101 years on from the first landings at Gallipoli, Australian troops are still at war over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Hardly anyone is fully aware of the history, which is one of the reasons we keep on repeating it. So, while we remember those who answered our country’s call, and particularly those who never returned, we should take the time to understand why they were there, and the futility of the wars in which we have engaged in the Middle East.
The struggle over the declining Ottoman Empire began well before the Great War itself, and was the proximate cause of the War (Sarejevo, where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated was a former part of the Ottoman Empire, taken by Austria Hungary in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908). For much of this time, Britain was allied with Turkey, trying to check the expansion of the Czarist Russian Empire. But, as it happened, when the Great War broke out, Britain and France were part of the Triple Entente with Russia, and the Turkish government decided that its best hope for survival lay with Germany. So, Australia was at war with Turkey.
The object of the Gallipoli campaign was to force a passage through the Dardanelles, allowing the Western allies to provide aid to Russia and, if possible, knock Turkey out of the war. The ultimate war aim, formalized in the Sykes-Picot agreement was to partition the Middle East between Britain and France, with Britain getting what is now Iraq and France getting Syria and Lebanon*.
British control over Iraq continued until the mid-1950s, when the US moved in with the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO, one of the network of Cold War alliances modelled on NATO. But Iraq pulled out, and partially the Anglo-American oil holdings, setting the stage for two decades of conflict as the Americans sought to maintain the Middle Eastern sphere of influence they had inherited from Britain.
That culminated in Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power in 1979, and his decision to launch a war with Iran, in which he received extensive support from the US. The rest is recent enough history not to need repeating. The present chaos is the outcome of a century of Western involvement, colliding with the many and varied aspirations of people in the region.
Perhaps one day, Australian armed forces will leave the Middle East, and return home for good. That would be the best possible way to celebrate Anzac Day. In the meantime, Lest We Forget.
* A variety of contradictory promises were also made to the Russians (seeking more territory), the Arabs (seeking independence) and the Zionists (seeking a Jewish homeland). But, with minor variations, it was the Sykes-Picot deal that was implemented in practice.