Open Democracy 17 May 2014

The Great War and Iraq: Britain’s poisonous legacy

The little-known involvement of British imperial forces in creating and controlling the state of Iraq in the wake of the first world war is a key source of the country’s later disasters, says Ian Rutledge.


As the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18 approaches, the media in Britain have begun to present substantial coverage of this dreadful catastrophe. The BBC is, as might be expected, in the lead; it has already scheduled a total of sixty-six Great War-related programmes to be broadcast over the next four years, including seventeen documentaries. In contrast, ITV seems largely to have withdrawn from any contest, although its website carries a regular “First World War News” slot. Recent items include the Duke of Cambridge climbing aboard an aircraft of the period in New Zealand and David Cameron recital of Rupert Brooke’s patriotic poem The Soldier for a special war-related album called Forever.

So far, however, it has been difficult to detect any plans to cover the one aspect of the Great War which has had the longest abiding impact upon the modern world: Britain’s poisonous legacy in the middle east. Indeed, an examination of two of the most pitiable human disasters currently afflicting the region – the near civil war in Iraq, which to date has claimed around 80,000 lives, and the seemingly endless plight of the Palestinian Arabs with its own ever-mounting death toll – reveals the underlying stain of Britain’s imperial policy during and immediately after the first world war.

For most of the 19th century, Britain’s objective had been to preserve the Turkish-ruled Ottoman empire as a buffer against Tsarist Russia’s attempts to gain access to the Mediterranean. Commitment to this long-standing policy objective had weakened somewhat by the first decade of the 20th century, but British relations with the Ottomans remained cordial. As late as spring 1914, Britain was building two modern battleships for the Ottoman “Young Turk” government, training its naval officers and – in a deal orchestrated by the foreign office in London – backing a largely British-controlled Turkish Petroleum Company to develop Ottoman oil resources in its Iraqi provinces.

Britain’s seizure of those two Turkish battleships, however, prompted the Ottoman empire to enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia, now Britain’s ally, was staking a claim to Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, and the Bosphorus straits – gateway to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. So after Britain invaded Iraq in November 1914, Britain’s rulers decided that, by one means or another, the remainder of the Turks’ venerable multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire would be dismantled.

Old empire, new empire

The implementation of this new policy was nevertheless haphazard and evolved through various stages. The first of these was the De Bunsen committee, which first met on 12 April 1915, attended by representatives of all the British government’s departments of state, including Sir Mark Sykes, the personal representative of war minister Lord Kitchener. The only son of a rich landowning grandee whose fortune he had recently inherited, Sykes had gained a reputation for being an expert orientalist, although in truth the evidence for this was flimsy – a couple of travel books peppered with typical Edwardian prejudices against Jews, town-dwelling Arabs and Armenians. But by the final session of the committee’s proceedings, he had effectively dictated its conclusions.

The committee, with a nod to Britain’s earlier policy towards the Ottoman empire, resolved to preserve the empire’s carcass but move its seat of government and the Islamic Caliphate to somewhere on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The empire would then be divided into a federation of self-governing provinces, or ayalets – Anatolia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The Ottoman “government” would retain some powers (foreign policy, higher courts of justice, certain types of taxation) but everything else would be devolved to the individual ayalets. In the meantime two of the “devolved” ayalets, Iraq and Palestine, were designated as the “British sphere of enterprise” – and since the committee had spent a considerable amount of time discussing the promising oil reserves believed to be present in northern Iraq, it is fairly clear what sort of “enterprise” it had in mind. However, both in the proceedings of the committee and its final report, there were indications that something more drastic than “devolution” might be required if future military and political considerations so dictated.

In the event, circumstances did so dictate. By early 1916, Britain had suffered two catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Ottoman army: Gallipoli, and Kut al-Amara in Iraq, where an over-confident Anglo-Indian army was surrounded and forced to surrender. In desperation, the British government offered the aged and deeply conservative Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons a vaguely delineated Arab empire to be carved out of the Ottoman territories, in return for rebelling against their Turkish overlords, an offer lubricated by a generous monthly subsidy in gold sovereigns.

Sykes was now faced with the onerous task of accommodating the territorial aspirations of the Sharif of Mecca while at the same time recognising the ambitions of its French ally to establish a colony in the Levant (as well as Russia’s demand for the straits). His solution – and he apparently convinced himself it would be an acceptable solution to all sides – was the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. This proposed a British protectorate in the Iraqi provinces of Baghdad and Basra, and a French protectorate in Lebanon and southern Anatolia. Palestine, with its “holy places” would be “internationalised”. And as a “concession” to Sharif Hussein there would be two semi-independent Arab emirates: one in the interior of Syria, the other stretching from northern Iraq extending south-west through present-day Jordan to a point just south of Palestine. These “Arab” regions, however, would be effectively under the control of French and British “advisors”.

