The Sins of the Fathers

Chris Waller – September 2015
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The Syrian refugee crisis has now reached epic, one might even say Biblical, proportions. It is a modern exodus, and it is the Book of Exodus that warns us: “I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children even unto the third and fourth generation …”. This present crisis has its roots in decisions made a century ago – the sins of our political fathers blight us even now.

An estimated 10 million Syrians have left their homes, 6 or 7 million of these internally displaced, with 3 million in camps in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The current crisis is projected by the media as having its roots in the Assad regime’s response to the popular uprisings against it in March 2011, during what was called ‘the Arab Spring’. As Syria descended into civil war, it became a maelstrom into which competing paramilitary forces plunged to stake their claims. The media are currently emphasising the humanitarian dimension of the crisis, perhaps to deflect attention from its deeper political and economic roots.

The travails of the Middle East can be traced back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent intervention of the European imperial powers. Ottoman Turkey and Germany had entered into an alliance, giving Britain a pretext on which to attack Turkey. The Western Front had reached stalemate and it was this that gave Winston Churchill his excuse to launch an attack on Turkey via the Dardanelles, leading to the catastrophe of Gallipoli and over 100,000 Allied dead during 8 months of fighting. A similar number of Ottoman troops died in their defence of Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was, by the time of the First World War, seriously decomposed. It was corrupt, nepotistic and decadent. Even in the early 19th century, it had been described as “the sick man of Europe” – an expression attributed to Tsar Nicholas I and which entered into common usage when speaking of said empire.

In 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement determined the lines of demarcation in what would be the post-war Middle East, dividing it between France and Great Britain. The Romanov government in Russia was a minor party to this agreement, giving its assent conditional upon receiving certain territories. The Romanovs and their government did not survive to enjoy the fruits of their machinations. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks revealed the terms of the pact, much to the embarrassment and dismay of all concerned. Nevertheless, Great Britain was able to overcome its embarrassment – without too much difficulty given that, with the successful completion of the Mesopotamia campaign, it had its hands on the oil fields in Mosul.

The reason for Britain’s interest in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire – and indeed the Middle East in general – was oil, that bane of 20th century international politics and economics. In the early 20th century, the Royal Navy commissioned the first of its Dreadnoughts. The early ones were coal-fired, as had been all British fighting ships thus far, but Admiral John ‘Jackie’ Fisher was campaigning for conversion to oil-firing. The advantages of oil were manifest. It was thermally more efficient, it did not need to be man-handled by bloody-minded stokers into the gaping maws of the ships’ boilers and it could be stored more easily. It also allowed the fitting of an extra gun-turret and the ammunition to feed it. However, though Britain had vast reserves of coal, which had thus far powered its navy to global dominance, it had no oil. Reserves of oil therefore had to be found and secured if Great Britain were to continue to rule the waves and remain as global hegemon. Where better to secure sources of oil than in the shattered remains of the Ottoman Empire?

The scale of the demand for oil for the Royal Navy needs some context. In the early 1900s, the British Navy was larger than the American, German, French and Russian navies combined. Only an alliance between these four and Italy could have mustered a naval force larger than the British Navy – and then only by a small margin of about 15 ships.

Thus, in 1919, onto the political stage of the Middle East stepped the redoubtable Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, a woman as formidable as her name. Educated at Queen’s College London and then Oxford, she achieved first-class honours in history in two years, becoming subsequently traveller, writer, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist – and was also regarded as the best woman mountaineer of her day. She enjoyed also – and unusually for a European – the esteem, and affections even, of the native peoples of the Middle East.

In what was then most definitely a man’s world, she achieved hitherto unprecedented influence and power, being entrusted to determine the borders of the modern state of Iraq. In so doing, she attempted to bring the various peoples, tribes and factions of the area into a nation with a single identity. Arab, Kurd, Shi’ite and Sunni were all to be woven into a single fabric and all were to be governed, if not by the British, then by a ruler and a regime compliant with British economic and political ambitions and buttressed by British power. It was tacit within that decision that the tribal culture of the region would lead to endless internecine struggles between competing factions and thus leave Britain untroubled by any concerted opposition to its political and economic objectives. Thus the seeds of the present conflict were sown.

The British government was urged in 1911 by one Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to seek and secure oil at all costs, to ensure that Britain would continue to rule the waves – and it was not slow in achieving that objective. By 1919, Sperling’s Journal, an English publication much respected by the Establishment, was able to write: “America is running through her stores of domestic oil and is obliged to look abroad. The British position is impregnable. All the known oilfields, all the likely or probable oilfields outside the US are in British hands, under British control or financed by British capital.” By the 1920s, it seemed that Britain had an iron grip on everything from the Mediterranean to Indonesia. Royal Dutch Shell had most of the Mexican and Venezuelan output and, through its subsidiary Shell Oil Company, a significant proportion of US production and sales.

