Youth in peace building and the legacy of interventions

Dr Sukanya Podder

This post is based on Dr Podder’s article ‘The power in-between: youth’s subaltern agency and the post-conflict everyday‘ and book titled Youth in Conflict and Peacebuilding: Mobilization, Reintegration and Reconciliation. The latter connects with issues of youth agency and transformative capacity in post-conflict environments.

Over the past three decades we have seen the development of ever more sophisticated peace-support interventions by international organisations, bilateral donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). From Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia in the early post-Cold War years to the latest interventions in South Sudan and Libya, we have seen enormous energies and resources poured into peacebuilding. Given the huge resources invested over such a long time period, it is worth asking: what is the long-term legacy of these peacebuilding interventions, and how do we go about attempting to capture this legacy?

By peacebuilding legacy I mean the long-term impact of peacebuilding interventions. This takes us beyond project and programme monitoring and evaluation to instead develop methodologies that can assess the cumulative impact of peacebuilding interventions and their relationships with associated processes such as statebuilding and development. The nub of the problem is how to dis-aggregate and ‘measure’ the outcome (not immediate output) of peacebuilding interventions. This primarily involves assessing the extent to which peacebuilding staved off conflict recidivism, and also the extent to which it contributed to linked processes of inter-group civility, civil society development, smooth political transitions, and conflict-ameliorating forms of governance. These are long-term processes that are likely to outlast any peacebuilding programme or project. Moreover, it is difficult to identify – with precision – the factors that support or interrupt any peacebuilding objective. As a result, we need to develop research tools that can help us judge peacebuilding interventions over the longer-term.

The questions are particularly pertinent given the long-term nature of violent conflict, and how successive generations engage in conflict. It is also pertinent because the current suite of conflict analysis, and monitoring and evaluation, tools while well-suited to ‘snapshot research’, is less well-equipped to examine longer-term change. Although some longitudinal survey research has been in operation for many years in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine, these are the exceptions. In most other conflict-affected locations, we are unsure of the longer-term impact of ameliorative interventions. Often, and for understandable reasons, attention is focused on exit strategies, quick impact projects, and passing responsibility to local actors. International attention rarely has the luxury of being able to look back, yet there is a widespread consensus that peacebuilding is, by necessity, a long-term endeavor.

In order to capture the temporal aspect of change, my new research project on ‘Programming for change: Peacebuilding legacies and Young People’s Attitudes to Peace in Sierra Leone and Macedonia’ funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust (2016-2018), looks at factors that break as well as perpetuate conflict across generations. It will engage with the change agents that matter in a particular context, and the organizational legacies that help us understand these dimensions from an ‘intervention’ perspective.

Two youth programmes run by the international NGO ‘Search for Common Ground’ (SFCG) in Macedonia and Sierra Leone will be considered. Both programmes have run for over a decade and enable us to study the longer-term effects. The Macedonia programme focuses on the inter-group dynamics of peacebuilding, while the Sierra Leone programme allows an exploration of shifts in inter-generational attitudes about the role of youth as peace builders. Both cases have regular follow up and consultations with programme participants, which makes access to research subjects’ possible. These cases help us to study two key issues in relation to youth and peacebuilding, education, and the role of media, namely radio. Further, they present geographic diversity, and enable observation of different types of conflicts and peacebuilding experiences. Both cases received a lot of attention in terms of peace building resources, and are now stable transitions. As a result the peacebuilding ‘industry’ has moved on to other more urgent hotspots, leaving historical aspects that enable a study on peace building legacies.

While trends from periodic evaluations by SFCG suggest a positive correlation between positive peacebuilding and young people’s capacity as change agents, the aim here is to, (1) capture the modes of transmission of peacebuilding norms and values between the two cases; (2) examine young people’s shifting beliefs and attitudes about peace over time as a result of programme participation, (3) analyse the mechanisms of peacebuilding across inter-group and inter-generational levels and (4) determine the broader effects and cumulative peacebuilding beyond project based monitoring and evaluation.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


From Sparta to Space: Astropolitics and IR Theory


What does the world of Thucydides have in common with that of Wehrner von Braun or Sergei Korolev; of the realm of the trireme with the Delta IV rocket? Much like the popular misconception that satellites in orbit have ‘escaped’ the influence of Earth’s gravity, there is a common perception that outer space is a politically different or separate realm to Earth. I argue that our affairs as a species in outer space have not escaped the influence of homo politicus; that reaching outer space is not a road to absolution as many hope. Astropolitics is what humans seek to make of it. So far, it reflects some of the prevailing features of international relations and an anarchic system that dates back to antiquity; there may be nothing politically new under our sun.

As explored in a previous post for Defence in Depth, I explained that the foundational analogy that we can make between human behaviour on Earth and in space is Clausewitz’s conception of war as a political, emotional, and chaotic activity; that space warfare is the continuation of Terran politics by other means. By understanding space warfare and spacepower as being ultimately political activities regarding the exploitation of a geographic place and medium, it opens one’s mind to the conceptual (not historical) analogies one can make between other politically-enthused concepts from IR theory into outer space. Space is not a place that is uniquely free of humanity’s fears and interests, though popular perceptions may give the impression that outer space is defined as a scientific frontier where the great scientific powers cooperate in manned exploration and interplanetary science.

