The disappearance of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth centuries was one of the greatest political earthquakes in the modern period. The empire ruled much of the Middle East and parts of Europe for centuries. In its wake was left over two dozen countries, some with little ability to run an effective nation state. The following is an excerpt from a book by Martin Sieff on the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Think of the Middle East at the start of the twenty-first century: home to the richest, highest quality, most easily accessible oil deposits on earth; cockpit of an extreme Islamist movement that wants to topple moderate regimes and wage aggressive war against the United States and the West; nexus of an unending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; and widely regarded as the most dangerous area for confrontation between the major powers.
The Middle East is filled with unstable states, none of them more than ninety years old, most of them still suffering from crises of legitimacy. Arab nationalism is a volatile force. The region's birth rate is extraordinarily high, and its rate of population increase vastly exceeds those of the nations of the European Union and Russia. The wealthiest and most strategically desirable real estate in the world is the oil-rich land of southern Iraq, Kuwait, the Gulf States, and the Dhahran region of Saudi Arabia.
But go back a hundred years, and you'll find every one of those conditions reversed. The most backward, remote, and ignored parts of the region were the desert and the coasts of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. Neither the Ottoman sultans-who also embodied the caliphate that led all Islam in Constantinople-nor the chancelleries of any of the great European imperial powers bothered with those wastelands. In 1905, the region is unified politically and religiously, but the general attitude toward these conditions is one of apathy, lethargy, and resignation.
No major oil deposits have been found west of Persia. The caliphate that rules the region and gives it religious direction from Constantinople is ignored or widely despised by most Muslims. The main revolutionary force is a desire among middle-class professionals, students, intellectuals to establish Western-style parliamentary democracy in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. At this time, the region is a political, strategic, and economic backwater. None of the great imperial powers of the world regard it as worth a thimble of blood being spilled, let alone oceans of the stuff. There are two tiny Jewish communities in the land still known as Palestine. One contains traditional, extremely observant Jews who, politically, are entirely quiescent.
The second, even smaller, consists of weirdly idealistic dreamers- Jewish intellectuals from the czarist Russian Empire who dream of turning into farmers, but are making a bad job of it. Apart from the usual banditry, the land is peaceful and has been for hundreds of years. No one, including the tiny community of Jewish settlers, dreams that this will change for generations. (At the time, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's great founding father, aspired to become a member of an Ottoman Turkish parliament in Istanbul.) The Ottoman Turkish Empire-the region we call the Middle East today-is lightly populated. Poverty is terrible and universal. Health care, even by the poor American and European standards of the day, is abominable.
Even smallpox is still quite common. Public sanitary standards are nonexistent. Infant and child mortality rates are sky-high. Islam as a religion is exceptionally quiescent, passive, and subservient to the political authority of its Ottoman Turkish overlords. The fact that the Ottoman rulers in Constantinople are sultans, and therefore rule their vast empire-more than half the size of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent-as absolute political emperors, is far more important to their subjects than the fact that they also embody the highest religious authority in Islam.
In Palestine, the city of Jerusalem is a backwater, notable for its exceptional beauty from afar and its exceptional filth and poverty, even by regional standards, up close. A handful of Jewish pilgrims come every year to weep in the narrow, fetid alley in front of the last surviving enclosure wall of their ancient temple compound. Jerusalem has been under the firm, unyielding Turkish yoke for almost four hundred years. Nothing has changed. Nothing, it seems, will ever change. Fast forward a hundred years to the present. Everything has changed. Everything has become the opposite of what it was a century before. How did this happen, and what lessons should we should learn from it?
Ottomans exit, instability and strife enter
For the past ninety years, the defining characteristic of the Middle East has been political instability. European colonial empires, which brought stability to other parts of the world, had little steadying effect here. The heyday of British and the French dominion over the region lasted only twenty-five years-and that included World War II. By 1958, their political and economic influence had been eliminated from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. By 1962 the French were gone from Algeria as well, where they had been for more than 130 years. And the Italians had been in Libya so briefly that if you blinked you would have missed them. However brief, European rule over the Middle East was not quiet.
