After World War I, the British Empire and France divided up a large part of the Ottoman territories in the Middle East. With the approval of the League of Nations, the chosen formula was the establishment of several mandates. Through this plan, the British and French controlled extensive territories in the Middle East until they achieved independence. The two decades of Franco-British presence sowed the seeds of some of the current problems in the region: sectarian tensions, state weakness, and the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which for more than five centuries had dominated Anatolia and the Arab regions of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Hijaz in the Arabian peninsula, brought pure anarchy. The Ottomans, allies of the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, lost most of their domains to the British and French. But even before the end of the conflict, in 1916, the United Kingdom and France had already agreed to divide the Ottoman territories after their victory. This accord would be called the Sykes-Picot agreement (the surnames of the negotiators).
France would control southeastern Anatolia; that included the Mosul province (in present-day Iraq), Syria, and Lebanon. Meanwhile, the British would control Mesopotamia, Transjordan, and the Negev desert (in present-day Israel); historic Palestine would be administered by the international community.
The agreement, however, was leaked to international public opinion a year later by the Soviets, who had just seized power in Russia (an ally of France and the United Kingdom in the war). The leak caused outrage among Arab nationalists in Syria, who, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Britain’s T.E. Lawrence—the notorious Lawrence of Arabia—had collaborated with Britain in a revolt against the Ottomans. The leaders of the rebellion, the Hashemite dynasty of Mecca, had also been seduced by British diplomacy. They aspired to find an independent Arab kingdom and felt betrayed. Instead, the international Zionist movement supported the agreement. The British had tried to woo the Zionists with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which they pledged to “establish a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The British and French reached a new agreement at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, but they were selling the bear’s skin before hunting it. The Allies defeated the Ottoman army in the Levant and Mesopotamia. In August, the Ottoman sultan capitulated and signed the Treaty of Sevres, which reduced the Empire to northern Anatolia. However, the Allies were unable to invade that region. A significant section of the Ottoman army and Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal- the future Atatürk, founder of the modern Republic of Turkey- refused to accept the Treaty. After three more years of war, in 1923 the Allies were forced to accept a new agreement, the Treaty of Lausanne, which established Turkey’s present borders. Nevertheless, San Remo did endure, laying the foundations of the mandate model. With them, the French and British would head the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the interwar period.
After the war, the victorious powers and most of the international community agreed to form the League of Nations, the predecessor international organization of the United Nations. The Society was to serve as a forum to mediate diplomatic disputes and prevent another conflict such as the Great War. To organize the “territories and colonies” lost by the defeated and “inhabited by peoples still incapable of governing themselves”, as article 22 of the Pact of the League of Nations established. Under this system, the victorious powers would administer these territories until they were sufficiently developed to be independent.
The Ottoman territories were considered the most developed, which gave local leaders hope for speedy independence. However, they were soon disappointed. Despite the Anglo-French declaration of 1919, which promised self-ruling and democracy, the mandates were, in practice, protectorates of the colonial powers. Its borders were not completely arbitrary, but they did not correspond to the traditional organization of the territory, and they separated many communities. Also, while the powers relied in part on the Ottoman bureaucracy and civil service, they incorporated colonial elements into their administration.
The borders of the new mandates of France and the United Kingdom were very similar to the distribution agreed upon by Sykes and Picot. However, the French zone was much smaller. The Turkish army had expelled the French from the territories of present-day Turkey, except for Hatay province (known today as being the core of the recent earthquake that ended the lives of more than 30,000 people and devastated part of southern Turkey and northern Syria). Thus, the French mandate for Syria and the Levant was made up of present-day, Syria, Lebanon, and the aforementioned Turkish province.
Overwhelmingly, the beginning of the French mandate was violent. After the withdrawal of allied troops, Faisal, one of the sons of the Hashemite Sheriff of Mecca, proclaimed the Kingdom of Syria in March 1920 with the support of Syrian Arab nationalists. The kingdom was not recognized by any power and did not last long. Faisal tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the French, also antagonizing part of the Arab nationalists. By then, France had signed an armistice with the Turks and once again had military resources. In July the French defeated the last troops of the Syrian kingdom at the Battle of Maysalun, which has been commemorated in Syria ever since as an example of national resistance.
