The Ottomans, Sykes-Picot and ISIS
See also Part 1 of this week's posting: The Ottomans Enter the War
As mentioned in Part 1 of this weeks posting, on October 29, 1914, Ottoman ships attacked the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. The attack was primarily carried out by two ships that only a few weeks earlier had been part of the German Navy; the cruisers Goeben and Breslau. The two ships had made their way to Constantinople in order to avoid a British flotilla tasked with hunting them down and destroying them. On their arrival, the German government gave them to the Ottoman navy. In a formal ceremony on October 16, the Goeben was renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Breslau was renamed Midilli. Now flying the Ottoman flag, the two ships became the newest addition to the Ottoman navy. Paradoxically, the original German crew and officers remained on the ships. Their uniforms unchanged save for the addition of a fez.
To arrive in Constantinople, the two ships would have had to make their way past the Ottoman forts and their 23 medium and heavy guns at the mouth of the Dardanelles. They would have needed a Turkish pilot to traverse the ten separate minefields between the entrance and an additional set of fortifications at Chamak and Kephez where the straits narrow to less than a mile in width. The combination of the 72 big guns and the minefields that the Ottomans had placed at the narrows were a formidable obstacle as the Anglo-French naval force, which tried to force the Dardanelles and attack Constantinople in February of 1915, was to discover.
Clearly, those ships could not have made it to Constantinople without the consent of the Turkish military. Once there, the Ottoman government, at the time still technically neutral, had a number of options in dealing with the German visitors. It could allow the ship a brief port stay and then direct them to leave in order to preserve its neutral status in the conflict. That's what the Italian government had done when the two ships had arrived at the port of Messina in Sicily.
The other alternative would have been to intern the ships and crew for the duration of the war. The German solution, to gift the ships to the Ottoman government, was a highly unusual one and was largely unprecedented in naval history. Capital ships represented a significant investment and took many years to build and outfit, not to mention to train a crew to a high state of readiness. The two ships were relatively new and among the most advanced in the German navy. They were not the sort of things that countries gifted to one another, especially when the owner was at war.
The Ottoman Empire had signed a secret agreement with Germany on August 2, 1914, in which it pledged to enter the war one day after a German declaration of war against Russia. Since Germany had declared war against Russia on August 1, the immediate entry of the Ottoman Empire into the conflict should have been a foregone conclusion. It wasn't. The Ottoman Sultan, Mohammed (Mehmed) V was determined to keep the Turks out of World War I. Notwithstanding the treaty that had been signed by his government, he refused to accept it or abide by its provisions. Since the sultan was the Commander in Chief of the Ottoman military and since troops could not be deployed without his permission, notwithstanding the treaty, the Ottoman Empire refused to enter the war.
When advised of the attack on Sevastopol, Mohammed V immediately repudiated the attack. He informed the Russian government that he had not authorized it and that it represented the action of "rogue" elements within the Ottoman military. He also offered to make immediate reparations for any damage that had been made to the Russian base. To this day, it is unclear whom in the Ottoman government or military authorized the attack and to what extent the German government was complicit in it. The circumstantial evidence points to Enver Pasha, the pro-German, Turkish Minister of War, but this is not definitive.
Two days later, on November 1, Russian forces began to attack Ottoman positions in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. The actual Russian declaration of war did not come till November 2. Great Britain and France issued their own decelerations two days later. Within 2 days of declaring war on the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain attacked the Ottoman Al-Faw fort at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab and landed some 20,000 troops in what was then called southern Mesopotamia. They immediately took control of Basra and the oil fields that surrounded it.
The Ottoman entry into the war would prove disastrous for the Ottoman Empire and would result in its complete destruction and the occupation of Constantinople by British and French forces in November of 1918. When the war started, the Russian government had obtained British and French agreement for its objectives against the Ottomans: control of Constantinople and the Turkish Straits (the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles), seizure of the Armenian districts of Eastern Anatolia from Trebizond to Bitlis, and a strip of land along the Black Sea coast to Turkish Thrace and then south through the Bosphorus along the Marmara coast to Izmit.
Had Russia succeeded in its objective it would have been the culmination of a centuries long effort to take control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits and would have established Russia not only as the preeminent sea power in the Black Sea but also as a formidable naval power in the Mediterranean. Russia was also anxious to obtain control of the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk in the north of Mesopotamia but this demand, unacceptable to Britain, was left unsettled.
Unwilling to stand aside while the Russians helped themselves to the spoils of the Ottomans, Great Britain and France came to an agreement on how to divide up the balance of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement, officially called the Asia Minor Treaty, but popularly known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, was reached in May 1916. The British government was represented by Mark Sykes, a career foreign service officer, while France was represented by Francois Georges Picot. The French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing was the great nephew of Picot.