Ideas and arguments across recorded history that examine and question the larger concepts of power, security, and politics are either of direct use or contain insights into new scenarios and locations – including those that escape the atmosphere of Earth. This is not merely an entertaining allegory one might make between the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Klingon Empire in the early 2390s; the past can contain useful insights and education for thinking about and examining contemporary politics, even in outer space. My research is predicated on the conception that very little has changed in the core motivations of humans in dealing with politics, power, and resources across time and geographies. Whether it is to check the growth in the power of Sparta or to match the prowess of the Soviets in space, it is the same base motivations that still influence, if not define, strategic behaviour and the pursuit of armaments. Four examples below show how activities in space can be understood through some timeless concepts from a realist approach to International Relations theory.

Thucydides famously described the motivations for Greek empire-building in the wake of the Persian retreat and the Peloponnesian War (431-403BC) as being motivated by fear, honour, and interest. He believed that, due to the unchanging nature of humans, these general parameters leading to war, or at least lenses guiding perceptions of insecurity, would recur in one way or another again ad infinitum. Though not comprehensive, these three motivations certainly capture some of the most fundamental drivers of strategic behaviour from the dawn of the Space Age to today. The United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in space technology by the late 1950s as a result of their mutual fear, their competition over technological prestige, and the pursuit of their own further interests as a result of their exploitation of outer space in the international system.

Without a long-range bomber force to strike in kind against the American homeland, the Soviet Union would always fear the possibility of nuclear blackmail. Such American technological advantage had to be negated, and harnessing the physics of orbital mechanics and ballistic rocketry was a way to do so. In October 1957, it was America’s turn to fear the technological prowess of the Soviet Union. Sergei Korolev, the USSR’s chief rocket scientist, had succeeded in launching humanity’s first artificial satellite – Sputnik. This triggered a scare among the American population, who had taken American and capitalist society as the technological leader of the world. Yet there was a Red Moon in orbit. The Soviet Union had engineered a coup for its image as a technological powerhouse, which unsettled the United States. Furthermore, and more importantly, this demonstrated to Eisenhower that the Soviet Union was on-track to developing the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.

By the early 1960s, American fear – and no small desire to regain lost prestige – drove the simultaneous development of American rocket science (under the leadership of the former German SS officer Wernher von Braun) and satellite reconnaissance systems. Working under the guise of the International Geophysical Year, the United States was able to develop the first US orbital-capable rocket and the means to build spy satellites in secret, whilst also being able to claim contributions to scientific advancement. The Corona programme gave the United States the means of spying on the closed Soviet Union. Lyndon Baines Johnson would later praise the American satellite reconnaissance programme for quelling the fears the United States had in the so-called missile gap that was an election issue in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy. Indeed, the missile gap existed – but US satellite reconnaissance had shown the American leadership that the gap was in their favour. This helped reassure Washington that Khrushchev’s bark was worse than his bite, as far as the security of the continental US was concerned.

Following the Space Race, and the victory of the United States in securing its prestige with American bootprints on the Moon, the US and the USSR continued to pursue varying interests in outer space. But by the 1970s more states were developing interests in orbit. In 1976, a coalition of equatorial states attempted to enshrine the recognition of their sovereignty from their airspace upwards to infinity in the Bogota Declaration. This would allow the equatorial states to control and set conditions for the use of the geosynchronous and geostationary orbital slots that were directly above their territories at an altitude of approximately 36,000km. The declaration failed. The two superpowers had supreme national interests in continuing to have unfettered access to their strategic communications and early warning satellites in geostationary orbit, and to recognise a spatial form of sovereignty – as opposed to platform-based – would give too much influence to the equatorial states upon the space-faring states of the global North. Europe and Japan were beginning to develop their own space sectors at this time as well, and did not support the declaration through their own self-interests in using outer space for strategic and commercial purposes.

Also in the 1970s, Europe and the United States demonstrated the roles of diverging interests in their pursuit of spacepower. The United States was willing to launch European satellites on the condition that they were scientific satellites. This effectively barred European states from launching their own communications and reconnaissance satellites for both military and commercial purposes. Europe, under the leadership of France, West Germany, and Italy, pursued the development of a European launcher, giving birth to the Ariane family of launchers in use today. Early European rocket development was supported by the donation of the abandoned Blue Streak data and materials by the British. The United States had not assisted European rocket development, and France even turned to the Soviet Union from 1974 onwards for the supply of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (a crucial compound for rocket fuel). The United States’ interests were being threatened by the entry of European competition into the commercial satellite communications launch business, and would also allow European states to collectively follow a different strategic path to the United States should European militaries develop independent spacepower infrastructure. Such concerns played out again in the Galileo satellite navigation negotiations between the United States and the European Union. Only after extensive negotiations, and a flirtation with Chinese cooperation, did Europe and the United States agree to make Galileo and GPS interoperable. Galileo, if integrated into European militaries, will allow greater freedom of action in tactical and operational terms from the United States’ ubiquitous GPS service.