An oil concession came available in what was then Persia and, for reasons unknown, it was turned down by all the major players in the region. It was seized by an Englishman, one William Knox D’Arcy. He had, in mineral mining, made a fortune which he now looked set to lose prospecting for oil in the sands of the desert. At the last minute, and supported by funds from the British Burmah Oil company (formerly the Rangoon Oil Company), he hit a gusher and thus began the Middle East oil industry. It became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and finally became the venerable British Petroleum. Such was the importance of Anglo-Persian that the same Winston Churchill proposed a 51% government stake in the company. Churchill had, incidentally, been paid 5,000 by Burmah Oil, a major shaareholder in Anglo-Persian, to lobby Parliament to grant it exclusive rights to Persian oil deposits.

Once again, to ensure a steady flow of oil from Persia into the Royal Navy’s bunkers, the British installed a compliant regime headed by the largely ineffectual Shah Reza Pahlavi. The Pahlavi dynasty produced two Shahs, the first being forced to abdicate in favour of his son in 1941 by the British and the second being ousted by his own people in 1980. In the middle of all this, in 1951, one Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, came to power as prime minister. He nationalised Anglo-Iranian, much to the chagrin of Great Britain, which promptly imposed an embargo on exports and brought Mossadegh down. One can easily understand why the Iranians are ill-disposed to British governments.

In the fledgling Iraq, after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the British government installed King Faisal of the Hashemite dynasty as a complaint client ruler. It was his task to weave together historically antagonistic tribal groups into a nation. To assist him in this, the recently-formed Royal Air Force developed its techniques of aerial bombardment on Kurdish villages. One wing-commander noted the efficacy of aerial bombardment in pacifying insurgents – his name was Arthur Harris. Winston Churchill advocated the use of gas bombs as being ‘more humane’.

Roger Scruton, in his 2002 book The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, examines the reasons why the Middle East has never found peace. He cites, quite correctly, the failure of the region in the post-Ottoman era to establish the structures and mechanisms of constitutional democracy. However, one needs also to consider the cynical interventions of the former imperial powers in the region to ensure that the newly-formed states were headed by ‘strong men’ who could ensure stability, albeit at the end of a gun-barrel, to guarantee political and economic aims favourable to said former imperial powers.

Britain continued its habitual interference in the Middle East in the post-war period – one recalls Suez – with the same arrogance that had previously informed its policy in that region. As if driven by some atavistic urge, Britain once again plunged into the Middle East – in concert with the US under George W Bush in 2003 – ostensibly to oust quondam ally Saddam Hussein, who by now was an embarrassment and convenient scapegoat. Yes, he and his regime were loathsome, but not so loathsome that the British government previously could not hold its nose and buttress his tyranny while wringing its hands and pleading pragmatism.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was almost guaranteed to stir up a hornets’ nest. Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent in 2007, quotes T E Lawrence writing, in 1929, the entry for ‘guerrilla’ in the 14th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Lawrence, who knew a thing or two about the Middle East and its peoples, said that the Turks would have needed 5 soldiers per square mile in the former Mesopotamia for a secure garrison, a total of 600,000 troops. Even given the advances in military hardware and communications, it was quite mad to believe that Iraq could be invaded and secured by a force of 150,000 soldiers – yet that was what Bush and Blair tried to do. They tried invasion on the cheap, invasion governed by accountants, and the results of this folly confront us today. To this folly, add the 2011 invasion of Libya under a UN mandate, an adventure which was similarly ill-advised and equally disastrous in its consequences.

Russia has renewed its interest in the region, Putin now bolstering Assad as the only defence against ISIS/ISIL. Britain and its political allies are in the unenviable position of having to countenance an alliance with Putin and Assad to defeat the ISIS/ISIL insurgency. One notes that Putin’s annexation of Crimea and interference in Ukraine have slipped from the front pages. Once again, we will have to hold our noses and plead summum bonum, the greater good.

The cost in blood and treasure since 2003 has been unimaginable and has thus far brought no peace, indeed it has exacerbated an already febrile situation.

The challenge that remains is that of dealing with the massive efflux of people from Syria and the rest of the region. We cannot plead non mea culpa. But how can we integrate them into a Europe which already has significant economic and political problems of its own? Military intervention in Syria – or anywhere else in the region – would, however, merely compound the sins of our political fathers. Perhaps the only solution is to allow the Middle East to depopulate, leaving only the warlords of ISIS/ISIL to fight it out until there is no-one left standing.

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley.


  • ‘Energy and the Earth Machine’, Donald E Carr; 1978, Abacus.
  • ‘Rebellions can be made by 2 per cent active and 98 per cent passively sympathetic’, Robert Fisk; July 2007, The Independent.
  • ‘The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat’, Roger Scruton, 2002, Continuum.


Chris Waller – Permission granted to freely distribute this article for non-commercial purposes if attributed to Chris Waller, unedited and copied in full, including this notice.

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