187: Versailles Pt. 6 - Breaking Up the Middle East


The Middle East would be broken up between the British and French, but they had some problems determining exactly how, and then keeping control of their new territory.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 187, Breaking Up the Middle East. Last episode we discussed some of the views and interactions of those in Paris as it related to the Middle East both before and in the early stages of the Paris Peace Conference. We then also looked at Feisal Hussein’s time in Paris which, as the representative of essentially the entire Arab world, was very important. Today we will start digging into the consequences of the decisions made during the Conference on the people of the Middle East and the former Ottoman empire. The Arabs were hoping to emerge into the post war world as members of independent countries free from the shackles of European imperialism, unfortunately they were in for extreme disappointment. Basically, nothing would really work out like they hoped. In Syria, Arabia, Palestine, and Mesopotamia the Arabs would almost always find that their dreams of sovereignty were usurped by the desires of the Europeans, be they British, French, or Jewish, all would come into the region and take control. In this specific episode we will look at the post-war situation in Syria and Mesopotamia, which would eventually gain its modern day name of Iraq. We will pass on most of the discussions about the mandate of Palestine, an areas that would eventually turn into the modern day country of Isael, because that is a topic that requires its own episode, which will be released here in just a few weeks. While all of these areas have their own stories for this time period they all did have one thing in common, they all had just a few months before been part of the same empire, the Ottoman Empire, so what happened to that?

After the Ottomans had signed an armistice with the Allies things began to move quite quickly on the ground. The first order of business was to send Allied officers, bureaucrats, and observers to move in to supervise the situation in Istanbul. This will be a topic we discuss in greater detail next episode when discussing the fate of what is today the country of Turkey, but right after the war the French and British started to occupy and control certain important cities. For the French Alexandretta, which is today called Iskenderun, was an important stepping stone for their presence in the region. Back at the Conference, while everyone agreed that the Ottoman Empire needed to be dealt with, there was not exactly a great deal of urgency to get it over with. The matter was not discussed until January 30th, and then only obliquely, since it was only brought up when trying to hash out the mandates of German colonies. Lloyd George was pushing the idea of turning many of the areas that had been part of the Ottoman Empire into mandates for the various victorious powers. He would claim that the government in Istanbum had done a very poor job of administering and ruling all of the areas occupied by the Arabs, so Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Arabia, and because of this poor showing all of it should be removed from their control. Of course, the Arabs were not really capable of ruling themselves, and so they would need some help from the Europeans, because of course they would. There was also the situation with the Armenians. The Armenian genocide was well known to the leaders in Paris and around the world, and so there was just a general assumption that an Armenia should be created. Then there were also discussions about creating a new state for the Kurds, and Kurdistan, although this would not end up happening. Once all of these pieces of the former empire were removed the Turks would be left with areas around Istanbul, in Anatolia, and a bit on the European sid. While discussing all of these ideas with the Americans Lloyd George must have forgot to mention all of the little bits of territory that had been promised to the French, Italians, and Greeks which would remove even more territory from the Turks. Wilson found himself in something of an odd position during all of these discussions. Technically the United States had never actually declared war on the ottoman Empire, and so he did not really have any kind of mandate to discuss how it was dismantled. there was a piece of the Fourteen Points that addressed the Ottoman Empire, saying “The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” It is easy to see how what Lloyd George was proposing fit within this framework, if you give the most charitable possible interpretation to the concept of mandates and that they would allow for “an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” While the broad strokes were easy to agree on, the details of the exact distribution of mandates was something that the French had some real difficulties agreeing on. Due to these difficulties the Supreme Council did what it did best in the early months of the conference, they kicked the can down the road. Wilson suggested that a committee be setup to discuss with military advisors and experts what should be done and how best the territory coudl be occupied in the short term. Further discussions would happen at that wonderfully nebulous point, the future. This subject would only make the agenda one time in February, on the 10th, which is when the report from the committee was completed and ready for presentation. However, it would not end up being discussed at that time because it got supplanted by a discussion about the borders of Belgium. The fate of the Empire would then stay on ice for a few more weeks, until February 26th, and this time it would only be discussed because on that day the Armenian delegation was scheduled to make an appearance before the Supreme Council. The Armenians were in a very sad position, the genocide had been happening for years, they had been a persecuted minority in Ottoman lands for centuries, and very soon they would be targetted by the Bolsheviks. They placed much of their hpe in the United States and in Wilson, with one American expert saying that “Scarcely a day passed that mournful Armenians, bearded and black-clad, did not besiege the American delegation or, less frequently, the President, setting forth the really terrible conditions in their own native land.” Unfortunately for the Armenian people they would not find many nations capable of helping them, Armenia was just too far away, too isolated, and was soon surrounded by forces that the Allies did not have the power to resist. The Armenians will make another appearance in our story when the Bolsheviks come a knocking in 1920.

