The Interwar Middle East

If you’ve been following along on my blog or have read my “About” section, you know that I plan to focus my research roughly on the period between World War I and World War II in the Middle East. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of the region during this time, I thought I’d provide a (very) brief overview in a (probably kinda dry) post.

The period immediately following World War I was a time of immense change in the Middle East that defined, in many, and some very literal, ways, the region as we know it today. I’m particularly interested in the area that became the modern-day states of Syria and Lebanon as they came to be as a result of the divvying up of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French after their victory in the First World War. Because World War I is essential to what came after it, I’llĀ  include a brief overview of that conflict as it played out in the Middle East (sorry, I won’t be including Iran in this discussion).

World War I in the Middle East

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Germans in November 1915. The result was a multi-front assault on the Ottoman Empire, largely by British forces in Egypt, Iraq, and western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). While the Germans and Ottomans made considerable progress and held their own for the first two years of the war, 1918 saw a change in fortunes that eventually led to a German-Ottoman defeat at the hands of the British, French, and Italians. The loss in human life in the Ottoman Empire was catastrophic. In addition to the war dead, wounded, and missing, the territories that would become Syria and Lebanon experienced mass starvation, the combined result of successive years of drought, a locust infestation, and a Franco-Anglo blockade of the Mediterranean coast.

The Mandate

While everyone knows about the outcome of World War I in Europe, the massive human toll and the harsh penalties heaped on a defeated Germany by the winning French and English powers, relatively little is discussed of what this meant for the Ottoman Empire. During the course of the war, the ultimately victorious Powers (British, French, and Italians) made a series of seemingly conflicting agreements concerning the fate of the Ottoman territories. Egypt, and what became Turkey and Saudi Arabia became independent or quasi-independent in the years following WWI. Other territories saw themselves placed under French and British Mandatory administrations. The dividing up of these territories led to the creation of the modern-day states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine (what would become Israel in 1948), and the creation of an internationally-administered Jerusalem. Syria and Lebanon were placed under French mandate and the remainder under British.

The notion of the mandate was established by Article 22 of the League of Nations charter. In its essentials, it declared that certain states were not yet able to govern themselves. Until they could, foreign powers would provide administrative oversight of all of that country’s affairs, helping to establish a constitution and a functioning governmental system. It was, basically, colonization under another name.

The Mandate in Syria and Lebanon

The implementation of the mandatory administration in the Middle East took different forms. In French mandate Syria and Lebanon, the ideological base of the project was based on France’s Mission Civilisatrice, or the Civilizing Mission. This was a paternalistic belief that French colonization and administration would bring European civilization to the uncivilized masses; in the context of Syria and Lebanon, France had additional ideological interests as the special protector of the region’s Maronite Christians (a type of Christianity that had claimed allegiance to the pope in Rome). The inhabitants of these new nations did not acquiesce silently to this imposed administration, and the twenty-plus-year period of the mandate was a time of conflict and upheaval, as various nationalist groups attempted to rid their country of what they saw as colonial occupiers.

Ultimately, it was World War II that brought the Syrian and Lebanese mandates to an end in 1945, when the French agreed to full independence and the withdrawal of all their troops from the two nations. Historians of the mandate have long debated its legacy. While the French mandate officials often saw themselves as saviors from the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Turks, Arab nationalists at the time questioned the morality of the mandate system itself, as well as the French implementation of it in their countries. Later historians, while often acknowledging to one degree or another some of the positive aspects of the mandatory administration, have generally concluded that this was an inherently colonial process that left an insufficiently-prepared, and in some ways permanently weakened administrative system in its wake.

Conclusion

World War I and the implementation of the mandate period in the years following it ushered in an age of increased European, and later American, direct intervention in the workings of Middle Eastern states. While European powers had been meddling in Ottoman affairs since the late 18th century, and held effective control over Egypt since the late nineteenth century, the post-WWI period ushered in an era of direct colonial rule over the more populous Arab regions of the former Ottoman Empire. When the mandatory administrations were brought to an end throughout the Middle East, Western involvement with these states did not come to an end, and can still be seen to this day. For the governments of Syria and Lebanon, the legacy of the mandate can be seen in the conflicts and divisions that have plagued those two countries since.

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