In the interwar years, Syria was rocked by fierce pan-Arab nationalist uprisings against the French, and the British had to put down a full-scale rebellion in Iraq and widespread rioting in Egypt. Under British rule, Iraq and Egypt (the two most populous nations in the region) were never stable, never secure, and never at peace. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s ferocious political intrigues swirled among the British overlords, the local rulers, and the parliamentary democracies installed by the British. In short, Western attempts to impose order on the Middle East failed. What worked in the Americas, Africa, or the rest of Asia did not work here. In the 1950s, the great tides of anti-Western, anti-imperialist passions swept all these corrupt, incompetent, quasi-parliamentary systems away.
They were replaced by regimes modeled on the new great hope of Arab intellectuals-the Socialist Paradise of the Soviet Union. Socialist dictatorships dedicated-at least in theory-to improving the standard of living of the peasant masses were installed in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Egypt, however, exported instability to much of the rest of the region. Through the 1950s and '60s, Syria and Iraq could not even find a competent dictatorial socialist system to stabilize themselves. By the 1970s, they finally did, but the cost was a level of torture and oppression that exceeded anything the Ottomans had ever resorted to except when they were really mad. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, even this dubious breathing space of stability was starting to break down.
By contrast, the Ottoman Empire had ruled the whole vast region for four hundred years. There was no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Industrial Revolution, no steady process of improvement and discovery in medicine, hygiene, or public health. After a hundred years as the most powerful empire-state in the world through the sixteenth century, the empire entered a more than three-hundred-year process of long, slow economic and military decline relative to the brawling, dynamic nations of Europe to the northwest. In all that time, the Ottomans' control over the region they had conquered at lightning speed in the first two decades of the sixteenth century was never seriously challenged from within, and it never faltered. When it came to controlling the region and preserving stability, the Ottoman Turks proved far superior to the British and the French in the first half of the twentieth century and to the Americans and Soviets who succeeded them. What was their secret?
The secrets of Ottoman success
When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama found a new trade route to the east around the southern end of Africa, and Christopher Columbus and his successors found first the New World and then the way across the Pacific Ocean back to the old one, the Middle East became a global backwater overnight. This provided opportunity for the Ottomans, and they managed it masterfully. There were three key factors. First, they were locals. Second, they were utterly, relentlessly, and consistently ruthless. Third, they wanted only a quiet life.
Being locals who had already conquered and plundered across the Middle East for half a millennium before they finally came to stay in the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Turks knew the neighborhood a lot better than the twentieth-century superpowers ever did. They did not think capitalism and democracy would solve all the Middle East's problems, as American idealists from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush have. And they did not dream that communism or state socialism (such as the Soviets peddled) would do it either. Even the Turks' complete indifference to the material well-being of their subjects played to their strengths and was a cause of their success.
They did not obsess about building sewers, dams, or schools as the British and French did. As a result, population remained low, and there was never a baby boom of angry, over-educated teenagers or students rampaging through the streets, shouting, “Turk, go home!” And even if there had been enough restless, energetic young people to give urban mobs that critical mass, the well-deserved Ottoman Turkish reputation for consistent, merciless slaughter when seriously crossed would have ensured that the mobs stayed at home or, if they were really determined to rape and plunder, found the opportunity to do so by joining the sultan's armies instead. However, for all their capacity for merciless slaughter, the Ottoman Turks were never, after they won their empire, relentless conquerors or genocidal murderers like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Unlike Hitler and Stalin-or Saddam Hussein, the one modern Arab ruler nearest to being such a totalitarian monster-the sultan-caliphs did not have an endless, relentless appetite for blood. (The one who came closest, Abdul Hamid II, who massacred Armenians and Bulgarians remorselessly, was also one of the last and most influenced by Western love of “efficiency.”)
