12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, June 6, 2010
Fortunately, historian Roger Ford has written a comprehensive account of the Great War in the Middle East that should be read by anyone interested in today’s world affairs.
The key figure in Eden to Armageddon is the Ottoman Empire. The empire had “once been a dominant force in world affairs for over half a millennium,” Ford notes, and “at its height had spanned three continents from the Persian Gulf to modern-day Algeria.”
By 1914, the empire was dying. Ford writes that “terminal decay had set in … [it] had already lost anything more than nominal control over its North Africa provinces, and its grip on the remnant of its European territory in the Balkans was being pried loose. … ”
Desperately trying to survive, the empire chose to align with the Germans, in part as a defensive move against the Russians.
When the Ottomans gave safe harbor to two German ships being chased by the Royal Navy and then used those ships to attack the Russian port of Sevastopol, the Ottoman Empire had officially become a combatant in the Great War. It was a fateful choice.
“I have thrown the Turks into the powder keg and kindled war between Russia and Turkey,” a German admiral proudly said at the time.
Ford traces the successes and failures of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, including the battles of Gallipoli, Kut and the Caucasus.
He shows that throughout all these maneuverings, Germany largely used Ottoman forces for its own purposes. It sent the Ottomans to attack British communication lines in the Suez and to distract the British in Afghanistan; it encouraged the Ottomans to confront the Russians in the Caucasus.
Though it had some victories, most famously at Gallipoli and Kut, the Ottoman Empire was ultimately undone by the Arab Revolt, which was paid for and led by the British.
Perhaps the most insightful part of the book, and the one modern readers will find most telling, is Ford’s account of the war’s aftermath. Once the Ottoman Empire had been destroyed, what would take its place? That story still haunts the world today.
As British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill helped divide the spoils of victory.
One tricky question involved what to do with Mesopotamia, which was just then beginning to be called Iraq. With the British victorious in the war and in charge of Iraq, Churchill soon found himself faced with problems that seem to come from today’s headlines. Shiite and Sunnis didn’t get along with each other or with the British or with the man installed as king, Feisal. Then the Kurds in the north began an uprising.
Churchill tried to keep control via air power, but air power does not a country make. To keep the peace, the British created the emirate of Jordan and offered it to Feisal’s brother, Abdullah.
By 1930, the British “gave notice that they would grant Iraq partial independence … .” Ford then traces the history of the unsuccessful governments in Iraq from then until now.
If nothing else, Eden to Armageddon serves as in important warning to today’s readers about the unintended consequences that often transpire in the Middle East.
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of Ike’s Final Battle and is the Norris Research Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College.
Eden to Armageddon
World War I in the Middle East