After the meeting in February the negotiations around sorting out the Middle East would once agian be cast aside while the details of the treaty as it related to Germany were hashed out. It would be revisited during May, at which point the British and French would finally get down to the business of hashing out the details. The British were at the height of their ambitions in the Middle East, and that meant that they were very strongly questioning why the French should get Syria, the British were the ones that had fought in the region, they deserved it. This was a very commonly held belief in London, and there were even discussions that maybe the British could get the French to trade their influence in Syria for control of Istanbul. These discussions did not get very far, but just the fact that the concept existed is impressive. The French were planning a more indirect form of rule in Syria, they honestly were just hoping that it would be cheaper because money was pretty hard to come by for the post-war French government. These hopes for a mostly hands off approach would slowly change over the course of 1919 though, mostly due to the actions of the British. On May 21st the conversations between Clemenceau and Lloyd George became very heated. Lloyd George suggested that France receive only a provisional mandate over Syria, pending a report from a Commission of Inquiry. This really got Clemenceau fired up, he accused Lloyd George of duplicity, since he had already agreed to other terms for Syria in private with the French. He also said that France would not cooperate with the commission at all until French troops were on the ground in Syria.

As the debate on the future of Syria continued to be grow in intensity Clemenceau threated to reopen a few topics that were believed to be already settled, and the first one the list would be the fate of Mosul. Clemenceau had traded away Mosul to the British before the Conference even began and he now said that perhaps he wanted to reopen that discussion. This threat went far beyond just Mosul and its surroundings because it would cast the Conference’s eye on the entire area of Mesopotamia. Up to this point the British had done a very good job of keeping everybody away from really questioning what it was planning for the region, and they really wanted to keep it that way. It ended up working out pretty well for the French because they were able to get some concessions around oil from Mosul. Already at this point Mosul was the focal point for oil in the region and the British agreed to give the 1/4 share in the Turkish Petroleum Company in exchange for the French allowing two pipelines to be build from Mosul to the Mediterranean. The French also had to permanently abandon their claims to Mosul.

While all of these negotiations with the British were still ongoing, the French were also trying to work with Feisal. The idea from the very beginning was that Feisal would be in charge of Syria under the French mandate, but what exactly this relationship would look like was an open question, and both sides had very different answers. The French throught that they were getting total control of the region, and they wanted Feisal to mostly just be rubberstamping things. But Feisal thought he was getting an independent kingdom with just some light French assistance. These two viewpoints were almost entirely unreconcilable. It did not help that the French always suspected the Feisal was secretly working with the British to undermine the French position. Negotiations between the two parties would continue for the rest of the year, with both sides seeing the other’s proposals as completely unrealistic.

