World War I and its impact on the current Middle East conflicts

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Middle East in 1914

I recently attended a couple lectures at a University of Wisconsin – Madison symposium titled: The Diplomatic Legacy of World War I: A Symposium.  We were fortunate to have free public access to so many experts.  There are a couple thoughts I took away from the lectures I attended.

  1. The drawing of the national boundaries in the  Middle East that occurred at the conclusion of WWI were done with little involvement of the people affected and with little understanding of the people and their history. It was primarily driven by the needs of the major powers (Great Britain, France and Russia). These boundaries were artificial and created nation states where they didn’t exist before. The result is a mix within states of peoples (tribes, sects and languages) that had not gotten along. The sectarian clashes and civil wars we are seeing now are in part caused by these artificial boundaries.
  2. The rise of nationalism in the Balkan countries and slow collapse of the Ottoman empire prior led to defining nations in terms of religion and sects. It was through wars, migrations, and massacres that the Balkan countries became more homogenous by ridding themselves of minority populations. The ethnic cleansing seen in the 1990s was part of a long term strategy. There was not a good model in the region for bringing diverse peoples together in one nation. This model seems to be in play in the current Middle East conflicts where massacres and forced migrations are seen as the way to achieve stable states of one people.
  3. The Middle East has long been an area of conflict among the stronger countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) which was then made worse by conflicts between Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia who all had strategic interested in the area.

One speaker references a website with a section called 40 maps that explain the Middle East.  It is excellent and makes it very clear what a complicated region of the world it is.

A couple final notes. I’ve observed that no two historians agree about the interpretations of historical facts and events. So the observations here are just what I heard and I am sure there are many different perspectives by people knowledgeable about the facts.  I also found that many historians (or history buffs) have a hard time asking another historian a question without prefacing it with a 10 minute lecture on their own interpretation of events.