Week 4 Seminar: Daniel Whittingham – ‘The Global War: British Strategy, 1914-16’.

Our seminar this week is by our own Dr. Daniel Whittingham on: The Global War: British Strategy 1914-16.

Dan Poster

See you at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library, on Wednesday 22 October. All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Week 3 Seminar: Global Houses, Global Homes – Dr. Kate Smith

Our seminar today is in association with CREMS and is by Birmingham’s own Dr. Kate Smith, speaking on

‘Global houses, global homes: mobility and migration in the long eighteenth century’.

See you at 16h in Arts 103. All are welcome and there will be drinks.

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Week 2 Seminar (First of 2014-15!)

We kick off the new year in the Modern and Contemporary History Seminar Series (full calendar here) with a talk by Dr. James Ryan of the University of Exeter, titled ‘”The ‘Incorruptible Kodak”: Photography, lantern slide lectures and cultures of colonial mission and humanitarianism in the Congo Reform Association, 1904-1911′. It’s on Wednesday 8 October, beginning at 4:15pm in the Rodney Hilton Library, Arts Building, 3rd floor.  All are welcome, and there will be drinks.


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Histories of Proxy Warfare in the Modern Middle East

As a number of British newspapers lead this morning with news that Britain is going to war again in the Middle East, here’s a piece – recently published at The Conversation, an excellent site co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham – which tries to set current events into historical perspective, with a focus on the 1920s.


An “initial gifting package”: the opaque label is wrapped around £1.6m worth of heavy machine guns and half a million rounds of ammunition, which has now reached the Iraqi town of Arbil courtesy of the British government. The delivery adds a small British component to a flow of weaponry, air strikes and “advisors” that has washed into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq over the last month.

These deliveries are the most concrete aspect of the international response to the gains by Islamic State (IS) militants over the summer, and that response has now culminated in Barack Obama’s effective, if unauthorised, declaration of war.

That the Kurds are outgunned because the IS is firing captured American artillery at them has not stopped the decision to supply new weaponry. Neither have the shipments been slowed by the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) willingness to agree a very short-lived and opportunist “informal non-aggression pact” with the IS in mid-June, as the two sides took over Kirkuk and Mosul respectively. It allowed the Kurds to “expand their territory by some 40%”.

Clearly, in the wake of Chuck Hagel’s warning that the US fight against IS is not going to be “a combat boots on the ground kind of operation”, the KRG and its forces are thus the new favourite proxies in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands.

Who gets the guns?

But what does the region’s history tell us about this strategy of arming minorities, including the Kurds? The Western supply of weaponry to the wider Middle East has a notoriously dense modern track record and the list of recipients includes states and regular armies, in addition to minority auxiliaries.

That record of course includes the British provision of ingredients to Syria’s chemical weapons program. The Reagan administration’s massive supply
of weapons to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, meanwhile, permanently reshaped the political economy of both countries and taught Iraqi Kurds to seek ever-greater autonomy, a lesson they are now applying.

But, critically, furnishing weaponry always implies a choice of fighters to pull the trigger. This in turn has historically required an effort to identify and categorise certain groups, often – though not always – “minorities” like the Kurds, as distinctively reliable, martial proxies. Who gets the guns, and on what basis, is therefore the key question.

French proxies during WWI

During World War I – the founding conflict of the modern Middle East and its first machine-gun war – the French and British both armed an array of proxy forces. The Arab Revolt and the Jewish Legion are well known examples. But the French also built a 4,000-strong “Legion of the Orient” in 1916, composed of Ottoman Armenians, Syrians and Lebanese.

France drew the Legion’s volunteers from among Armenians fleeing the genocide against them and also from Syrians in neutral Brazil, Argentina and the USA. Shipped across the Atlantic, the latter groups found themselves deployed to fight in Palestine. Tellingly, as my own research reveals, their French officers promptly singled out the Armenians as “hardy, tough” fighters, but derided the Syrians as “vain, scheming, undisciplined and commercial individualists” – not the stuff of soldiers in other words.

Kurdish cavalry used by the Ottomans against the Russians in World War I.
The New York Times 1915

Such descriptions, as historian Richard Fogarty has shown, emerged from an established colonial mentality that identified “martial races” – Sikhs or Gurkhas for the British, and Kurds, Senegalese and Kabyles (an Algerian Berber group) for the French – and disproportionately recruited them for combat. These narratives often presented martial races as whiter, manlier and more modern than other colonial peoples. And such categories had a huge influence on both the fate of those soldiers on the front lines and on the legacies of war in the Middle East.

