The shot that resonates still…
One hundred years ago the sclerotic empires of Europe were locked into a countdown that would lead to war and the deaths of 12 million people. Although an assassin’s bullet fired in Sarajevo sparked the tragedy, the 1914 war was itself the result of another war, the Crimean war, which set the stage for the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. The outcome sealed shut war-time access through the Bosphorus for the Russian Black Sea fleet and gave the British control over Ottoman Egypt. It also gave Austria-Hungary control over the Sanjak of Novi Pazar which physically divided the Slavic people of Serbia and Montenegro putting in motion an antagonism between the new Serbian kingdom and Austria-Hungary that would inevitably draw Russia into any conflict.
The seeds of war existed already in 1908 when Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina which was still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time Bulgaria declared independence from Istanbul ensuring the collapse of Ottoman control over its European provinces. The assassination of Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip merely lit the fuse on a bomb that was already well primed. On July 23rd 1914 Vienna issued an ultimatum to Belgrade that it be allowed to investigate the crime on Serbian soil. Serbia refused and Vienna declared war on Serbia. Russia joined the conflict and on July 30th Germany declared war on Russia. Britain and France joined the Russians.
Only the British and French were to emerge somewhat intact with their empires after the carnage. With the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns and Romanovs gone, it was left to them to dismember the remnants of Mehmed Vl’s empire, which they did with scant understanding of the complexities on the ground. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1919 cast the dye which created the four states we today know as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Israel, of course, came later in 1948, and it was part of the separate dual mandate of Palestine. It was not that this region existed in total peace under the Ottoman Turks. It did not but, at least there was a measure of regional autonomy, tolerance and integration which had lasted for over 400 hundred years. Ottoman Anatolia was, and still is, a polyglot of peoples and faiths: Shia and Sunni but also Maronite, Jewish, Salafi, Dervish, Orthodox and Franciscan, to mention a few.
The Hashemite monarchy in Iraq established by the British is gone and so is the dictator who held the country together until the allied invasion of 2004. Iraq is now a state in the process of national vivisection. Syria, reconstituted as one nation from three individual states, is tearing itself apart.
Lebanon, the fourth state within the French mandate, lives on in a state of high tension. The Shia-Sunni divide has now intensified with the arrival of ISIS who proclaimed last June 29th the creation of a Wahhabi caliphate that will occupy the upper Euphrates and straddle the Iraq-Syria border. The scale of the violence is simply horrifying.
One hundred years later we might question what has been achieved as the echoes of the Great War still reverberate. One might conclude that the current arrangement, the remnants of British and French planners, cannot work and that smaller, sectarian states might be a more viable option: states that perhaps one day, after a period of peace, could forge some form of union and co-operation. That is the lesson of Europe where vast empires first fragmented into individual nations and then came together to form a union of equals. It is a path that Russia’s Putin, still stuck with the mentality of 1914, encounters difficulty accepting. 135 years after the Crimea, and 100 years after the guns of August opened fire, there is still unfinished business.
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