July 28, 2014 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the official start of WWI.
A local newspaper reader asked me to write about WWI and the impact on the Middle East. The problem in doing this is complying with the typical 200 word limit of many newspapers, but I decided to do it anyway since I owed it to my wife’s father, Alton Jones and her uncle William Howard Jones, both WWI Marines who fought in France and Belgium in Maj. Gen. Lejeune’s Second Marine Division. They fought in many WWI battles, including Belleau Wood, the Verdun operations, Aisne-Marne Offensive, Meuse-Argonne Offensive, St. Mihiel Offensive and the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge. William Howard received the French Croix de Guerre and the U.S. Silver Star for his service at Blanc Mont, France on Oct. 3, 1918. The award stated “by lying down in the middle of the road using his automatic pistol so effective that he staid the enemy- counter attack until remainder of group could get in line.”
The Ottoman Turks, who were aligned with Germany and Austria during WWI, were defeated between 1915 and 1918 by the British and French and an Arab insurgency sparked by “Lawrence of Arabia”. In 1919 Britain and France carved up the former Ottoman Empire into various Middle East Arab countries based on geographic parameters and did not take into consideration religious, sectarian or ethnic preferences of the local populations. The countries included Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Additionally, Great Britain enacted the Balfour Declaration which promised a homeland in the Middle East for Jewish people, which came to fruition with the formation of Israel in 1948.
The current warfare and volatility in the Middle East reflects a history spanning almost 1500 years. The religious and sectarian conflicts have been going on in the Middle East since at least the Seventh century when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632. Some Muslims chose a close friend of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, to become Caliph, the leader of Islam, and they were titled Sunnis. Other Muslims chose to follow Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and they were titled Shias, or Shiites.
The borders established by Great Britain and France after WWI did not reflect the wishes of the Middle East inhabitants and only inflamed their deep rooted animosities based on religious/sectarian and ethnic loyalties. The current fighting in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the current Palestinian territory, are a partial consequence of decisions made by European powers after WWI.
Donald A. Moskowitz