Some of the core concepts of political life derived from the classical era can be just as useful to frame understandings of contemporary astropolitics, and makes the case for viewing outer space as just another place where human politics continues as it does on Earth. The choice of Thucydides to highlight this does not mean that astropolitics is only about human competition or cooperation – but that it is just as complicated and diverse as the politics of any other place. Outer space is not a place of unfettered cooperation or unrivalled competition, and is not an aberration of human political life. Space is used for military purposes and motivations driven by fear, honour, and interest. It has been since the dawn of the Space Age. This understanding – that space is used for military purposes by all major powers – takes the hyperbolic sting out of contemporary official statements and denouncements in space arms control proceedings about the supposed doom facing peace on Earth if outer space is ‘militarised’ or ‘weaponised.’ For better and worse, humanity’s use of outer space is shaped by Terran politics, and is a rich vista waiting for the humanities to join the engineers and scientists.

Further reading on the various topics raised in this post:

Michael Sheehan, The International Politics of Space (Routledge, 2007)

Shen-Chi Wang, Transatlantic Space Politics (Routledge, 2013)

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine, 1997)

Walter McDougall, …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins UP, 1985)

Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass, 2002)

Image: Thermopylae – Monument of Leonidas, via flickr.


Command, Leadership & Management: the Power of Perception

This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.


Rarely has an individual whose most famous achievements came in the realm of military administration captured the historical imagination in the manner of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Yet despite the fact that was not a fighting admiral of any note, Fisher has come to bestride our appreciation on the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. Indeed it is not uncommon to see the entire period of British naval history referred to as the ‘Fisher Era’.

Fisher’s place in history was confirmed by his role in the design and construction of the eponymous battleships HMS Dreadnought in 1905-06. The largest, fastest and most heavily gunned warship afloat when she was launched, Dreadnought lent her name to the class of ships which followed – the grey ‘castles of steel’ which secured British control of the world’s oceans during the First World War.

‘Radical Jack’ was certainly an influential and important feature in British naval policy in this period, but arguably not to the extent that popular accounts would allow. He provoked bitter disputes within the Service and left the Admiralty resentful at the lack of political support he received in 1910. However his very ubiquity in our understanding of the period reveals a pivotal facet of his success – his style.

For Fisher, style was not something used to obscure a lack of substance – it was an important tool in a leader’s arsenal in and of itself. He purposefully distinguished himself from other, more reserved, officers by adopting an increasingly distinctive, flamboyant manner as he rose through the ranks. Whether strengthening his voice by shouting gunnery commands whilst marching through the South Downs as a young lieutenant in HMS Warrior, or dancing the waltz with the Duchess of Hamilton at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 aged 78, Fisher developed a unique ability to captivate an audience. He knew appearances mattered and he capitalized upon the fact, using image and style to reform the Service and as a weapon against rival powers.

Fisher’s presentation was an important factor in his rise to the position of First Sea Lord – particularly his ability to articulate defence issues within their broader political and economic context. During the financially chastened years after the Boer War, he campaigned tirelessly for reforms that he hoped would reduce spending overall spending on the military. In doing so he combined professional expertise with political nous. Whilst ostensibly avoiding comment on the Army’s budget – a topic he claimed to mentioned only with ‘great diffidence’ – Fisher bombarded the Prime Minister with proposals to reduce the naval and military estimates to ‘60 millions sterling instead of 84 millions sterling, combined with a Navy 30 per cent stronger and an Army 50 per cent more effective: this means eightpence off the Income tax!’ By augmenting his professional competence with political savvy and persuasive argumentation, Fisher rose to head the Service.

He gained leverage by consciously depicting himself as a radical, reforming figure, forming a carefully cultivated public and political image in order to win and maintain support. By stressing his progressive qualities he sought to distance himself from more conservative officers – whom he could present as antediluvian reactionaries – thereby increasing his influence in political circles. He often mischaracterized his actual opinions in doing so. Thus, whilst pronouncing that ‘history is a record of exploded ideas!’ in order to stress the ‘revolutionary’ impact of new weapons like the submarine, he simultaneously sought the counsel and assistance of the noted historian Julian Corbett on important Admiralty business.

His awareness of the importance of perception and imagine was reflected in his flexible attitude towards the press. Fisher cultivated contacts with journalists throughout his career and regularly distributed official material marked ‘very secret’ with half-meant entreaties to ‘burn’ scrawled across them to sympathetic commentators. As a Captain he had helped ferment a major navy scare in the mid-1880s by collaborating with a newspaper journalist and the experience proved instructive. Once Fisher arrived as First Sea Lord the military correspondent of The Times remarked upon ‘Sir John’s semi-confidential manifestos printed for the advantage of the press’. He was right to highlight the Fisher’s unorthodox methods. But by developing a supportive press Fisher buttressed his position and bested a number of opponents. As he justified in 1908 ‘unless I had arranged to get the whole force of public opinion to back up the Naval Revolution, it would have been simply impossible to have it carried through successfully’.

