The Middle East and the West: WWI and Beyond

Sykes-Picot Agreement map

hide captionInset of map showing the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East.

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Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR
French and British mandates map

hide captionInset of map showing the French and British mandates for the Middle East after World War I.

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Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR
U.S., European leaders at the Paris peace conference in 1919.

hide captionFrom left, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Italy's Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, France's Georges Clemenceau and President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference in 1919 at the end of World War I.

National Archives

World War I transformed the Middle East in ways it had not seen for centuries. The Europeans, who had colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, completed the takeover with the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

The modern boundaries of the Middle East emerged from the war. So did modern Arab nationalist movements and embryonic Islamic movements. NPR's Mike Shuster reports on World War I and its aftermath as he continues his series on the history of Western involvement in the Middle East.

With the onset of WWI, the French and the British sent armies and agents into the Middle East, to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize Iraq, Syria and Palestine. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. That agreement was superceded by another which established a mandate system of French and British control, sanctioned by the new League of Nations.

Under the mandate system, Syria and Lebanon went to the French. The British took over Palestine and three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia and created modern-day Iraq.

"Everyone understood at the time that this was a thinly disguised new form of colonialism...," says Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle East history at New York University. "The British and French had no thought of going anywhere anytime soon, and fully intended to remain in control of these territories for the indefinite future."

But almost immediately after the war, Arab resistance movements emerged to challenge European dominance.

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