Recap | Legacies of the First World War in the Middle East

Event Recap Middle EastMichael Provence, historian and expert on Syria, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center with Aimee Genell, assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia, about the impact the resolution of the World War I had on the Middle East. Provence and Genell argue the source of the instability in the region today dates back 100 years, to the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the League of Nations mandate system. (The Sykes-Picot agreement was secretly reached between Great Britain and France in 1916 to define their spheres of influence in their newly conquered lands, which are now the Middle East.) Provence’s lecture focused on the mandate system designed by the Great Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia) at the close of the war to replace the authority of the Ottoman Empire. Genell looked at the Ottoman perspective, and how their proposed solution — developed out of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 12th point — could have been more in line with Western promises.

The League of Nations mandate system explained

The First World War, according to Provence, was not just a European war. It was designed in part with the hope of colonizing the lands dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The Great Powers used the “mission of civilization” as a cover to expand imperialism. This self-deception on behalf of the Europeans gave the Middle East the institutions it has today.

At the close of the war, the League of Nations created a mandate system for territories that were no longer under control of the same leader as before the war. The league decided that the people in these lands were incapable of governing themselves, and therefore required foreign assistance. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, were all declared mandates in 1919-1920. The people in these mandates were not asked to give consent to this new order, and they were not permitted to represent themselves in Geneva. But they all desired independence.

The British and French faced a crisis of legitimacy in these mandates because they were so unpopular. The people repeatedly claimed rule under the Ottoman Empire had been more just. The response to the legitimacy crisis was mass violence, under the facade of attempts at liberalization.

“The mandates regimes undermined the appeal and credibility of civilian leadership,” Provence said. He argues the institutions developed during this period were not meant to function properly, by delivering justice and order, but rather to be a facade for control of the region.

“The Middle East needs institutions citizens can trust, and the reason that it doesn’t have them, is because they were designed not to be trustworthy,” he said.

What the Ottoman Empire Wanted

Aimee Genell followed Provence’s lecture by looking at what the Ottoman Empire wanted at the conclusion of the war. They clung to Wilson’s 12th point, which outlined autonomous control for the Turkish part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their interpretation, the Ottomans would keep their empire and develop autonomous regions within it, using the United States as an example. The Great Powers rejected this proposal, however, saying that the Ottomans were unfit for an empire.

The mandate solution that was instead implemented, the Turks argued, went against Wilson’s promises and provided a legal basis for the expansion of imperialism.