Seeds of Misery: Unfolding the Chronicles of Colonialism in West Asia


A cradle of civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egyptian, a region which saw the rise and fall of some of the illustrious empires like Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, Achaemenid, Macedonian, Parthian, Sassanid, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, the birthplace of three Semitic religions – West Asia – is at present an arena for social, religious, political, cultural and ethnic conflicts and where perpetual peace never comes to pass. The political unrest in the region owes its origin to the centuries old rivalries and mutual mistrust between various religions and their beliefs. The crooked and imperial mindset of colonial powers and their ‘divide and rule’ game unfolded the modern chapter of confrontations and political instability in the region. Every form of violence that is known to the human world exists in this region. Civil wars, extreme terrorist activities, displacement and refugee crisis, targeted civilian killings, state sponsored violence, religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, dictatorships, and superpower proxy wars and so on, the jeopardy goes on. The seeds of the aforesaid misery was sown by the colonial ‘masters’, specifically by Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century and later on the USA and Russia took the lead.

The Dictionary of Human Geography lucidly defines the fiend, termed colonialism as “an instrument of wholesale destruction, dependency and systematic exploitation producing distorted economies, socio-psychological disorientation, massive poverty and neocolonial dependency”. The invasion of Canary Islands by the Hispanic Monarchy (Spanish Empire) in 1402 marked the beginning of ‘colonisation’ in the world. When it comes to the West Asia, the Battle of Diu (1509) was a significant event which according to the scholar Michael Adas “established European Naval superiority in the Indian Ocean for centuries to come”. The region lying between Europe and Indian Ocean got attention in order to fulfill the trade aspirations of the colonial powers. The opening of Suez Canal was a landmark in global maritime trade history which paves the way for substantial European supremacy in West Asia.

How colonialism affected the West Asia? What were the impacts of colonisation on twentieth century West Asia? How the ‘outsiders’ became the antagonists in the West Asian story?

Origins of Western Imperialism

At its height in the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire stretched from central Europe to the Gulf and from Algeria to Azerbaijan. Post 17th century saw the increasing European influence in West Asia, especially centering the trade routes. During those times, Europe sold manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials and agricultural products from West Asia. The Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean are no longer in the control of native people; European sailing ships overlooked those strategic maritime routes. The rivalry between Anglo-French powers saw its replications in Ottoman territories in the form of French Campaign in Syria and Egypt (1798) under Napoleon Bonaparte. The purpose of the invasion was to weaken the British access to its colonies in Indian subcontinent. Even though French forces withdrew in 1801, the action motivated leaders in Egypt, Persia and Ottoman to introduce reforms which was clearly leading to westernization.

Egypt under the autocratic ruler Muhammad Ali became the first to recognize Industrial Revolution and his son Ibrahim conquered Syria in 1832, reaching the doorsteps of Ottoman. Britain needed Ottoman Empire to defend against Russian influence in geopolitically significant Balkan region. Hence, the English opposed the takeover of Ottoman Syria which thwarted the expansionist ambitions of Egypt. The Tanzimat or the Reorganization Era saw the beginning of reforms in Ottoman during the periods of Sultan Mahmud II and his successors. Ottomans defeated Russia in Crimean War (1853-56) with the help of Anglo-French forces who never wished to see Russian presence in Europe. The railroad connecting Alexandria and Cairo was built in 1851 and the British also started steamship navigation in Euphrates River. The opening of Suez Canal, joining the Mediterranean to Red Sea, opened a new era in the Eurasian trade history. It was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, who brought the permission from Egypt to build the canal in the Isthmus of Suez. The Suez Canal is not only known for its engineering marvel, but also for its role in augmenting the European imperialism from Near East to Far East.

