The Modern Middle East: the creation of European colonialism?

This is an essay I wrote for my Middle East class a couple years back. Found it while researching a blog post I am currently writing about the origins of the current civil war in Yemen. Still relevant today.

Sykes-Picot: The map that spawned a century of resentment? Photo credit:

One could contend that Europe literally constructed the modern Middle East; first through conquest and subsequently through the internalisation of Western ideas of nationalism and sovereignty. The current contours, both physical (demarcated boundaries) and socio-political (imported Westphalian state-system) have profoundly influenced the emergence of the Middle East as it is today. I will focus on the country of Syria, its creation under French mandate and the imperatives to formulate notions of national identity, citizenship and social class that could coexist with, or entirely supplant, entrenched identities of clan, tribe and religion in the country. I will also briefly discuss the creation of Iraq, the Kurdish question and the impact of the creation of the Israeli state on the region, including the concomitant Palestinian question, which has served as a symbolic rallying call for pan-Arab nationalism and has remained a visceral reminder of the legacy of foreign influence in the region.


In the sixteenth century, while feudal Europe was still coalescing into nation-states, the Ottoman Empire had reached its height as the dominant military, economic and cultural power in the world (Butler, 2011). Some demarcate the 1774 signing of the treaty, ending the war between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, as the birth of the modern Middle East (see Haass, 2006). By the eighteenth century, advances such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the age of exploration, the expansion of trade, the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution all contributed to Europe surpassing the Ottomans (Goldshmidt, 1979). Napoleon’s relatively unhindered penetration of Egypt in 1798 exposed the region as ripe for conquest (Haass, 2006). Thus began an era that lasted until the onset of the First World War, in which the tenuous political parameters provided by the Ottoman Empire were decimated by the accelerating and avaricious agendas of European colonial penetration in North Africa, the Nile Valley and the Gulf (Brynen, 1991). Unable to compete with the increasingly capitalist, industrial states of Europe, the Ottoman Empire atrophied. The three Allies, France, Russia and Great Britain, spent the end of the nineteenth century on death watch, waiting for the “Sick Man of Europe” to expire so that they could carve up the corpse and partition the spoils (Bromley, 2005).


Sykes-Picot: The map that started it all

In the aftermath of World War One, Britain and France, the two remaining Allies with interests to stake claim in the region sought to consolidate their objectives within the framework of the nascent international order. The Bolsheviks rescinded Russia’s claims and published the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, much to the embarrassment of the remaining entente powers). The  Sykes-Picot Agreement formed the basis of the League of Nations settlement in 1920 at the San Remo Conferences and, for many, is regarded as simply a “continuation of pre-war expansionist policies and imperialist desires, which the governments involved were finally being permitted to openly act upon” (Butler, 2011; p. 24).


Technically, there were only a handful of colonies in the Middle East in the twentieth century, such as Aden, Libya and Algeria. For the rest, imperial power was indirectly exercised under various labels, most commonly “protectorates” or “mandates” (Owens, 2004). The two powers shouldered the “sacred trust of civilisation” and assumed charge of the well-being and development of those beleaguered territories “which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” (Article 22 of the Covenant League of Nations, 1919, as cited by Rabinovich & Reinhartz, 2008; p. 40). Under their tutelage, France and Britain were entrusted with leading fledgling states towards independence and the mandate system was viewed by some as a tool of the inchoate international community to engineer global peace. However, despite the paternalistic rhetoric of the League, neither France nor Britain genuinely regarded the interests of the indigenous populations as paramount upon receiving their respective spheres. The entente powers “cleaved and spliced territories, assigned boundaries on the basis of imperial need, Orientalist assumptions and historic accident” (Gelvin, 1995). More cynical observers  saw the move from colonial to the mandate system as merely the refashioning of old colonial possessions “more appropriate to the zeitgeist of Wilsonian international liberalism” (Neep, 2012; p. 23) while in reality that mandates were “little more than thinly disguised title deeds, enabling the overseer to promote political, strategic and economic interests” (Smith, 1993; p. 4).


France solidified existing links what was known as “Greater Syria”, hoping to maintain its role as protector of Lebanon’s Maronite population and institutionalise centuries-old tied with Syrian Catholics. It also hoped to reap benefits from its investments in the Fertile Crescent. Strategically, it wished to prevent Arab nationalism from infecting its North African empire (Fildis, 2011). Britain focused on safeguarding sea routes to India, securing cheap, accessible oil for its military and ensuring postwar security to facilitate trade (Gelvin, 1995). During these territorial shifts, “borders were being drawn more or less arbitrarily, with little reference to historical precedent or in the case of the Arabs, religious factions, traditional tribal boundaries and dynastic claims” (Butler, 2011; p.  215). For example, Syria’s heterogeneous makeup includes many diverse religious and ethnic identities, comprised of 25% non-Sunni/Shi’a Muslims (Alawites, Druze, Isma’ilis), non-Muslims (such Christians) and non-Arabs (Kurds, Circassians, Turkomans). It is upon these complex demographic matrices of overlapping ethnicities, tribal cleavages and religious groups (as well as class discrepancies and the rural-urban divide) that France demarcated borders.


