors and airmen made because so many were buried in Flanders fields where the poppies grow among the graves. Annually the Queen lays a wreath of poppies at the foot of the Cenotaph in Whitehall on the nearest Sunday to the Day of Remembrance. There are parades of veterans. (Three from the First World War are still alive in Britain.) At exactly eleven o’clock in the morning, as Big Ben begins to strike the hour, a ceremonious minute of silence  is observed for those who died defending their country.

The wars ended in victory for Britain, with the indispensable help of America; and so, along with the mourning on this day, there was always a sense of pride among the multitudes at the Cenotaph, and throughout the country, among the descendants of the heroes who had died and of those who had survived. 

But not now. 

The country so many fought so valiantly for has given away its sovereignty, permitted occupation by aliens, been abandoned to criminals. The elected representatives of the people, the politicians, prompted and cheered on by intellectuals in the academies and the media, shrill ideologues of ‘human-rights’ and ‘political correctness’ and ‘multiculturalism’, have betrayed the British people and brought them to shame, impotent anger, bitterness and despair.    

Leo McKinstry writes in the  Daily Express about Britons asking, on this Day of Remembrance, ‘What was it all for?’  (Read the whole story here.)

The question was put to me with stark simplicity.

“What was it all for?” asked the elderly lady, a wistful look in her eyes. “The country that they died for has gone,” she continued, glancing down at the red poppy on her lapel. I had fallen into conversation with her on the steps of the Imperial War Museum in London. Against such a backdrop, dominated by two mighty naval guns at the main entrance, it was inevitable that our thoughts should turn to war and sacrifice. She explained that she had lost close relatives in both World Wars and as a teenager had endured the horrors of the Blitz. Mixed with her admiration for family heroes who had lost their lives in conflict, she also felt utter despair at the state of Britain and a profound sense of betrayal. Although her loved ones had given so much for their country, she now felt like an alien in her own land, living in constant fear of crime and surrounded by foreigners with whom she had no sense of mutual belonging or trust. Her insistent question –  “What was it all for?” – has also been echoing through my mind as I research a book about Bomber Command during the Second World War. It mounted perhaps the most bloody and dangerous British offensive of the conflict, as crews of the heavy bombers flew night after night over Germany through vicious flak from the ground and from Luftwaffe fighters.  Their long-term chances of survival were minimal. More than half of all men who served in air crews were killed in action. The courage required to step into those aircraft for the long journey in blackened night skies over enemy territory is almost beyond imagination.  Thousands of young Britons volunteered for this hellish role, motivated by their deep love of country and an abiding sense of a higher duty to others. They died for their nation but that nation barely exists any more. It has been destroyed by the politicians, its sovereignty handed over to an unelected continental bureaucracy, its economy sold off to foreign interests, its heritage traduced or ignored, its cities turned into modern Babels full of discordant tongues and wailing mosques. 

Posted under Commentary by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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