Winston Churchill and the Middle East


This month I visited Blenheim Palace near Oxford, the place where Winston Churchill was born and grew up.  There is an exhibition on Winston’s life in Blenheim now which Is bery Interesting. Because I wanted to read more about him I bought Boris Johnson’s book on Churchill in the museum shop: ‘The Churchill Factor – How one man made history’ and started reading the book immediately while my chauffeur drove me back to my cottage.


Boris Johnsons book starts with the War Cabinet of Britain meeting of May 28th 1940: Winston was just Prime Minister and the cabinet needed to make a decision on how to handle the Germans who were invading their neighbours in Europe aggresive at that moment. The question on the table was: beat them or join them? Although some cabinet members wanted to start a dialog with the Germans and Italians, Winston made clear he did not want to compromise and wanted the cabinet to stand for basic democratic and humanitarian principles. Winston Churchill of course wittnessed a simular discussion in the first World War when Eyre Growe and Harold Nickolson wanted to fight Germany and Edward Grey to negotiate, this last option was chosen and was not very succesfull. In a speech to his collegues in the cabinet he convinced them of his point of view and this decision was the beginning of the coalition of forces which beated Hitler after five long years of war and a lot of vitims on both sides.


What surprised me further reading the book is 1) the timespan Churchill was political active and had influence on world politics from the first until the the second world war 2) the mistakes he made and which did not influence his political carreer 3) the historical context described by Boris Johnsson which gave me a very different view on the fall of the British empire and 4) the influence he still has on world politics.

One interesting example of this is his role in drawing the map of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes, representing the old colonial Empires France and the United Kingdom, met to draw the spheres of control and influence of their respective empires, which later would shape the borders of the Middle East as they are known today. The agreement they reached in January 1916 resulted in the division of the Middle East as we still know it today. The story is that Winston Churchill, at that time Minster of the Colonnies, personally draw the lines on the map below.


In the minds of the Sunnis and Shiits, these borders of the Middle East had been drawn artificially to facilitate their domination of the region by external powers and the relevance of the current borders is still under question seen the problems we are facing today in Iraq and Syria. That’s also why Habbaniya will be an important target for IS after winning Ramani: Churchill initiated a RAF airbase there because he wanted to controle the area from the air and nowadays the coalition against IS is doing the same. We need to be more aware of these sensitivities which are not only IS but shared by many locals – and used for propaganda reasons by IS – and we need to better understand their story.

There will be no solution in Iraq and Syria before this map is redrawn again giving the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiits their own territory. The problems in the Middle East are complex and not easy to solve but you can’t come up with a solution which does not take this history into account. And as a matter of fact at this moment the lines are drawn again without a legal basis and at the costs of much human lives…

Interesting character Winston Churchill: privileged by his background he made the decision to start a long carreer of public service which was onorthodox and becoming a world leader who made a difference. We need more leaders like Winston Churchill who take responsibility, not only for our short term interests, but also who stand up for oppressed people and work on realizing a better future for all. Unfortunally we miss local leadership in the Middle East now which makes it very difficult to come up with a solution.

About Gerard Geerlings

Gerard Geerlings, socioloog en schrijver, schrijft online over wat er zoal aan de hand is op het terrein van de digitale samenleving, de troost van kunst, praktische levenskunst en de actuele politiek.
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