Why The Collapse Of The Ottoman Empire Explains The Middle East Today, 100 Years Later

One-hundred years ago this week, one of the greatest conflicts in human history began. It has been referred to as the War to End All Wars, the Great War and, more commonly, World War I (WWI).

It started on July 28, 1914 when the Austria-Hungary Empire declared war on Serbia, and would go on for another four years, ending on November 11, 1918.

Ultimately, it is estimated that nearly 17 million people lost their lives as a result of this bloody conflict.

As Burt Solomon puts it for the Atlantic,

"It was, simply, the insanity of the only carnivorous species that kills its own kind for no good reason."

The impact of World War I is still evident today. Worse than that, it seems that humans have learned very little from the tragic events of the conflict.

Following the cessation of WWI, the 20th century continued to produce bloodshed. In addition to WWI, within 100 years, the world witnessed World War II, the Holocaust, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, and the Cold War, among other bloody ordeals.

One might argue that World War I set the stage for most, if not all, of these conflicts.

Violence begets violence.

In the words of Burt Solomon:

It [WWI] was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price... The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

Solomon has hit the hammer on the nail, particularly when it comes to the current state of the Middle East in relation to the events of WWI.

Prior to the Great War, one of the largest empires in human history, the Ottoman Empire, reigned over a vast territory that includes much of what we now refer to as the Middle East.

Ultimately, however, World War I marked the end of the Ottoman Empire, as it had already been slowly dwindling in size, scope and influence over the centuries. Four years after the conflict ceased, the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed and was replaced by what is now modern Turkey.

As Professor David R Woodward notes for the BBC:

After four centuries of continuous rule, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, creating a vacuum that contributed to tensions between local inhabitants and external powers or interests.

In essence, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East fell into the hands of European powers like Great Britain and France. The decisions they would make surrounding the region would only serve to increase the likelihood of violent conflict, rather than alleviating it.

The vacuum created by the fall of the Ottomans meant that land, power and resources were up for grabs. Still extremely driven by the mentality of imperialism, Western countries were more than happy to fill that void.

Clive Irving sums up this process for the Daily Beast quite succinctly:

The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces... Tribal, sectarian and territorial conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of Ottoman rule... The Western idea of nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists [Westerners] saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the strategic interests of the British Empire.

Much like today, natural resources (oil) were at the center of the most powerful state's concerns at the end of WWI.

Hence, it would be wrong to argue that the Ottoman Empire created stability in the Middle East, as it has been a tumultuous region for thousands of years.

However, when the West began to partition the region, they paid absolutely no attention to the complex ethnic and religious divisions that have defined the Middle East for centuries. Simply put, they were only concerned with perpetuating their own interests, regardless of the consequences.

Had they been more attentive and less selfish, they might have saved themselves, and the Middle East, a great deal of strife in the long-run.

As Irving so aptly puts it, "In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation... Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history."

Today, we are still seeing the consequences of these actions, as the region never achieved true stability over the decades that followed.

The West has continued to approach the Middle East in a very shortsighted manner, choosing allies based on what is profitable, rather than what is right.

Not surprisingly, at present, Iraq and Syria are consumed by chaos. Syria is in the midst of a bloody and devastating Civil War. Simultaneously, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS or IS) has taken over a large swath of territory across Mesopotamia.

They have also declared a Caliphate, professing their desire to establish political and religious hegemony over the entire region. Currently, they continue to grow stronger both militarily and financially, and they are beginning to threaten countries beyond Iraq and Syria, such as Jordan.

Concurrently, the Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos by seizing more territory in the region, including oil fields in Iraq. The Kurds were split across several nations when the Western powers partitioned the region a century ago, and have never had a country of their own.

Correspondingly, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government recently asked his parliament to prepare for a vote on self-determination, which could lead to a referendum and perhaps independence.

The Obama administration has opposed this move, largely because a unified Iraq would be more beneficial to the US in terms of its economic and strategic interests.

Basically, the US government is concerned about access to natural resources.

It is quite hypocritical that the self-proclaimed beacon of self-determination, the United States, does not support the right of an ethnically distinct people to determine their own future.

At the same time, it's not surprising, as we live in a world in which states are driven by their own self-interests; it's survival of the fittest in this anarchical global system.

Accordingly, for those that believe that history plays no role in the present, think again. World War I was a century ago, and it can be directly linked to the chaos in the Middle East today.

George Santayana once famously stated, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." While this saying has become somewhat overused over the years, it is still decidedly accurate. If we cannot learn from the mistakes of our past, we will not evolve as a species.

We have fought in wars in which we have literally killed one another by the millions; when one puts this into context, it is simply baffling. 

For thousands of years, humans have been attempting to understand why we go to war with each other. No one was come up with a satisfactory answer.

Some of the greatest minds in history have dedicated much of their work to this question and have still failed to provide a comprehensive explanation: Thucydides, Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, Clausewitz, E.H. Carr, Morgenthau... The list goes on and on. The fact is, there is no clear answer.

Our survival depends on cooperation and solidarity, yet we still insist on killing one another. It is a paradoxical and tragic state of affairs.

Have we progressed as a species over time? Sometimes it feels as though we've only gotten more efficient at killing one another.

Likewise, Burt Solomon contends,

Indeed, evidence is slim that we’ve grown wiser since the war intended to end all wars did nothing of the sort. Still, if it’s any consolation amid the tragedies and disorder of today’s world, Homo sapiens have been way stupider in the past than they are right now.

Yes, we are far from perfect, but as a species, we have great potential. There have been many horrific events over the course of human history, but also a great number of magnificent triumphs and accomplishments.

Perhaps the greatest quality humans possess is potential. Potential for good, and the potential to change and adapt.

At present, we need to use that potential to address the confluence of forces that converge upon our dynamic world. It's much smaller and more interdependent than we often realize.

The Middle East would be a tremendous place to begin this process, but the fact is there are many situations across the globe that also require imminent attention.

Therefore, we might begin by learning from our past, in order to shape a brighter future.