Fisher also employed symbolism and rhetoric against potential foreign opponents. In some respects the visual impact of the Dreadnought – the physical manifestation of British industrial, financial and imperial might – was more significant than her military capabilities. Fisher ‘rubbed in’ this fact as much as possible, emphasizing her superiority over enemy vessels. He did so as part of his broader strategy of deterrence. Recognising that preventing war was far cheaper than fighting it, he viewed the military instrument as a vital tool in ‘peace strategy’. By making ‘wild statements’ about the Navy’s capacity to crush the German Fleet in 1905-06, Fisher underlined to the Germans how ill-advised they would be to provoke war. Indeed, on occasion his rhetoric even got the better of judgment. Reflecting back on a series of bloodthirsty statements he had made at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, he admitted that ‘perhaps I went a little too far when I said I would boil the prisoners in oil and murder the innocent in cold blood etc., etc., etc.’ but his words had the desired affect – delegates left the event under no illusion that the Royal Navy was prepared to defend British interests.

In reality Fisher was a more considered, calculating leader than some of his more wild pronouncements would suggest. An excellent judge of character, he attracted many of the leading lights of the service to him, sponsoring the careers of

future First Sea Lords Francis Bridgeman, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and John Jellicoe and also Maurice Hankey RM – Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence after 1912. He also listened to the views of this ‘Fishpond’ of supporters, accepting modifications to his judgments and policies.

What Fisher’s example underlines is the power of perception as a tool in a leader’s arsenal. Fisher used image to secure personal advancement, support, and also as a weapon against potential enemies. This fed into his views on strategy – where he sought purposefully to exert pressure on areas the enemy felt to be particularly vulnerable. Herein lay the rationale behind his claim that the Navy was ready to ‘Copenhagen’ the German Fleet in 1905-06 and his desire to operate in the Baltic after 1914. Fisher’s bluster certainly made him many enemies and contributed to his downfall in both 1910 and 1915, but it also made him the effective political operator he was. A further, unintended side effect –which would doubtlessly have appealed to Fisher – has been to immortalize him as the epitome of the Navy he so loved.

Image: Fisher in December 1915, via wikimedia commons.



Command, Leadership & Management: Beyond Biographies

This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.


Military and political leaders, like all objects and subjects of historical analysis, come in and out of vogue depending on the political undercurrents which dominate the field at any given time. Biographies are no exception to the rule and, in some ways, are particularly subject to the trends and politics of the era in which they are written. A biography of Thomas Jefferson published in the bi-centenary year of American Independence might be likely to focus on his role in shaping the U.S. government, his writing of the Declaration of Independence, and his support for the French Revolution. A biography of the same man published in the bi-centenary of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. might focus more on his role as a Virginia slave owner and the hypocrisy of his advocacy for the freedoms and rights of white men which depended on the enslavement and exploitation of black men and women. Both are valid analyses, but a readers might develop very different opinions on Jefferson as a leader depending on which biography is read. The treatment of military and political leaders in biographies is often more scrutinized by historians because the arguments being made are often overt value judgements on the leader’s life and their contribution or detraction to society. However, biographies are far from the only works in which leaders are judged and used by historians to further an argument. Understanding how and why historians use leaders outside of a biographical context is crucial if a reader is to make a judgment on specific leaders or leadership itself.

William Pitt the Elder, Britain’s defacto prime minister during most of the Seven Years’ War, enjoys a varied reputation in published works from brilliant strategist to a Francophobe tyrant who refused to work with his cabinet. Both descriptions contain elements of accuracy depending on the context in which Pitt is examined and the overall aim of the author writing about him. For Julian Corbett writing about British maritime strategy in his book England in the Seven Years’ War, Pitt mostly serves as an example of the brilliant strategist with minimal consideration of any character flaws which might have contributed to the failed peace negotiations in 1760 and Pitt’s fall from power. For Richard Pares, a historian writing mostly about the politics of maritime trade in his book War and Trade in the West Indies, Pitt is acknowledged to be an excellent strategist but there is a more critical consideration of how his character flaws contributed to the failure of the peace negotiations.

Corbett was writing a book on strategy with the express purpose that Britain’s position and concerns as a maritime power could be readily understood. From an understanding of British strategy in the Seven Years’ War Corbett hoped that lessons could be extracted which would help Britain develop and equally useful strategy in the early 20th century. With this purpose in mind, Pitt was the perfect man around whom to build an illustrative argument because, as far as Corbett was concerned, Pitt formulated an almost perfect strategy that allowed Britain to defeat France and Spain.

…well adjusted combinations of land and sea force present probably the most difficult and confusing of all strategical problems. Their power was Pitt’s great discovery – the method of employing them his strategical legacy – and it is in the skilful and instructed use of them that lies the greatest power of a maritime state to this day.

By 1760, Britain was decisively defeating France and France was negotiating to bring Spain into the war on her side. Peace negotiations took place between France and Britain in 1760 but Pitt had no wish to end the war while still able to force France, and possibly Spain, into a weaker position and thus a more advantageous peace. Other ministers in the British Cabinet (and after October 1760 the new king George III) wanted peace and did not want to prolong a war against either France or Spain. Pitt, unable to direct the war as had become his custom and facing some strong opposition, left the government. Corbett paints Pitt as a victim when discussing his fall from power and describes the occasion as follows:

[Pitt was] a victim to the disease which in a constitutional country is inherent in effective war-direction…Under a government like our own, it is probable that any form of real combined control in war must sooner or later produce a pathological condition, so obnoxious to the constitution that either the constitution must perish or develop a paroxysm in which it will throw off the disease and rid itself of the morbid impurity.