This was the third secret of their success: they left well enough alone. And unlike the British in particular, they did not make the mistake of arousing among their subjects vast and undefined dreams of freedom and wealth that they could never have been able to fulfill. In four hundred years, the Ottoman Turkish sultan-caliphs never came up with anything like Magna Carta, the Atlantic Charter, or the Constitution of the United States. That was why they lasted so long. It also helped that television hadn't been invented yet. But if it had, you can bet the old sultan-caliphs would have kept a tight grip on it. No CNN or al-Jazeera for them.
Finally, for all their status as alien conquerors, the sultans were Muslim, and they embodied the caliphate-that is, they were understood to be the successors to Muhammad's political authority. So they were not religious aliens to most of their subjects. And they also understood-as the British after them certainly did not-that political overlords throughout Islamic history were expected to keep the religious authorities strictly in line. Freedom of religious expression was inconceivable to the sultancaliphs and to their subjects too. So when the British declined to micromanage local religious preachers on the naïve grounds that as Christians they should leave Islam alone, this was invariably interpreted by every Middle East population under British control as a sign of weakness rather than friendship and tolerance. That helped explain, too, why the British lasted less than a single generation in the neighborhood. The Ottoman sultans had the formula down. But all empires crumble, and this one was brought down by trendy Westernization and modern ideologies.
The curse of modernity
Ignorance, apathy, and squalor may have been the pillars of the Ottoman Empire, but the result was long-lasting stability and tranquility. The empire's downfall was brought about not by the insidious doings of the big, bad Western empires, but by the trendy shortsightedness of the Turks themselves-specifically, of the handful among them who had read Western books of political thought and made the appalling mistake of taking them seriously. In 1908, the first and greatest coup of half a century of Middle East coups stripped Sultan Abdul Hamid II in Constantinople of the absolute power he had enjoyed for more than thirty years. Abdul Hamid was notorious in the West for approving horrific massacres of the Christian Armenian community in the empire in 1896. When a group of apparently idealistic, obviously secular, and Western young army officers stripped him of his power to vast national rejoicing, liberal intellectuals and pundits across Europe and America rejoiced too. They were wrong, as usual.
The Young Turks, as the officers called themselves, were the prototype for innumerable similar West-adoring liberal cliques that would spread untold suffering and horror across the Middle East (as well as Asia, Africa, and Latin America) over the next century. For in their passionate enthusiasm to emulate the power of the West as quickly as possible, ancient empires and newly independent former colonial nations alike poured their resources into the training and arming of new armies led by presentable, Westernized young officers. They never stopped to realize that the more they abandoned the ancient customs and stripped such habits and restraints from their new armed forces, the greater would be the likelihood that the arrogant and ambitious young officers might turn their glittering bayonets and- later-shiny new tanks on their own ramshackle political overlords.
The Turks did it before anyone else. The leader of the group was a young officer named Ismail Enver (known as Enver Pasha, “Pasha” being a rank of honor). Enver is nearly unknown in Western circles today except for serious students of history. Within three years of seizing power, Enver had fought three wars in the Balkans in which tiny, parvenu Balkan nations stripped the empire of ancient provinces it had held for more than five hundred years.
Whereas previous Ottoman rulers facing such setbacks had been able to rely on their traditional ally, the British Empire, the landscape was different in the 1900s. By 1908, Britain had fatefully lined up with France and Russia in the Triple Entente to contain Germany, which, with the great Bismarck long since dead, was no longer shy about sticking its nose to the east. Bismarck had declared that nothing in the Balkans was worth the bones of a single dead Pomeranian grenadier. But the man who sacked him as chancellor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, didn't take that advice. He had visions of himself as a modern-day Napoleon bringing enlightenment and progress to the slumbering East. That was as bad an idea for a German emperor as it would prove to be for later U.S. presidents, be their names Wilson, Carter, Clinton, or Bush. Under Wilhelm, Germany started inching closer to the Ottoman Empire, but was repelled by the corruption, ancient versions of Islamic ritual, and obvious foundering military incompetence that embodied Abdul Hamid's regime.
