The Colonial Roots of Middle East Conflict

During a post-armistice stroll in London on December 1, 1918, French wartime prime minister Georges Clemenceau turned to his British counterpart and asked:

“What do you want?”

“Mosul,” replied Lloyd George.

“You shall have it,” Clemenceau declared. “and what else?”


“You shall have that too.”                     

If you walk up the hill from the “Cola” transportation hub in Beirut – a city where buildings are still pockmarked from combat during the 1975-1990 civil war – you pass the somewhat tired buildings of the Lebanese Arab University. On your left you’ll see the old Municipal Sports Stadium where captured survivors from the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre were tortured and executed by Lebanese Falangists under Israeli supervision. Then, few blocks further down the street, you come to an unassuming gateway which opens onto to one of the most verdant and tranquil spots in all of Beirut. It is the British War Cemetery.

Here, on meticulously-manicured grounds, are buried British Empire casualties from the Western Asia campaigns of 1914-18, together with a smaller number of graves which were later added from the relatively minor skirmishes during Second World War. The Beirut cemetery is one of 23,000 gravesites and monument in 154 countries overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including dozens in the Middle East stretching from Khartoum and Cairo to Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran.

As befits the colonial mentality, not all the graves were treated equally. The dead from Britain and its white Commonwealth allies are marked by beautiful individual headstones with carefully-tended flower plantings. The Indians and the Arab natives, who did most of the fighting and dying during the imperial campaigns in the Middle East, were interred in anonymous mass graves, marked only years later by the erection of carefully segregated monuments: “the Hindu Soldiers of the Indian Army” here; the “Muslim soldiers” there. A little apart, a marker says that “the Egyptian Labour Corps” and “the Camel Transportation Corps” were “buried near this spot.”

Just to the south, beyond the cemetery walls, the present-day Shatila refugee camp is obscured by large trees and extravagant landscaping.

If the fuse leading to the current Middle East catastrophe was lit by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the explosives were well-prepared 100 years earlier. These days, everyone knows about the Sykes-Picot borders. As the saying goes: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Indeed, each of the new colonial entities in the Middle East encompassed territories with a patchwork of ethnic and religious communities. But there is little truth to the view that this led inexorably to the inter-communal conflicts of today. All modern borders are more or less artificial creations, whether delineated by the outcomes of war or by the pencils of colonial map makers.

It was more than just geography that laid the foundations for the present upheavals in the Middle East. Rather, instability was embedded in the political choices of the colonial powers within these borders. It was the way the colonialists ruled.

From the time of the earliest known empires, rulers have sought to govern distant lands “on the cheap” through local clients or through “native” troops. “Divide et Impera” the ancient Romans called it. The British Empire perfected the practice of Divide and Rule. This was how they ruled an immense Indian subcontinent with a relative handful of European soldiers and civil servants. The same pattern was repeated, though not as efficiently, in European colonies across the globe.

By the end of the First World War, the British were anxious to revise the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which had parceled out the former Middle East provinces of the Ottoman Empire. They wanted to annex Mosul – where geological surveys suggested substantial petroleum reserves – and to exercise exclusive control over Palestine, then regarded as an important strategic prize. The French assented in return for a share of the oil and a free hand in Syria.

Following the First World War, while the British were consolidating their control of what was to become Iraq, the French advanced in 1920 to conquer Damascus from their base in coastal Beirut. In Lebanon, they had already laid the foundations of a Maronite Christian-dominated protectorate split off from Syria and incorporating areas that were populated by Sunni and Shia Muslims. These communities did not accept the division of Syria or rule by a French-imposed proxy minority. The stage was set for generations of instability and latent or overt civil war in Lebanon that persists to this day.

In the rest of Syria, the nationalist resistance to the French was centered among the urban Sunni elites. The new rulers experimented with various schemes to divide Syria into ethnic-based governates, then managed country directly through a puppet colonial administration staffed by loyal or bought-off officials under French supervision.  The French also recruited a territorial military force from which the majority Sunni urban population was largely excluded. Rural Alawites and other minorities formed the core of the collaborationist army and police forces, with predictable resentment on the part of many in the Sunni majority. This dynamic continued after Syrian independence and is part of the background for the current civil war.

In Iraq, the British crushed a revolt centered among the largely Shia-population of the Middle Euphrates and the holy Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala. Then they recruited their ally Faisal to rule as king of Iraq together with his retinue of Sunni former Ottoman military officers. This established a regime of Sunni Arab minority dominance over a mostly Shia (and Kurdish) population in Iraq that would culminate, after independence, in the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and the sectarian war after his overthrow

Finally, the British deployed their support for the Zionist project as a means to gain the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.  Although there was genuine sympathy for the Zionist cause among sections of the British ruling class — either on Christian religious grounds or from the desire to have the Jews settle “over there” rather than “over here” – other, more practical imperial aims were discussed in private during the run-up to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.

Palestine was viewed as an outer defense for British Egypt and the Suez Canal — as well as a Mediterranean terminus for a railway and an oil pipeline from newly-acquired British Mesopotamia. Imperial ministers also argued (naively, as it turned out) that a “Jewish Home” in Palestine would eventually become a European enclave in the Levant, dependent upon and loyal to the British crown. (In 1918, the population of Palestine was less than 10% Jewish.) Local Zionist rule promised to be cost-efficient colonialism by proxy – a prediction which turned out badly for the British and disastrously for the Palestinians. Eventually, it was the US rather than the British Empire which gained this strategic advantage, at least during the Cold War.

In the light of this history, it is hard to argue that sectarian conflict in the Middle East arose purely from local causes.  Inter-communal violence was not entirely absent from the region before the advent of European colonialism, but a general pattern of tolerance and sectarian autonomy was upset by the colonial project in which the European powers manipulated ethnic differences in the service of their imperial aims. Oil, of course, was central then, as it is today.

Imperial meddling continues to this day, with predictably catastrophic outcomes for the people of the Middle East. But now the former colonial alignment of local proxies has now been reversed.  Where the British once promoted Sunni predominance in Iraq, the US now backs Shia (and Kurdish) rule; where the French employed ethnic/religious minorities to control Syria, the US and its regional allies promote Sunni revanchism. Only the continued reliance on Zionist control of Palestine remains unchanged.

The result has been to prolong the regional devastation begun by war and colonialism a hundred years ago. Today Syria lies shattered and perhaps permanently wrecked as a unified entity; Iraq struggles to overcome decades of foreign invasion and continuing internal conflict; Lebanon barely exists as an effective state; and most Palestinians remain stateless under Zionist rule or in exile.

As a Roman historian famously commented on the rapacious empire-builders of his own day: “They make a wasteland and they call it peace.”

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Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.

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