For Corbett, the important take away from the fall of Pitt was more a comment on Britain’s system of government than Pitt’s peculiarities or failures as a leader. The ‘pathological condition’ which was produced in Pitt by being in command of the war was a function of Britain’s constitutional government rather than a product of the man’s character and was therefore likely to be reproduced in future leaders. Pitt’s fall thus becomes an important lesson about British government and how leaders night be affected or shaped by it rather than a lesson about how the character of a leader can effect government.

In opposition to Corbett, Richard Pares saw the fall of Pitt as a function of the minister’s character. Pares analyzed the Seven Years’ War by looking at how Britain, France, and Spain managed seaborne commerce and maritime commerce predation during war time. He agreed with Corbett that Pitt was a strategic genius but believed that the collapse in the peace negotiations with France in 1760, the war with Spain, and Pitt’s fall were largely due to a power struggle between Pitt and George IIIs favourite, Lord Bute:

Why did Bute rush into the Spanish war?…because he was afraid – not of the consequences but of Pitt’s popularity.

He also argued that Pitt’s vitriolic feelings against the house of Bourbon were a contributing factor to the breakdown of peace negotiations:

[Pitt] had never been a friend of Spain: from his first days in Parliament to his last, he was too easily fired by patriotic rants against the whole House of Bourbon.

For Pares, Britain as a constitutional state at war had nothing to do with Pitt’s fall and the failure to secure a peace settlement in 1760. The fault lay with the characters of ministers involved and Pitt’s inability to see beyond his desire to reduce to House of Bourbon’s power to a point from which it could never recover and challenge Britain again. The lesson to be learned from Pares’ analysis of Pitt’s fall is a caution to leaders who might get carried away and not know when to check their own fears, biases, and ambitions during a war.

Both Corbett and Pares make compelling arguments about Pitt as a war time leader that are well suited to the overall analysis and aims of their work. Agreeing with one over the other is, perhaps, inevitable but it is most important to consider how and why they came to different conclusions in order to understand in what context those conclusions can be usefully applied when considering questions on leadership.

Image: William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by Richard Brompton via wikimedia commons.

Checkpoint at Damscasus' edge; the capital is ringed by restive towns. Jan. 14, 2012. (E. Arrott/VOA)

Syria’s ceasefire and the challenges of war termination


The current ceasefire in Syria is under significant pressure and claims of local violations continue to grow. It has, at least, succeeded in reducing the scale of the fighting, which is welcome. The war has, since 2011, led to the deaths of over 300,000 people and displaced internally, or made refugees of, more than 10 million. But US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that the ceasefire is the ‘last chance’ for Syria is problematic. The ceasefire’s likely failure will not constitute an irrevocable watershed that will condemn Syria to perpetual violence. Instead, the problems with Syria’s ceasefire reflect the difficult realities associated with terminating civil wars. Even if the present ceasefire collapses, peace may still be possible. But past evidence suggests there are likely to be many similar failures along the way.

Terminating wars is rarely easy. The challenges of war termination do not necessarily reflect poor strategy or a lack of will but often reflect instead pervasive structural difficulties that defy easy solutions: the difficulties, for example, in creating a point at which all of the key belligerents believe that continuing the war will not benefit them; or in getting key domestic constituencies to accept that peace is necessary. But civil wars, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria, tend to last longer than inter-state conflicts because they exhibit particular war termination difficulties. In consequence, civil wars are more likely to end through military means than political negotiation. Whereas two thirds of inter-state conflicts end through negotiation and one third through military victory, in civil wars these proportions are reversed. The particular problems in ending civil wars include, amongst others, three key factors: their zero-sum character; the multiplicity of actors; and the influence of external players.

Civil wars often take on the characteristics of total wars – they often become zero-sum conflicts in which each side finds it difficult to conceive of legitimate political solutions that do not exclude the other. One reason for this is that in civil wars the key political actors share the same geographical and political space – they occupy the same state. Belligerents, therefore, usually are highly motivated because it appears in a civil war that there can only be one winner: as in Syria, the insurgent forces generally wish for regime change, whereas the regime will wish to extinguish the rebel forces. The consequence is that both sides are likely to have a high tolerance for the costs of war; agreements based on the status quo ante, a ‘white peace’, or political solutions based on limited concessions are unlikely to be acceptable. Thus Assad has stated that he is ‘determined to recover every area’ from the rebels; the rebels that they will ‘fight to the last bullet.’ This motivation is intensified over time by the polarisation that typically occurs between belligerents, with each side developing deeply held ‘enemy images ‘ of one another often along communal, ethnic and religious lines. Cycles of atrocity and counter-atrocity elicit feelings of fear, hatred and a desire for revenge. These events and negative feelings often are exaggerated, or sometimes manufactured, by ‘political entrepreneurs’: leaders that seek deliberately to make their constituencies fearful of others as a way of strengthening their cohesion and commitment, and as a mechanism to mobilise support behind the leadership. In Syria, for example, the Assad regime’s propaganda has been notable in painting in apocalyptic terms for his Alawite support base the consequences of defeat. In such circumstances, actors may not beleive that any legitimate political settlement can be reached with the opponent; or, even if they can, they often will not trust the other side not to cheat on its implementation. How, then, does one create a single political framework with actors that hate, fear, and distrust one another? Where limited agreements do occur, as with the current ceasefire in Syria, often agreement is reached only for limited tactical reasons – to mollify external sponsors, for example; to curry international favour; or to obtain time to regroup and re-arm.