By contrast, the German kaiser and his generals loved the no-nonsense, (apparently) virile Young Turks, with their dynamic, go-getting new ideas. It proved a marriage made in the infernal regions. In the six years after 1908, the Young Turks moved at remarkable speed into Imperial Germany's corner, even though it meant making common cause with their most ancient enemy, the Catholic Christian multinational empire of Austria-Hungary under the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph.
The Young Turks had no time for the fuddy-duddy old religious traditions and customs that had defined the Habsburg Empire, like their own, for so long. But like the Habsburgs, they loathed the tiny, aggressive, fierce little nation-states of the Balkans like poison. And they hoped Germany would take care of their most dangerous enemy in modern times, the vast czarist empire of Russia to their north. So just as Nasser fifty years later would fatefully throw his lot in with the Soviet Union and embark on a policy of military buildup and eventual war against neighboring Israel, Enver Pasha embraced Imperial Germany. He imported German military advisors to modernize his own army and embarked on a course of confrontation against an England he wrongly thought to be weak and decadent.
World War I could have skipped the Middle East
Ironically, the Ottoman Empire could easily have stayed out of World War I (under the vastly superior, wise leadership of Ismet Inonu, Turkey later stayed out of World War II). The spark that set off the war and that destroyed Europe didn't have to spread to the Middle East-and if not for Enver's bungling, it wouldn't have. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the firebreathing and extremely unpleasant heir to the Habsburg Empire, was shot dead on a visit to Sarajevo, capital of the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by an idealistic (aren't they all) fanatic young student-killer called Gavrilo Princip.
The assassination triggered calls for war in the highest military and imperial circles in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. Franz Joseph was too old, Czar Nicholas II quite simply too stupid, and Kaiser Wilhelm II too weak to stop them. But the Young Turks, for all their embrace of German generals as military advisors, had no treaty obligations to any of the feuding nations. England had been their traditional ally for more than 120 years since the days of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and had saved the empire's bacon on more than one occasion. And England remained, as even Enver understood, the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea.
Then Winston Churchill entered the picture. In the eight years from 1914 to 1922, there was something fatefully hapless about the young, brilliant, and dynamic Winston Churchill whenever he had to deal with Turkey under its rulers old and new. In all or most of his other dealings with the Middle East, he proved energetic, decisive, visionary, forceful, and even occasionally right. But whenever it came to dealing with the Turks, he always misunderstood them and made them mad.
As part of their ambitious modernization program, the Turks had ordered two new dreadnought battleships from the country most famed for building such things. In 1914, Churchill was still first lord of the admiralty, the civilian head of Britain's fabled Royal Navy, still by far the largest and most powerful in the world. Britain, thanks to Churchill's energy and public advocacy, had a powerful superiority over the Imperial German High Seas Fleet, and her allies France and Japan were among the world's leading naval powers as well. Britain certainly didn't need to seize the two Ottoman/Young Turk battleships being built in its shipyards. It could quietly have concluded some kind of compensation deal with Constantinople in which the ships were either held in British ports until the end of the conflict if the Turks agreed to stay neutral, or, if drawn into any conflict with their immediate neighbors, not to use the ships against either Britain or France.
Instead, Churchill immediately went macho. He ordered the battleships seized for Britain's Royal Navy, in which they proved to have less than stellar careers. Reaction across the Ottoman Empire, and not just among the dominant Turks, was immediate. Protest meetings against Britain were held across the empire. The Young Turk rulers shared the outrage. German diplomats in Constantinople saw their chance and offered to replace the seized battleships at once. But the fly in the ointment was getting any German warship safely to Constantinople, as the British and French navies controlled the Mediterranean. In the early spring of 1915, however, Churchill and his brilliant but wildly unstable chief of British naval operations, First Sea Lord John “Jackie” Fisher, a septuagenarian hyper-energetic maniac-genius who believed Britain was the lost tribes of Israel, were obsessed with sweeping the raiders and overseas battle squadrons of the Imperial German Navy from the seas. And insofar as they micromanaged British naval dispositions to bottle up the German battle cruisers Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean, they made a hash of it.