Syria: an artificial state, a non-existent nation

As part of this “divide and rule” policy, the French divided Lebanon and Syria (thereby ensuring the existence of a friendly, predominantly Christian coastal enclave in Lebanon), and further partitioning Syria’s inland territory into administrative units. This nullified many centralising, homogenising processes necessary for  nation-state building (Gelvin, 1995). The Treaty of Westphalia, regarded as the birth of the modern state system, displaced religion as a basis of authority. Secular states became the primary unit of international relations, and were not to favour any of its citizens (Roeder, 2007). Many have argued that this was never upheld in the s in the Middle East. The entente powers imported intrinsically flawed forms of the state-system to the Middle East that had conflict and instability built in (Hinnebusch, 2012).


Under the Ottoman Empire, communities in the territory now known as Syria had been considerably segmented and self-sufficient, regarding other with little more than suspicion. Ethnic conflict had been minimised by occupational niches, economic autonomy and relative segregation. These centuries-old rifts between the various religious, tribal and ethnic cleavages were exacerbated under the French Mandate in Syria, as sectarian loyalties were deliberately incited to hinder percolating Arab nationalism (Neep, 2012). Communities who previously had minimal interaction now found themselves competing for state support. Religious groups were not only given special rights of self-management, but allocated places within the political system on communal, rather than individual basis. Electoral positions were reserved for minorities in most colonial legislatures (Van Dam, 2011). France also favoured the military recruitment of minorities, such as Alawis, Druzes and Kurds in forming part of France’s Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which had the task of suppressing local rebellions. Ambitious Alawis gradually monopolised the army (Kaplan, 1993) and this translated into social and political gains, most visibly with the autocratic dynasty of the Assad family (Haklai, 2006). The state struggled to convince groups that it was a neutral political institution.; membership offered by the state appeared alien, abstract and suspect in comparison with the immediacy of the tribe/community.


The task of creating “Syrian” identity competed with existing loyalties such as those to Pan-Arabism. This movement materialised as a reactionary product of the mandate system and was contingent on the ability of the masses to mobilise around shared history, language and geographical contingency. The “Westphalianisation” of the Arab world could not obfuscate the pre-Mandate social matrices or negate existing economic and ideological structures that spilled across state borders. The flow of people and ideas such as Arab and Islamic unity successfully transcended mandate-delineated boundaries (Halliday, 2003) and the artificiality of state memberships was one key argument in favour of Pan-Arab unity (Owens, 2004). The Syke-Picot Agreement conflicted with the ambitions of Arab Nationalists, who had clung to the promises London had made to Hussein while the British were still in the Sinai, in the form of the McMahon Hussein Correspondences (Butler, 2011). France’s rule over Syria was in contravention of the assurances given to Hussein’s son Faisal who had established a “Kingdom of Syria” in October 1919, the boundaries of which were to include Jordan and Palestine. Regardless, the British withdrew and the French moved in, and they soon dissolved Faisal’s government (Fildis, 2011).


After the pivotal post-WWI watershed, the constellation of the modern Middle East states lurched into existence. Apart from the border expansions of Israel in 1948 and 1967, most of the territorial dispensations created by the time of the San Remo (1920) and Lausanne Conference (1923) are still with us (Sluglett, 2005). The survival of these borders is not in itself surprising, but the ability of state to keep pan-Arab claims circumscribed and to claim the loyalty of those within. The boundaries are no longer as “illusory and permeable” as they were once thought to be. Despite initially viewing the West as a threat and the state system as illegitimate, states are now assured in asserting their sovereign control, military and legitimacy.


The unique aetiology of each state varies with regard to its historical experience. In Egypt, the logic of geography, a tangible “Egyptian society” and strong administration predated the mandate era. Turkey withstood imperialism, established sovereign borders compatible with the idea of a “Turkish nation” and garnered sufficient legitimacy to later democratise (Hinnebusch, 2012).


The improbable Iraq

The most improbable state constructed in the Fertile Crescent during this period was Iraq. Britain – wishing to turn the rich agricultural lands of Mesopotamia into a granary for their Indian colony – amalgamated two former Ottoman provinces, Baghdad and Basra (Tripp, 2007). To ensure the economic viability of the new state, Britain affixed the oil rich province of Mosul to what would become Iraq (Gelvin, 1995). The Iraqi population included significant ethnic and religious differences: Shi’i Arabs (including the Hejazi king), Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Kurds in the north, who would have preferred (and still do) self-rule. In (1921) King Faisal I of Iraq (a consolation prize offered to him after he had been removed as ruler of Syria in France), remarked,


“In Iraq there is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever” (as cited in Bunton, 2008; p.  635).

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, they spoke of Iraqi people with the same tacit understanding of a homogenous French nation or Japanese nation. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush’s military strategies in the country did not fully prepare for the descent into civil war between antagonistic factions of Sunni, Shia and Kurds.


