World War I


Turkey entered the First World War on 29 October 1914. They inevitably sided with Germany, who lost the war, and as a result Turkey was stripped of all its Arab possessions. These territories became Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. Turkey as we know it today, only just managed to escape being divided up. It was merely the intervention of the Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1919, was able to really save Turkey from disintegration by rallying the Turkish people together and showing the victorious allies that Turkey would resist division at any level . Turkey retained the territory that became the modern Turkish state. The old Arab provinces were however divided into the other Arab countries we know today.

During the First World War, Britain encouraged what was known as the ‘Arab revolt’. After the war the British tried to install the sons of the Sherif of Mecca, members of the aristocratic Hashemite family, as rulers in the Arab countries. These men and their Arab followers had fought alongside the British against the Turks in the Arab revolt, under the leadership of the British officer well known as Lawrence of Arabia.

One Hashemite brother, Feisal, became King of Iraq under strict British protection. His brother, Abdullah, became Emir and later King of Transjordan, now the Kingdom of Jordan, King Hussein, is King Abdullah’s grandson.

The new shape of the Middle East and the boundaries between the Arab states of Syria and Iraq were settled in private agreements between France and Britain during the First World War. Political arrangements were made at two large international conferences, namely the great Paris peace conference in 1919, and the San Remo conference in 1920.

At the Paris peace conference the League of Nations emerged. At San Remo, the Supreme Allied Council assigned mandates, authorizing Britain to take charge of Palestine and Iraq, and France to take control of Syria. The final list of countries created after the war out of former Turkish territory comprised Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The mandates were confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922.

Iraq eventually became an independent state in 1932. Syria and Lebanon were declared independent by the Free French authorities sometime in 1941, during the Second World War and Jordan became independent in 1946.

Israel came into being in a unique way. In 1917 the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, had made an assurance known as the ‘Balfour Declaration’ to the leaders of the Jewish Zionist movement. This conveyed Britain’s agreement that the Jews were able to create what was best described as a ‘national home’ in Palestine.

One group of people who failed to gain their independence during this specific period was the Kurds. The Kurds speak their own language and live a separate life in the mountains on the Iraq, Iran and Turkey boarder. They were essentially promised their own independent state, which would be called Kurdistan. This was discussed at the conference in San Remo. However, Turkey successfully demanded that the idea of an independent Kurdistan, in what is now eastern Turkey, should be dropped.

Elsewhere in the Middle East new nations were also slowly being created. Egypt had been independent in all but name from the old Ottoman Empire since 1805, when the great Egyptian, Khedive Muhammad Ali, took power. Britain had held a major influence in Egypt since 1882 when British troops were deported to Egypt, during the First World War when Egypt became a British protectorate. Egypt became independent in 1922, though Britain kept a great deal of control in a number of aspects of Egyptian affairs. The last King of Egypt, King Farouk, a distant descendent of Muhammad Ali, was deposed by the Egyptian revolution of Colonel Nasser and General Neguib in 1952.

Libya was another semi-independent region of the Ottoman Empire until 1911, when it was attacked by Italy. Libya was occupied by the Italians until after the Second World War, and it finally became fully independent in 1951.

Also around 1911, the so-called Wahhabi group obtained control over the majority of the Arabian Peninsula, which later became the independent state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. During the 1930’s, the boundaries of the independent Emirates, which today are the Gulf States, were settled under British protection. The old state of Yemen in south-west Arabia signed a frontier agreement with the Saudis in 1934. The British held South Yemen as a colony. It did not become independent until late 1967, and then merged with North Yemen in 1990.

Lastly, to the East, Iran was already seen as an independent state, though foreign troops intervened in Iranian territory throughout the First World War, Iran was ruled by shahs of Qajar dynasty. After the war, there was a brief period of political trouble, and in 1925 the late shah’s father, a soldier, took the throne. That specific dynasty was not overthrown until 1979, when the Islamic Republic of Iran was set up.

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