Sunday, 16 December 2007

Was the experience of European colonialism generally negative for the Middle East?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. The actions of colonial powers in the interwar periods resulted in the kind of social and political strife that continues to this day in the Middle East. Britain and France’s poorly thought-out division of the former Ottoman Arab territories and their ill-conceived imperial ruling practices generated long-lasting communal tension and political instability. Historical examples of the British mandates of Iraq and Palestine and the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon will be used in support of this statement. At the end of the interwar period and nearing independence, none of these 'countries' had experienced communal unity, sustained peace, or (with the exception of Lebanon) functioning representative political systems. Each mandate state constituted a quasi-imperial-possession, conflicting internally.

Division of Ottoman Territories:

When the Ottomans joined the central powers during World War I, the allied powers planned a partition of the Ottoman territories in the event of victory. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 was an initial plan for the division of Ottoman territories between France, Britain and Russia. Sykes-Picot had major implications for Arab-West relations and made European governance particularly unattractive to the Arabs. As they were discussing the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the British, through High Commissioner Henry McMahon’s correspondence, promised the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, that a revolt against the Ottoman empire in its Arab territories would be rewarded by the creation of a unified Arab state between Egypt and Persia. It was this double-sided game that led Husein’s son Faisal to fight the Ottoman Empire in Syria with the inspiration of T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia.

At the end of the war, Britain had over a million troops in the Middle East and Prime Minister David Lloyd George had grand imperial plans to replace the Ottoman Empire in the region (Fromkin, pg. 385). Moreover, the Middle East was Britain’s lifeline to India. In a correspondence between the foreign department of the government of India to the British India office it was stated, “what we want is not a united Arabia, but a weak and disunited Arabia, split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty – but incapable of coordinated action against us, forming a buffer against the powers of the West.” (Fromkin, pg. 106) At the end of the war, when it became known that Britain and France had their own territorial ambitions for the Middle East, a sentiment of betrayal and antagonism for Western rule took hold in the Arab lands.

The British Mandate of Iraq:

When the Ottomans surrendered in 1918, Britain was in possession of the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul in Mesopotamia. As Cleveland remarks on pg. 201 of A History of the Modern Middle East, “these provinces did not constitute a political community in any sense of the term. They were among the most ethnically and religiously diverse Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire, and their amalgamation into a single country posed exceptionally difficult obstacles to nation building.” The Ottoman system of rule in the provinces had been very decentralized and concentrated mostly in the major cities. The countryside was granted a high degree of autonomy and was governed by tribal confederations.

Britain’s main goals for the mandate were to protect imperial links to India and Iraqi and Iranian oil interests. Little or no consideration was given to the development of Iraq itself. “Decisions were made with little knowledge of, or concern for, the lands and peoples about which and whom the decisions were being made.” (Fromkin, pg. 399) Mandatory rule had three important negative consequences in Iraq: the exploitation of oil resources without local benefit, the preeminence of a single sectarian group, the development of the military as a political actor that would continue right up to 2003.

After Britain tried to impose a direct form of governance in Iraq, tribal uprisings in the Euphrates in June 1920 resulted in the death of some 10,000 Iraqi tribesmen and 450 British soldiers. In an attempt to realize their goals for the state without having to engage in a costly system of direct rule, Britain made Faisal, Sharif Hussein’s son, the king. Faisal was a foreigner with no real ties to Iraq. Under his rule, Iraqi oil fields were brought into full imperial exploitation. The cash-strapped Iraqi government became compelled to sign a 75-year concession with the firm that eventually became the Iraq Petroleum Company. The concession allowed Iraq to receive modest royalties by volume, but excluded the nation from corporate ownership. The fact that Iraq’s most vital natural resource fell into the hands of outsiders at the this time remained a point of contention long after the mandatory system had ended.

Despite this, Faisal proved to be an effective administrator, balancing the voices of the people of Iraq and British pressure. But his untimely death in 1939 essentially removed the monarchy from the forefront of Iraqi domestic politics and government fell into the hands of former Sunni-Arab Ottoman officers from the Istanbul War College. The officers perpetuated the old Ottoman system of rule by the notables and the top-heavy social order. Their infighting led to a high degree of political instability and governments lasted no more than a few months at a time.

