As we remember World War One and the poppy fields of Flanders this year, the present war zones surrounding Europe, from Libya in the south, around the Mediterranean Levant, to the Ukraine in the north, are keen reminders of the consequences of actions, most of them British, that go back to The Great War itself.
The battles and beheadings, the apparent cheapness of life in these areas seem an horrific anathema to capital-led, secular, quiet, middle-class dominated, shiny iPhone salivating, post-enlightenment Europe. From Islamic State to the balaclavaed Russian forces in the Ukraine, or the terror of returning battle hardened Syrian Jihadists, it appears like the viper at the door spitting at us, ready to strike. It seems to revel in the sorts of inhumanity and rapaciousness that makes us quake; and it’s all happening next door. But like many a great horror story it turns out that the victim is often responsible for making the monster. Not one of these conflicts is without the influence of European political manoeuvring set in motion by WWI.
At the beginning of 1914, the Turkish led Ottoman Empire was the dominant controlling interest in the Middle East. It stretched from Algiers to the Persian Gulf, from Budapest to Somalia. When the Ottomans backed the Germans at the outbreak of WWI, Britain was quick to see opportunities far away from the killing fields of Northern France. Here was a chance to undermine this rival empire and secure, not just the emerging oil fields, but its routes to India and the Far East through the Suez Canal.
On the 9th of November Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced, ‘It is the Ottoman government, and not we who have rung the death knell of Ottoman dominion not only in Europe but in Asia.’ With British troops already stationed in Egypt, to ‘assist’ keeping order, Britain swiftly severed formal links with the Ottoman Empire, declared a protectorate over the country, deposed the anti-British Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, and installed a successor.
Despite misgivings from High Command, who wanted to focus limited military resources on the western front with Germany, an offensive against the Ottoman Empire was launched on three fronts: the Dardanelles near Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia (now Iran), and on the border between Egypt and Palestine; Russia kept Turkey engaged from the north.
Although faced with some catastrophic defeats on all these fronts, the British remained tenaciousness and found other ways in which to do battle. In June 1916 The British ‘Arab Bureau,’ based in Cairo, set a new precedent that has remained the preferred form for Middle East conflict management ever since: foreign financial sponsorship for internal revolts. Throwing arms and money at insurgents was, after all, much cheaper than tying up your own men in battle and, as long as they remembered just who their paymasters were, a perfect way to sweep in and take control once the dust has settled. Employing one charming T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) they sponsored and financed the revolt of tribesmen in the Arabian Peninsula against their Ottoman overlords.
So successful was British sponsorship, that control of the entire ‘Fertile Crescent’, the lands from the Nile flood plain around the Levant to the lands around the Tigris in Persia (later Iran), fell under British diktat.
After the war, Britain lacked the resources to run the Middle East Empire in the same hands-on way that India was ruled. The method of financing ‘puppet’ princelings and kings in different tribal regions seemed a win win policy.
It was indirect rule through what was called ‘Benevolent Paternalism’ indirect and inexpensive, a limited liability empire that lasted intact right up to the end of WWII. Indeed, in 1942 Colonial Secretary, Lord Cranborne, said, ‘We not only disclaim any intention of establishing direct rule, but also quite sincerely and genuinely do not wish to do so… We must keep steadily in front of us the aim of establishing… a group of efficient Arab authorities who will conduct their own administration under the general guidance and protection of His Majesty’s government.’
That, of course, did not stop British forces eliminating the enemies of ‘British-friendly’ protectorates with a brutality not entirely dissimilar to what we witness ISIS indulging in now – through the lenses of their own iphones of course, the eyes of foreign journalist being considered a particularly delicacy for plucking out by ISIS fighters.
Perhaps the most controversial of British interventions in the period was the 1917 Balfour Declaration which hoped to win over Jewish public opinion to the side of the Allies. Arthur James Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to leading Jewish advocate Lionel Walter Rothschild, promising the establishment of a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine that would not disturb the present non-Jewish residents in the event of the Allies winning WWI.
After WWII the cost of war for the British proved too much to maintain imperial interests abroad and increasing agitation in Palestine, especially from Zionist Jews, proved that rule and occupation was too difficult to maintain and British interests were gradually removed.
The Ukraine has also faced European interference from WWI on. On 18 December 1918, a month after Armistice, as the Russian Revolution broke, France occupied Odessa with the help of Polish and Greek forces. This intervention in Southern Russia (later Ukraine) brought supplies to the loyalist White Army forces, fighting the Bolsheviks. A year later they withdrew after the White Army’s humiliated march against Moscow and in 1920 helped its vestiges escape on Allied boats.
Ninety-three years later the urge to join Europe re-emerged with a vengence. The Euromaidan protests in November 2013 began after President Viktor Yanukovych shied away from an association agreement with the European Union to establish closer ties with his own foreign sponsor, the Russian Federation. Carnage has resulted even taking out the passengers on flight MH-17, passing by at 33,000 feet.
A hundred years since WWI gave Britain the opportunity to start campaigns of foreign sponsored insurrection (aka terrorism) in Arabic countries, is it any wonder that any number of other nations have done the same?
Britain has managed to retain relatively cordial relations with most of the colonial nations that fell under British ‘direct’ rule. Despite manifold injustices and exploitation, there were at least some benefits from the massive infrastructures put in place: roads, schools, railways, legal structures, irrigation. The ‘Indirect Rule’ manifest in the Middle East, which added little to the development of the region, appears to have been little more than a devastating imposition and interference.
Now Europe is surrounded by conflicts born of our innumerable interferences. As we know from the victims of Rotherham, Savile and countless others, those who have been interfered with, again and again, are often damaged beyond sense and it can come as no surprise when so many end up seeking the solidity and security of fundamentalist religion or the paternalism of a tough masters like Russia. No one can blame them for being angry but, unlike individual victims, these ones are armed.
We can pray that the monster will eat itself or see this threat from the East as the herald to a new world conflict but it cannot be ignored. A word seldom mentioned since the end of the cold war has lately re-emerged: NATO. Poor underfunded neglected little NATO… let’s hope Europe hasn’t lost its phone number after so many years and so many upgrades to ever shinier new iphones.
First published in