Once control was secured, the French divided the territory into five autonomous regions or “states”, three of them organized along confessional lines. On the one hand, Damascus and Aleppo, with a Sunni Arab majority; from the second the coastal region of Hatay, would later break off. The other three states were Greater Lebanon, with a Christian majority, an Alawite area in the coastal province of Latakia, and a Druze region on the mountain with the same name. By doing this, France hoped to better control its mandate and assert its historical role as protector of the Christian minority in the Levant; in fact, Greater Lebanon was created to establish at least one region with a Christian majority. Although the French enlisted the support of Lebanese Maronite Christians and other Catholic communities, not all local Christians agreed with the European presence and participated in guerrilla and anti-French actions. Complete control over former Ottoman Syria would not come until the 1930s.
For its administration, the French used veterans of the Moroccan protectorate and members of the local elite without strong political affiliation. In Damascus and Aleppo, where Arab nationalism was strong, bureaucratic posts were filled with important local leaders seeking to expand their influence and with members of the Christian minority. In the Alawite and Druze states, colonial administrators tried to consolidate their rule by promoting sectarian identity and resentment towards Christians and Muslims. One of the strategies was to favor these minorities in the new army, something that would have consequences after the independence of Syria. Alawite military officers staged several coups, and one of them, Hafez al-Assad, seized ultimate power in 1970. His son Bashar still rules the country after a bloody 12 years of war.
The first major challenge to French authority was the guerrillas of former Faisal supporters. In 1925 a revolt broke out in the area where they were located, and from there this unrest spread to the majority of the mandate. For months, a loose intersecting alliance of guerrilla leaders, disgruntled tribes, peasants, artisans, and former Ottoman officials challenged the control of France within its mandate.
The revolt forced the French to make some concessions. Almost all of Syria would come under a unified administration, except for Greater Lebanon, where the French had more support. This new Syria would have a constitution, promulgated in 1930, and would hold elections. The main political force was the National Bloc, a conservative alliance of landlords and the urban bourgeoisie that tried to cooperate with France to achieve independence, a promise that they were able to “achieve” in 1936.
However, the French did not leave Syria and Lebanon until 1946, after World War II. Meanwhile, the National Bloc had been establishing itself in power. The party was not religiously oriented, but for example, was in favor of Arabs over Armenian, Assyrian, or Kurdish minorities. This created a resentment that manifested itself in post-independence power struggles when Arabs became marginalized in the army and other institutions. The Alawite and Druze regions, which had been separated from Syria in 1939, were reincorporated, while Lebanon kept its independence. Hatay, on the other hand, became part of the Republic of Turkey -that same year- after a referendum. The French withdrawal was not entirely peaceful: in 1945 they bombarded Damascus for the last time at the threat of secession from the nationalist leaders, although they finally ceded power to elite military units made up of members of minorities.
The French legacy in the Middle East was two new states with arbitrary borders, no clear identity—Syrian and Lebanese nationalisms were weak and restricted to urban elites—and communal tensions exacerbated by nearly three decades of divisive politics. Lebanon had never existed as an administrative entity. Its Constitution established a system in which ethnoreligious communities are the main political actors. Lebanese citizens can only elect representatives from within their community, which has favored corruption, clientelism, and the use of sectarian tension as an electoral strategy. These tensions between communities ended up leading to a terrible civil war between 1975 and 1990. The “ghosts” of this conflict continue to hinder the development of the country as we have recently seen since the Beirut port explosion in 2020.
On the other hand, the British presence in their mandates was shorter than the French, except for Palestine. The “empire where the sun will never go out”, divided its mandate into three territories: Iraq (this included the Arab-populated Mesopotamia and the oil-rich Mosul province (predominantly Kurdish and Turkmen), Transjordan (present-day Jordan and a strip of desert that acted as a buffer between Syria and Arabia), and Palestine (an area located between the Mediterranean, the Jordan River and the southern border of the French Mandate of Lebanon). Unlike France, Britain chose to establish monarchies in Iraq and Transjordan. This is not just an example of the different political traditions of the two powers, but a compromise solution between the British and the Hashemite dynasty, which had been instrumental in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
After fleeing Syria in 1920, King Faisal found refuge in Iraq, where the British made him king. Iraq was an artificial country that emerged from the union of three Ottoman provinces or vilayets -Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra-, without a common identity and with great ethnic and religious diversity. Although the king’s proclamation was ratified by a referendum, it did not arouse popular enthusiasm. Faisal was not even Iraqi, as he was born in Mecca, and his political culture was heavily influenced by Syrian Arab nationalism.
