The Middle East: The legacy of World War I in the sights of the Great Powers
The consequences of the policy of division
No other region in the world has been plagued by crises as the Middle East in recent decades. The chessboard of the great powers has not only been hit by wars since the Arab Spring. The Middle East is diverse – religiously, politically and culturally. Although the present appearance of the Middle East is shaped by the last absolute monarchies and one-party systems, the region is considered the cradle of civilization. The first advanced civilizations (high cultures) settled in the area between the Euphrates and Tigris thousands of years ago. As the starting point for Islamization and the center of the later crusades, the Middle East was always torn between two worlds. Many conservative parts of today’s Orient were once responsible for the cultural boom in Europe and elsewhere.
Instead of a large Arab state, the area was divided into several small states, which were often heterogeneous within the country.
The history of the past hundred years is particularly important for the current hotspots. Important parts of the Orient were under Ottoman rule for a long time and already played a key role in the First World War – because the great powers also fought their wars in the Middle East. Both sides, the Germans as well as the English and French have always appreciated the importance of allies in the region. Dissatisfied with the Ottoman rule, Arab tribes sought political independence especially before, during and after the First World War. The promises of individual European powers, especially the English, that the Arab tribes would be granted independence in the event of an alliance, were not fulfilled. Instead, the French and English decided to reorganize the Middle East. State borders, which are responsible for many of today’s conflicts, have been drawn. Instead of a large Arab state, the area was divided into several small states, which were often heterogeneous within the country.
Cleavages between ethnical and religious minorities
A look at Lebanon, Syria or Iraq illustrates the situation. Lebanon in particular appears to be a prime example from the history book. Ethnic and religious heterogeneity is held together by a unique constitution that predefines offices according to religion and ethnicity. Religiously, half of the population consists of Sunnis and Shiites, the other half of Orthodox, Catholic and Maronite Christians. In addition, there is a Druze minority that plays a role in the region – especially in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. In a weakened form, different ethnic and religious minorities can also be defined in Syria and Iraq, which belong to the indigenous population of the respective states. The Kurds, for example, play a formative role in Iraq and have their own armed forces and government through autonomy.
Besides the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are many other cleavages within the Arab world. The former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, ruled the mostly Shiite country. The intra-confessional conflicts, not only in Iraq, are the breeding ground for numerous conflicts within the Arab world. Saddam Hussein not only tried to install a Sunni Arab regime – he also acted against individual, influential ethnic minorities (such as the Kurds). The overthrow of a regime – for whatever reason – is one side of the problem, the loss of control over the environment of the overthrown regime is another point. Especially in the Iraqi case, thousands of high-ranking officers were driven underground within one day. These are the same officers who, many years later, partially made up part of the leadership of the Islamic State.
Especially in the Iraqi case, thousands of high-ranking officers were driven underground within one day.
We can see a similar picture in neighboring Syria – the country, which is predominantly Sunni, has been authoritarian-ruled by the Alawite Al-Assad family for several decades. Fearing that Islamist groups could take power in the country, several religious and ethnic minorities were/are forming “alliances” with the regime. In addition to Bashar al-Assad, the civil war is not only shaped by a democratic opposition, but also by Islamist rebels, Kurds and Christian minorities. Due to the complex situation within Syria, it is important in this debate not to relativize the actions of the regime, but at the same time to call radical rebel groups as such.
Because great powers are involved in these conflicts, using conspiracy theories are used to justify authoritarian regimes and deny the right to resist. Both, an authoritarian regime and several radical rebel groups financed by regional or great powers are part of the game. Major and regional powers undoubtedly play an important role in the region and try to advance their own interests. It is in the nature of geopolitics that domestic tensions and civil wars are additionally aggravated by foreign countries.
More than a battlefield for proxy wars
Different interests thwart in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran’s regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia, for example, is an important basis for the conflict and is based on the Sunni and Shiite cleavage. For Iran, Shiite support in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is of national importance to broaden the sphere of influence and build a logistical bridge to the Hezbollah militia. Bashar al-Assad is considered an important partner, which is why Iranian military units also operate on the regime’s side in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is trying to push back Iranian influence in the Middle East and expand its sphere of influence. Not only in neighboring Qatar, but above all in the region around Iraq and Syria. It should be mentioned that Saudi Arabia has established a conservative version of Islam, Wahhabism, as the state religion. One of the last absolute monarchies, which is known for brutal executions, supports the spread of Wahhabism worldwide. The Saudi Arabian rulers, but also Qatar, are suspected in directly or indirectly financing (different) radical groups in the Syrian conflict.
Another important regional player is Turkey, which is also suspected of financing individual radical groups in Syria – especially northern Syria. Turkey’s primary interest lies in preventing a strong Kurdish self-government in northern Syria. Under the pretext of fighting terrorists, Turkey not only finances anti-Kurdish forces in the region, but also takes an active part in military operations, as in the case of the intervention in northern Syria. The country on the Bosporus maneuvers between Washington and Moscow, which has an impact on the conflict in the Middle East. While Russia supports/supported the Syrian ruler, but at the same time strengthened relations with strategically important Turkey, Turkey has a tense relationship with Bashar al-Assad. The intervention in Northern Syria, which is predominantly occupied by Kurds, occasionally led/leads to military clashes with the Syrian units.
The cradle of civilization is seen as the battlefield on which great powers wage wars at the expense of the civilian population.
When talking about Russia’s role in the region, the United States must be addressed in the same moment. Similar to Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia and the United States are also trying to defend or expand their spheres of influence in the region. The cradle of civilization is seen as the battlefield on which great powers wage wars at the expense of the civilian population. It’s not just about the Tartus military port and strategically important location, which the Russians don’t want to lose. And it’s not just about the oil reserves that Donald Trump wants to defend according to himself. It is the total package of interests that could not be more heterogeneous: The religious conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis and the conflict between two theocracies. It is the conflict between enlightened monarchies like Jordan, even democratic systems like in Lebanon or Israel, and the conservative counterparts of the Arabian Peninsula. Last but not least, it is a conflict on the Israel-Palestine question that divides the Middle East.
Even today, and above all on this point, the consequences of the division policies of the former colonial powers can still be seen. The cradle of civilization is still considered the chessboard of the great powers.