The two men reached an agreement to divide up the balance of the Ottoman Empire between them. France would get the region of "Greater Syria" which was expanded to include the northwest section of what is now northern Iraq including Mosul and Kirkuk and portions of southern Anatolia. Great Britain would get southern Mesopotamia, and the region of Palestine. The region of Palestine at the time encompassed both sides of the Jordan River and would today correspond to the states of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Russia did not directly participate in the negotiations, but the Russian foreign minister Samsonov was kept abreast of them and consented to the Anglo-French plan.
At the time the Sykes-Picot agreement was reached, the United States had not yet entered the war. Woodrow Wilson had not yet formulated his 14 Points, and had not yet proposed the creation of the League of Nations or the idea that the former territories of the Ottoman Empire should be administered as mandates under the supervision of the League of Nations. At this point the Anglo-French agreement was little more than a naked land grab in the imperialist tradition that had seen European nations divide up much of the rest of the world and organize them into colonies of the respective mother countries.
The actual division between the French and British territories was largely arbitrary. They did not follow, the administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, "Palestine" and "Greater Syria" were European geographic concepts, ones that dated to classical antiquity, and did not correspond to any administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire.
In addition, there was a certain amount of "horse trading" that took place. What is now northwestern Iraq, for example, and corresponds largely to the Kurdish region, was originally intended to be in the French zone and was to be incorporated into Syria. The Russians had also wanted this region added to their zone in eastern Anatolia. Instead it was incorporated into Mesopotamia and became part of the British zone and what would eventually become Iraq. In return, Great Britain gave France a 25 percent interest in the Anglo-Turkish oil company, which it subsequently organized to exploit the oil fields around Mosul.
Within their zone, France and Great Britain would be free to organize their new territories as they saw fit. France, for example, decided that the Maronite Christians in greater Syria should have their own country and carved out Lebanon for them. Until then, Lebanon had not existed. Likewise, the British carved out Jordan from the region they called Palestine in order to provide a "kingdom" for Faisal bin Hussein, the son of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, after the Hashemite clan had lost out to the Saud family for control of Arabia and what would eventually become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
After the Bolshevik revolution, Great Britain and France refused to hand over to Moscow those portions of the Ottoman Empire that they had previously agreed would go to Russia. In retaliation the Bolsheviks published the text of the hitherto secret Sykes-Picot agreement. The publication of the agreement was to prove particularly problematic for the British government because it exposed not only Anglo-French intentions to carve up the Ottoman Empire, but it demonstrated that London had made a number of promises that were incompatible with the aims of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The principal problem was how to reconcile British promises, the "McMahon-Hussein correspondence", to Hussein bin Ali, to support the creation of an Arab state from the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire in return for Arab support against the Turkish military (ably led by British major T.E Lawrence who would achieve immortality as Lawrence of Arabia), the Balfour Declaration supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and Anglo-French plans for dividing up the Ottoman Empire.
Interestingly enough, the Balfour Declaration envisioned the creation of a "Jewish homeland" but stopped short of proposing an independent Jewish "nation state". Moreover, the discussions in the British Cabinet preceding the announcement imply that the principal zones of settlement would be chiefly along the Mediterranean costal strip and did not envision that Jerusalem, its immediate environs or the west bank would form part of this "Jewish homeland" as this area was seen as too important to the Arab communities in Palestine and its inclusion as too politically charged. By and large, the mechanics of where settlement would occur, what administrative form the Jewish homeland would take, and how the Jewish and Arab communities would be organized in relation to one another, and to the British colonial administration, was left to resolve later.
Eventually, the British government would abandon the idea of a unified Arab state in the old Ottoman lands. Would be rulers were paid off with smaller states, the Hashemite clan got Jordan and Mesopotamia in return for organizing the Arab revolt, the Saud family, with British consent, ended up with Arabia and the holy cites of Mecca and Medina, but no "Arab nation state" emerged. Great Britain was initially supportive of Jewish immigration into Palestine but became increasingly unsupportive as it led to Arab unrest in the British controlled areas.
In the end Sykes-Picot prevailed, with minor modifications. It would result in the organization of the Middle East into various colonies and eventually independent nation states. The borders created by the British and the French as a result of the Sykes Picot agreement have, other than for their adjustment as a result of various conflicts, largely persisted to this day.