The monarch tried to promote a pan-Arab identity but caused suspicion among the locals by bringing in numerous Syrian ministers and advisers. Furthermore, he privileged Sunni Arabs in the army and the government despite not being a minority, something that would have obvious consequences for decades to come. After the coups that ended the monarchy in 1958, Iraq was left in the hands of Sunni soldiers, including Saddam Hussein, who harshly discriminated against Shiites and Kurds. Sectarian tensions remain a problem in present-day Iraq.
The British presence in Iraq was not free of conflicts. Many tribes refused to abide by the mandate and to pay taxes. One of the fundamental objectives of the British mandates was that they did not represent more expenses than income for the public coffers. The solution of Winston Churchill, then Minister of the Colonies, was the so-called “air control”: bombing the insurgent tribes without distinction between civilians and combatants. However, Iraq gained its independence relatively quickly, at least compared to the French mandates. In 1922, Faisal and the British signed a treaty giving the new king control of the administration and part of the army. Eight years later, a new treaty guaranteed the kingdom’s independence, which would formally come in 1932, in exchange for the permanent presence of the British Army. Faisal died in 1933 and the monarchy lasted two more decades.
The mandate of Transjordan was also assigned to a member of the Hashemite dynasty. Faisal’s brother Abdullah became its first king in 1921. After Faisal’s defeat in Syria and the withdrawal of the French and British contingents, Abdullah took advantage of the power vacuum to seize control of the area. The British supported him, seeing an opportunity to separate Transjordan from Mandatory Palestine, thereby saving them the costs of military occupation of the new kingdom, and making it easier for the establishment of the “promised” “Jewish national home” in Palestine.
Although Abdullah was a foreign king, Transjordan was sparsely populated and politically loose, making it relatively easy for him to secure control. Abdullah ruled with relative autonomy and in 1928 he signed a treaty with the British confirming this reality. The British maintained some control over the kingdom’s defense and international relations until its formal independence in 1946. Britain used to intervene little in Transjordan since the area had no significant resources and only strategic value in the center of the region. Abdullah’s successors continue to reign in Jordan, making it one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.
The British Mandate for Palestine, on the other hand, proved to be very problematic for the British. The region was not only densely populated but tens of thousands of Jews were also migrating there, prompted by the international Zionist movement and the Balfour Declaration. The British tried to control the arrival of Jews. Still, at the same time they favored them by granting them jobs in the administration -as they considered them more capable-, which aroused the suspicion of the local Arabs. Tensions broke out in 1936 with a major Arab revolt.
The situation continued to deteriorate until 1947 when the UN designed a plan to partition the territory between Arabs and Jews that culminated in a civil war. The Jews declared the independence of the new State of Israel in 1948, which was followed by a declaration of war by most Arab countries and a mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs into neighboring countries. Since then, the Arab-Israeli conflict has sparked several wars and has been one of the main sources of tension in the region.
In conclusion, the Anglo-French mandates in the Middle East barely lasted three decades, but their legacy lives on. Today’s borders are virtually the same as those agreed to in the 1920s, and much of the communal and sectarian tensions in the region arose then. Following the premise of “divide and rule”, the French and British privileged minorities, deepening old differences and creating new grievances. In addition, the arbitrary distribution of the territory prevented the population from identifying with the new states, which is still a problem a century later.
The current weakness of many of the states in the region also stems from mandates. Their autonomy was greater than that of the colonies since France and the United Kingdom did not aspire to formally incorporate them into their colonial empires: the capacity of both powers was doubtlessly limited after the war. Their objective was reduced to securing their influence and long-term strategic interests. However, after dismantling the Ottoman administration, the French and the British did not pursue state-building policies. This allowed the army to take control in Syria and Iraq after independence and implement discriminatory policies, the seed of many of the sectarian tensions that both countries still suffer from. In Lebanon, the constitutional model inherited from the French has weighed down internal politics since its founding; and above all, the most current legacy of the mandates is the unsolved Arab-Israeli conflict. The mosaic of conflicts is still being cooked and it does not seem to be ending anytime soon.