Over the past few years, the world has become very familiar with the names and locations of many Middle Eastern nations, in part because of stress placed on their borders which garners national headlines and heightens global security concerns. ISIS crossed over from Iraq into Syria. A Russian jet found itself over Turkish airspace. Kurds continue to press for autonomy in their own parts of Syria and Iraq. The cultures of the Middle East are among the oldest in the world, but would it surprise you to know that the many of these countries mentioned in daily headlines are very young? Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are all less than 100 years old, and they have their roots in the aftermath of World War I. For over 400 years before that, each of these states was just a piece of the vast Ottoman Empire, which at its peak stretched from Southeastern Europe to Jerusalem and beyond. This is the first of a series of posts explaining the origins of a few of these nations, why the drawing of their borders was a historic moment, and the significance of this moment in understanding current affairs in the region.
In 1914, as the dominos of global war fell one by one, the Ottoman Empire decided to join the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. Four years later, the Ottomans joined those nations in defeat, prostrate at the feet of Britain, France, the United States and the other victorious allied powers. At the height of the conflict, in 1915, British military official Mark Sykes and French Diplomat François Georges-Picot had outlined a plan for how to partition Ottoman territory, including where the borders were to be drawn for a group of new states to be administered by England and France. This secret accord was known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed, thereby bringing Sykes-Picot to fruition. Turkey was occupied and Ottoman territory divided into quasi-colonies known as “mandates” to be administered by England and France. Armenians, Kurds, and other ethnic groups were promised greater independence.
In Turkey, the draconian peace terms fed a new nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal, also known as Ataturk. Ataturk—literally, “Father of Turks”—led a war of independence against the allies and what remained of Ottoman forces. The Turkish War of Independence lasted from May of 1919 to October of 1922, and resulted in a Turkish victory. Ataturk and his supporters established a new legislative body known as the Grand National Assembly and founded the Republic of Turkey, with Ataturk as the first President. For the first time since 1453, someone other than an Ottoman Sultan ruled in Istanbul. (Before that, Istanbul had been known as Constantinople, and been ruled by the Roman/Byzantine Empire since 330 AD). The new government signed the Treaty of Lausanne with the European Allies, which replaced the Sèvres agreement. This gave Turkey its independence and its borders became approximately the ones we know today. This was the birth of the modern Republic of Turkey, a far more secular, European-oriented nation compared to the Sultanate it replaced.
The Treaty of Lausanne preserved most of the prior terms for the former Ottoman territories to the South. These territories were divided into “Mandates” – new states administered and held by Britain and France. A mandate is distinct from a territory or colony in that the purpose of the mandate is to prepare the people for eventual independence. France split its territory into two smaller states; Syria, and Lebanon. Their borders are roughly the same as the two modern nations of the same name. Lebanon was an area with strong multicultural heritage, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim populations, parts of which had at times enjoyed varying measures of autonomy from the Ottomans. France divided this area into the State of Greater Lebanon. Syria was also an area of historical significance, centered around Damascus, but it had not existed as such a state before either, and its hard border with Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon was historically unprecedented. The British created subdivided their mandate as well, creating Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Jordan was another state which had no historical precedent for why it would exist as a separate state – it was created in part as a reward for Abdullah I bin al-Hussein, who had helped rally Arab guerilla fighters to fight the Ottoman Empire during the War. One of Abdullah’s brothers was granted the Kingship of Iraq for similar reasons. Finally, the British named their last section Palestine, which included the land that would become Israel.
When discussing these new states, it is extremely important to note that there were plenty of Arabs who wanted this to happen, and that these were culturally, geographically, and demographically distinct regions. However, the breaking of the Ottoman Empire by the West was a pivotal moment in history in which the West became the new dominant influence in the region. Never before had such a diversity of states existed in this region and, nine decades later, we are continuing to witness both the good and bad consequences of this moment.