A second general difficulty exhibited in Syria is the proliferation of political actors. This is not simply a two-sided war. Opposition groups, for example, have fluctuated in form over time, with organisations such as the Free Syrian Army or Ahrar al-Sham comprising of often fluid coalitions between disparate sub-factions united by only the most general aspiration of resistance to the Assad regime. One precondition for an end to a conflict is that the key actors agree on what the likely outcome will be of continuing to fight, whether that is victory for one side, or a fruitless stalemate. But the proliferation of armed groups in such conflicts in Syria makes for a multiplicity of different objectives and a multiplicity of different cost-benefit calculations regarding the options for peace or war. For example, the current ceasefire explicitly excludes such radical Islamist groups as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the al-Busra Front as was), giving them every incentive to try to undermine its implementation. At the same time, the loose control exerted over many of the sub-factions by their notional leaders can make it difficult to enforce compliance anyway.

A third, and related, issue is that civil wars also typically draw in multiple external actors. In theory, such actors can play a powerful role in bringing about peace: as the inception of the current ceasefire illustrates, Russia and the US have the ability to strengthen mediation efforts and to encourage or coerce clients to participate in a political process. External actors often are key in ending civil wars because (a) changes in the level of support of local belligerents from external actors can have a profound effect on their military capabilities, as evidenced by the impact of Russian support in turning around the situation for Assad; and (b) because external actors can mitigate distrust between warring factions by guaranteeing a political settlement through such mechanisms as security guarantees, economic incentives, peace support operations and so on. Often, however, external actors contribute to the prolongation of civil wars. As in Syria, it can be difficult to find common ground between regional or international players because they bear only part of the costs of the conflict and their involvement in a civil war can be only one dimension of important wider foreign policy objectives. Syria is a proxy conflict in which Iran, Hezbollah, and the Gulf States continue to struggle for influence; in which Russia struggles with the US to sustain its wider prestige; in which the US tries to continue its fight against radical Islamism; and Turkey continues the process of trying to defeat Kurdish separatism. For this reason, any solution to the war may depend as much upon changes in policy by external actors contingent on such things as changes in government, further prolongation of the fighting, and/or sudden unforeseen events that transform political calculations as it does the actions of local warring factions.

In conclusion, the current ceasefire is unlikely to last. But it is not the ‘last chance’ for peace in Syria. The difficulties with the current ceasefire are a reflection of the recurring problems of terminating civil wars. Further initiatives will occur; some of these also will fail. If a political settlement is arrived at, it is likely to emerge only in the longer term and only, sadly, after continued prolongation of the war.

Image: A Syrian soldier manning a checkpoint near Damascus during the April-May 2012 ceasefire, via wikimedia commons


Testing times for Uzbekistan


The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the longest serving ruler in the post-Soviet space, has triggered concern about the stability of the Central Asian country. In power since 1989, Karimov’s authoritarian rule has undoubtedly contributed to relative stability, whilst also hindering the development of a robust economy and functioning civil society. The centralisation of power around Karimov and lack of effective, independent state institutions, means there are deep concerns about domestic stability following his death. The secrecy and uncertainty surrounding Karimov’s health in the days prior to the announcement of his death (unofficially by Turkey) was characteristic of the regime’s desire to maintain its strong grip on power. The apparent absence of a natural successor raised fears that the uncertainty may lead to a struggle for power between various elite factions.

Lying at the geographical heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is crucial for stability across the region. It is the most populous state in the region, with a population of around 27 million, and also possesses the largest armed forces. Its centralised economy remains heavily reliant on cotton cultivation, as well as exports of natural gas and gold, and has not attracted the levels of foreign investment seen in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Spillover from Russia’s economic recession has taken its toll on all five of the Central Asian states, particularly as remittances from migrant workers in Russia constitute a significant contribution to GDP. Leaders of neighbouring states, as well as Russia and China, will be deeply concerned about the possibility of any internal instability in Uzbekistan, which could trigger unrest across Central Asia. There have long been concerns across the region about the possibility of a ‘Central Asian spring,’ similar to the Arab Spring of 2011, with a popular uprising leading to widespread instability.