At one fateful moment, Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge, the British squadron commander off the southern tip of Italy, had the chance to trap the Goeben and Breslau by stationing a heavy cruiser at either end of the Strait of Messina. Instead, he put both the cruisers at the same end and allowed the German warships to sail out unmolested at the other end. On August 10, 1914, the Goeben reached safety in the harbor of the Golden Horn at Constantinople, bringing with her, as Churchill later wrote, untold misery and suffering for the peoples of the East. Guaranteed a strong naval force to replace the battleships Britain had seized, Enver and the Young Turks negotiated their fateful alliance with Germany. On October 30, 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the world war-and thereby ended the centuries-long slumber of the Middle East.
Gallipoli: Underestimating the Turks
At first it seemed that having the Ottoman Empire on their side would be more of a liability to the Germans and the Austrians than an advantage. The British in particular were eager to knock the empire out of the war with a couple of bold moves, and they were sure it could be done.
A hastily gathered force from the Indian Army was sent to Basra and started the long slog up the Tigris River valley and through the desert toward Baghdad. It followed exactly the same route that the U.S. armed forces would use with considerably more success and élan eighty-eight years later in 2003. But that wasn't enough for Churchill, who in the spring of 1915 directed his Mediterranean admirals to try to force the strait of the Dardanelles so that their fleet could sail through and put Constantinople, the greatest city of the Ottoman Empire, at the mercy of its heavy naval guns.
After a couple of halfhearted attempts that achieved nothing except to alert the Turkish defenses, the main attempt to force the Dardanelles took place on March 18, 1915. This was indeed, as Churchill recognized in his book The World Crisis: 1911-1918, the first, boldest, and best way to knock the Ottoman Empire quickly out of the war, though it is doubtful this would have saved Russia or brought an early end to the slaughter in Europe, as he and his admirers would later maintain. But as it was, Churchill was undone, as he was so often in those days, by his own execrable choice in the admirals he had chosen for high command.
The attacking Anglo-French battle fleet hit minefields in the early waters of the Dardanelles, and in rapid succession three battleships were sunk. The frustration of having their huge battle fleet superiority only a few score miles from the capital of Constantinople, the glittering dream city of the East, was too much for the British War Cabinet. Lord Kitchener, the brutal, energetic, and witless British war minister, was all for landing an army on the Gallipoli peninsula to sweep it free of those pesky batteries and then either advance overland to take Constantinople or finally open the Dardanelles so the fleet could sail through. Churchill was gung-ho for the idea. Neither of them seemed to have bothered looking at a relief map. The Gallipoli peninsula was even worse territory for a slow infantry advance than was the Western Front.
Neither Churchill nor anyone else gave any thought to the problems of landing a huge amphibious force against an enemy armed with modern weapons. The British, Australian, and New Zealand army that came ashore on the beaches of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, was rowed largely by hand in wooden boats whose sides couldn't stop a single .303 rifle bullet. The waters off the beaches ran thick with blood. No one had yet dreamed of the kind of armored, steel-sided, powered landing craft, or LCT, that the British and Americans would use for all their successful amphibious landings in the European and Pacific theaters in World War II.
Once ashore, there were many more unpleasant surprises in store. The beaches were far smaller and narrower and the hills and cliffs stretching above them far higher and steeper than most of the beaches and hills on the D-Day beaches of Normandy. Tanks hadn't been invented yet. (Churchill in fact would have a major and far happier role in developing them soon.) The British and Anzacs (Australians and New Zealanders) were commanded by an incompetent twit, General Sir Ian Hamilton (a Churchill favorite), while the Turks, who were fighting for their homeland, were led by one of the greatest leaders and generals in their history, Mustafa Kemal, the man later to be known as Ataturk, the father of the Turks.
Kemal had been in the original Young Turk revolutionary group, but was quickly bypassed by Enver and his friends as not being intellectual enough and lacking sufficient “polish.” (Like so many murderous incompetents after them, the Young Turks were snobs.) They thought Kemal too abrasive, too intelligent, and too unwilling to flatter them about their own self-imagined “genius.” What Kemal thought of them can be concluded from the dungeons and gallows to which he later consigned them.
