Understandably, much current historic coverage has concentrated on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. But it was the Treaties of Versailles and Sevres, painstakingly negotiated at the end of hostilities, which has had a truly lasting impact – arguably to this day.
The spoils of the First World War involved victorious politicians and diplomats redrawing maps of the Old World from afar, taking little account of local sensitivities. In much of Europe, it was only after a second global conflict that national boundaries and ethnic populations were aligned. In 1945, some nine million civilians, mainly of German ethnic origin, were forcibly repatriated in a process that today would be described as ethnic cleansing. My late mother, then a five year-old girl, was one that huge number of displaced persons. Her birthplace, Breslau, (now Polish Wroclaw) had been a Germanic town since 1242.
One small quarter of post-Versailles Europe, Yugoslavia, was spared that disruption. However, as we know, nationalistic fervour and old ethnic enmities resurfaced into a series of brutal Balkan civil wars during the 1990s. The massacre at Srebrenica of some 7000 Bosnian Muslims under the noses of 400 Dutch soldiers in a so-called UN safe area was only the worst of many atrocities.
Peace in the Balkans has only been achieved by dismantling Yugoslavia into a collection of new ‘nations’ and inflicting the misery of displacement on millions.
The Treaty of Sevres divided up the Ottoman Empire of the defeated Turks. This vast and ancient empire had embraced much of the Middle East and Arabia. A new collection of countries was created: Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast was seen as a haven for Maronite and Orthodox Christians; Saudi Arabia brought together an array of small sheikhdoms. Iraq was the most contrived state – artificially created by French and British diplomats and populated by Muslims, Jews, Christians and tribes of various small minority sects that had somehow survived countless centuries in this cauldron of religious innovation.
I fear that what we now see being played out in Iraq with the terrifyingly swift emergence of the Sunni jihadists, Islamic State (IS), will lead to a similar outcome of a divided country with some of its long-standing population being permanently displaced.
I have written before on this site about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and the Foreign Office’s misplaced naivety as the so-called Arab Spring developed. The West’s collusion in regime change leading to the toppling of dictators we had previously supported in Egypt and Libya and our continued support of rebels against Assad in Syria has destabilised the entire region.
These profound policy blunders, coupled with plentiful financial support from resource-rich Sunni backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have allowed IS to thrive. The temptation on the part of war-weary electorates in the West to leave this part of the world to fight its own battles is entirely understandable. However, our political leaders need to spell out the consequences of allowing the humanitarian catastrophe to unfold and IS to gather increasing strength. Hundreds of UK citizens are already out in Syria and Iraq fighting for the fanatic Islamists; many seek to return to these shores and continue their terrorist activity.
In the Kurdish minority in Iraq, we have a faction we can and should urgently support. If UK involvement is to extend beyond intelligence cooperation and humanitarian help, our Government will need to level with the British public now about the potential extent of our future involvement. UK airstrikes, drone attacks and the arming of and military support to the Peshmerga may follow within weeks. I suspect as part of a UN peacekeeping operation we shall (defence cuts permitting) at some point also need to put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Alongside other Western nations we will almost certainly need to offer asylum to substantial numbers of Christian and other minorities displaced in this conflict.
The public will need to be made aware that there is no guarantee of success. Our involvement here may lead to escalating atrocities and fearful terrorist attacks on British soil.
Last August’s lost vote on potential action in Syria (ironically to support indirectly some of the very people who now form the nucleus of IS) has also set a clear precedent. No UK government can embark upon any such path without the consent and approval of parliament. This is a fast moving situation but I would anticipate a recall of parliament within the week.