In response to the political bickering of the Ottoman era politicians, the most prominent opposition came from younger military officers. These officers were also mostly Sunni and adhered to nationalist and pan-Arabist ideologies. Cleveland discusses the example of general Bakr Sidqi who “protected the national interest by engaging in a systematic massacre of members of the Assyrian Christian community.” (Cleveland, Pg. 206) The army led 6 coups from 1936 to 1941, a pattern that would continue into the future. The British in effect created a state where civilian politicians and the military were distinct actors. Moreover, the unchecked rise of the Sunni officers in a nation where they were not the majority laid the foundations for the current sectarian conflicts in Iraq.

In 1940, a loose alliance of patriotic officers known as the Four Colonels attempted to free Iraqi foreign policy from British sway. Given the impressive German military and the precarious situation of the British army, they attempted to assert full independence from Britain. They staged a coup in 1941 and brought Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to the premiership. Within 3 months of his appointment, Britain and Iraq entered into conflict due to Rashid Ali’s pro-axis orientation and the denial of expansion of a supply base in Basra. Britain marched its troops from Palestine across Transjordan and by the end of May 1941, the Rashid Ali revolt was defeated. A pro-British ruling coalition of Nuri al Said and the Hashemite regent prince Abd al-Ilah was established, which ruled in an authoritarian manner until 1958.

Ultimately, after the interwar period the British left Iraq without control of its major natural resource and potential source of wealth, political instability marked by Sunni military involvement and finally a pro-British authoritarian leadership that would not benefit the Iraqi people at all. In fact, the young officers who staged a “revolution” in 1958 claimed that they were only carrying out the unfinished business of 1941.

The French Mandate of Syria:

With the withdrawal of British support, French forces drove Faisal from Damascus in 1920 and assumed control with a large military unit and a complex hierarchy of French civilian administrators. France’s interests in Syria were largely to protect investments in railways, commercial exchange, and port facilities that its corporations had undertaken towards the end of Ottoman rule. Politically, France also sought to balance Britain’s power in the region, and to add to its North African possessions to truly assert itself as a Mediterranean power. The French form of rule in Syria developed a system that did not truly allow a representative form of government to take root and incorporated divide and rule policies. At the end of the interwar period, Syria was left without institutions of self-government and no territorial unity. Syria inherited an assurance of political instability from French colonialism.

France initially imposed a top-down ruling system in Syria. Decisions came from the high commissioner for Syria and Lebanon, headquartered in Beirut. Assumption of political and administrative responsibility by the local population was discouraged. “Instead of encouraging the formation of indigenous administrative institutions to prepare Syria for independence, the French created conditions that would prolong their rule.” (Cleveland, pg. 213)

Moreover, the French encouraged religious, ethnic, and geographical differences between Syrians, fragmenting the population and sowing the seeds for sectarian conflict. The French divided Aleppo and Damascus into separate states, then divided the Alawite and Druze minorities into separate geographical units stressing their distinct regional-compactness. The Druze and the Alawites were effectively turned into a political afterthought. Syrian domestic politics became the realm of the elite class of urban Sunni Muslims who had held power during Ottoman times. Post-independence instability can be in part traced to the French disintegration of Syrian cultural identities during this period.

In 1925, anti-French sentiments finally culminated in a revolt. After the governor tried to restructure Druze political relationships and landholding structures, the entire state of Jabal Druze went into revolt. The uprising succeeded in driving the French from the province. The success of the rebels led some of the political leaders of the cities of Homs and Damascus to support them. This led to a nationwide resistance movement. On October 18th, 1925 the French bombarded Damascus for 48 hours and killed as many as 1,400 people. Some 6,000 Syrians died by the end of the revolt in 1927.

