Over a century after the outbreak of WWI, the War to End All Wars, it appears that in many theaters, the Great War of 1914 to 1918 never ended. From Ukraine to the Persian Gulf, the unfinished business of the industrialized world's first attempt to commit collective suicide rages on in all of its violent glory.
A series of momentous events transpired over the course of the war that continue to shape the political present. The repercussions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Russian Revolution, Balfour Declaration, the Armenian massacres, the dissolution of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, and the eventual end of the Islamic caliphate, have all left an indelible mark. The dissolution of empire with all of its promises of self-determination concomitantly produced a variety of parochial identities that continue to cause conflict today.
In the Middle East in particular, it seems that the War to End All Wars continues unabated. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of artificial nation-states must rank among the most important seminal events that have contributed to conflict in the Middle East over the last century. This is not, of course, to say that one can blame all of the region's ills on Western imperialism. Indeed, the region's many corrupt and autocratic kleptocracies alongside ethno-religious prejudices, among other factors, have all played their part.
At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to the Persian Gulf and to the gates of Vienna in Europe. For most of its existence, it was a decentralized, multi-ethnic and multi-faith empire governed according to the millet system based on religious identity. Each religious denomination was, in many ways, free to govern its own affairs. This comparative religious tolerance must be viewed with a certain sense of nostalgia in light of the increasing sectarian bases for conflict within the region today. Ottoman religious tolerance, however, would not survive the war.
Past and current conflicts in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and the question of Kurdish self-determination can all, at least partially, find their roots in the machinations of the victorious imperial powers, chiefly the French and the British. The whims of imperial cartographers shaped the official borders of the Middle East according to imperial self-interest without consultation with, or appreciation of, the people inhabiting the region.
It is true that the British, under the guise of one T.E Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, promised Sharif Hussein of Mecca a united Arab state in exchange for rebelling against their Ottoman overlords, but the Arabs were deceived. The French and the British had already concluded the now infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing the territories of the Ottoman Empire between them in 1916. Unsurprisingly, the Arabs viewed this as a betrayal.
Under the guise of League of Nations mandates, the French and British thus came to subdue and assimilate the last of the territories remaining outside the orbit of the European enforced system of nation-states. Or so they thought. There were no unified nations to be found within the confines of these artificially-constructed states. The ongoing conflicts within the region, both across and within these borders, seem to point to the fact that many of these territories were neither fully subdued nor properly assimilated into the nation-state system. It is the collapse of this system that we now appear to be witnessing in the Middle East.
Syria and Iraq are aflame. The border between them has all but been erased and replaced with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) stretching from Aleppo to Iran. Invocations of a new "caliphate" highlight its pretensions to the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world. Utilizing a savvy combination of social media to attract disaffected Muslims from around the world and unrestrained brutality to terrify its enemies, ISIS has condemned the region to conflict for years to come.
Ethno-religious parochialism has rarely been seen in such a virulent form in the region. There have often been tense relations between Sunnis and Shiites, but generally this has not entailed the wholesale extermination of communities based on ethno-religious precepts that we see today. The Shiite militias backed by the Iraqi and Iranian governments are engaged in acts of ethnic cleansing similar to ISIS. The targeting by ISIS of Christians and Yazidis has been notoriously brutal. Hundreds of Yazidi girls and women have been sold as sex slaves or forced to marry ISIS fighters.
Secondary conditions are also altering the demographics of the region. Large and sudden flows of refugees as well as other demographic issues, such as divergent birth rates, could play significant roles in reconfiguring the political make-up of the region.
If any one group has benefited from the present turmoil in the region it is the Kurds. An ethnic group largely unheard of in the West until recently, Kurds of Syria and Iraq have burst onto the international stage. Denied a state during the initial post-WWI carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds have made a variety of gains during the current pandemonium engulfing Syria and Iraq.
Similarly, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq wasted no time in seizing Kirkuk and other disputed areas following the collapse of the Iraqi army in June 2014. After suffering a set of humiliating routes at the hands of ISIS starting with the abandonment of the Yazidi community at Sinjar in August 2014, the KRG's military, or peshmerga, has slowly reasserted itself with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, the presence of Western "military advisers" - read special forces - and a newly acquired source of heavy weapons. In brief, the KRG has dramatically expanded the territory under its jurisdiction.
Having fought ISIS without assistance for two years, Syrian Kurds are presently engaged in an ethnic- and gender-inclusive democratic experiment in the self-declared autonomous regions of northern Syrian. Their ongoing defiance of ISIS in Kobani, in particular, has made the Kurds of Syria the darlings of the international media. Unfortunately, and perhaps, unfairly for Turkey, as I have written elsewhere, the government's putative inaction in coming to Kobani's aid has cast Turkey in a cold light, as did the resulting deaths when police suppressed Kurds who were protesting in support of their kinsmen.
When I worked in the KRG last year, Iraqi Kurds thought that their hour of independence was finally at hand. However, they failed to take into account a variety of factors including the fact that the region is landlocked and, with the exception of Turkey, surrounded by hostile neighbors. As such, any independent state would be almost totally dependent on Turkish goodwill.
So what does the apparent unraveling of the post-WWI system of nation-states in the Middle East mean for the future? Rather than being the War to End all Wars, the Great War might have merely been the beginning in the Middle East. The reaping of seeds sown in the past is once again underway and it is not going to end any time soon. Ongoing conflict and upheaval for years to come is all but certain. Given the region's history, however, with all of its dynasties and empires spanning centuries, 100 years in the Middle East is a relatively short period of time. As such, the post-WWI order may eventually be remembered as merely a blip on the historical map.
* Dr Tristan Dunning is an honorary research fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland in Australia and publisher of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine