The Colonial Roots of Middle East Conflict

Jeff Klein
Jeff Klein

During a post-armistice stroll in London on December 1, 1918, French wartime prime minister Georges Clemenceau turned to his British counterpart and asked:

“What do you want?”

“Mosul,” replied Lloyd George.

“You shall have it,” Clemenceau declared. “and what else?”


“You shall have that too.”                    

If the fuse leading to the present catastrophe in Iraq (and Syria) was lit by the 2003 US invasion, the explosion was prepared long before, in the years following the First World War.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement had awarded the British with direct control in lower Mesopotamia, which they regarded as a defensive shield for the oil fields in nearby Persia and their major refinery at Abadan. The British were also understood to be “predominant” in the territory extending west toward the Mediterranean, along with the port of Haifa. The rest of Palestine was to be ruled jointly by the Allied Powers.

The French were to receive a strip of coastal Levant and a swath of central Anatolia to rule directly, with inland Syria and northern Mesopotamia as an area of exclusive influence, including the former Ottoman province of Mosul.

By the end of the war, the British were anxious to revise the agreement, in order to annex Mosul – where geological surveys suggested substantial petroleum reserves. They also wanted exclusive control over Palestine, then regarded as an important forward defense for the Suez Canal as well as a Mediterranean terminus for an oil pipeline from British Mesopotamia. The French assented in return for a share of the oil and a free hand in Syria.

Each of the colonial possessions encompassed territories with a patchwork of ethnic and religious communities. But there is little truth to the view that this led inexorably to inter-communal conflict.  All modern borders are more or less artificial creations, whether delineated by the outcomes of war or by the pencils of colonial map makers. Rather, instability was embedded in the political choices of the colonial powers.

From the time of the earliest known empires, rulers have sought to govern distant lands “on the cheap” through local clients or through locally-recruited troops. This was how the British ruled an immense Indian subcontinent with a relative handful of European soldiers and administrators.. The same pattern was repeated, though not as efficiently, in European colonies across the globe.

“Native” levees were employed to bolster colonial rule and even to serve usefully in warfare outside of the possessions where they were recruited. The “Allied” army invading Ottoman Mesopotamia actually consisted largely of Indian troops.

While the British were consolidating their control of what was to become Iraq, the French advanced in 1920 to conquer Damascus from their base in occupied Beirut, around which they had already established a Maronite Christian-dominated protectorate. “Greater Lebanon” incorporated areas that were populated by Sunni and Shia Muslims who did not accept the division of Syria or rule by a French-imposed proxy minority. This set the stage for generations of conflict, instability and latent or overt civil war in Lebanon that persists to this day.

In the rest of Syria, resistance to the French was strong among the urban Sunni elites, who had been partisans of deposed King Faisal.  So the colonial rulers recruited a territorial military force from which the majority Sunni urban population was largely excluded.  The rural Alawites and other minorities formed the core of the collaborationist army and police forces, with predictable resentment on the part of many in the Sunni majority.

In Iraq, the British crushed a revolt centered in the largely Shia-population Middle Euphrates and the holy Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala — and then recruited the now unemployed King Faisal to rule Iraq together with his retinue of Sunni former Ottoman military officers. This established a regime of Sunni Arab minority dominance over a mostly Shia (and Kurdish) population in Iraq that would culminate, after independence, in the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

Finally, the British deployed their support for the Zionist project as a means to gain the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.  At the end of the First World War, its population was less than 10% Jewish.

In the light of this history, it is hard to argue that sectarian conflict in the Middle East arises purely from local causes.  Inter-communal violence was not entirely absent from the region before the advent of European colonialism, but a general pattern of tolerance and sectarian autonomy was upset by the colonial project in which the European powers manipulated ethnic differences in the service of their imperial aims. Oil, of course, was central then, as it is today.

Imperial meddling continues, with predictably tragic outcomes for the people of the Middle East.  The result has been to prolong the regional devastation begun by war and colonialism a hundred years ago.

Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  His blog is: