The World War I Blockade of the Ottoman Empire and Syria as War Crime and Precedent

AHA Session 276
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Riverside Suite (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Eric D. Weitz, City College of New York
Eric D. Weitz, City College of New York

Session Abstract

Since 9/11 the Middle East has emerged as a region especially susceptible to international sanction. Madeline Albright infamously justified the deaths of Iraqi children due to American sanctions in the 1990s. The Gaza Strip has become an island of misery where human suffering is ignored. Our panel visits a seminal moment, a century ago, when the region suffered even deadlier sanction, the Syrian famine of WWI.

In a key study over twenty-five years ago, Linda Schilcher referred to an “impermeable wall” preventing scholars from researching the World War I Syrian famine in Ottoman archives. She also pointed to the deplorable and “mysterious silence” in British and French archives regarding the Anglo-French naval blockade. This panel proposes to overcome those barriers and to provide both a deeper and a more contextualized history of the blockade than would have been possible at the time of Schilcher’s excellent article. The three papers here address Ottoman, Allied, American, and Syrian roles in, perceptions of, and responses to the Anglo-French naval blockade. The blockade caused a famine in Ottoman Syria that claimed the lives of over half a million people – or one out of seven Syrians. The papers draw on British, French, Ottoman, American and Syrian sources archival and contemporary published sources.

Although the British use of food as a weapon during World War I and, in particular, its naval blockade of Germany have been relatively well studied, no similar studies exist of the Anglo-French blockade in the Eastern Mediterranean. And yet, as Syria’s famine was unfolding, the French government alerted London to the fact that tens of thousands in Syria already had starved to death and suggested temporarily suspending the blockade and allowing relief through food aid. The British response made clear that making conditions worse was the very purpose of the blockade: “His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs expresses his earnest hope that the French Government will not encourage any such scheme. … The Entente Allies are simply being blackmailed to remedy the shortage of supplies which it is the very intention of the blockade to produce.” The French concluded that their British allies “consider the famine as an agent that will lead the Arabs to revolt.” This panel links together British and French war tactics and aims in Syria, Ottoman state responses to the famine, and local Syrian attempts to mitigate the crisis.

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