After the revolt, the French decentralized their rule of Syria to an extent. However, instead of allowing a truly representative body to be created, they allowed the Ottoman-era Sunni elite to continue to dominate politics. The dominant political entity to emerge was the National Bloc. The party framed itself in popular anti-French ideals, but presented themselves to the French as necessary intermediaries to control the nation’s hostile population. Their goals, however, were to perpetuate the existing socio-economic and political relationships responsible for their wealth and power. The French imposed a constitution on Syria. “Neither the political leaders nor the population at large gained a stake in the preservation of the French-imposed parliamentary system.” Moreover, France’s power to veto any legislation that was passed turned Syrian politics into a joke.

In 1936, after Leon Blum’s leftist coalition came to power, Syria nearly achieved a degree of semi-independence. It was offered a treaty to potentially decentralize rule further. However after the coalition lost power in 1938, the high commissioner suspended the Syrian constitution, dissolved parliament, reestablished autonomy of the Alawite and Druze regions, and to add insult to injury, ceded Alexandretta to Turkey (a region that Syrians strongly viewed as part of their territory). After twenty years of French colonialism, Syria had no independence, no institutions of self-government, and no territorial unity.

The French Mandate of Lebanon:

France viewed itself as the self-proclaimed protector of the Maronite Catholics of Mount Lebanon and had a moral duty to continue its religious and educational activities in the region. However, France made the mistake of adding territories that would transform the character of Lebanon and create a deep sectarian divide.

The final state of Greater Lebanon was realized with the adding of the coastal cities of Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and the fertile Biqa valley to the Ottoman administrative unit of Mount Lebanon. With the exception of Beirut, Muslims dominated the rest of these territories. Territorial tampering diluted the Maronite population to about 30% of the new state. In the former Ottoman Arab territories, like Lebanon, individuals were principally affiliated to their religious identities. This resulted in the development of two distinct sectarian opinions of what Lebanon was.

The Maronites viewed Lebanon as a distinctive Christian homeland and wanted to build their state as a Franco-Mediterranean society, the character of which was European, not Arabic. However, the Muslims who involuntarily became part of Lebanon, had different expectations. They saw Lebanon as being part of the greater Arab and Muslim worlds. As Cleveland writes, “The nature of the existing political culture and the geographical distribution of the various religious communities posed problems for the creation of a cohesive national system of government.” (pg. 220)

In 1926, surprisingly early for mandate states, a constitution for Lebanon was approved that allowed for one chamber of deputies, elected on the basis of religious representation. The president was elected by the chamber and had the right to appoint the Prime Minister and appoint the cabinet. After eleven years of the highest posts being dominated by the Maronites, Emile Edde appointed the Sunni Muslim Khayr-al-Din al-Ahdab as his prime minister in 1937. This established a confessional political precedent that would continue into the 1980s.

Lebanon, a Frankenstein amalgamation of peoples, was strangely the first of the mandate states to truly have a functioning government. While the political system had a unique way of reconciling the Maronite and Muslim beliefs, the way the state had been created continued to foster a sectarian divide. Moreover, the Shia, a significant minority, was locked out of political progress. The French legacy of ethno-religious tension would manifest itself in one of the most brutal civil wars of the 20th century and the development of the Lebanese Shia Militia, Hezbollah.

The British Mandate of Palestine:

The mandate state of Palestine was a small strip of Southern Syria, about as big as the American state of Massachusetts. The origins of the Palestine mandate predate the post-war settlement to the rise of political Zionism. A belief developed in the English cabinet that Jewish groups in the United States and Russia had the ability to influence those nations’ attitudes towards entering the war. Chaim Weizmann, a prominent intellectual and Zionist spokesman in London, maintained the question of institutionalized Jewish immigration to Palestine before the British government and helped convince the cabinet that fostering Zionism was in the nation’s imperial interests. The culmination of the Zionist efforts was the Balfour declaration. Written by Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a prominent banker and Zionist, the declaration informed him that the cabinet had a approved “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People.” Along with the Skyes-Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration became another element of the post-war grand plan for the Ottoman Arab territories that the Arabs themselves had no say in. Ilan Pappe writes in The Modern Middle East, “In Palestine an outside national movement employed colonialism with the aspiration of reidentifying the country as a Jewish homeland whatever the price.” (pg. 20)

