Western imperialism still has its grip on the Middle East

1 Jan 2019


The end of the First World War left the Middle East with a whole lot of problems, many of which exist to this very day. This is in part because these countries were carved up by people who did not live there. Mark Sykes of the British government and Francois George Picot of the French government were at the forefront of what was to be deeply divisive agreement.


After the demise and fragmentation of the former Ottoman Empire had taken place, two different spheres of influence in the Middle East had been created. Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine were under British influence whilst Syria and Lebanon were under French influence. North Africa was not part of the borders that Sykes-Picot negotiated but the division of interests existed there too. Egypt was under British rule, whilst the Maghreb was under French rule.


Many of the agreements that the British made during the First World War were made without the knowledge or consent of the indigenous Arab people. The British had made agreements with some of the leaders of the Arabian Peninsula, such as Sharif Hussain ibn Ali, the Amir of Mecca, who agreed to revolt against the Ottomans and allied with the British.


Under the terms of the agreement, the British pledged to provide money and weapons to the rebel Arab tribes, thereby helping them to fight the Ottoman army. After the war against the Ottomans had been concluded, Sharif Hussain was promised by the British to be given his own Arab Kingdom that would cover the entire Arabian Peninsula, which included Syria and Iraq. Instead, the Western colonial powers carved up and divided the land, thereby renegading on the terms of the agreement made.


The drawing of straight lines while dividing up the Arab world destroyed any chance of peace in the region. Sykes-Picot lines were dividing the area by region but also, on a sectarian basis. So, for instance, Lebanon was supposed to be a haven for Christians, Palestine was supposed to have a sizeable Jewish community and the Bekaa Valley, on the border between the two countries was for Shia Muslims while Syria was left for Sunni Muslims. However, the borders that Sykes-Picot created did not actually translate to the actual sectarian, tribal or ethnic distinctions in the region.


The Baathist movement had tremendous support in the Arab masses, particularly from the 1950's to the late 1970's. However, in the 1980's and 1990's, public support for Baathism began to wane and was scuttled when political leaders such as Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi tried to suppress these differences by means of repression and brutality. This only exacerbated problems in the Middle East especially once those leaders left office. Thanks to the Sykes-Picot agreement, its failures can still be felt to this present day.


The long-term impacts of Western imperialism in the Middle East have been pervasive and profound, particularly with regard to the issue of Palestine, the Kurdish question and Saudi Arabia's role in the region. During the days of the Ottoman Empire, these disparate lands and peoples had coexisted harmoniously for centuries but have today descended into a state of unprecedented anarchy and lawlessness with widespread ethnic and sectarian violence.


Baathism was not welcomed by all Arab states in the region because of ideological differences. Fiercely anti-communist, conservative monarchies in the Gulf feared Baathism which was advocated initially by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950’s as it meant that Egypt could claim leadership of the Arab world. This was a plausible claim as Egypt was one of the most educationally and technologically advanced countries in the Arab world and yet gulf countries, most particularly Saudi Arabia, bitterly resented this challenge to its legitimacy.

 Palestine is at the crossroads of the Arab world and yet Arab nationalism did not necessarily imply an independent Palestinian republic. It is critical to understand that Palestinian nationalism was not directed solely at Israel. Palestinian nationalism has begun to be perceived as a challenge to the Arab world. Every Arab country has their own respective security concerns and strategic interests.


Syria viewed Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon as historic Syrian lands, as indeed they were prior to the advent of colonialism as Greater Sham. Egypt believed in a United Arab Republic under Nasser. Saudi Arabia feared Iran’s growing clout in the region, particularly after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Saudi Arabia was concerned that Palestine could become a satellite or client state for the Iranians as Lebanon and Iraq had swayed into the Iranian orbit.


The Hashemite kings of Jordan feared Palestinian nationalism because the Palestinians constituted seventy per cent of the country’s population. They feared losing their last vestige of the Hashemite legacy as their brethren had been toppled in a coup in Iraq in 1968 and their ancestors before them had been driven out of Saudi Arabia by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.


In fact, it was the British who decided that the Kurdistan Mountains had to be a buffer against Turkey and Russia so the Kurds were bombed and dispersed, in order for them to be trapped in a perpetual struggle for a homeland. Saddam Hussain followed this colonial British policy in Iraq of bombing Kurds and persecuting the Shia. Similarly, Hafez Assad as well as his son Bashar al Assad, followed the French policy in Syria of supporting the Alawite minority at the expense of the Sunni majority. This illustrates that it is quite clear that the policies of these autocratic dictators owe a very large debt to Western, imperial rule.


A classic example of this would be Iraq which has Kurds in the North, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs in the South. These communities co-existed peacefully together for centuries during the Ottoman Empire. By decimating the Ottoman Empire, British and French troops in the region destroyed the glue that had sustained and held the region together. British and French troops could not serve as that glue, no more for that matter, than the Americans have been able to in recent years.


We see the implications of this today with regard to both Iraq and Syria, both of which may well be required to be partitioned. Sunni Arabs feel disenfranchised with the Shia government in Baghdad, whilst Kurdish nationalism has not subsided given the recent Kurdish referendum in Iraq where 92 per cent voted in favour of independence. This has raised questions with regard to the Kurdish populations of neighbouring states such as Syria, Turkey and Iran.

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