A major change in the negotiations would occur in November 1919, because at that time Clemenceau lost the French elections. In the elections the imperialistic factions within the French government gained far more control. The new Premier, Millerand, woudl take a much more hardline stance with Syria and Feisal. This would begin a period where the French began to really control their mandates. Most of the mandatory powers at least put on a show to the effect that they were allowing self-rule in their mandates, but the French did not even try to lie. When they moved in, they were going to take full military and administrative control. In Syria they would use the rise of Syrian nationalists as an excuse to extend French power. There were groups within Syria, and I hope you are not too surprised to hear this, were not a huge fan of the fact that the country was basically functioning as a French colony. When they tried to change the situation, Millerand called them extremists and began throwing accusations and Feisal that he was working with them. He would write to General Gouraud, the leading French military commander in Syria, that Feisal was required to “prove that he is capable of being obeyed by the Arabs on all occasions so that our agreements are respected to the mutual benefit of all parties concerned. He has to offer more complete proof to impose his authority; if this is not forthcoming, we ourselves would be authorized to take any measures necessary for the maintenance of order, the defense of th epeople, and the safety of our troops. Regarding the Sherifians, you certainly possess the means of imposing respect for our rights.” Along with these demands, which were created to be almost impossible to satisfy, Millerand also began working on changing the previous agreements between the French and Feisal and the Syrians.

While the French were so concerned that Feisal was working with the Syrian nationalists he was, indeed, working with the Syrian nationalists. Essentially since the time he had taken over as the leader of Syria the Syrians had been pressuring him to try and get more concessions from the French. Well, most of the more hardcore Syrians wanted him to just declare Syrian independence, but Feisal as hoping to strike a balance between the two. Feisal feared that any declaration dealing with Syrian independence, or even Syrian rights in general, would lead to open war with france, which it almost certainly would have. Unfortunately for Feisal, and French control grew, and as their desires to grow their power even more grew, balance between the two sides became impossible. Feisal was forced to side with either the French or the nationalists, and he chose the latter. This led to the Syrian Congress proclaiming him King of Syria on March 7, 1920. This proclamation was against the wishes of the French, and Gouraud was concerned about what it could mean for the French position in the region, he would write to Paris that “We remain under the threat of an attack which can be launched at any time. Everywhere the political agitation caused by the proclamations of the Syrian Congress is extreme. In Syria it is no secret that every means will be used to force us to recognize the decisions of the Congress.” When news reached Paris, Millerand did not back down, and instead took a hard line, saying “the successive concessions which have been made have only resulted in emboldening our enemies and compromising our positions.”

The French doubled down on controlling Syria, and on May 22, 1920 Gouraud was informed that two more French divisions were on their way. When they arrived he was instructed to launch a decisive action against Feisal. On July 14th, with the additional troops now under his control, Gouraud would send an ultimatum to Feisal. Feisal would actually accept this ultimatum, which required many concessions from the Syrians, however news of this acceptance would not reach Gouraud in time, and troops were already on their way to Damascus. He sent another order halt their march, but by this point Millerand was unwilling to simply call off the entire operation. Another ultimatum, this time designed to be rejected was sent to Feisal. It demanded complete French control of Syria’s military, political, administrative, financial, educational, and judicial systems. Again, this was designed to be rejected, which Feisal did, and the March on Damascus resumed. The result was never really in doubt, and soon the French had control of the country. The Arab troops under Feisal’s control were not match for the French, and he would be forced into exile in Palestine. Gouraud, under orders from Paris, broke Syria up into several different political units. French administrators were put in complete control of these units. Syria beame a French colony, and any pretense of self-government was removed. While this move was successful in preventing the rise of Syrian nationalism, he would not result in a successful relationship between the Syrians and the French. French control would last for the next 25 years, but they would gain little for all of the resources and manpower that they poured into the region.

