Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Ottoman Endgame

The Mid East seems in constant turmoil with much blame given to western powers who drew the wrong lines for their own greedy reasons.  There has always been a lot of blame to pass around.  Sean McMeekin gives a different perspective going back just before the Great War with a focus on the Ottoman Empire.  "The Ottoman Endgame" was recommended by Fareed Zakaria.

At its peak the Ottoman Empire extended to eastern Europe, northern Africa, the Arab lands and included many Jews and Christians.  Jews fled Europe for greater safety in Ottoman areas with over a million Jews there in 1900.  By the dawn of the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire was considered "sick" and ripe for picking off territory.  They did control access to the Black Sea which was key for trade with Russia.  Russia, an antagonist to Turkey over centuries saw an opening.  Italy saw an opportunity in Libya.  Fighting in the Balkans, including Serbia and Bulgaria against the Ottoman Empire preceded World War I.

The Great War was precipitated with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Serbia on June 28, 1914.  The Ottoman Empire could not afford to be involved as it had a severe financial problem.  Germany, Russia, Britain, France all had their motives.

A German dreadnought outran a British ship in the Mediterranean to end up in Istanbul as an inducement to declare war on Russia and to allow him to patrol the Black Sea.  Also an Egyptian leader wanting to liberate from Britain was vacationing in Bosphorous.  Churchill was anxious to attack Turkey, but was blocked by Kitchener who was concerned about Egypt and India, but not before commandeering two Turkish dreadnoughts that had been built by British ship builders.   Russia, although blocked in was reluctant to push Turkey to war as they had their own Muslim subjects and wanted a better deal before taking sides.

Germans wanted Turkey to declare war, but Turkey had financial constraints including paying military staff.  Germany did some calculations and decided to finance the Ottoman Empire including large amounts of gold.  Turkey waited until they received gold before declaring war.

The British, like the Americans a few decades later saw the oppressed Iraqis  hoping for liberation from the Ottomans.  They found it more difficult than anticipated to fire up the Arabs.

The Armenian Genocide that is sometimes acknowledged is more complicated than I casually thought.  The Armenians were Christians in a Muslim country and wanted to be free.  The Russians were sympathetic and were reached out to by Armenians.  The Ottomans decided it was best to deport Armenians away from where the Russians were, but did set up guidelines that were meant to be humane.  Many of the guidelines were forgotten and Armenians suffered being sent to faraway inhospital sites and died from starvation, exhaustion and Turkish hatred and fear.  To further aggravate the situation Russians were successful in overcoming a Muslim Ottoman city with the help of Armenians.  Turks took revenge and directly killed many Armenians.  Historians argue over how many Armenians died, but it was in genocidal proportions.  

Ironically the British had been requested to ally themselves with Armenians and Russians for a strategic attack.  Armenians from Egypt were ready in large numbers to help this effort, but the British were stuck in a mindset that led to disaster in Gallipoli and ignored the Russians and Armenian requests, despite advice that in hindsight seemed a better use of their resources.  One of a few dissenters was T. E Lawrence, at the time a mere interpreter.

Mustafa Kemal is considered the founder of modern Turkey.  He developed his credibility serving well in the military including Gallipoli.   He is credited with saying "I did not order you to attack.  I ordered you to die." reportedly before a battle.

The Germans tried to stir up a holy war against Brits and Russians but with little success.  Brits suggested Arabs could take over caliphate.

In the 1917 Russian Revolution one of early events was mutinies among soldiers and sailors.  Lenin reached Petrograd (St Petersburg)  with a German military escort in April and immediately demanded an end to imperialist wars, but there was still political maneuvering.  The Russian navy still wanted to conquer Istanbul.  A ceasefire was declared in Nov 1917 which European armies accepted readily.  A little slower on the Ottoman front as Russians were relatively successful.  This allowed a shift of troops, but more importantly helped retain some land.  Leon Trotsky sat down to negotiate and was fairly clever about it, but both Germans and Ottoman military forces tried to seize with some success lands under Russian control.

At the end of the war, the allies ganged up on the Ottoman Empire with Greece, Italy, France  Russia (under Bolsheviks)  and Britain staking out claims to large amounts of land.  Britain (against the advice of Churchill) occupied Istanbul.  Mustafa Kemal rallied military leaders to resist.

America had entered the war in April 6, 1917, but not against the Ottoman Empire.  They were seen as possible peace brokers, but they backed away from the responsibility.  President Wilson was now an invalid.

The Greeks had an advantage for awhile and conquered a lot of what we know as Turkey today.  However, Kemal made some very smart moves gaining gold and weapons from the Bolsheviks, making an agreement with Italy and neutralizing Britain.  Arnold Toynbee testified that the Greeks had committed atrocities against Muslims.  There ended up being an exchange of Turks from Greece and Greeks from Turkey.  Turkey lost Christians and Jews that had helped elevate their cultural level.  Greeks and Turks have argued against one another ever since.  One bright note was an artistic alliance between Zulfu Livanelli and  Mikis Teodorakis, two great artists who performed together many years later.  

France, Britain and Russia negotiated what became known as the Sykes Picot agreement signed on May 16th, 1916 that split up parts of the anticipated concessions by the Ottoman government after their defeat.  Britain was to control what we know as Palestine and over to Jordan and including part of Iraq.  France was to govern the northern part of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and part of southern Turkey.  Russia was to control Istanbul and Armenia.  On November 2nd, 1917 Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour declared in a statement to Walter Rothchild, a representative of the British Jewish community that Britain would accept an facilitate a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but without prejudice to civil and religious rights of non Jewish communities.  Undoubtedly these commitments and their interpretations have affected modern conflicts.  The author contends that ethnic and religious animosities would still have caused conflict almost no matter what boundaries were established.

Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate in 1924 and was denounced many years later by Osama bin Laden for doing so.  He is noted for running roughshod to modernize Turkey.

What can history tell us about today's turmoils?  While finishing this up I heard Fareed Zakaria's guest Robert A Worth and then checked a book review.  There is a lot of anger in the Mid-East.  They all want change, but are not tolerant of different views.  One view is that modernization has progressed technically, but socially the pace has been very slow.  Sean McMeekin proclaims that the hatred has existed for a very long time, but had been controlled under the Ottoman regimes.  Although boundaries may have been redrawn imperfectly they only complicate a difficult situation.

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