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The fate of the Ottoman Empire was one of the main issues in the international politics of the Middle East during the period following World War I. Western countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and France strived to gain maximum advantages out of the defeat and subsequent division of the Ottoman Empire, which before the outbreak of the war had been one of the largest powers of the epoch and had covered a territory of nearly 1.7 million square kilometers, including such modern states as Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire
There were many prerequisites for the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The weakness of the economic and industrial sectors made the Ottoman Porte increasingly dependent on the large European powers, a dependence that continued to grow in the context of shifting international relations in the region. Since the end of the 17th century when a decline in military strength had become apparent, the Ottoman state had to take a defensive stand more often (Cleveland and Bunton 47).
As a result, in the 18th century, it started to turn into the object of a diplomatic struggle between European countries for economic and political influence. During that time, England, France, and Austria all pressed for the empire’s involvement in political and military conflicts, even though participation in them would not have served the state’s interests. Taking advantage of the corruption and materialism of the High Porte’s bureaucracy, the European representatives sought to create unions in the ruling class (Cleveland and Bunton 258).
In this way, many dignitaries of the Ottoman Empire acted to the detriment of the state during diplomatic negotiations. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire became involved in World War I under the influence of Germany, which regarded Porte’s participation in the conflict as an opportunity to block Russia’s access to the Turkish Channels (Cleveland and Bunton 141).
In the fall of 1918, the defeat of the German troops forced the Ottoman army to surrender as well. Although it was this defeat that provoked the ultimate disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, it is possible to say that this process had started a few years earlier. Due to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire during the war, in 1915, France and the United Kingdom began secret negotiations on the division of the Arab lands that had strategically important geographical locations and were rich in resources. Russia, and later Italy, also joined in the plans to partition the empire. The agreement is now known by the names of the diplomats who played a key role in its preparation: Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot (Cleveland and Bunton 152).
The Sykes-Picot agreement divided the Ottoman territories into zones that were subject to direct annexation or had to be given under the protectorate. According to the plan, the southeast part of modern-day Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon were to be passed to France (Cleveland and Bunton 207), while Britain was to gain control over the southern and central regions of present-day Iraq.
The territory between the French and British zones was to be made into an Arab kingdom under a British-French protectorate, and virtually the entire area of Palestine, including Jerusalem, was subject to the international management area. Russia had no claim to the Arab territories but hoped to gain control over the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. According to the Constantinople Agreement made in 1915 by Britain, France, and Russia, the Turkish Straits were to be passed under Russian control, and Constantinople was to become a free port (Cleveland and Bunton 151).
Additionally, in 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the principles of the Empire’s partitioning, which aimed to ensure the provision of sovereignty for the Turkish part of the state, to support safety and autonomous development for all non-Turkish nations, and to guarantee the opening of the straits for all vessels according to international regulations (Cleveland and Bunton 164).
However, it was easier to proclaim than to realize these ideas—indeed, there were significant controversies between France and Britain regarding the partitioning of the Near East, while the British also had obligations to the Arabic leaders who had supported the Allies in their fight against the Ottomans. For instance, the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali, expected the Allies to recognize him as the caliph of an independent Arab state (Cleveland and Bunton 149). Moreover, Greeks, Armenians, and Ottoman Turks all had their requirements. In this way, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was stimulated by three conflicting plans of the parties involved in the issue: the independence movements, the French mandates, and the British mandates.
The agreements included in the Sykes-Picot Agreement did not come into effect but rather laid the foundation for further negotiations between the parties. Along with the creation of the new states, the treaty set the stage for many regional conflicts. For example, one of the central points of the agreement was the issue of control over Palestine, which London had made more complicated by promising to both Arabs and Zionists. Due to the multiple controversies associated with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, for over a century, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has remained a symbol of Western intervention in the affairs of the Middle East.
Cleveland, William L., and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. 6th ed. 2016. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Web.