During a post-armistice stroll though the gardens of his embassy in London, 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.”
December 1, 1918
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.
Winston Churchill, British War Minister, 1919
Julius Caesar opened his war memoire – possibly the world’s first campaign biography -- with the famous observation that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” Yet Caesar’s Roman Gallia persisted and over two millennia evolved into the modern unitary French state.
Iraq, which was god-fathered by British colonial secretary Winston Churchill out of three former Ottoman provinces, appears to be on the brink of reverting into its constituent parts after less than a century. Why is this happening?
It is commonly observed among nearly all the pundits of the mainstream media – excepting the Bush/Neocon dead-enders – that the fuse leading to the present catastrophe in Iraq was lit by the 2003 US invasion. True enough in the short term.
A longer historical perspective cites the post-World War I borders as the root of the present crisis. But in the Middle East, it was not the fact of these borders which led to internal conflict, but the manner of imperial rule and the desire for colonial governance “on the cheap.”
The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement awarded the British with direct control in lower Mesopotamia, which they regarded as a defensive shield for the oil fields in nearby Persia and their major refinery at Abadan. The British were also meant to be “predominant” in the territory around Baghdad and the land extending west toward the Mediterranean, along with the port of Haifa.
The French were to receive a strip of coastal Levant and a swath of central Anatolia to rule directly, with inland Syria and northern Mesopotamia as an area of exclusive influence, including the former Ottoman province of Mosul.
By the end of the war, the British were anxious to revise the agreement, in order to annex Mosul – where geological surveys suggested substantial petroleum reserves -- to their other holdings in southern Mesopotamia. The French assented in return for a share of the oil and a free hand in Syria. Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who had been proclaimed king in Damascus, thus found himself abandoned by his British allies and was promptly expelled by the French, who divided Syria into the coastal protectorate of Lebanon and the inland mandate of Syria.
Thus were delineated the modern national boundaries, each of which encompassed states with a patchwork of ethnic and religious communities. But there is little truth to the view that this led inexorably to inter-communal conflict, or that Iraq and Syria were doomed by centuries-old religious hostility between Sunni Muslims and Shia or other minority sects forced into the same state.
All modern borders are more or less artificial creations, whether delineated by the outcomes of war or by the pencils of colonial map makers. Rather, instability was embedded in the political choices of the colonial powers.
The problem with empires, as their builders have come to recognize since ancient times, is not so much the conquest but the difficulty and expense in holding on to them over the long haul. From the time of the earliest known empires, rulers have sought to govern distant lands through local clients when possible, or through locally-recruited (and locally financed) troops when that was an option. Roman Judea under the dynasty of King Herod was a famous example.
The lessons were not lost on modern empire-builders, of whom the British were by far the most adept. This was how they ruled an immense Indian subcontinent, first by the British East India Company and later directly by the Imperial Raj, with a relative handful of European troops and administrators. Foreign control was mediated though a network of subservient local principalities and semi-autonomous regional client states.
The Indian Army was also largely composed of “native” units staffed with British officers. The colonial administrators recognized early on that the most reliable troops were largely to be recruited from among ethnic or religious minorities -- like the Indian Muslims, Sikhs and the famous Nepali Gurkhas -- who would be more likely to view European power as a bulwark against their more powerful neighbors
The British thus elevated the Latin maxim of Divide et Impera (“Divide and Rule”) to a modern colonial science. The same pattern was repeated, though not as efficiently, in European colonies across the globe, where the imperialists relied on Catholic loyalists in French Indo-China, Protestants in Ireland, Tutsis in Central Africa – and “friendly” Indian tribes in North America.
“Native” levees were employed to bolster colonial rule and even to serve usefully in warfare outside of the possessions where they were recruited. There were plenty of such units, mostly from French-ruled Africa, on the Western Front during World War I. The “British” armies fighting the Ottomans in the Middle East actually consisted largely of Indian troops, supported by local transport auxiliaries. When the British conquered the Ottoman provinces that became Iraq in 1918, their occupying army of 73,000 included 61,000 Indian troops.