While French was trying to get a handle on their new control of Syria, all the territory to the south went to the British, but before we talk about what they decided to do with Mesopotamia, we need to talk about Egypt and India. India and Egypt were incredibly important to the British Empire, for a variety of reasons, with geographical positioning being high on the list. However, there was a problem, in both countries there were growing nationalist movements which threatened British power in both regions, a huge concern in London. Before the Paris Peace Conference even began, and really even before the war was over, the nationalist movement in Egypt was gaining support. By tht etime that the Conference did start hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had signed petitions supporting a free and independent Egypt. This movement would be led by the Wafd Party, which would be the leading Egyptian political party after the war. This movement would directly threaten British power in Egypt, which while not technically a British colony essentially functioned as a British puppet state.The nationalist movements rapidly turned into a revolution. On March 9th British authorities arrested Saad Zaghlul, a leading nationalist, along with three other leaders, and they were all deported to Malta. This action set Egypt on fire, and the next day striks and demonstrations swept the country. The protests then turned violent. Communication and transportation infrastrucure was attacked and on March 18th 8 British soldiers were killed by the Egyptian mobs. The British then imposed martial law and brought in Allenby to manage the situation. They were then greatly shocked when Allenby reported that he believed that the British had to release the nationalists immediately. He believed it was the only way that he would be able to work with the Egyptians and he would have to work with them, for reasons we will discuss after we discuss India.

India was also in an uneasy situation after the war. In March and April 1919 there were large scale demonstrations in many major cities. The catalyst for these demonstratins was new legislation that was put n place which in essence indefinitely extended the powers given to the government during the war. On April 6th, Gandhi called for a general strike across all of India, and this strike would involve some violence, against the wishes of Gandhi himself. Just a week into the strike a British officer in the Punjab city of Amritsar ordered his troops to fire into a large crowd, an act that would spark the Amritsar Massacre, sometimes called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. 379 civilians were dead and 1,100 wounded. This act moved many moderate Indians to a believe that continued British rule, in its current form, was no longer the best path for India.

Both the situation in India and Egypt were very important to British actions in the Middle east, because they both demonstrated the limits of British power after the war. allenby had to work iwth the Egyptians because the British army was rapidly demobilizing, and the soldiers were adamant that he demobilization continue, or even that it shoudl accelerate. Allenby was losing 20,000 soldiers every month during the spring of 1919 to these demobilization efforts. In Egypt and Mesopotamia there were also problems with the costs of maintaining the armies in the area, Curzon would report during a Cabinet meeting in the summer of 1919 that “This fact did emerge; the burden of maintaining an English and an Indian Army of 320,000 men in various parts of the Turkish Empire and in Egypt, or of 225,000 men excluding Egypt, with its overwhelming cost, is one that can no longer be sustained.” This monetary crunch would cause Lloyd George to pull British troops out of Syria in September, hastening its transition to French rule. As for the Egyptian situation, it would not really be sorted out, much like other areas of the Middle East, until April 1920 at the San Remo conference, a conference that will be featured on another podcast episode later this year.

Elsewhere in the Middle East the British were deciding what to do with the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. These three provinces had little in common with each other, but the British wanted to the combine them into one administrative area. Immediately after the war the British leaders told their representatives in Baghdad to not let anybody in the area know that the future had been decided, and to make sure they all believed it was still up in the air. In fact, the most important pices of that future were already set in stone, there had been some discussions about creating three different countries, or of splitting off just the Mosul province into a Kurdistan, but both ideas were rejected quite early. All three provinces would be formed into one whole.

For anybody familiar with these territories, or even really just the 20th century history of Iraq, you will know that there were some serious problems caused by combining the three into one country. In typical European fashion this action was still taken because the British leaders were pretty good at ignoring the intricasies of the relationships between the various groups in the area, groups that they were deciding the futures of. they assumed that the Arab Muslims all had a common identity, completely ignoring the very important Shia-Sunni divide. Then once Mosul was added into the mix they ignored the differences between those two groups and the Kurds. A similar mistake was made in Syria, where the Kurdish population was thrown in with the rest of the country almost haphazardly. In Baghdad there was some concern among local British officials that grouping all of these diverse groups into one country would create a situation where creating an actual representative government would be almost impossible, and they were quite right.