Unlike them, Kemal also proved to be the one new-generation general who could actually win a major battle. He went on to win lots of them- and against the most modern Western armies. Kemal was advised by General Otto Liman von Sanders, a brilliant German general of Jewish origin distantly related to the family who owned the American department store Lehman Brothers. Kemal and von Sanders rushed reinforcements up to Gallipoli and kept the allied forces bottled up on the beaches. The allies, spearheaded by the Australians, made passionate efforts to storm the cliffs. It all culminated in the climactic battles at Suvla Bay from August 6 through August 21, 1915.
In The World Crisis, Churchill depicts that battle as the Hinge of Fate. Had the Australians been able to hang on, had the British generals managed to gather another company or two of troops, and had the War Cabinet in London shown just a little more backbone, he argued, the heights at Scimitar Hill would have been held, it would have been a downhillall- the-way sweep to Constantinople, the straits would have been opened at last, and endless, enormous convoys of British, French, and even American munitions would have flooded to Russia to prevent the collapse of the czarist army and prevent the Russian Revolution and all the hecatombs of death and suffering that flowed from it.
The issue remains an important one into the twenty-first century for U.S. policymakers as well as historians and war history enthusiasts. Before Paul Wolfowitz served as American deputy defense secretary from 2001 to 2005, urging the invasion of Iraq, as dean of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington he liked to take favored graduate students on trips to Istanbul to show them how close the Gallipoli campaign-and Churchill's vision-came to changing the course of twentieth-century history.
But in reality, without tanks, trucks, and the tactical doctrine and training to carry out rapid armored war, the British couldn't have hoped to advance at more than a crawl and the Turks would have fought them all the way and kept them bottled up. Also, the thirty-mile Gallipoli peninsula continues with hilly, ravine territory for miles beyond the landing beaches. Winning the battles at Suvla Bay and Scimitar Hill would just have been the prelude to endless bloodbaths of the kind already occurring on the Western Front. And by the time Suvla Bay was fought in August 1915, the Russian army had already lost millions dead on the Eastern Front and been forced out of Poland. Russia's collapse by then was inevitable.
Lessons of Gallipoli
The British defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, and the much smaller one at Kut that same year, taught lessons to Western nations about getting entangled in the Middle East that are more relevant now than ever. First, local populations and nations in the region should not be despised or underestimated just because they have lost wars for scores or hundreds of years. Every war is different. The British and the Arab nations chronically underestimated the Jewish community in Palestine in 1947-1948, and Israelis underestimated the Egyptians and the Syrians in 1973.
Second, battles, wars, and military campaigns can be very easy to start but very hard to stop. Once you're in, you're in, and a campaign takes on a mad life of its own, sucking in unimagined resources as casualties soar and the deadlock deepens. The United States has been learning that in Iraq.
Third, local populations that perform miserably in the face of one kind of war can prove formidably brilliant in another kind of conflict. The Turks failed miserably when they attempted offensive operations against the British in Sinai in 1915 and 1916 and against the Russians around Lake Van. But when they had to fight a straightforward defensive struggle to protect their ancestral heartland at Gallipoli, or later against the invading Greek army in 1920-1921, Turkish peasant soldiers proved to be the epitome of courage, resilience, and toughness-and they won.
That lesson applies to twenty-first-century Iraq too. The Iraqi army, even at the height of its power in 1991, proved useless against the attack of a vast U.S. and allied force commanded by General Norman Schwarzkopf. It proved equally helpless against the lightning thrusts of the U.S. Army and Marines in the 2003 campaign. Yet the same soldiers had fought superbly and successfully against Iranian human wave attacks in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War just a few years before. And when it came to a guerrilla war against U.S. forces with infinitely superior firepower from May 2003 on, the Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq proved to be innovative, adaptive, ruthless, and utterly relentless.
Europe's “sick man” has some teeth
For more than a century before the start of World War I, the great Christian empires of Europe looked upon the Ottoman Empire as the “Sick Man of Europe”-a rotting edifice that would collapse if any serious power