First World War & Middle East

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First World War & Middle East

First World War & Middle East

Q: To what extent was the First World War a catalyst for change in the Middle East?

Ans: THE MODERN HISTORY of the Middle East begins with World War I, when the Ottoman Empire dissolved in October 1918. The Ottoman Turks had entered the war on the side of the Germans in October 1914 (Mansfield, 2006). During the war, both Arabs and Jews had played significant roles in the victory of British General Sir Edmund Allenby. The Arab Revolt of June 1916 tied down thousands of Turkish troops and made possible a bitter guerrilla war against them. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, had fought with the Arabs under Prince Faisal. The Jews helped with high-level intelligence-gathering and the efforts of the Jewish Legion allied with the British Army (Hourani, 2007). The resulting postwar situation left a power vacuum in which many progressive reforms could have been made in a region that had been crippled by centuries of lax and corrupt Turkish rule.

The definition of those nations and regions constituting the Middle East has varied almost with every expert who has written on the topic. This article concentrates on the following countries, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, which make up the core of the Middle East: Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, with a glance at related events in Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon (Murphy 2008). The history of the left in the Middle East is the story of revolt, written again and again, of native peoples rising against the ruling power, whether it be Ottoman, British, French, or American.

Diplomacy during World War I had resulted in two agreements that, together, promised dynamic change in the embattled Middle East. In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes of Great Britain and Georges Picot of France negotiated an agreement that effectively divided the Turkish Middle East vilayets, or provinces, between them. These included the modern countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The Treaty of San Remo in April 1920 made formal the Sykes-Picot compact. Since Theodore Herzl and the first meeting of the World Zionist organization in August 1897, the organization had decided on ancestral Palestine as the desired homeland for the Jewish people (Mansfield, 2006).

Balfour Declaration

In recognition of Jewish aid during the war, on October 31, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to England's Lord Rothschild in what would become known as the Balfour Declaration: “His Majesty's government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” In January 1919, the Versailles Peace Conference opened to settle the issues of the Middle East. The San Remo Treaty was a result of the negotiations at the conference. In spite of the fact that Lawrence had brought Chaim Weizmann and Faisal into a personal meeting in London before the conference, no long-lasting agreement between the Arab and Jewish peoples came from the Versailles ...