The significance of Central Asia increased greatly in the wake of 11 September 2001 and the US-led operation in Afghanistan. Already on the map thanks to its substantial hydrocarbon reserves, the region’s key role as a staging post for coalition forces propelled it further into the spotlight. In security terms, Central Asia suffers from its proximity to Afghanistan and many of that country’s problems spill over to its northern neighbours. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s was reflected by a corresponding rise in extremism in Central Asia, manifest by the emergence of groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated goal was the overthrow of Karimov’s government. The IMU broadened its perspective after 2002 to include the whole of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region, and was declared a “terrorist organisation of particular concern” by the Bush administration. An offshoot of the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed responsibility for attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in 2004 that killed 47, and re-emerged in 2007 when three men with alleged ties to the IJU were arrested in Germany for plotting terrorist attacks against the US military base at Ramstein, as well as the US and Uzbek consulates. There are concerns that groups such as these could be re-activated and undermine stability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. According to the US State Department, whilst the government in Tashkent is confident about the security of its own border with Afghanistan, it has concerns about the porosity of the borders of its Central Asian neighbours, particularly its long border with Tajikistan. Fears were heightened again in June 2016, when it emerged that an Uzbek citizen was involved in the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk airport. Nevertheless, in reality there have been few attacks in Central Asia, where governments have adopted harsh measures to counter the perceived threat in the name of national security and maintain their strong grip on power.

Despite fears about the emergence of a power vacuum in the absence of a publicly named successor, the transition has so far gone comparatively smoothly. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been Prime Minister since 2003, won parliamentary approval to become the acting president of Uzbekistan and presidential elections will take place within three months. The coming weeks will be critical for the future of Uzbekistan, as well as the stability of the wider region.

Image: Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov during the latter’s visit to the Kremlin in April 2016, via Kremlin.ru.


Conference Report: 1916: The Cost of Attrition


This summer, I was fortunate to have been invited to present a paper at the Australian War Memorial’s 1916: The Cost of Attrition conference. In late July, a number of academics from the Anglophone world assembled in Canberra to explore the events of 1916, focusing on the impacts of this particularly violent year. Befitting a conference in Australia, there was considerable emphasis on the experiences of Dominion forces. The conference also brought together some talented early career researchers to present their work on the First World War.

One of the key themes that emerged for me was how differently the events of 1916 are remembered across the world. Of course, this should not have been a surprise, but having come fresh from Britain, with its prominent commemorations of the battles of the Somme and Jutland, it was a bit of revelation that battle of the Somme holds far less fascination for the public in former Dominion nations. Tim Cook, from the Canadian War Museum, highlighted this is his keynote address: In Canada, there were no formal commemorations of the battle. Public, and by extension government, interest there is firmly focused on the anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017. Glyn Harper of Massey University highlighted a similar phenomenon in New Zealand where an officially sponsored tour of the Somme battlefield scheduled for this year was canceled from lack of interest. Closer to home in Europe, for the public of Germany and France, of course, the battle of Verdun is the most significant event of 1916, while the battle of the Somme has received far less attention.

What attention is given to the battle of the Somme in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand appears to be focused on individual elements of the battle or specific events of 1916: For Australia, the ill-fated diversionary offensive at Fromelles and the attempts to capture Pozières feature. Pozières again features for the Canadians, and for New Foundlanders Beaumont Hamel is significant. This underlines the increasing ‘componency’ of the British army during the war, with each Dominion component becoming more aware of its own unique identity as the war progressed. These identities forged during the war helped shape how the war has been remembered, a point highlighted by papers from Peter Burness and Daniel Eisenberg, both from the Australian War Memorial.

However, at the same time these components were developing their own identities, speakers made clear they were also becoming more integrated into the British army as a whole. Aimee Fox-Godden from King’s College London spoke about how the lessons from the fighting in France in 1916 were disseminated and adapted in other theatres of the war. This point was reinforced by Jean Bou’s paper on the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Meleah Hampton (Australian War Memorial), Robert Stevenson (Australian War Memorial), and Michael Molkentin (Shellharbour Anglican College) showed how the AIF relied upon the rest of the British army for its doctrine, force structure, and also for direct support in battle. Glyn Harper and Tim Cook demonstrated the same for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This point was reinforced by Andrew Simpson in his paper on the development of corps as a key level of command during the war. Jim Beach from the University of Northampton highlighted the significance of intelligence provided by the GHQ of the British Expeditionary Force for all its components.

Appropriately for a conference about the cost of attrition, another of the key themes developed over the course of the conference was the challenge of meeting the demand for manpower. Jean Beaumont from the Australian National University spoke about the often-bitter debates over the conscription referendum in Australian politics in 1916 and 1917. Tim Cook spoke about how the conscription debate as well as the wider debate about manpower highlighted the deep divisions between Anglophone and Francophone Canada. Linked to this was another issue of developing a sustainable force structure. Robert Stevenson and Michael Molkentin spoke about the difficulty the Australians faced in maintaining the units of the AIF at full fighting strength, particularly when faced with fresh demands on manpower created from the need for new types of units (e.g., heavy artillery or air squadrons).

A third theme that stood out over the conference was the experience of the attritional combat during the year. Meleah Hampton and Glyn Harper covered combat on the Somme, particularly the hard slogging for small gains in territory. The British historian Peter Barton made some excellent use of sources from the German archives to show what combat was like for both German and British troops. Ashley Ekins, the head of the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial spoke about the morale and discipline in the AIF during the war, with some striking examples of punishment routines devised to make up for the lack of the death penalty for AIF personnel. Aaron Pegram from the Australian War Memorial spoke about the significance of the idea of ‘reciprocity’ in shaping the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in German camps: The German authorities recognized that mistreatment of Allied prisoners would be used as justification of mistreatment of German prisoners, and this helped protect prisoners on both sides from abuse. In a welcome shift from the experience of the war on land, James Goldrick of the Australian National University highlighted the challenges of combat at sea in 1916, particularly the North Sea with its notoriously poor weather.