But within a year, military and political developments dictated the abandonment of Sykes-Picot. During the Russian revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks discovered and published the terms of the agreement. To mollify the Sharif of Mecca and an enraged Arab world, Sykes authored a public declaration, issued in Baghdad in March 1917, which promised to satisfy the Arabs’ “aspirations”. Although the word “independence” wasn’t used, educated Arab opinion took it to mean just that. Then, faced with the United States president, Woodrow Wilson’s declared support for “self-determination” for subject peoples, a second proclamation (again authored by Sykes) was made in November 1918 offering the Arabs “complete liberation”.

Nevertheless, after the Americans had withdrawn from the post-war peace negotiations in disgust at its Allies’ manifestly imperialist manoeuvrings, In April 1920, Britain and France simply awarded themselves the “mandates” for the whole of Iraq and Syria – in theory, the responsibility to gradually lead these countries to full independence but in practice, little more than indefinite protectorates. And on the same day that the mandates were distributed, Britain and France agreed to share Iraq’s future oil production with British-controlled companies getting 75%.

Meanwhile, Britain’s war-time decision to dismember the old Ottoman empire had taken an even more tragic turn and once again, it was Sykes who played a central role. He wrote the so-called “Balfour declaration” in November 1917, committing Britain to establish a Jewish “home” in Palestine. The consequences of that cynical act are too well known to merit further discussion here; suffice it to say that, in addition to the tragic consequences for the Palestinians, it also spelled disaster for the tens of thousands of Jews who had lived generally safe and prosperous lives within the Ottoman empire, but who now  – like the Jewish community in Iraq where they constituted around a third of the population of Baghdad – would become scapegoats for the Zionist enterprise, an enterprise for which they had little or no sympathy.

The puppet state

Contrary to the “Lawrence of Arabia” myth, most Arabs – at least around 350,000 regulars and Bedouin – fought loyally for the Ottoman empire during the first world war. But for the Arabs of Iraq the Great War never really ended. Only eighteen months after the Allied victory, Britain was bombing recalcitrant Arab tribes and in July 1920, the Euphrates Arabs began a major uprising for independence. Measured in enemy combatants it was the most serious armed uprising against British rule in the 20th century; the pro-British rebellion of the Sharif of Mecca was puny by comparison. Yet until recently, in Britain, the history of this great Arab revolt in Iraq has been almost entirely ignored and still remains erased from the collective memory.

Although the uprising was finally and brutally crushed, it forced the British to abandon any idea of direct colonial control on the “Indian” model. Instead they decided on a policy of “informal empire”, succinctly described in 1920 by a senior government official, Sir Arthur Hirtzel:

“What we want is some kind of modicum of Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves, something that won’t cost much … but in which our influence and political and economic interests will be secure.”

So, behind the façade of a well-meaning but largely helpless Arab king, Iraq would be handed-over to a clique of Iraqi-born Sunni military officers who had defected to the British during the war and a group of heavily subsidised “friendly” sheikhs, most of whom had opposed the 1920 uprising. The majority Shi’i population which had been the bedrock of that uprising were almost entirely excluded from power. And in the background, British bombers, armoured cars and “advisors” stood ready to enforce the puppet government’s decisions.

The line of responsibility

The absence of representative, democratic institutions at the birth of the Iraqi nation established a dark precedent for the future conduct of Iraqi politics. Since the Sunni officers who formed the backbone of the regime could rely on bombing by the RAF to “solve” political problems in the Shi’i and Kurdish regions, there was little incentive to develop peaceful democratic methods of conflict resolution: instead, in the words of one British historian, “Governance was delivered from two hundred feet.”

British forces remained in Iraq until 1958 but the rule of military strongmen and the exclusion of Shi’is from any significant share in government continued into the 1970s, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. Sadly, the Shi’is’ long experience of discrimination and semi-persecution have not taught the current US-backed “democratic” Shi’i government of Nouri al-Maliki any lessons in conciliation, and a policy bordering on revenge towards the minority Sunni community has led to the endemic al-Qa‘ida-related terrorism and horrific near-civil war that continues to afflict the Iraqi people.

Attributing responsibility to the British for the seemingly endless strife in the middle east is not to deny the futile and cruel actions of some of those who became the victims of British policy: the long-suffering people of Iraq and Palestine have deserved a far better standard of political leadership than those who have purported to represent their interests. Nevertheless, historical analysis requires a much deeper search for explanatory factors than a mere deprecation of this or that corrupt, religiously-bigoted or brutal politician. History shows that Britain’s Great War legacy to the middle east was one stained with blood. Tragically that legacy remains as poisonous as ever.

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