Conquest of Algeria (completed in 1857), Bardo Treaty (establishing Protectorate in Tunisia), Agadir Crisis (Morocco became French protectorate) and control over much of the present day North-West Africa completed the imperialist expansion of France. Mount Lebanon, a part of Syria was under international protectorate (1864-1914). Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 following a confrontation against Colonel Urabi’s troops. The weak Qajar Dynasty, even though allowed to set up a Parliament (majiles) after a national revolution in 1906, called in Russian troops to suppress the revolutionary Constitutionalists in Iran. The Russians and Britain had clear intensions and they divided their areas of influence within Persia. The Constitutionalists who followed the shahs were also weak which made things easier for the imperial powers. The incorporation of Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1908 following a major discovery of oil reserves was a turning point in the changing the British imperial perspectives towards this region.

Fall of Ottoman and Age of Western Imperialism

World War I acted as a catalyst in the completion of overall Western domination in the West Asia region. “Istanbul’s decision to enter World War I as Germany’s ally sealed the fate of the Ottoman Empire” (Goldschmidt, 2008). The Turks attempted to rally the Muslims by proclaiming a Jihad (struggle for Islam); but the move was futile because of the British tie-up with the other Arabs. The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence was a major move from the part of British which made an agreement to contain Ottoman. The series of letters exchanged between the Sharif of Mecca and Henry McMahon promised independence for Arabs after the war in exchange for the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Empire. The purpose of Sharif Hussein was to integrate the Arab-speaking Ottoman lands. But the negotiations ‘reserved’ some regions like Baghdad, Basra and some portions of Syria. The Arab revolt in 1916 fueled with the British support, thrown away the Turks from Palestine and Syria. The British also seized Iraq before the surrender of Ottoman Empire in 1918. Thus the World War I ended the triumph of Turks and initiated the ‘cutting of cake’ ceremony.

At this juncture, there is a moral call to look into two other notorious agreements or promises that were made during the First World War. The Sykes- Picot Agreement, or the Asia Minor Agreement, between the imperial powers (Britain and France with Russian nod) in 1916 virtually torn the soul of the Arab region and sow the seeds of misery. The following is an excerpt from Sykes-Picot Agreement archive.

“The agreement allocated to Britain control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France got control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. The controlling powers were left free to determine state boundaries within their areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration in the “brown area” (an area including Jerusalem, similar to and smaller than Mandate Palestine), the form of which was to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other Allies, and the representatives of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca”.

In order to achieve their imperial aspirations, the colonial masters divided the region into several parts which wounded the dreams of Arab people to stay united and the only core reason for the century long political unrest in West Asia owes its origin to this ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. The 1917 Balfour Declaration was the next poison which altered the lives of millions in Palestine. The Zionist movement, which triggered waves of Jewish migration to Palestine during the 18th and early 19th centuries, was ‘internationally recognized’ by the same venomous colonial powers. Chaim Weizmann, an influential Zionist leader, negotiated with the British authorities and Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, declared the support for establishing a ‘homeland’ for Jews in their so called ‘promised land’ in Palestine. The double act of Britain and others promising Arab and Jewish independence is a textbook example of crooked imperial mindset of European countries. Balfour Declaration boosted the nascent Zionist movement and conflicts started to emerge between native Arabs and the Jewish immigrants.

The postwar peace settlement introduced Mandate System under Article 22 of the Covenant of League of Nations. Nele Matz wrote in an article that “two elements formed the core of the Mandate System, the principle of non-annexation of the territory on the one hand and its administration as a “sacred trust of civilization” on the other… The principle of administration as a “sacred trust of civilization” was designed to prevent a practice of imperial exploitation of the mandated territory in contrast to former colonial habits. Instead, the Mandatory’s administration should assist in developing the territory for the well-being of its native people” (Matz, 2005). The goodness remained only in papers; the West continued to exploit the Near East. Mandate system ultimately became a legitimate instrument to carry on the divide and rule motive. France got Syria and Britain was the mandatory power in Iraq and Palestine.

