One hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent in the First World War. Germany had surrendered and the three big empires collapsed — Ottoman, Austrian and Tsarist Russia — leaving behind three big holes throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Nine new states emerged in Europe, including Finland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, while young ones sprouted throughout the Arab world, such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and the Kingdom of the Hejaz. A handful of states also emerged in the Arab Gulf region — all former colonies of the Ottoman Empire, which became British protectorates.
The United States jumped into the world scene during the First World War, asserting itself as a Super Power, having entered the European battlefield earlier that year, ending years of deliberate “isolationism” from the traumas of the “old world”.
When Woodrow Wilson showed up at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, he was the first American president to travel overseas while in office, and the first to take part in such an international convention, aimed at drawing up maps of the new world. In his now famous 14-Point Declaration, Wilson promised “self-determination” to the people of the Third World — a dream still unachieved and harboured by many, even a century later.
The Americans started to get sucked into the complex world of Middle East politics, and with time, that interest grew and evolved: From self-determination of the Arabs to the drilling of the Arab oil, running through the protection of Israel, to combating Communism, then Khomeinism, then Saddamism, and now the threat from Daesh.
Dividing the Arab world
Syrian historian Fadi Esber, editor of Dimashq Journal, told Gulf News: “The First World War and the resulting Ottoman defeat put an end to 14 centuries of institutionalised Islamic Caliphate — an event that still occupies many in the World of Islam, who saw in this watershed a cause for the decline of Islamic civilisation, with some fringe groups today, such as the so-called Islamic State [Daesh], exploiting it to radicalise the youth.”
After the First World War, Britain and France subsequently tore up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, as Syria and Lebanon came under French rule, while Palestine and Iraq went to the British, in accordance with the ill-fated Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The short-lived Kingdom of the Hejaz was overthrown by the Sultan of Nejd, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who created the modern state of Saudi Arabia.
Briefly, between 1918 and 1920, the Arabs got their own independent state in Damascus, ruled by the Hashemite Emir, Faisal Ibn Al Hussain, commander of the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. His small army was quickly crushed by invading French troops in the summer of 1920, and he was exiled to Europe, where he begged the British for a throne. Faisal was subsequently rewarded with a hereditary throne in Baghdad, ruled by his family until the military takeover of 1958. They in turn remained in control of Iraq until the US invasion of 2003.
When assuming his new throne, Faisal wrote to a friend: “There is no Iraqi nation, but groups of people without any idea of nationhood and patriotism or sense of belonging and allegiance to the homeland.” Much of that still applies to Iraq today, in 2018.
As world leaders assemble in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice, few in the Arab world have anything good to say about what was then termed “The Great War”.
Despite modernity in the skylines of several Arab capitals, much of the tribalism, sectarianism and anguish of the First World War still plagues entire communities in the Arab world. One hundred years later, Middle Easterners are still burying their dead, struggling to maintain the artificial borders they were left with at the end of the First World War.
Back then, thousands had died in Ottoman uniform. Hundreds are still dying today, either fighting against Turkish ambitions in the Arab world or while they are on the payroll of the Turkish Government. Just this month, Turkey started preparing an army of 1,200 Syrian recruits, all carrying the red flag of the former Ottoman Empire, to march against Kurdish separatists in northern Syria. One hundred years after the empire’s collapse, Turkey once again controls an entire stretch of territory inside Syria, such as Jarablus, Azaz and Afrin — all liberated from Ottoman rule during the last century.
The artificial borders that Arab states were left with as a result of Sykes-Picot and the First World War have always been a topic of high concern for Arab nationalists. They have spent the past one hundred years cursing the Europeans for dissecting the Arab world, claiming that had they remained a united country, Israel would never have emerged in their midst in 1948.
But seemingly, even those artificial borders are now in doubt.
Sudan was slit in two in 2011. That same year, Libya fell into a gripping civil war; so did Syria, diluting its borders and wiping out entire cities and towns.
An assortment of Turkish, Russian, American, Iranian, Lebanese and Israeli troops now dot the Syrian landscape. Iraq is still in a shambles, Yemen is still at war, and Palestine continues to suffer under brutal Israeli occupation.
Summing up, Esber added: “The war also led to the triumph of an idea that had been burgeoning since the 19th century, namely Arab Nationalism, which emerged as the guiding idea of, at least, the urban politically-active classes and later became the mantra of anti-colonial struggle in Syria, Iraq and Egypt.”
Arab nationalist ideals were a key factor in shaping the post-colonial Middle East, and their current decline is a source of further political and social problems.
“The end of the First World War in 1918 ushered in three decades of European imperialism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, whose political boundaries were drawn by the victors: France and Britain.”
“The decades of colonial practises and machinations that followed sowed the seeds of many local and regional problems, such as the establishment of Israel, the drawing of arbitrary boundaries irrespective of social and economic ramifications and many other issues that current generations still suffer from, and which future generations will have to resolve.
"Any appreciation of the impact of the First World War remains, therefore, a momentary one, as future generations will most likely locate the root causes of the problems that they will be grappling with in the fateful years of the war and its immediate aftermath.”