By Ferhat Polat,

The current situation in the Middle East begs the question: ‘What is the main reason for so many on-going conflicts in the Middle East?’

There is not a simple answer to this question; however, when considering the past 100 years since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, we can see that many of the troubles in the Middle East arose and persists as no single power has overall control, as was the case when the Ottoman rule existed. We have seen in the past two decades just how quickly a lack of control is taken advantage of by dissident groups if organised, legitimate rule does not replace what has ruled before.

It is clear that the fall of this once mighty empire has given rise to violence, ethnic clashes, political instability, and religious fervour which have enabled a fertile breeding ground for dictators and terrorist groups to grow and exert their power in the chaotic absence of strong, legitimate leadership. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is key to the shape of today`s Middle East for instance, have risen since 1916 when two men sitting over long tables in palatial rooms sketched outlines on a map that effectively create much of present`s troubles.

The Middle East has been strategically significant for many of the great leaders and powers from Alexander the Great to the Mongols; the Romans, Napoleon and Ottoman. The Middle East holds a vital geographical position for those who want to control the Mediterranean and, consequently, the world. Of course, the Middle East contains much of the world’s oil; this makes the politics of the region so important for the rest of the world, particularly the powerful western allies.

Despite many attempts by many external powers to bring peace to the region The Middle Eastern chaos demonstrates that the region has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.  For hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia had few territorial disputes, as all fell under the rule of an imperial sovereign in Istanbul, who protected them from each other. That system collapsed in 1916, unleashing the demon of national, ethnic, and sectarian disputes over who controls which territory at what border precisely.

The roots of the current-day crisis in the Middle East can be understood by learning the history of the region.  So, why did the Ottoman Empire lose their territories in the Middle East in the 19th century? Even though the Ottoman Empire created stability in the Middle East, as it had been for centuries, until WWI there are some reasons which should be carefully considered.

A key, fatal flaw in the re-design of the region was when the West began to partition the region; they paid absolutely no attention to the complex ethnic and religious divisions that had defined the Middle East for centuries. Simply put, they were concerned only with perpetuating their own interests, regardless of the consequences and the detrimental impact on the affected nation states.

In the 19th century, modernization, Western thinking, democracy and parliament entered the Ottoman states.  Modernisation entered Western countries before it seeped into the Ottoman states; therefore, the Ottoman Empire was very slow to bring in democracy and a parliamentary system which led to uprising in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire. If in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire created the democracy and, more importantly, gave more autonomy to the Arabs, It would have prevented Western intervention in the Middle East.

The first parliament was established under sultan Abdul Hamit 2. This parliament had representatives from all the Ottoman nations and worked well. However, this changed when the young Turks toppled Sultan Abdul Hamid 2 and came to power. “Young Turks had dictatorial, ethnic and racial tendencies, it could be said that they were Turkish nationalists or, had such tendencies. It was very hard to merge these ideas within a diverse state” Rashid Khalidi, Historian at University of Colombia.

Young Turks aimed to enhance control by increasing centralisation which gave the impressions that the movement had Turkish tendencies. For example, the Arabic used in court correspondence was replaced by Turkish, one of the demands of centralisation. “As Ottoman citizens, Arabs were affected by the painful results of the Balkan war. The Ottoman state began to value more highly what remained of its territories. The diverse elements came together and tension grew drastically.” Basher Nafi is a senior researcher at Al Jazeera study centres.

The rising power in Istanbul in 1908 and 1909 was known as the Committee of Union and Progress. Those who were member of this union were predominantly the sons of the modern Ottoman elite, therefore, they did not have much respect for traditional leaders such as Sharif Hussein Bin Ali who wanted to have more autonomy in Hijaz because he was heir to the sherifate of Mecca, having lived there for centuries and set it up as an emirate.

For a while, Sharif Hussein changed his strategy to establish his own independent state. There are some vital reasons which influenced his opinions to change.  First, the way that Ottoman rule behaved in Arab regions became more and more dictatorial which led to British attempts to attract Sharif Hussein.

“Sharif Hussein agreed to fight against Ottoman and he offered his support to Great Britain, in return for British support for an independent Kingdom”.  Avi Shlaim who is an emeritus professor of international relations at St Antony's College, Oxford University,

It’s significant to understand the “Sykes-Picot” agreement which has led to create the failed states in Middle East.

Sykes-Picot was a secret wartime agreement between Britain and France in order to redraw the borders of the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement ignored the political aspirations of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Muslims, Jews and Christians.  It is very clear that this agreement destroyed cultural ties between these peoples, resulting in the creation of so much trouble and the division of the Middle East between Britain and France.

The agreement was named after the two men who were the architects of this murky deal; Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Sykes was a British conservative MP, and assistant to the secretary of state for war, Georges-Picot was a junior French diplomat. His father and this entire family were well integrated into the French diplomatic system. These people were naturally very interested in Asia.

“A secret pact between the French and British to chop up the Ottoman Empire after World War 1, such treaties, along with personal agendas and prejudices of Western officials, had a big role in drawing lines in the desert sand over which blood and oil have flowed for decades now” David Eromkin, the author of, ‘A Peace To End All Peace’.

The Sykes-Picot agreement did not take into account the interests of the indigenous people. This division was based on the European perspective of the nation state; however it did not bring a solution to nationalist issue in the region. They turned the nationalist issue from one of a diversity of cultures in the Ottoman space into a bloody conflict.

According to the Former Prime Minister of Turkey Prof.Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has always opposed Sykes-Picot which divided our region and alienated our cities from each other. More significantly, the Arab Spring was used to prevent any achievements of Turkish plans to reverse the outcome of the Sykes-Picot accord, for instance by creating a free economic zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

It is clear the Sykes-Picot agreement was based on racial, sectarian or ethnic cleansing to establish “one colour” countries, are only artificial projects which is very much against the nature of things; it might be the main reason that led to so many on-going civil wars which, inevitably, created so many failed states in the Middle East.  It is clear that the current situation is far worse than it was 100 years ago.

Today, we are still seeing the devastating consequences of these actions, as the region never achieved true stability over the decades that followed.  Such catastrophic on-going failure has created a generation that knows only conflict and aggression, a situation where peace and common good are unknown and, perhaps, unwanted.   The West has continued to approach the Middle East in a very short-sighted manner, choosing its allies based on what is profitable, rather than what is right. 

Ferhat Polat is PhD student in the Middle East Studies at University of Exeter

Ferhat Polat

Ferhat Polat

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