News headline are occupied almost every day by a story of conflict in what was once the Ottoman Empire, an Empire that existed for over 400 years and once ruled all of the Middle East, North Africa and much of SE Europe.
We hear of
- ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,
- conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,
- sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria,
- tension and rivalry between Turkey and Egypt,
- civil wars in Libya and Lebanon, and
- the appalling fate of Yemen.
All these conflicts, in what was once the Ottoman Empire, have deep historical roots that go back to the time of the Empire.
As long as the Ottoman Empire existed, these tensions were imperfectly contained by the stratified and devolved structures of the empire. That calm did not survive the end of the empire in 1922.
Western attempts, at the end of World War 1, to restructure the territories of the defeated Ottomans on the basis of western style nation states, have not brought peace. The unresolved tensions, dating back to Ottoman times, have fed Islamic terror and fuelled migration flows into Europe.
The origins of all of this can only be understood if one takes a deep dive into how the Ottoman Empire was brought down by the outcome of the First World War, a war for which the Ottomans bore much less responsibility than did most of the other protagonists.
This is brilliantly described in “The Fall of the Ottomans”, the Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920” by Eugene Rogan. Rogan is also the author of a book on the Arabs and a lecturer on history in Oxford University.
This book is much more than a narrative military history. The political origins and consequences of the war are explained.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire had had a long term conflict of interest with Russia. Russia had supported its enemies in the Balkans, coveted its territories in the Caucasus, and had earlier expelled Ottoman subjects from the Crimea.
Russia also wished to control the Dardanelles straits, so as to have access to the Mediterranean. Russia, then as now, saw itself as the defender of the Orthodox Christian faith which had been supplanted in Constantinople by the Ottoman conquest of that city in 1483.
In the nineteenth century, Ottoman interests had been defended against Russia by Britain and France. But, in the early twentieth century, France allied itself with Russia, in order to counterbalance the rising power of Imperial Germany. That left the Ottomans isolated.
Then, on 1 August 1914, at the very moment of the outbreak of the War, Britain refused to deliver warships, built in Britain for the Ottoman Navy, and already been fully paid for by public subscriptions of Ottoman citizens. The Ottomans had to find new allies so, the day after the British refusal to hand over the battleships, they secretly allied themselves with Germany.
They then formally entered the War on the side of Germany in November 1914.
Rogan’s book is full of insights into a world that was very different from today.
The First Arab Congress, which sought to resist the “Turkification” and centralisation of the Ottoman Empire, took place in Paris in 1913.
23 Arab delegates attended- 11 Muslims, 11 Christians and one Jew.
The presence of a Jewish Arab at an Arab Congress seems remarkable nowadays, but the Arab identity at the time seems to have been based on a shared language, and not on ethnicity or religion.
The Armenian genocide by the Ottomans during the First World War is described. It was the result of suspicion and fear. Armenians were to be found in both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Many lived in the Ottoman capital, Istanbul.
With modest justification, the Ottomans suspected the loyalty of the Armenians and sought to move them by force to Syria, as far as possible from the Russian frontier. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died.
Assyrian Christians also suffered from similar suspicions, and a third of their pre war population perished during World War I.
The British attempt to knock the Ottomans out of the war by an attack on the Dardanelles in 1915 was an attempt to help the Russians, whose forces were thought to be in danger of being encircled by Ottoman forces in the Caucasus. In fact, this information proved to be false but the attack went ahead anyway, with disastrous results.
The tenacity and loyalty of the Ottoman forces was underestimated here and on other fronts in this terrible war. The attack on the Dardanelles in fact strengthened the Ottoman/ German alliance and prolonged the war.
Rogan also describes the warfare between the Ottomans and the British in modern day Iraq(where the British suffered severe defeats) and in Palestine. There were in fact three battles in Gaza before the British eventually broke through there to capture Jerusalem and Damascus in late 1918.
In order to win Arab support in August 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, had pledged British support for
“the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants together with our approval of the Arab khalifate when it should be proclaimed”
Obviously Arab aspirations had moved some distance from the non sectarian demand of the Arab Congress of 1913. The notion of a khalifate was, as we know, taken up by ISIS in recent times.
As we know, these promises were not kept, and British and French protectorates were established in the conquered Arab lands (Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) after War under the Sykes/Picot Agreement.
But it did not stop there.
At the Peace Conference, the terms imposed on the Ottoman Empire by the Allies also required it to surrender territories in modern Turkey to Greece, to Italy, and to new Kurdish and Armenian entities.
The acceptance of these terms by the last Ottoman sultan was too much for the Turkish Army led by Kemal Attaturk. He drove the Greek and Italian forces out of Turkey, deposed the Sultan and proclaimed a Turkish Republic.
Eugene Rogan’s book is well written and helps us understand some of the fears and resentments that are causing deaths up to this day.