The Kurdish people: a nation without a state

Claims for self-determination made by the Kurdish people have continually been frustrated. Kurds are a predominantly Sunni Muslim, non-Arab ethnic group with a distinct language and history. After World War One, President Wilson made vague allusions to a Kurdish state within the framework of his Fourteen Point Plan, but these never materialised, and the Kurds’ opaque yet contiguous territory was divided among four independent countries which commanded loyalty to Arab majority polities. Up to 25 million Kurds constitute an estimated 18% of the population in Turkey, 23% in Iraq, 10% in Iran, and 10% in Syria. The discovery of major oil fields and other mineral riches in the Kurdish heartland have resulted in government paranoia about Kurdish separatist aspiration (Gambill, 2004). During the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam Hussein orchestrated widespread ethnic cleansing of Kurdish populations in northern Iraq, known as the Anfal Campaign. Attempts to set up an independent Kurdistan in Iraq following the 1990 Gulf War resulted in their rebellions against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime being brutally suppressed (Galbraith, 2006).


The echoes of the Balfour Declaration still heard today

The Balfour Declaration wasa letter dated 2 November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, which stated:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”

The implications of the Balfour Declaration  highlight again how influential the colonial period was in shaping the region. In November 1917, Britain pledged support for the Zionist cause of establishing a “national home” for the Jewish diaspora and opened up Palestine for Jewish settlement.King Hussein was ready to accept the Balfour Declaration insofar that it didn’t result in Palestine losing its Arab identity (Salt, 2008). However, Balfour himself remarked,

“the literal fulfillment of all [Britain’s] declarations is impossible, partly because they are incompatible with each other, and partly because they are incompatible with facts” (in a letter to Earl Curzon, 1919, as cited by Salt, 2008; p. 122).

The first Zionist settlers from 1880s saw themselves as beacons of Western civilisation, arriving in the backward Arab regions to make the “deserts bloom” and this suited Britain’s imperialist agendas.


The first Zionist settlers did not regard themselves as an appendage to colonial expansion, but rather as a postcolonial state-building enterprise and the culmination of their struggle for liberation, following an unalleviated history as an oppressed people (Murphy,  2005) The severance of the Palestinians from their land, (due in part to the Jewish National Fund, established in 1901 purchasing much of the land from absentee landlords, but also, as a result of the 1948 “Naqba”) changed the fundamental demographic compositions in Palestine, and eradicated Palestine from the map as a political entity (Shiblak, 2003). Acquisition of territories during the 1967 war resulted in Arab populations coming under occupation in a democratic country, without being granted full citizenship. Such policies have led to some labelling Israel as an apartheid (Glase, 2003) or ethnic democracy, extending “preferential treatment to Jews who wish to preserve the embedded Jewishness of the state” (Smooha, 2002; p. 205); with others viewing Israel as another example of settler colonisation that imposed differential political rights and racial superiority over “native” populations and, ultimately, a desire to expel such indigenous people from the newly acquired land (see Penslar, 2008).


Isreal: perceived by its neighbours as a continuation of European colonialism

The defeat of seven Arab armies in 1948 by Israel’s inchoate army was attributed to the continued legacy of colonialism and of Arab government complicity, which rendered the intervention of these armies a tragic farce in the Arab psyche (Salt, 2006). The Jordanian Iraqi and Egyptian armies were neither sufficiently trained, equipped nor truly independent; the Jordanian army was under the command of the British military, while Egypt, under King Farouq, and Iraq, under King Faisal II, were circumscribed by British influence.


The wave of nationalist governments from 1940s onwards used the “Zionist entity” as a rallying point to garner mass support, citing it as a vestige of colonialism, established under British auspices and with stateless Palestinian Arabs its victims (Mansdorf, 2007). The Palestinian refugee problem has been the vehicle for Pan-Arabist aspirations, and a source of symbolism, around which many Pan Arabists movements have coalesced.


In conclusion, beginning with Napoleon’s penetration of the region in 1798, Europeans have looked upon the modern Middle East as a territory to exert influence. The atrophy of the Ottoman Empire combined with increased European presence gave rise to the “Eastern Question,” regarding how to deal with the Ottomans after its demise, with various powers trying to answer this – to their own advantage – ever since.


In the international zeitgeist advocating self-determination, flawed notions of state and nation were imported into the region, competing with the far more lucrative material opportunities available to France and Britain. The remnants of colonial agendas led to artificially divided peoples and a bewildering tasks of forging new national identities and state loyalties, even against the will of the native populations. This has been made even more difficult, considering Kurds’ and Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood have continually been thwarted. Other obstacles involve Pan Arab and Pan Islamic aspirations, competing for the same loyalties, often from anti-colonialism and self-determination platforms.


The current civil war ongoing in Syria, is once again highlighting the different religious and ethnic factions that are dividing the country. The Alawite dominated upper echelons of Syria’s secular Ba’ath party and are struggling to assert legitimacy in many areas of the country, especially in areas with high concentration of Sunni Arabs. In the aftermath of the civil war, many questions will remain: who will fill the vacuum of power left by the Assad family and what will happen to the Alawite people? Will Kurds push for secessionist demands? Would a victorious Sunni-dominated country comply with the international template of a secular, democratic state or instead lean more toward Islamic theocracy? All these questions have their origins in European state building strategies in the region and will continue to affect all those involved, in the Middle East and beyond, for years and decades to come.




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