The British general Sir Edmund Allenby called the Middle East Theater during World War I a "sideshow". The exploits of Lawrence of Arabia he called "a sideshow in a sideshow". While the Middle East Theater would in fact prove to be a "sideshow" in as far as the outcome of WW I was concerned, the war itself would have a dramatic impact on the organization of the Middle East. It would be responsible not only for the contemporary, and often dysfunctional, organization of the region, but also for many of the issues with which we find ourselves dealing with today.
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has resurrected in the public consciousness the existence of the Sykes-Picot treaty and its influence in shaping the contemporary Middle East. In the process, transforming it from an obscure footnote of interest only to the specialist historian to a popular topic in the mainstream media. This author too has not been immune to this development. See for example the current segment for Fox and Friends.
ISIS has specifically called for the "repudiation" of Sykes-Picot. Since Great Britain and France no longer have colonies in the Middle East, their demand is directed at the national borders and the individual nation states that are the legacy of Sykes-Picot. Their demand is nothing less than the abolition of those states and the creation of the Arab nation state that was promised to the Sharif of Mecca in 1916 by the British government and subsequently reneged on.
It is unlikely that ISIS will succeed in this aim. If for no other reason that the United States could not allow the creation of a state that would control some 40 percent of the world's oil reserves. The political orientation of that state is irrelevant, though the extremism of ISIS makes it that much more unacceptable. Today we face the reality of a barbarous regime spawned in part by, and looking to overturn, a political order that resulted from events that transpired a century ago. Events that in fact should never have happened had the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed V succeeded in keeping the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
We now leave the world of the historian to enter the world of contemporary international relations. While the roots of ISIS may be a topic of historical interest, the outcome of the struggle to defeat it is a current issue of international politics and a core interest of American foreign policy in the region. Will ISIS be defeated? The answer is yes. If for no other reason then the fact that ISIS is the political equivalent of a hemorrhagic fever. It is so extreme, so inflexible, so lethal, that it will burn itself out. The question we have to answer is, what will be the price?
American air power is a formidable force. There is frankly nothing in the world that can withstand it. It will succeed in degrading ISIS, it will slow it down and it will buy us time. But it will not be enough. ISIS is now an army. The only way to defeat an army is with boots on the ground. The question is: whose boots are they going to be? It is clear that those boots will not be American. Comments from the Pentagon notwithstanding, the White House has made it clear that it will not deploy any significant number of American forces on the ground. It's possible that some token force may be deployed ostensibly to "protect" the American embassy, but not enough to have a true offensive capability.
The political reality is that Americans will simply not stand to shed American blood and capital to regain territories that we have already shed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to take control off once before. It is equally clear that it is highly unlikely that those boots will be Turkish. That leaves only one set of boots on the ground and they belong to Iran. In fact Iran has already deployed tens of thousands of troops in Iraq including several battalions of Revolutionary Guards.
The irony is that ISIS will likely be defeated by a combination of American planes and Iranian boots. When the Arab revolt started in Syria, the Saudis and their allies saw it as an opportunity to roll back the "Shia arc" of influence that stretched from Iran across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and which included Hezbollah and Hamas. It was largely Saudi and Gulf money that financed the Sunni revolt in Syria.
In this case, the strategy went terrible wrong. No wonder Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the architect of that strategy, was dismissed as the Chief of General Intelligence, the Saudi security agency. Instead we now find that the medicine proposed is worse then the disease. The result is a defacto alliance between Iran and the United States to defeat ISIS. In the end, American air power and Iranian boots will prevail over ISIS. Instead of weakening the Iranian Shia arc of influence, however, American air power will have made it stronger, possibly, in the short term, a permanent fixture of Middle East politics.
The larger question is what will the US have to give up in order to cement its new Iranian alliance? Already it is clear that Assad is off the table. He will survive and American air power will insure that the murderous Assad regime continues in Syria. So much for the "red line". Likewise, it's hard too see how we can credibly put any constraints on the Iranian nuclear program when we are relying on Iranian boots to defeat ISIS. That doesn't mean that the White House may not yet announce an "agreement" to curtail Iran's nuclear program. If so, it will be all for show. The Iranian nuclear development program is alive and well and while it is still far off from developing a nuclear capability it is now only a question of when not if.
How extensive will the American-Iranian military cooperation be? Someone in the White House Press Corp should really ask Josh Earnest if American Forward Air Controllers have been imbedded or if there are plans to imbed them in Iranian military units operating in Iraq. The official answer is likely to be "no" on both counts, but the real answer is "not yet but its coming". The idea that American air power will provide close air support for Iranian Revolutionary Guard units, an organization that the State Department still classifies as a terrorist organization, should give us pause and underscores the fact that in the Middle East, truth is often stranger than fiction.
And to think that all of this was set in motion by an event 100 years ago that was never supposed to happen!