By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.


When the Ottoman State began handing out capitulations, that is, privileges to foreign powers under Sultan Suleiman al-Qanuni in 1535, little did it realize this would open up Pandora’s Box in the future. The Ottoman State was one of the world’s foremost powers when it signed those early agreements with France, granted out of tolerance, compassion, and encouragement of trade.

However, those privileges guaranteed the rights of Western nationals to live, travel, and trade in the Ottoman territories, while being exempt in most cases from tariffs and taxes. They were also granted legal immunity, and could only be tried in their countries’ consulates, in accordance to the laws of their home countries. With time, the Western powers began safeguarding the interests of Christians who shared the same denominations. The French extended their protection to Catholics, including the Maronite Christians in Lebanon; the Russians protected the Orthodox Christians; and the British protected the Protestants in Ottoman territory, later extending this privilege to the Jews in Palestine.

With the decline of the Ottoman State, the capitulations became an entry point for foreign powers to meddle in its affairs, incite strife, and instigate sectarian sedition. At the same time, foreign traders obtained unfair advantages and profits, assaulted rights, and evaded justice. This in fact was one of the causes of the eventual collapse of the Ottoman State.

For example, the unrest in Mount Lebanon between Maronites and Druze in 1860 paved the way for Western, especially French, intervention under the pretext of protecting Christians. The Western powers imposed a system on the Ottomans creating the Mount Lebanon Province, which had to be governed by a Christian appointed by the Ottomans but confirmed by six European powers; Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Italy, and Prussia (Germany).


“Immunity” and “Players”

Foreign relations are a necessity among states. However, these relations must be based on mutual respect, sovereignty, non-interference, and parity. Usually, states place within the category of national immunity issues like independent and non-subservience to foreign influence. However, the weakness of a given state could render it vulnerable to foreign intervention, which exploits weaknesses to further foreign interests and agendas. Such weaknesses could include political strife, economic deterioration, unrest, social, ethnic, or religious tensions, or local parties summoning foreign powers to intervene in local disputes.

Political analysts use the “players” criterion as a key benchmark in their assessments. Minor, major, and local and external players are identified and given a specific weight, in order to determine their respective roles and the limits of their influence. Often, errors and disputes occur as a result of the misallocation of the players’ roles and prospects of their intervention. Many times, foreign role is overstated in the direction of conspiracy theories, or ignored and underestimated. In all cases, any miscalculation is liable to lead to disastrous conclusions and consequences.

Mohammad Ali Pasha

Mohammad Ali Pasha, who took over as Ottoman Governor of Egypt in 1805, could not fulfill his ambitions to expand at the expense of the Ottoman State or to replace it. This was due to foreign intervention, which ultimately had a decisive effect in clipping his wings and checking his ambitions. With French support, he had seized the Al-Sham (Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon) and advanced into Anatolia, where he defeated the Ottoman army in the battle of Konya in 1832.

However, the Ottomans were forced to seek the help of their traditional foe Russia to protect Istanbul. The major powers intervened and forced a treaty at the Convention of Kütahya in 1833, forcing Ali Pasha to withdraw from Anatolia but keeping Al-Sham.

When war broke out again, Ali Pasha defeated the Ottomans in 1839, but four major powers, Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, intervened militarily and forced him to withdraw from Al-Sham and confine himself to Egypt. There he established hereditary rule, while being nominally under the authority of the Ottoman State.

Britain and its allies wanted to keep the Ottoman State alive but weak, until further time when it becomes opportune to divide the pie. Britain did not want a strong figure such as Mohammad Ali Pasha to emerge and replace the Ottomans, and head off the British colonial ambitions.

Mohammad Ali Pasha, when he decided to ally himself with the French “wolf”, should have realized that there were other “wolves” lurking and that his foes may ask their help. Mohammad Ali Pasha’s Western tastes and modernizing efforts did not vouch for him, and he learned the hard way that there was a limit to his ambitions.

Thus, the fate of the Arab region became an international affair. Any drafting of new maps and boundaries now involved foreign factors in varying degrees, in accordance with the size of interests and priorities as well as the power of the major players.

The Colonial Balance of Power

For a while, the Ottomans benefited from colonial competition and conflict among the major powers. However, the emergence of the so-called “Colonial Balance of Power”, made the major powers seek to avoid direct conflict, and consequently, divide upon themselves colonies and spheres of influence at the expense of weaker nations and weaker colonial powers. The Ottoman State paid a heavy price for this, following the Russian victory in 1878 and the Berlin Conference in the same year. At the conference, the major powers concerned distributed parts of the Ottoman State among themselves against the Ottomans’ will: they consented to the secession of Romania and Bulgaria from the Ottoman State; Austria’s takeover of Bosnia and Herzegovena; British colonization of Cyprus; and France’s colonization of Tunisia.

