I came across this map on display in the Smithsonian Library of Congress Museum. It says so much!
This is one of the original maps used to carve up the Middle East after World War 1. Look at all the straight lines! This is the “US” copy, which shows that US was not an innocent bystander while Britain and France carved up the region.
And it begs a simple question: Is the Middle East, Middle to whom?
By the end of the 19th Century, the British Empire covered 13.01 million square miles of land, almost one-fourth of the world. The empire encompassed about 458 million people through overseas colonies, dominions, protectorates, trading posts and mandates. The strategic goal for the “Iran Region” for much of 19th Century had been to build a land bridge to India across Arabia and Iran and ward off Russian and then Ottoman encroachment! The way the Brits looked at West Asia (or what they called the Middle East) was half-way to India!
Russia, then Germany and the “Great Wars” however interfered with their plans.
To make a long story short, just two days after the British navy lost against the Turkish army, the British government signed a secret agreement with Russia that included a hypothetical post-WWI division of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence.
According to the agreement that was signed on March 20, 1915, Russia would claim Constantinople, the Bosporus Strate, the Dardanelles, the Gallipoli peninsula and more than half of the European section of Turkey. Britain, on the other hand, would lay claim to other areas of the former Ottoman Empire and central Persia, including Mesopotamia, which was known to be rich in oil.
The sneaky agreement signified a change in alliances during the Great War, as Britain promised away territory it sought to defend a few years earlier. In 1854, Britain had gone to war with Russia to prevent it from claiming Constantinople and the strait, while in 1878, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli sent the British fleet to the Dardanelles during the Russio-Turkish War to send them away from Constantinople.
More than a year after the agreement with Russia, Great Britain and France also signed a secret agreement known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab region under the Ottoman Empire would be divided into British and French spheres of influence after World War I.
British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, believed that the Arab people were better off under European empires and divided up the region with a ruler and without Arab knowledge.
The two men created uncomplicated, immaculate straight-line borders that would cater to the needs of Britain and France. However, these borders “did not correspond to sectarian, tribal or ethnic distinctions on the ground,” and failed to allow for future growth of Arab nationalism and secularism.
“Even by the standards of the time, it was a shamelessly self-interested pact,” writes British historian James Barr in his book A Line in the Sand.
After the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), the British captured Baghdad. Iraq remained a British mandate for the next three decades as a complex mix of ethnic and religious groups.
However, Britain’s gluttonous appetite for the new nation’s oil fields, new railway system and navigable rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, for trade and transportation overshadowed their concern over the country’s ethnic communities and tribes, including the Kurds, the Shi’a in and around Basra and the Sunni kings in Baghdad.
In this arrangement Britain was to have control of Egypt, Palestine, parts of Arabia and a new nation that became Iraq. France was to get Syria. And Russia would have control of Turkey, including of Constantinople and the Dardanelles—the channel from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean that Russia had sought since the days of Peter the Great to give it “warm water” naval power. Interestingly, the Bolshevik Revolution rendered void the Russian slice of the cake—Ottoman Turkey was replaced by a secular Turkish state. But—fatefully—the rest of the deal was carried out. One must wonder if the Brits had anything to do with the Bolshevik revolution?!
Also, interestingly, Mr. Sykes accumulated a vast family fortune that, as a young man, he had tapped for extensive travel in the Middle East. He was part of a group and class called the Orientalists because they so admired and soaked up the cultures of antiquity – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Arabs, and of later influences like the Turks and the Armenians. In England Sykes had a grand country house and estate, Sledmere, in Yorkshire. Like other travelers with deep pockets he shipped home artifacts from the Orient and had an architect create a Turkish Room at Sledmere, featuring Armenian ceramics. British museums are now full of these artifacts … stolen like the regions oil, into the pockets of the Brits!
In any case, in Iraq, a Hashemite monarchy was established in 1921 under the British, and the country was granted independence on Oct. 3, 1932. Under the terms of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty in 1930, the British retained military bases and an agreement to train Iraq’s army. The army, however, “became a breeding ground of resentment against the British presence, particularly amongst new nationalist officers.”
After the Hashemite Royal family and politicians were swept away in a vicious nationalist army revolt in 1958, the Republic of Iraq was created and was then ruled by a series of military and civilian governments for the next two decades until General Saddam Hussein became the Iraqi dictator. Hussein’s authoritarian tactics and hold on power suppressed any regional, sectarian revolts. The face of the country, however, took a turn for the worse after the American-led, British-supported invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to renewed sectarian violence that was brewing for nearly a century and attacks from al-Qaida and its affiliates.
The Brits (and their allies) haven’t changed. What are their designs for the region now?