Boots on the ground in Syria

Western colonial strategy has helped break-up the Middle East

13 November 2015
Florian Zollmann

The Fragmentation of the Middle East

The Middle East is in turmoil. Iraq, Libya, and Syria are fragmented along sectarian lines. Large geographical areas are in dissolution. Militant Islamist currents such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are on the rise. In fact, ISIS has established itself as a major political force uniting parts of Iraq and Syria into an entity of its own. Afghanistan does not fare better: At the end of September, the Taliban took Kunduz, which was supposed to be a model for Western "pacification" (German ISAF Forces controlled the town between 2003-2013). Many of the democratic achievements of the Arab uprisings have been rolled back by counterrevolutions of traditional power centres.

Splits on the Left

At the end of October 2015, it was reported under the headline "US. boots on the ground in Syria" that U.S. President Barack Obama had sent 50 U.S. special-forces to Syria to allegedly help in the fight against ISIS. This decision has fostered questions about the extent to which Western powers are currently involved in the conflict in Syria. Moreover, it has revitalised a discussion about the legitimacy of Western intervention in the Middle East. In 2011, a moral and tactical debate about the feasibility of "humanitarian intervention" in Libya had virtually split parts of the peace movement. There was a major discussion about whether a supposedly limited military intervention by NATO powers should be supported as a measure to stop human rights violations allegedly conducted by Libyan security forces. Similar discussions have been evoked in relation to Syria. However, from a peace perspective, it is highly problematic to support Western military intervention. Waging war is always a dangerous business and military interventions trigger uncontrollable and violent chain reactions. Moreover, the priorities of Western powers in the Middle East are hardly underpinned by noble aims. A look at the documentary record suggests that Western policy is biased towards commercial and strategic considerations.

Colonial Designs

If today the Middle East resembles a patchwork rug then this is precisely the outlook that Western colonial planners had envisioned for it. As the British historian Mark Curtis reveals in his book "Secret Affairs," Western powers' meddling in the Middle East has been based on imperial strategies of divide and rule. For example, the Foreign Department of the British Government of India noted in the early 20th century: "What we want ... is not a United Arabia, but a weak and disunited Arabia, split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty - but incapable of coordinated actions against us, forming a buffer against the Powers in the West." Or take Colonel T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia" who said in a 1916 intelligence memo that "the Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion." (all cited from Mark Curtis, 2010, Secret Affairs, Serpent's Tail, pp. 9-10)

Reflecting on British policies to counter decolonization after World War II, Curtis further writes, "Lacking other means of influence, [British policy makers] took advantage of the religious and ethnic divisions in the rebellions in India and Palestine, and in both cases resorting to Muslim forces to achieve specific objectives. The consequences of this British policy were far-reaching: out of the Palestinian and Indian conflicts emerged new states that would reshape South Asia and the Middle East. Moreover, these states would, in very different ways, contribute profoundly to the development of radical Islam throughout the world." Curtis highlights the partition of colonial British India into two new states, India and the Muslim state of Pakistan, which was accompanied by major bloodshed. While this was a complex event, Britain "deliberately set out to partition India to achieve important strategic objectives in the area." British planners regarded Pakistan as a geopolitical asset located at the border of Iran, Afghanistan and China. The country should also have served as a potential hub for air bases.

Another element of Western powers' divide and rule strategy was to establish a set of client states in the Middle East. Today, they include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and the radical Islamist Saudi-Arabia. These states receive military and diplomatic support as well as protection. Therefore, they allow for Western access to their resources and strategic gateways. Additionally, these states function as a buffer against Russia, and more importantly, domestic emancipatory nationalist movements. Curtis cites a 1952 report by the British Foreign Office that warns against the "virus of nationalism" - a plague that Western powers think they need to contain. The nationalist challenge to Western interests, writes Curtis, "was rooted in the desire of people in the Middle East, long ruled formally or informally by foreigners, to control their own resources and to become truly independent." In order to quell Arab Nationalism, Curtis further writes, Britain and the USA have "not only propped up conservative, pro-Western monarchs and feudal leaders but also fomented covert relationships with Islamist forces ... to destabilise and overthrow the nationalist governments."

Connecting the Dots

Western powers have used similar divide and rule strategies in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt, the countries currently most affected by violence and bloodshed.

During the "neoliberal" deconstruction of Iraq, the U.S. colonial administration headed by Paul Bremer III empowered the Shia majority at the expense of the formerly ruling Sunni minority. These policies lay the ground for a devastating Shia-Sunni civil war in 2006-2007 and the creation of ISIS in Iraq. It should be noted that one plausible reason why Iraq might have been initially targeted by Western powers in 1991 and again in 2003 can be seen in its nationalist economic outlook as the country's major industries were state controlled.

In Libya, the West intervened in a sectarian civil war on behalf of one side: NATO had largely supported the "rebels" stemming from the eastern parts of Libya such as Benghazi, the city where the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi erupted. This was incidentally the region where former Libyan King Idris, who was ousted by Gaddafi in 1969, had his base. Moreover, these "rebels" included radical Islamist elements with other aims than liberation. As a 2007 study by the Combating Terrorism Centre of West Point highlighted, the Eastern region of Libya (particularly Darnah and Benghazi) "has long been associated with Islamic militancy". NATO powers lend support to these forces not because of concerns for democracy and human rights but because this was useful for Western interests. They included regime change and the dismantlement of Gaddafi's pan-Africanism.

Syria is a more complex case. Bashar Al-Assad's actions are certainly despicable. Nonetheless, it can clearly be seen that Western powers have fuelled the civil war in Syria. The West has supported "rebels" who also have an Islamist outlook. This is likely conducted to reach specific policy objectives, such as regime change as in Libya and the integration of Syria in the Western sphere of influence. This policy might also have been pursued with view towards threatening and isolating Iran, an ally of Syria and the major nationalist challenge to Western interests in the region.

The military dictatorship of Egypt has been a long-term ally of the West, the second largest recipient of Western military aid outside of NATO. That is most likely why Western powers looked away when in July 2013, the Egyptian military ousted the first democratically elected government of the country. In the following weeks, Egyptian security forces killed more than 1,000 protestors in a series of crackdowns, one of which Human Rights Watch called the "largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history."

Bahrain and Saudi-Arabia have quelled their individual uprisings and this did not lead to much indignation in the West. Moreover, Western clients have contributed to the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria. As Patrick Cockburn argues in his new book "The Rise of Islamic State", "It was the U.S, Europe and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS."

It would be short sighted to blame the West for everything that is currently happening in the Middle East. However, the causes of the crisis in the Middle East can be seen in the light of colonial structures and practices that have been implemented by Western powers. Western governments are still profiting from these structures. For the people in the Middle East they are a disaster. To initiate substantial policy changes, it would appear that the Western peace movement needs to organise at home, joining with other progressive political forces to put pressure on their own governments to dismantle these long lasting colonial designs.

Florian Zollmann is a lecturer in media and director of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies at Liverpool Hope University. His latest publications are Bad news from Fallujah and Yemen and Crimea Covered in the 'Liberal' Anglo-American Press.

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