19th century European imperialism continued a long tradition common to other imperial powers: a stated desire to bring “civilization” to its colonies and conquered territories. However benign such statements might sound, they are usually proven false. Empires are formed for numerous reasons, such as economic expansion or national security, but empires are rarely (if ever) beneficial to those who are conquered. 19th century Europe was a patchwork of highly competitive states that began to form empires so that they could stand against their rivals economically, geographically, and militarily. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rising tide of nationalism and self-determination in imperial colonies began to erode the ideology of imperialism, and European powers began to dismantle their own empires.
When it became apparent that the Ottoman Empire, which was often referred to as the “sick man of Europe,” could not endure much longer, European powers (primarily Britain, France, Russia) saw an opportunity to acquire new territories without the onus of conquering and subjugating other peoples. Through a series of secret negotiations, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain and France divided large amounts of Ottoman territory between themselves, as well as granting Russia certain key areas. This controversial agreement was formally ratified in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, which also stripped away all territory, except for Anatolia, from Turkish control (Khater, 136). By asserting their authority in the newly-formed League of Nations, European states arranged to have themselves appointed as “mandatory powers” that would, in theory, guide and assist the former Ottoman lands in the process of development and self-government. In reality, these mandatory powers differed from the absolute powers enjoyed by previous empires in name only (Gelvin, 181).
The mandate system was indeed “thinly disguised colonialism” (Gelvin, 184). European powers were very eager to increase their power through the establishment of global empires that allowed them to take what they needed from foreign regions. The Constantinople Agreement between France, Britain, and Russia is a very clear example of this policy; France and Britain allowed Russia to claim Istanbul and the Turkish Straits, and in return France would be given a vaguely defined region termed “Syria” while Britain was granted control of most of Persia (Gelvin, 178). What the Turks, Syrians, and Persians thought about this agreement was apparently never considered. The three European powers simply decided to divide the most desirable parts of the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves. This is typical of the high-handed treatment many developing areas found at the hands of European empires of the 19th century.
The mandate system has had long-lasting effects on the Middle East. Most of the borders of these modern Middle Eastern states were drawn almost arbitrarily by European powers in ways that would benefit themselves, rather than those who would be forced to live in the new states (Gelvin, 183). Although some effort was made to ensure that each of the new nations would be economically as well as politically viable, there were so many gross oversights that economic development and politically stability in the Middle East have been severely hampered. As a result, many of these boundaries are the subjects of long-standing conflicts. Several modern states continue to claim ancestral territories such as Iraq with Kuwait and Israel and Palestine with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The nation of Iraq was artificially created out of three former Ottoman provinces with wildly disparate ethnic and religious identities (Gelvin, 183). Since its establishment as a new monarchy in 1921, Iraq has been “notorious for its political stability” (Gelvin, 184). The Shiite majority of the country was, until very recently, ruled over by a Sunni minority. The Kurds, although mostly comprised of Sunnis, were an ethnic minority who would have preferred to govern themselves rather than be ruled by Arabs (Gelvin, 184). The British ignored these problems because of the many benefits they saw in having hegemony over the region: the oil-rich northern region would provide Britain with cheap oil; the fertile plains in the central region could be exploited as a breadbasket to feed England’s most important colony, India; and by including access to the Persian Gulf, Britain could easily ship Iraq’s natural resources. Incidentally, Britain established Iraq with a vacancy at its head, one which they quickly filled with Faysal, an ally that the British had recently betrayed and now badly needed to appease (Gelvin, 182).
The area that now comprises Jordan, Israel, and the disputed Palestinian territory has been sub-divided several times since it fell to British control. Originally called “Palestine” by the League of Nations, it was later split by the British along the Jordan River into smaller territories called “Palestine” and “Jordan” so that the throne of the newly-created Jordan could be given to ‘Abdallah, another disgruntled ally, as a political gesture of appeasement. Unfortunately, dividing the region along the natural boundary of the river may have made geographic sense but was an economic blunder, as it gave Jordan no natural economic resources. As such, it has never been able to stand on its own, depending on foreign subsidies to remain solvent (Gelvin, 183). Palestine, on the other hand, was given to the Zionists to become the new nation of Israel in 1948, a decision that is still the center of intense conflict 60 years later.
Syria is perhaps the best example of the European mandatory powers riding roughshod over local opinion. Syria elected its own parliament following WWI to decide where its boundaries lay and which nation, if any, would be given mandatory powers over it. In 1919, the General Syrian Congress formally protested the decision of the League of Nations that Syria was “among the nations in their middle stage of development which stand in need of a mandatory power” (Khater, 201). However, the League of Nations placed Syria under the control of France, a decision that was unacceptable to Syria’s leaders, and stripped away large amounts of territory claimed by Syria. France diminished Syria even further by splitting off what is now Lebanon, a region largely populated by Christians, so that they would have a Christian nation in the region to rely on (Gelvin, 181).
Khater, Akram Fouad. Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. New York: Oxford University