In the Middle East, WWI centenary is reminder of continuing conflict

Millions in Middle East suffered in WWI, but region largely shrugs off centenary. A look at what happened in 1918 and after.

King Faisal I of Iraq leads a delegation at Versailles, during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; on his right is Britain’s T. E. Lawrence (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
King Faisal I of Iraq leads a delegation at Versailles, during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; on his right is Britain’s T. E. Lawrence
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The French Embassy in Tel Aviv put up a video to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the First World War.
“In Tel Aviv diplomats from Germany and France work hand in hand,” the video says, amid short clips of French and German diplomats speaking about the end of the Great War.
It was a fitting tribute and showcased the warm relations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron displayed at centenary events.
However, in the Middle East, the 100th anniversary was largely greeted with a shrug, despite the millions in the region who suffered during the Great War and the battles that transformed the region.
Remarking on the ability of France and Germany to reconcile, Iyad el-Baghdadi, president of the Kawaakibi Foundation, wrote that he was moved to tears. “Do young Europeans even realize what has been achieved? It’s nothing less than sacred, because peace is sacred, because human life is sacred.”
Borzou Daragahi, an Iranian-American journalist, also found the images of the centenary moving.
THE IMPACT of the Great War was immense in the Middle East. Millions died in battle, and due to famine and other effects of the war in the region. Over 8,000 Jews living in Ottoman Palestine died of starvation during the war years, and up to a third of Jerusalem’s Jewish population was lost during the war.
Fought over a vast battlefield, from Aqaba and what is now Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all the way to Istanbul, battles took place along porous, shifting front lines and across deserts that stretched over thousands of kilometers.
Several different wars and campaigns were fought at the same time. One pitted the Ottoman Empire against the Russians in the Caucuses, where Turkish soldiers froze to death. There were massacres of Armenian and other Christian minorities by the Ottomans. A third conflict involved the British and Allied campaign that started in Egypt and marched through what was then Ottoman Palestine toward Damascus.
In addition, an Arab revolt in the Hejaz eventually influenced the creation of several of the Arab states in the region today, including Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. A brutal campaign by the British and French to decapitate the Ottoman Empire by forcing their way up the Dardanelles saw the allies and Ottomans lose over a hundred thousand men. Many of them are still there, buried in 31 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that dot the Gallipoli Peninsula.
At the time of the outbreak of the First World War in the Middle East, the region was controlled by large empires, including the Ottomans, French and British. Most of the local people drafted to fight had no choice in the matter and were not eager patriots for either side. But the effect of the war on local people was transformative, dismantling the Ottoman Empire and helping to give birth to most of the modern states in the region. It also laid the seeds for the Arab-Israeli conflict through the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The Ottoman Empire and the Allied Powers signed an armistice on October 30, 1918, which was supposed to end hostilities, even before the armistice in Europe was signed. But the wars in the Middle East didn’t stop with the armistice.
The Middle East still suffers under this shadow, as evidenced by the attempt of Islamic State to erase the Sykes-Picot borders and create an Islamic caliphate. This was an extreme way to revive former caliphates that once existed. The Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924 as part of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s reforms. It is perhaps fitting that the centenary of the end of the war also coincides with 80 years since his death.
In northern Iraq members of the Yazidi minority are still seeking to return to their homes in Sinjar, from which they had to flee in 2014 as ISIS captured the area and attempted to exterminate the ancient religious group. Two hundred and two mass graves left behind by ISIS have been found. As people mourn this mass murder, it is difficult for them to look back at a mostly European war and recall what happened in 1918.
For the Middle East the armistice was largely meaningless. In Medina the Turkish commander of the garrison, Fahreddin Pasha, did not surrender until January 1919. He was taken to Abdullah, a leader of the Arab Revolt, and was eventually released, to make his way back to Istanbul. The Arab Revolt fighters under Faisal, the brother of Abdullah, reached Damascus on September 30, 1918, and continued north, helping to take Aleppo in October.
While the Allies and Germans in Europe were preparing for the armistice in 1918, the remnants of the Ottoman army and the Arabs who had helped the British and French wrest control of what is now Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon from the Ottomans, were busy fighting over the spoils. Faisal would eventually proclaim a kingdom in Syria in 1920, before the French forced him out in the Battle of Maysalun in July of 1920. Faisal went to Iraq, where the British supported him being named king. His brother Abdullah became Amir of Transjordan. His great-grandson is the current king.
The fighting in Syria also affected the emerging British Mandate in Palestine. In April 1920 riots broke out coinciding with Nebi Musa, a religious festival, and five Jews and four Arabs were killed. The riots were fueled by opposition to Zionism. It is largely forgotten, but the battle of Tel Hai the same year, where Joseph Trumpeldor was killed, was part of the tensions at the end of the First World War. For Arabs and Jews in British Palestine, the end of the war was merely the beginning of a new round.
The same was the case for the fate of the Hejaz, where the Arab Revolt had begun. King Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca and father of King Abdullah of Jordan and King Faisal of Iraq, fought a war from 1918 to 1925 against Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis won, and the current borders of Saudi Arabia are the result.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq another rebellion broke out against the British administration in 1920 in Tal Afar near the border with modern-day Turkey. The British put down the rebellion, which involved Sunni and Shi’ite Arab tribes. However, Kurdish rebels, also unhappy with being included in modern-day Iraq and seeking greater independence, also began a rebellion in 1919 under Sheykh Mahmud Barzanji. Today, the aftermath of those conflicts still haunt Iraq. The northern Mosul region was initially claimed by Turkey up until the mid-1920s. The Kurdish region never received independence.
Turkey also suffered years of war after the armistice. Beginning in 1919 the armies of the emerging Republic of Turkey, which would be proclaimed in 1923, fought with Greek forces that sought to occupy parts of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands fled, as Greeks fled Turkey and Turks fled Greece. Whereas Europe was finding peace, the armistice only set in motion more conflicts in Turkey that were not resolved until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 and not fully resolved until the Sanjak of Alexandretta, occupied by the French, became part of Turkey in 1938 as Hatay province.
ACROSS THE Middle East, to mark Armistice Day, there will be some small ceremonies, particularly associated with the Allied Powers. These will commemorate the war graves that can be found from Somalia to Algeria. In Beirut the graves contain Greek and Turkish casualties. In Syria the cemetery in Aleppo also contains the names of 127 Indian soldiers who fought alongside the Allies in the war.
Across Israel there are a half dozen cemeteries and two in Gaza commemorating those who fought.
In Tehran there are casualties from the mostly forgotten 1918 “Dunsterforce” the British set up to help the Transcaucasian Federal Republic defend against a Turkish offensive. That short-lived republic no longer exists, but the memory of those dead, among the thousands across the region, unites the Middle East, at least for a moment, in mourning 100 years after the Great War ended.
It is a moment that is largely forgotten in the region due to the bloodletting and suffering that followed the armistice and the shadow it still casts over conflicts forgotten in the region due to the bloodletting and suffering that followed the armistice and the shadow it still casts over conflicts today.