Years later, France was forced to consent to Britain’s colonization of Egypt (1882) in return for British consent to French colonization of Morocco later (in 1912). Germany, which had wanted to colonize Morocco, was appeased by being allowed to colonize vast swathes of East Africa, in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. The Italians were appeased by allowing them to colonize Libya and South Somalia.

Thus, “the wolves” carved out their prey without mercy. The victims were the weaker nations, especially the territories of the dying Ottoman State.

Sherif Hussein and the British

The collapse of the balance of power among the major powers (as well as other factors) ignited the First World War (WWI) 1914–1918, in which the major powers sought to build alliances to guarantee victory.

In this climate, Sherif Hussein bin Ali decided to “dance with the wolves”, declaring his revolt against the Ottoman State based on promises (Hussein-McMahon correspondence 1915–1916) from the British that they would support an Arab state under his leadership in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Sham (Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon), and Iraq.

However, the British were at the same time bargaining with the French, with whom they concluded the Sykes-Picot agreement in May 1916, carving out Al-Sham, Iraq, and southern Turkey between themselves in the event of victory against the Ottomans.

The British also concluded a third deal with the Zionist Movement, under which they issued the Balfour Declaration promising a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

Sherif Hussein falsely believed the British government would honor its pledges. He was not aware that summoning or allying with the major powers in the region’s conflicts, in an unbalanced climate, only serves to open doors for them to intervene and redraw the map. For this reason, Britain kept its promises to the French and Zionists, but betrayed Sherif Hussein and the Arabs.

Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

The miscalculations of Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, prompted the Kuwaiti leadership to call the major powers and the Arab states to intervene to force Iraq out. This led to the Gulf War, which brought devastation to Kuwait and a crippling siege to Iraq, as well as unrest and uprisings suppressed brutally in Iraq. Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq was then established under US air protection. The overall outcome was further Arab and Islamic fragmentation, and more US bases and influence in the region.

A large part of the crisis in Lebanon is due to the fact that the belligerents often seek the assistance of Arab, regional, or international powers against their foes to achieve gains. Thus, Lebanon has been turned into an arena for rival powers to settle scores, in which Lebanon, its people, its infrastructure, and its institutions have been the biggest losers while the sectarian leaders and dynasties may have achieved some short-term gains. The Lebanese often found themselves hostage in varying degree over the past seven decades to powers like France, the US, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, not to mention Israel’s constant attempts to impose its agenda in Lebanon.


On the other hand, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was welcomed explicitly or implicitly by several Iraqi factions, had disastrous results. The Iraqi parties subsequently failed to build a cohesive national model after the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and were drawn into internal conflicts that destroyed the social fabric and socio-economic structures of their country. While the new regime in Baghdad enjoyed US and Iranian support to consolidate power for one specific sectarian constituency (Shi‛ites); besides, the Kurds in the north benefited from Western support to reinforce their autonomous rule. The remainder of Iraq’s communities, mainly the Sunni Arabs, sought support from the Gulf countries and other Arabs, or took up arms against the Americans and the sectarian agendas that targeted them.

In Syria’s case, at the moment the regime decided to use a military approach with the popular uprising, and to use the help of allies like Iran and Russia to suppress the protests, the popular forces that could no longer seek change by peaceful means had only two options: surrendering to the regime or using the help of foreign powers to be able to confront the new military challenge imposed by the regime. This served as the entry point for regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to intervene, as well as foreign powers such as the US, France, and Britain.

Once again, the price of foreign intervention was heavily paid by the Syrians of all affiliations (government opposition, and ordinary Syrians), in the form of lives, economic devastation, torn social fabric, and the collapse of institutions and services. The Syrians eventually became hostages to agreements between Russia and the US even to implement something as simple as a ceasefire in the neighborhoods of Aleppo. But, in fact, Russia and the US seek to impose their own agendas and interests, never the interests and priorities of the Syrian people. Till now, the biggest winner in all of this has been Israel, and will continue to be until Syrians regain control of the situation, which cannot happen until foreign intervention is eliminated or scaled back to a minimum.



Thus, the primary rule that the people of the region must understand is:

• The major powers are not charitable associations!!

• They seek to serve their own interests, away from moral standards, expected or desired by the people of the region.

• The primary rule in international relations is that: there are no permanent friendships, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.

• The weak have no one who will weep for him in the international order.

• Those who summon major powers for help must expect to pay a heavy price from their own sovereignty, economies, lives, culture and identity.

• The price of internal accord, no matter how high, is still lower than the price of summoning foreign powers, who will seek to impose their agendas and interests on everyone.

Perhaps we will explore in a future article the standards under which the people of the region and their governments must deal with the climates of foreign intervention.

The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al on 27/10/2016.