The British capture of Jerusalem in 1917 detached Palestine from Ottoman Administration. In 1922, the newly created League of Nations gave formal sanction to the British Mandate of Palestine, and alarmingly made Hebrew one of the official languages. By the end of the interwar period, a lack of a representative national government and unchecked Zionist immigration resulted in a conflict between the Arabs and Jews that has yet to be reconciled.
The British government appointed Herbert Samuel, a Jew and ardent Zionist, as high commissioner to Palestine. While Zionism was officially supported, Britain attempted to play a balancing act between Zionist and Arab interests. They proposed a constitution in 1922 calling for a council of elected Muslim, Christian and Jewish representatives. When the plan was rejected by the Arabs, the British offered them an advisory council consisting of 10 Arab and 2 Jewish representative nominated by the high commissioner. This plan was rejected as well because the Palestinians did not want to accept the Balfour declaration as official policy. As a result, decisive power remained in the hands of the high commissioner and his officials alone. Therefore, Palestine never realized any representative form of national government incorporating both Arabs and Jews. The two communities became progressively more cut off from each other and developed their own forms of government. A wedge was driven between the Jewish and Arab communities.

Zionist immigration and land acquisition constituted the core of the communal differences between the Arabs and Jews. The Zionist objective was to build up the Jewish population through unrestricted immigration. Crops were needed to sustain the increasing Jewish population, whereby came the policy of land acquisition. Moreover, upon acquiring land, Jews tended to dismiss the Arabs tenants. Communal tensions most prominently manifested themselves as the Wailing Wall disturbances of 1929 and the Great Revolt of 1936-39, both caused by dislocation caused by immigration and land transfers. After the disturbances of 1929, a royal investigation discerned that the main source of tension was the widespread fear that continued Zionist immigration would result in a Jewish-dominated Palestine. Despite the recommendations of the investigators to end the practice, the “Black Letter” of 1931 allowed Jewish immigration to continue unimpeded.

During the Great Revolt, the 1937 Peel commission report was published, calling for termination of the mandate and partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. Arab violence was renewed at the announcement and the British district commissioner for Galilee was murdered in October. The ensuing revolts saw Palestinian rebels capture large swathes of land. The Jews fought against the rebels in a pseudo-civil war and engaged in retaliatory terrorist attacks against the Arab population. Britain brutally crushed the rebels with an overwhelming force of 20,000 troops. In March 1939, 3000 Arabs, 2000 Jews and 600 British had lost their lives. Convinced that they needed to restructure their policies towards the mandate, Britain announced a white paper the same year that unequivocally stated that it was not “part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State.” Jewish immigration was restricted to 15,000 a year for the next five years at the height of the Nazi massacres.

In effect the British had accomplished nothing during the interwar years in Palestine. They had created a state with no representative national government and communal tension that had turned into violence. Despite the curtailment of Jewish immigration in 1939, the Arabs still did not have an independent state. Moreover, the reversal of Zionist policies cut off a crucial lifeline of escape for Jews from Nazi Germany. Thus, none of the parties involved benefited from British policies.


European colonialism was negative for these Mandate states in different ways during the interwar period. While Britain and France realized their geopolitical goals, the populations of the states they had taken over from the Ottoman Empire suffered. Iraq suffered from political instability, natural resource exploitation, the rise of the military forces as political players, and was left with a pro-British authoritarian dictatorship. Syria suffered from ethno-religious fragmentation, the lack of a representative form of government, and most tangibly, loss of territory. Lebanon suffered from being created without any foresight, leading to the eventual disenfranchisement of the Muslim majority in a Maronite Catholic-dominated state. Finally, Palestine suffered from Zionist immigration indoctrinated by the Balfour Declaration, resultant violent communal tension, and the lack of any sort of cooperative representative government system. Towards the start of the Second World War, British policies succeeded in alienating both Arab and Jewish populations.