The Eclipse of the Ottoman Empire – The End of a Medieval Reality

Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans.  Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam.  This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918.  The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.   

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While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead.  Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry.  Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate.  Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne.  To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War.  The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.

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The Ottoman Empire at its height and before, 1481-1683

Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe.  It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat.  But the city fell to the Turks in 1453.  If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.

Seige of Vienna, 1683

The second siege of Vienna

Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople.  Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun.  The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome.  One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan.  This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.

The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair

Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse.  Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians.  This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia.  Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised.  Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish.  From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.

It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse.  It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip.  Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages.  Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth.  Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves.  This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.

Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated.  They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik.  Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised.  When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.”  Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East.  Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon.  The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.

The Middle East after World War 1 - from Paris 1919

The Middle East after World War 1 – from Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919

The British motives were clear.  For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area.  This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area.  Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India.  Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.

Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement.  While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453.  It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”

A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes

Ataturk, 1916

Ataturk, 1916

As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence.  The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians.  By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace.  Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general.  His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed.  In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization.  Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics.  Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.

Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate.  He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means.  Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed.  It was truly the end of an age.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.

My Case for an American Military Reaction to Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons

I strongly believe that it is time for an American military response to Assad’s brutality.  I appreciate the case made by many that military action may only exacerbate the violence in Syria, but it is also equally possible that military action will quicken Assad’s departure.  The fact is violence will ensue either way.  Therefore we must look beyond the direct effects of an American military strike, to the broader consequences of not reacting to this affront of human decency.

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Disclaimer: this article is based on the assumption that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad that used chemical weapons on the East Ghouta region of Damascus, resulting in the death of over a thousand Syrian men, women, and children.  Despite denials by the regime and its foreign backers, I believe the evidence to be overwhelming.  Anyone with doubts should watch John Kerry’s disclosure of the evidence.  Regardless, this debate is for another article.

A Dangerous Precedent – The Humanitarian Case

The use of chemical weapons is both against international convention and international norms.  There exists a standard in international relations wherein it is morally reprehensible for a state to use chemical weapons.  Indeed, unlike many other horrendous weapons, chemical weapons have only been used three times in historic warfare: World War 1, Italy’s 1935-1936 invasion of Ethiopia, and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War – that is of course before Syria fell into disarray.

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Notice there is absolutely no blood on the sheets. These people died without wounds.

Thus, Assad’s use of chemical weapons sets a dangerous precedent.  Without an American reaction, in the 21st century it would become acceptable to use these horrendous tools of human destruction on civilian populations.  Indeed, Assad used these weapons on his own people.  What does this say to other tyrants who face domestic opposition?  If the world is willing to stand by and watch as Assad poisons men, women, and children, this opens the door to future autocrats who hope to hold on to power through any means necessary. No matter how violent or brutal the method, the world will stand back and watch.

True, this is a job for the United Nations.  But the UN has been hopelessly defanged by the threat of Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes; thus the task falls to the United States of America.  But without UN backing, it is critical for Barack Obama to gain the legitimizing support of a multinational coalition.  Other states in the region and the Arab League have a particularly important role to play in this.

A Matter of Credibility – The National Security Case

In August of last year, President Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would bring about an American response.  For clarity, here are his words:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus – that would change my equation.  We’re monitoring that situation very carefully.  We have put together a range of contingency plans.”

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Admittedly, Obama did not directly say his reaction would be a military one, but it was assumed that this is what the President meant.  Also, like many (including myself) the President probably did not assume Assad would be able to cling to power for as long as he has, and this threat was part of other tough language that would hasten Assad’s departure.  In hindsight this may have been a mistake, but the mistake was made and the consequences must be handled.

We have now reached the point that chemical weapons have been used on a large scale on a civilian population by the Syrian government.  Assuming Obama does not act, what message does this send to other regimes who hope to frustrate American ambitions in the region.  What will Iran learn from this?  Iran will learn that it can continue its nuclear program without fear of an American reaction.  The precedent will be set that American leadership does not mean what it says.  In this era of American isolationism lawlessness in the world will reign supreme.

A Final Clarification

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Boots on the Ground

I find it very troubling that many have compared a potential military strike on Syria to 2003’s invasion of Iraq.  The two are incomparable.  First, Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unprovoked preventive attack.  Syria would be a limited reaction to protect the civilians of a foreign country who face a direct and immediate threat.  Second, 2003’s invasion of Iraq was an attempt to remove a government and replace it with American-backed institutions.  Syria is only an attempt to hasten the removal of Assad by rebel forces in the country.  Finally, Iraq required tens of thousands of American troops on the ground.  Nobody is talking about a ground-invasion of Syria, and with good reason.  The American public is war-weary, and boots-on-the-ground would likely only paint the Americans as occupiers.  If the world does nothing, Syria will join Rwanda and be studied by future generations as a case of international inaction, this is the true comparison people should consider.

I Compel the Civilized Nations of the World to Act

Force can be used for good in the world.  It was used to prevent Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.  It was used to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.  It was used to remove Colonel Qaddafi, a tyrant who possessed Assad-like potential.  It can be used for good in Syria.  I compel the nations of the world to act.

Arming Syria’s Rebels – More about Putin than Assad

Supplying Syria’s rebels with arms will do little to alleviate the bloodshed or directly remove Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government.  However, by arming the rebels Barack Obama is convincing Vladimir Putin that his support of the Syrian regime is futile.    

