Nick Steff looks at imperialism’s legacy in the Middle East in light of current events
The Middle East has been fought over for many centuries. Its importance as the bridge between East and West and as the birth place of three of the world’s most influential religions means it has been a continual target for competing empires. In the last 100 years the importance of oil and gas to the world economy has added a third reason for conquest and domination.
During the early years of the 20th century, following WW1, this area was literally carved up by French and British imperialism. The straight borders that separate some of these modern states were cynically put in place by British administrator Sir Mark Sykes who drew a line on a map “from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”.
As the second half of the 20th century opened, US imperialism began to assert its authority as British and French influence waned. With the Cold War, many of these countries became pawns in the struggle between the USA and the Soviet Union.
In recent years, the democratic revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ were a cause for celebration and cautious optimism amongst democratic and progressive forces. They carried a local and global significance. If Gaddafi could be overthrown in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt and the Assad family under siege in Syria, then anything was possible. From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2010 to the Iranian Green movement, from the Taksim Square protests in Istanbul to the Bahraini Uprising, mass protests over the past four years have engulfed the region – north, south, east and west. While many of the democratic gains of these movements have been overturned, it has shown those involved that the ossified rule of corrupt families, self-interested elites and the local ciphers of imperialism were not as indestructible as they thought. So a legacy of what is possible still remains.
However, the rise of Islamic State (IS) shows the reactionary and anti-democratic forces that can come to dominate when a power vacuum is created and the forces of social progress fail to fill it. The jihadist stampede of IS across the north of Syria and vast swathes of Iraq has been reinforced by its brutal terror and medieval machismo. It has brought fear to communities that do not conform to its social and religious ‘vision’.
Meanwhile the current representatives of western imperialism look on in horror, failing to accept that their actions and policies in the region have anything to do with creating this situation. The failure of their occupation of Iraq has left them desperately looking for a meaningful response to protect their interests. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during the US-led occupation and the destruction of the economic and social fabric of its society have provided the fertile conditions for IS to flourish. Added to this, is the reinforcement of religious sectarianism between Sunni and Shia imposed by the occupiers on the corrupt and incompetent Iraqi government to ensure Western interests are protected.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron desperately holds up the ‘success’ of their ‘humanitarian’ bombing of Libya as the pinnacle of western intervention that could be seen as a way forward against IS. This has resulted in Libya disintegrating into a civil war between numerous militias. The country is ungovernable with the ‘government’ holed up in a hotel on the Egyptian border and a Greek car ferry anchored off Torbruk, over 600 miles from the capital, Tripoli. Libya can now be added to the list of ‘failed states’, with its territory and arms being used to spread the cause of Islamicism across the Maghreb into Chad, Mali, Nigeria and beyond. The legacy of Cameron and Obama’s ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya is a continuation of Blair and Bush’s ‘liberation’ of Iraq. The tragic irony is that some Libyans and Iraqis nostalgically yearn for the cruel but stable regimes of Gaddafi and Saddam.
The rapid advance of IS in Iraq and Syria has caused consternation in the ruling classes of the neighbouring states. Turkey has borders with Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government sees the Kurdish population who live within its own borders as a bigger threat to its interests than IS. While local Kurdish forces have battled IS for the border town of Kobane, Turkish state forces have been bombing their own Kurdish population. They have also been reluctant to allow Kurds crossing the border to join the fight for Kobane. As Kurdish PYD leader, Gharib Hassoustates “The Turks have fought the Kurds for thousands of years, so they know who their enemy is. And it is not IS. The truth is that Turkey does not want a democratic state to be set up in our region, it wants an Islamist state.”
In Iraq, the threat posed to the Shia population and the Shia holy shrines has caused Iran to rush to the aid of the Iraqi government. A leading commander of Iran’s Quds brigade – General Qassem Suleimani, has played a decisive role on the ground, organising the defence of Baghdad and other key towns by Shia militia. This defence has been in conjunction with US air strikes. However, there have been strenuous official denials that there was any cooperation between the US and Iran!
Throughout this time, the genocidal attacks on the Palestinians by the West’s major ally in the region have continued. In the summer, the Israeli state’s most recent bombardment of Gaza took on a tragic but familiar pattern. Over 50 days, 2100 Palestinians were killed, mainly civilians, including about 500 children. In addition, they brought chaos and ruin to the economic and social infrastructure. Tens of thousands of Gazan residents are still homeless, many being refugees several times over.
Israeli provocation never stops
International patience and tolerance of Israel’s methods of terrorising the Palestinian population is starting to wear a bit thin. The UN Secretary General recently described the destruction of Gaza as a source of “shame to the international community”. Examples of the deliberate Israeli shelling of UN schools acting as refuges and the targeting of young boys playing on the beach have made even some of Israel’s most ardent supporters call for restraint.
In October, an international donor conference saw £3.4bn pledged by states to aid the rebuilding of Gaza. How much of that is delivered remains to be seen. A lot of this is guilt money provided by states that refuse to publicly recognise and deal with the real problem – the Israeli apartheid state and its occupation of Palestine. Its continued blockade of Gaza, perversely, means the perpetrator also benefits from the aid, as many of the goods and services needed for rebuilding Gaza have to come through Israel!
So while the international community breathes a collective sigh of relief as the ‘ceasefire’, brokered by Egypt between Hamas/Fatah and the Israeli state, is maintained, what does this mean to ordinary Palestinians?
Israeli forces continue systematic attacks against Palestinian civilians and property in occupied Palestinian territory. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights provides a weekly update Their most recent report included: 7 Palestinians, including 2 children and a woman, being wounded in different shooting incidents in the West Bank; Israeli gunboats firing at Palestinian fishermen off Gaza; Israeli forces continuing to provide protection to violent actions by Israeli settler, such as burning a mosque near Nablus and the destruction of olive trees; and over 50 Palestinian civilians, including children being arrested in the West Bank.
Israel’s provocation never stops. Recently, it has announced plans to build more illegal settlements in the West Bank.
While the Palestinian struggle on the ground takes many forms, the role of the international solidarity movement must be to take up the fight for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Boycott campaigns against Eden Springs, Veolia, G4S, Raytheon or other companies can help end their collaboration with the occupation forces. The momentum of the international BDS campaign has started to impact on Israel. This pressure must be increased to help bring about justice in Palestine.
Imperialism has caused decade after decade of repression in the Middle East. It is the source of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.