Alawites armed by the French

In the 1920s and 1930s, in French-ruled Syria, the emergency schemes of wartime hardened into a system that disproportionately relied on arming and training “martial” highland peoples for service as proxy forces. In 1925, for example, the outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolt against colonial rule prompted French recruitment of large numbers of Kurds, Assyro-Chaldeans and Circassians to fight against the predominantly Sunni Muslim and Druze rebels.

Alawites, the group from which Syria’s ruling Assad clan comes, were often poor or landless in this era. They too, as historian N E Bou-Nacklie has documented, jumped at the chance to carry a rifle in an auxiliary unit, as the lumbering French Army struggled to match the fast-moving guerrilla tactics of its adversaries.

As historian Benjamin Thomas White has argued, these recruiting campaigns did not just pick out pre-existing groups as handy allies. Instead, they actively forced groups like the Alawites into a new role as political “minorities”. Rather than acknowledging Alawite social and political diversity, for instance, the French reinvented them as a group defined in opposition to a Sunni Arab “majority”.

Impact on region’s political anatomy

The arming of proxies thereby helped to chop the former Ottoman populations of Iraq and Syria into ethnic-sectarian blocks. It is crucial to stress that such labels had little to do with the complex realities of people’s affiliations on the ground. But externally imposed and wrong-headed as they were, the fact that these categories brought weaponry and training to some groups and not to others meant they endured.

Like the US’s institutional embedding of sectarianism in Iraq after 2003, these labels became powerful forces in the reshaping of Syria. There, the Alawites later used their influence in the military as a springboard to political dominance in the 1960s and 1970s.

As weaponry and training flows to the Kurds over the coming months, and the KRG fights Obama’s ground war against the IS for him, we will be well-advised to consider the effects of this lethal largesse not just on the front lines, but on the political anatomy of the Iraqi and Syrian nation states in the years to come.

The Conversation

Simon Jackson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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At the very end of this academic year, we will have a summer-term round table on national identities and statehood in Eastern Europe, with two highly original research papers by Dr Tomas Balkelis (Vilnius) and Dr Frank Grelka (Frankfurt/Oder) and a commentary by Prof Peter Gatrell (Manchester). Both case studies presented have a lot to say about a much larger region and the various factors shaping national identities and independent statehood, the long-term effects of which have become visible again with the recent events in Ukraine. Plus – the decisive role of the Great War for the development of nationalism will be highlighted, which should really be a reason for everyone to come.

The round table is preceded by a reception at 3.30 pm in Danford Room. Presentations will begin at 4 pm, followed by discussion. Please register with Klaus Richter (k.richter@bham.ac.uk)!

Poster_summer term round table_29 July 2014



Next Monday we’ll be co-hosting a talk with the China Institute by Tong Lam, a historian and visual artist, and author of A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State (University of California, 2011). Tong Lam will be speaking on “Ruinscape and Slumscape: Picturing History and Violence in Global East Asia”.  The talk will take place at 2:30pm on Monday May 12th in the Hospitality Suite (top floor) of Muirhead Tower.  All are welcome.


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This week, for our final seminar of the term, we’re delighted to welcome Anne-Isabelle Richard from Leiden University, who will be giving a paper on ‘The Limits of Solidarity: Europeanism, Anti-Colonialism and Socialism at the Congress of the Peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa in Puteaux, 1948′.  Please join us at 4:15pm on Wednesday, March 26th, in the Rodney Hilton Library, on the 3rd floor of the Arts Building.  As usual, all are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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This week we’ll hear from our own Christopher Hill, who will be giving a paper titled ‘Ban Polaris and Scrap the Force de Frappe: Nationalism and Internationalism in the British Movement Against Nuclear Weapons’, Wednesday 19 March, beginning at 4:15pm in the Rodney Hilton Library, Arts Building, 3rd floor.  All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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This week we’ll be hosting a joint talk with the Department of African Studies and Anthropology. Rebekka Habermas (Gottingen/Oxford) will be speaking on “Economy and Colonial History: German Togo and the Cotton Project”, Wednesday 5 March, beginning at 5pm in the Danford Room, Arts Building, 2nd floor.  All are welcome, and there will be drinks.


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On Wednesday, February 26, Frank Uekotter, one of our Birmingham Fellows working on global environmental issues, will be giving a paper titled ‘Matter Matters: Outlines of a Historiographic Provocation’. All are welcome, and there will be drinks.


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