This mix of people, and the poor job of gaining their support meant that the situation in Mesopotamia in 1920 was very explosive, and the first explosion would happen in June 1920. At that time tribes along the Euphrates rose up against the British in a rebellion, resulting the deaths of 450 British troops and 10,000 tribesmen. In the north Kurdish nationalists would also become more and more aggressive. This situation would continue until early 1921, at which point Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, went to Cairo for a Conference on what should be done about the entire ares of British control in the Middle East. The British leaders were divided on the value of Mesopotamia, but with Churchill among the powerful voices in favor of making it work the discussion became what to do with the areas, not how to abandom them. The solution that would landed on was to install a King, and Arab King, onto a new Kindom that would be called Iraq. This king would given a good amount of power, so that he could control the situation, but where to find somebody who the British trusted and who had any chance of being accepted by the people?

Queue the triumphant entrance music as Feisal appears. The British did owe Feisal at least something, they had sort of thrown him to the French, and he was a pretty ideal candidate all things considered. Feisal and his family had a reputation for religious tolerance, an important trait in such a divided country. He also had the nationalist credentials to hopefully convince others that he was more than just a British puppet. Since it seemed to work so well, the Kingdom of Iraq was created with Feisal at its head. Much like Syria or Palestine this was a totally artifical country mostly created out of thin air on maps back in Europe. And almost as soon as Feisal became king he came into conflict with the religious leaders of the Shia majority. This pressure came mainly from the Mujtahids, which much like the nationalists in Syria wanted greater and greater autonomy for Iraq. Faisal would spend most of the time between being named as King and singing the Anglo-Iraqi treaty in 1922, which formalized the relationship between the two countries, just trying to keep the balance between the British leaders on one side and the Arab nationalists on the other. In this task he would have much more success in Iraq than in Syria.

In 1924 elections would be held in Iraq, but they were, lets say constructed, so that the Sunnis, who were much greater supporters of Feisal, would be victorious. This would set up a long series of Sunni cominated governments in Iraq, which was also a cause for a good amount of the country’s instability. Guiditta Fontana would have this to say about the reasons for this in the paper Creating Nations, Establishing States: Ethno-Religious Heterogeneity and the British Creation of Iraq in 1919–23 “The history of twentieth century Iraq is largely characterized by the presistence of tensions between different ethno-religious groups and by the efforts of the Sunni-dominated central governments to impose their exclusive authority over the Kurds in the north and to politically marginalize the Shias. Tensions can be largely traced back to the artificial political and geographical configuration of the State of Iraq as created by the British between 1919 and 1923.” While the path had been long and costly for the British, in 1925 it all started to pay off when it singed a 75 year contract with the Iraq Petroleum company which gave the British almost total control over Iraqi oil. In 1932 the Mandate would be cancelled and Iraq would be given full independence, although the British would still remain in the country, and they would of course still have that majority stake in the oil. I am going to ry my best not to make too m any comparisons to the modern day work in these episodes, that just is not what this podcast is about. However, it is hard not to see the similarities between the situation where a foreign power comes in, replaces the existing government in the region, makes sure the new one gets put in place, realizes that maybe it isn’t going to work out as well as hoped, and ends up moving on. And that, well, that is all I will say about that.

One other region that I will mention here at the end of Saudi Arabia. Last episode I mentioned that Ibn Saud was not invited to Paris, to his great consternation. In May 1919 he started an open war against the British backed forces of Hussein and Abdullah in the Hejaz, and these clashes did not go well for the Hashemites. The British sent in T.E. Lawrence and John Philby to try and broker some sort of peace, but they never had too much of a chance. Ibn Saud was in no mood to negotiate with representatives of countries that he knew at that very moment were discussing arrangements in Paris that would leave him surrounded by enemies. Ibn Saud also had very radical supporters that he had to placate for the time being while he consolidated his power, and so he continued his push for Mecca and Medina. He would capture the two cities just a short time later, after the British had mostly washed their hands of the entire situation, tired of pouring money and resources into the Arab infighting on the peninsula. In 1929 Ibn Saud would gain full control over the territories in Arabia, and he would found Saudi Arabia, at the time the area was thought to be mostly worthless economically, but then in 1938 oil was discovered, and the rest as they say, is history.