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A nation in conflict - from The Economist

A nation in turmoil – from The Economist

On June 13 US officials confirmed that America will begin supplying Syrian rebel groups with small arms and ammunition.  This development has been officially attributed to Washington’s confirmation that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas (a nerve agent) against the opposition, killing up to 150 people – the use of chemical weapons previously being labelled as a ‘red-line’ by President Obama.  However, it is more likely that the American decision was made due to recent battlefield victories by Assad’s forces.  June 5th’s collapse of rebel resistance in the city of Qusayr, an important logistics hub, being the main example of this.  For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s fall did not appear inevitable.  Let us examine what Barack Obama can achieve by arming the Syrian rebels.

Removing the Assad regime, tough but worth the effort

Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma estimates that there are 1,000 militias that make up the rebel forces.  Such a decentralized military force can hardly be effective whether armed with American weapons or not.  The rebel army could become more effective if Washington continues to train rebel fighters, but to what extent this is effective remains to be seen.  On June 17, in an interview with PBS television, Obama confirmed this view by deriding the assumption that even heavier weapons, such as anti-tank or anti-helicopter rockets, could swiftly tip the balance of power in favour of the opposition.  Equipping and training rebel fighters may remove Assad, but it will take years.

Syrian Rebels

Logically, adding more weapons to a civil war will cause the levels of violence to increase rather than decrease.  Even if Assad’s regime was removed, it is likely Syria would then fall into sectarian violence, and the civil war would rage on in a different form.  In this scenario, the Syrian Alawite (a Shiite offshoot), and possibly even the Christian and Kurd populations, would feel the wrath of the newly empowered Sunni militias.  This outcome would be eerily similar to Iraq’s civil war after the fall of Saddam, and even these massacres could not be stopped by 180,000 American troops on the ground.  Therefore the outcome wherein Syria’s humanitarian nightmare is alleviated by arming even moderate rebel groups appears very unlikely.

Let us not forget that Bashar al-Assad is a merciless tyrant who massacres his own population.  However unstable Syria may become in the decades following Assad’s fall, I firmly believe it is in the nation’s best interest to leave this dictatorship to the annals of history.  Since arming the opposition’s forces cannot achieve this directly, the best way to go about ending Assad’s rule is to remove the regime’s foreign allies.  I argue the Obama administration is doing just that.

Folks, no matter what he's got to go.

Folks, he’s got to go.

Assad’s allies and American interests in the region

The fact is Iran and Hezbollah are pouring militias, arms, and funds into Syria in order to prop up the Assad regime.  Russia too has been supplying the Assad government with weapons.  This support has even been linked to Assad’s recent victories.  Indeed armour and infantry units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fought alongside Syria’s recently formed National Defence Force during the Battle of Qusayr, Hezbollah on the other hand is training Assad’s soldiers in the tactics of urban warfare.  These actions are not a sign of strength, but a signal that these actors see the Assad regime as weak, and are attempting to prop it up.

Keeping Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia, engaged by supplying their enemies with lethal equipment could be in America’s foreign interest, however cold-blooded and Machiavellian this strategy may be.  Wars by proxy are never pretty, but they can be effective in weakening one’s enemies.  Iran and Hezbollah are of course both enemies of America and its ally in the region: Israel.  Arming Syria’s rebels could bleed these two allies of Assad and enemies of America/Israel dry.  It will also ensure that although Assad may not fall any time soon, neither will the rebels be vanquished.  This final assertion is critical in understanding how this strategy applies to Russia.

Promising developments at the G8 Summit – Putin reconsiders his support for Assad

However normal it is for a nation-state to act according to its interests, above is a cynical view of Washington’s new Syria strategy.  The recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland adds promise to this otherwise dreary assumption.  Russian President Vladimir Putin was not officially convinced to endorse the removal of Assad, but the G8 did lay out seven steps which will lead to a “transitional governing body.”  Enacting a “transitional governing body” essentially infers that the Assad regime will be removed, but it does not say so as eloquently – basically the phrases mean the same thing.

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As I alluded to in Russia is Ending Assad’s Reign – Why an Intervention now Appears Likely, Putin may be growing wary of supporting a mad dictator who both uses chemical weapons and is falling out of favour amongst the international community.  The more Moscow supports the regime in Damascus, the more it loses valuable political capital with other middle-eastern actors, not to mention whatever government eventually replaces Assad.  I get the notion that Russia, much like America, is reluctant to become involved in a civil war that is likely to rage on for years.  So while supplying the rebels with arms may not remove Assad directly, because it assures the Kremlin that the rebel cause also will not falter, it dissuades the Russians from continuing their supporting of the regime.  Rather than supporting a doomed madman, the Putin administration may be considering getting friendly with the new ‘transitional body.’

There is little doubt left in the mind of any viewer to Obama and Putin’s joint 17 June press conference at the 2013 G8 summit (below) that these two leaders are at odds.  But as much as Putin may despise Obama’s aspirations on Syria, he is not stupid.  Facing America in a middle-eastern proxy war is not a situation that will benefit Putin in his quest to secure ‘great-power’ status for the Russian Federation.  Now that the Syrian rebel groups have American arms, they are unlikely to lose this war.  As such, Putin may be backing down.  These are slow steps, but better than no steps at all.

Works Cited

“A turning point for Bashar Assad?” The Economist, 8 June 2013.

“Barack Obama’s tentative step.” The Economist, 22 June 2013.

“G8 pledges action in Syria.” Power & Politics, CBC. 18 June 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Politics/Power+%26+Politics/ID/2392266443/

“The regime digs in.” The Economist, 15 June 2013.

Zakaria, Fareed. Global Public Square, CNN. 16 June 2013.