Of course, this short report cannot do justice to the breath of the papers presented or to the quality of the questions and discussions they generated. An edited volume of the paper is due to be published, which will bring these important papers to a wider audience.

Image: A view of the Somme battlefield near Martinpuich. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (H02116).



Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.


Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.


Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Summer Reading #5

As teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College begins again at the outset of a new academic year, the final post of this series reveals what members of the Defence Studies Department have been reading over the summer. 

Dr. David Morgan-Owen

This summer I have been enjoying John Bew’s book Realpolitik: A History. The book is an ambitious attempt to chart the evolving meaning and usage of the term ‘realpolitik’ in foreign policy discourse in Europe and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Bew writes extremely well and has a fantastic eye for an apposite quotation, with which the book is replete. One particularly poignant example is a line he draws from the originator of the term ‘realpolitik’, the German journalist and activist August Ludwig von Rochau. Discussing the importance of ideas in politics, Rochau wrote that the ‘accuracy and rationality’ of an idea was a secondary concern when measuring its potential influence – ‘even if stupid prejudice or blindfold error weigh heavier than truth in the stable of public opinion.’

As is perhaps inevitable in a book of this scope, there are passages with which one can find fault. I was left questioning certain aspects of his depiction of British diplomacy in the decades prior to the First World War – which seem to display a greater deal of ‘realpolitik’ to me than to the author – but disagreements over specifics are difficult to avoid in a work this broad. Moreover, as the book is the history of an idea, a term and its use, (rather than an exhaustive account of international affairs), it would be grossly unfair to discriminate against on these grounds. I found Realpolitik to be a very enjoyable read which posed a number of fundamental questions about how nations approach international affairs. Bew displays considerable intellectual bravery in tackling a vast topic and articulating what he believes to be the implications his work has for the present – a task incumbent upon us all.


Anna Brinkman

Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse 

With very thorough research and well crafted prose Cowan makes a convincing case for how and why the coffeehouse emerged in Restoration era Britain and survived to become a fully integrated cultural institution by the beginning of the Hanoverian period. He makes an explicit link between the virtuoso culture of restoration Britain and the acceptance of the coffeehouse as common venue for the exchange of news and ideas. Whilst Cowan’s work treats coffeehouses as a single cultural phenomenon he addresses the varied roles that coffeehouse fulfilled: from a space in which Tory or Whig politics were discussed to a place where trans-oceanic shipping and commerce was the main topic of conversation. Anyone interested in how news, information, and printed works were discussed and disseminated in Britain during the early modern period would do well to indulge in The Social Life of Coffee.


Dr. Geraint Hughes

I am currently reading The Silent Deep, Peter Hennessy and James Jinks’ excellent history of the Royal Navy’s submarine arm since 1945. Prof Hennessy has written authoritatively and extensively about British politics and defence in the post-war era, and I expect that Dr Jinks may well become one of our foremost nuclear historians. I am midway through this thoroughly-researched and enthralling book, and would recommend The Silent Deep to all readers interested in British defence policy and the Royal Navy’s institutional history. Given the uncertain international environment, and the re-emergence of the Russian threat to NATO, the history of ‘submarine Britain’ is a timely and thought-provoking text.


Dr. Bleddyn Bowen 

This summer I’ve been mostly reading Paul Kennedy’s masterwork, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000. I can happily say that the time invested in reading this tome was well-spent. It is such a seminal work in the fields of grand strategy and international relations that it is odd that I have put off reading it until now. The arguments are large and sweeping, yet still sensitive to singular historical episodes. Kennedy makes the argument that, in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union were facing challenges as old as the international system itself. Both powers were struggling to strike a balance between economic prosperity and development with meeting perceived security and defence needs. Accusing both countries of imperial overstretch, he warned that great powers rise and fall based on how well they ride the tides of the global economy and exploit their economic potential into hard power. Some predictions from the book are borne out – that of the Chinese economic miracle and continuing European political fragmentation. Others proved to be quite off the mark in the few years following its publication – namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and Japanese economic stagnation.

If there is one theme that I believe Kennedy overlooks in his arguments and history, it is the role of politics and society more broadly, and domestic politics in particular. Understanding the tempestuous economic and military history of the 19th century should not ignore the societal upheavals of the French Revolution and the emergence of the modern class system from industrialisation, for example. In many episodes I felt that the political and societal pressures within various powers were neglected. Certain sections certainly struck a chord as I read it in the Brexit climate of today – how Europe struggles to make its economic power felt because of its political divisions and Britain’s inability since the mid-20th century to compensate for its absolute decline in manufacturing abilities and its demotion to a middle power on the world stage. That said, Kennedy’s Rise and Fall should be a powerful reminder to contemporary readers about the persistent relevance of physical resources, agricultural efficiency, and manufacturing output in grand strategic thinking today to temper the enthusiastic emphasis placed by Western governments and think-tanks on service and knowledge-based economies as the great power currencies of the 21st century.


Image via flickr