France further divided the Syria which paved way for the formation of Republic of Lebanon and some areas were also given to Alawis and Druze. Britain installed Faisal in Iraq to rule the kingdom comprising of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. Transjordan, carved out from Palestine was formed and Abdullah was seated the throne. The emergence of military rule in Iran from 1921 under Reza Khan and the nationalist government set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey send a message to the imperial powers that the civil nationalist movements will become a threat in all colonies (or Mandates). Britain agreed to the call for independence of Egypt in 1922 but the Suez Canal was ‘guarded’ by the troops. Sudan remained under the British control. France also held Algeria and Tunisia whereas Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish. Italy annexed Tripolitania, present day Libya, from Ottoman Empire.

The subsequent nationalist movements compelled the mandatory powers to grant independence for the mandates. Iraq achieved formal independence in 1932 from Britain. The back to back military coups lead to political instability in the region and in 1941, Britain, after enjoying all the ‘junta show’, intervened again when a nationalist government under Rashid Ali came to power. The Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941 resulted in the reoccupation of Iraq. Transjordan became independent in 1946 and Abdullah continued to rule who supported the Britain to suppress popular movements in Palestine. The huge influx of Jewish immigrants due to the Holocaust in Germany created civil conflicts between the Arabs and Jews in the 1930s which culminated in a three year long Civil War. The Peel Commission report stated that the Mandate in Palestine is a failure and proposed partition of Palestine as the only solution to end the Arab-Jewish “deadlock”. Another commission was appointed to prepare a partition plan known as Woodhead Commission. All parties concerned rejected the proposal for partition. Keeping in the mind the geopolitical significance of Egypt and Iraq, anticipating the Second World War, Britain issues White Paper in 1939 which put on restrictions to Jewish land purchase and limited Jewish immigration. The Paper also called for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine within 10 years. Once again, Britain used its crooked diplomacy to betray the Arabs.

Italian expansion to Libya and Ethiopia, two countries sharing borders with Egypt, was a nightmare for Britain because of the strategic Suez Canal. Fascist Italy and the Nazis invaded the aforesaid regions and more British troops were sent to Egypt during the Second World War. Arab League formed in 1945, gave a new face to the idea of Arab unification. But the conflict of interest among the member states hindered the prospects of such a unity. The emergence of extremist terrorist activities among Jews made Palestine ever more hostile. British troops failed to manage the civil rebellions and subsequently referred the issue to United Nations. An organization formed for world peace and prosperity became the antagonist. The UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 (2), a Partition Plan to divide Palestine into three – Arab State, Jewish State and religiously significant Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international control. The Jewish lobby succeeded in achieving what they needed – their ‘Promised Land’. The outright rejection from Arab coalition and the instant Jewish embrace increased violence and war broke out. The withdrawal of Britain and the of declaration of independence by the Jewish Agency one day before the end of the mandate period started the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The immediate recognition of the Jewish state by Soviet Union and the USA brings into light the conspiracy behind all the drama. Israel’s forces backed by US defeated the Arabs which lead to a mass exodus of Palestinians (nearly 750,000 Arabs) to the neighboring Arab states and some seek refuge in West Bank and Gaza Strip. The fall of Arabs in Palestine created a Domino effect in WANA region. Revolts in Syria (1949) and fall of monarchies in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962) and Libya (1969) underlined the anti-imperial notion. Sudan tasted freedom in 1956. An anti-Communist alliance, known in the name Baghdad Pact or the METO (Middle East Treaty Organization), was formed in 1955. The Pact, which was a part of Containment Policy of the U.S, was signed by Iraq, Britain, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The Suez Crisis amidst these developments ended the British supremacy and US filled the vacuum. Then West Asia was a theatre for Cold War and began the neo-imperialist stage. Till now, the region’s peace and stability is in the hands of external actors like Russia and the USA or NATO. The tales of the brutal, repressive and unjust colonialist history of West Asia ends here.