You can observe the results at the many British war cemeteries scattered throughout the region -- still meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission -- where the colonial dead were interred en masse, carefully segregated from the individually-marked British burials.
In Beirut, for example, not far from the Shatila Camp, the meticulously landscaped grounds of the British cemetery has an exclusively European WW I section, with touching headstones, and a number of (separate and segregated) monuments across the street announcing that “buried near this spot” were “Muslim Soldiers of the Indian Army,” “the Hindu Soldiers of the Indian Army” and “Men of the Egyptian Labor Corps.” The nearby French cemetery has grave markers for Vietnamese and Senegalese combatants “Mort pour la France.”
In Iraq. opposition to British rule and the demand for independence initially united both Sunni and Shia, who cooperated in the political and military spheres. However, the massive uprising of 1920-1, which the British defeated with some difficulty, was centered in the largely Shia-population Middle Euphrates and the holy Shia cities of Najaf and Kerbala
Casting about for local allies and proxy rulers, the British courted the influential Christian and Jewish urban communities, but it was obvious that these minorities could not rule an overwhelmingly Muslim territory. Instead, the colonial officials in Baghdad and London decided to recruit the now unemployed King Faisal to rule Iraq. Faisal, with his retinue of Sunni former Ottoman military officers who had taken no part in the Iraqi resistance, was imposed on the country as a suitably loyal facade for enduring colonial rule.
This ploy enabled the British administrators to reduce the numbers – and cost – of their occupation forces. But it also established a regime of Sunni minority dominance over a mostly Shia (and Kurdish) population in Iraq that would culminate, after independence, in the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.
While the British were consolidating their control of Iraq, General Gouraud’s French Army of the Levant advanced in 1920 from its base in occupied Beirut to conquer Damascus.
Following their occupation of inland Syria, the French colonialists established a Christian-dominated protectorate along the coast. The French had maintained long-standing ties with the Maronite Catholic communities of Mt. Lebanon. In 1860-61 the farcical Napoleon III sent an army to rescue their clients from Druze attacks, a feat of arms which was celebrated with an inscription among the monuments to Egyptian pharaohs and Babylonian kings at Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beirut.
But instead of a compact enclave with a substantial Christian majority the French incorporated within “Greater Lebanon” the cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli along with the southern hill country and the rich agricultural lands of the Beqaa Valley. These areas were populated by Sunni and Shia Muslims who did not accept the division of Syria or rule by a French-imposed proxy minority. This set the stage for generations of conflict, instability and latent or overt civil war in Lebanon that persists to this day.
In Syria proper, the nationalist resistance to the French was centered among the urban Sunni elites, who had been partisans of deposed King Faisal. The colonial rulers experimented with various schemes to divide Syria into ethnic-based governates, then managed a puppet colonial administration staffed by loyal or bought officials under French supervision. They also recruited a territorial military force from which the majority Sunni urban population was largely excluded. The 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.
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.
Strategically, 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 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. Local Zionist rule would 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 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 arises purely from local causes. Inter-communal violence was not entirely absent from the region before the advent of European colonialism, but sustained fighting among the varied mosaic of ethnic and religious communities was unusual before the First World War. When sectarian conflict did occur, it tended to be localized, spontaneous and of short duration.
This pattern of tolerance and local sectarian autonomy was upset by the colonial project of building centralized bureaucratic administrations in which the European powers manipulated and sometimes exacerbated ethnic differences in the service of their imperial aims. The new state systems, continuing after independence or imitated by other regional actors, also introduced the potential for winner-take-all politics in which religious, ethnic or tribal groups – or even individual families -- could contend for control of the state apparatus, with the significant rewards of power and wealth deriving from that control. In this way, the struggles we see playing out within the region trace much of their origins to the colonial period.
Imperial meddling continues to this day, with predictably catastrophic outcomes for the people of the Middle East. But, ironically, 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 now 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 wrecked as a unified country; 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.”