In this article, Ben Parten considers the mandate system that was set up after World War I by Britain and France. This system allowed European Powers to rule countries including Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon. And its effects last to this day.


The First World War is called the Great War for a reason; its violence set the tone for the 20th century, and its aftermath posed new challenges to traditional political leadership. Yet, despite the title of a “world” war, the Great War’s global significance is often understated. In America, for instance, young students are often taught that the primary outcomes of the war were that it opened the door to Nazi Germany and established the United States as a world power. Those are both true, but there is one major consequence of the Great War that should be added to that list. To see this other significance, Americans and other Westerners should shirk their Western perspectives and look outside of Europe, particularly to the Middle East and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman’s demise opened up a large swath of land unclaimed by a world power and enabled the Allies to decide how it should be divided. With the Treaty of Sevres, the Allies drew up artificial boundaries for countries that have come to be the states of the “modern” Middle East. However, in the state-making process, the litany of different sects and ethnicities in the region were amalgamated into nominal nations, causing instability that America and other Western powers are still dealing with today.

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall, circa 1920. This site of worship in Jerusalem was to become a site of controversy after World War I.

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall, circa 1920. This site of worship in Jerusalem was to become a site of controversy after World War I.

Great Britain and the Mandate System

Great Britain and France began thinking about how to partition off the former Ottoman Empire in 1916.  As made famous in the motion picture Lawrence of Arabia, the British and the French had been conducting secret negotiations regarding the ownership of Syria. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it has come to be known, acknowledged France’s claim to greater Syria while giving Great Britain rights to Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq). As the war came to an official end in 1919, the question of how to officially divide the Ottoman lands was once again raised. Gathering in San Remo, Allied diplomats agreed to divide the lands into separate entities called mandates. These mandates would act as glorified colonies operating under the façade of self-determination and self-governance until their charters expired in the 1940s.

The British desire to control parts of this region derived from its economic interests in the Persian Gulf.  Therefore, Mesopotamia was transformed into the Kingdom of Iraq. Combining the three territorial capitols of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul into Iraq gave the British a strong foothold in the region with direct access to the Persian Gulf and India. The other motivating factor for the British was their pledge to support Jewish settlement in Palestine as promised in the Balfour Declaration. The British incorporation of Jewish settlement in Palestine prompted immediate resistance from local Arab leaders. Thus, the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan was established to provide stability to the region and pacify the local Arabs.

No matter the theoretical objectives behind the British mandates, they lacked practical sense. For instance, Iraq became an ad hoc state where no national sentiments existed. The cities of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were grouped together when they previously shared a separate and distinct identity. Mosul had a longstanding connection with the mountain lands of Southern Anatolia and Western Syria. Baghdad tended to be more urban, linking itself to east-west trade. Basra identified itself as a self-sustaining seaport, aligning itself more with the Gulf States than with Iraq. Underlying this regional divide was the great sectarian division amongst the populace. Over half of the population were followers of Shia Islam, yet the British named Faysal ibn Husayn, a Sunni, King of Iraq. There was also a large contingent of Kurdish people living in the Northeast portion of the Kingdom. Even under Faysal’s rule, these three distinct religious and ethnic (the Kurds are often identified as their own ethnicity) groups still adhered to clan loyalty and tribal governance, making state led unification and leadership difficult. 

Likewise, continued Jewish settlement in Palestine aroused tension between the Jewish immigrants and the native Palestinians. One of the first outbursts of violence occurred over the right to the access the Wailing or Western Wall. For centuries the Wall has served as a holy site for Jews to pray at in honor of the ancient kingdom of Israel, but the Wall also makes up the Dome of the Rock where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven. As both sides claimed lawful access to the wall, the intensity of the dispute boiled over into violence and riots that spread across the city. This same type of violence erupted again in the late 1930s after the British decided that the mandate was inoperable and recommended a separate Arab and Jewish state.


Greater Lebanon

Problems with the mandate system were not limited to the British mandates. For instance, the French divided their mandate to create Greater Lebanon in 1920 in order to provide refuge to the Maronite Christians, whom the French felt obligated to protect. The Maronites were the primary sect of Mt. Lebanon and Beirut, but the surrounding areas of Greater Lebanon were predominantly Muslim.  To quell Muslim dissatisfaction and ensure Maronite authority, the two sides, along with French help, established The National Pact. The Pact created a ruling government that would always place a Maronite as president, a Sunni as Prime Minister, and a Shi’a as President of the General Assembly regardless of population. The political hierarchy created by the National Pact was spun by the French and Maronite population in a way that celebrated diversity, but, in the end, it only convoluted Lebanese identity. The Maronites saw Lebanon as an extension of the Mediterranean; whereas the Muslims purported that Lebanon belonged to a Pan-Arab world. It is not hard to imagine then that sectarian strife would eventually explode, as it did in the fifteen-year-long Lebanese Civil War.

The primary failure of the mandate system was its attempt to create Western style nationalism in an area where nationalism had neither existed previously nor maintained the proper conditions for statehood. Forcing the number of different sects and ethnicities to exist under one political body was bound to cause fissures and division amongst the political and social structure of those states. Today, the states created by the San Remo Conference are still in existence and the sectarian disunion continues to plague the region. The fundamental difference between now and the years following The San Remo Conference is that the United States has replaced Great Britain and France as the primary intervening power. Since the 1970s America has been forced to deal with the geo-political headaches that were caused by World War I and the policies of its immediate aftermath. Nearly one hundred years after it ended, it is time to reconsider the Great War’s global impact to include the formation of the “modern” Middle East.


By Ben Parten


You can read more about change that World War I brought by reading our short article about women and World War I here.