Impacts of Colonialism: The Seeds of Misery

If we look into the global scenario, no other region is politically volatile like the West Asia in the postcolonial years. The colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries ruined the region in all aspects. In every spheres of life, whether social, economic or political, the region is deeply divided and exploited. The arbitrary interventionist attitude of European powers in the regional affairs of West Asia, especially in the twentieth century, shattered the legacy and heritage of the civilization and culture of the Arab land. “Decisions made during the colonial era had effects that persist today and continue to influence the Middle East’s political development” (Gerner and Schrodt, 2008).

The substantial influence of colonial powers can be seen mainly in the mutual mistrust and suspicion among the countries in Middle-East. During the colonial era the European powers meddle in the domestic affairs of many of these countries. Iran’s last Shah once said that “the English always talk about the merits of democracy, but found it perfectly normal to dictate how Iranian elections should be held”. Only aim of Britain was to protect their ‘route’ to India. All games played by Britain and France discussed in the preceding sections shows how those powers used this land just as a ‘medium’ to protect their larger interests. The Divide and Rule strategy implemented in West Asia was the prima-facie example of historical injustice done to the people of the region.

Palestine Refugee Crisis, Arab-Israeli Wars, coups d’état’s in many countries (Egypt, Operation Ajax in Iran, 14 July Revolution of Iraq, 1960 Turkish coup d’état, 8 March Revolution in Syria, Ramadan Revolution of Iraq, Corrective Movement, Coup by Memorandum and so on until the Battle of Aden), Civil wars (Lebanon, Syria and in Yemen), Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War, Syrian Refugee Crisis, Iraqi-Kurdish conflicts, Hamas-Israel conflicts and the Arab Spring in North Africa were some of the region’s dark episodes of instable postcolonial history, many of which still goes on. The origins of all these events can be traced back to colonial era interventions and policies. Perpetual peace and prosperity is now nearly impossible in the region. Anything can happen at any time. The deep divisions among many religious and ethnic groups, regional cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, large scale weapon sale interests of Russia and the US, democratic deficit and legitimacy of rulers, terrorist activities, and influence of non-state actors and their ideologies – these factors also contribute to the present day scenario of West Asia, which again points the finger to the erstwhile colonial rule.

The British failure in handling the Arab-Jewish conflicts which resulted in the formation of ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine instigated the persistent Israel-Palestine Wars. By simultaneously offering freedom to Palestine and promising a Jewish State, Britain became the traitor here. Now with the help of a group of scholars, they are rewriting the history and erasing the realities. They draw borders according to their interest and gains, but on the other side the people were thrown into the whirlpool of wretchedness. Now many of these colonial masters are messengers of peace and democracy. If they considered the people in the colonies as at least ‘human beings’, the case wouldn’t have been this worse. The ever widening gap among rich and power, poverty, human rights violations, gender discrimination, religious rivalry and conflicts is affecting the region now. The growth of many non-state actors as a result of these misfortunes makes the condition more fragile. Yes, some countries achieved development after the decolonization, but West Asia is still burning. The flames of that fire reflect the forbidding chronicles of Colonialism.


Bill, James A & Springborg, Robert. 1994. Politics in the Middle East. New York: Harper Collins.

Gelvin, James. 2005. The Modern Middle East: A History. Oxford: OUP.

Gerner, Deborah J & Schwedler, Jillian. 2008. Understanding the Contemporary Middle East. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Goldschmidt, Arthur & Davidson, Lawrence. 1991. A concise history of the Middle East (10th Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.

Helfont, Samuel. 2015. “Post-Colonial States and the Struggle for Identity in the Middle East since World War Two.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. ( )

Lewis, Bernard. 1995. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. New York: Scribner.

Lowe, Norman. 2013. Mastering the Modern World History. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Matz, Nele. 2005. “Civilization and the Mandate System under the League of Nations as Origin of Trusteeship.” Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law.

Seethi, K.M. 2018. “From ‘Promised Land’ to the Land of Betrayals.” (

Sykes-Picot Agreement archive,

Gokul K.S, Currently, a Post-Graduate student in International Relations and Politics at SIRP, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam and also writes articles in


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News