Western intervention has been the curse of the Middle East for over 100 years. The cure for the crisis in Iraq is not more intervention, says John Rees, but ending this disastrous history of meddling
The current crisis in Iraq is a direct consequence not only of the war of 2003 and the occupation that followed it but of Western foreign policy in Syria and the longer timescale of intervention in the Middle East.
Let’s deal with this issue by looking at the proximate cause first.
As soon as the Syrian revolution became militarised in March 2011 the US and its allies began looking for ways of arming and supporting pro-western elements among the opposition to the Assad regime. Direct military intervention, in at least the form of air bombardment, was not ruled out until the vote in the British parliament in August 2013.
The most consistent element of Western policy has been support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This has been diplomatic, strategic, monetary and military, though the arms supply has not included heavy weaponry. The full extent of this ‘non-lethal’ military aid only became fully apparent when it was halted by the US and the UK in the wake of the FSA’s military losses to the Islamicist groups late last year.
The FSA and their political representatives have been duly supplicatory, repeatedly making pro-American statements, attending the imperial-generated Syrian conferences, in the hope of gaining more aid from the US and its allies.
The problem with the FSA strategy has been that it undermined their standing inside Syria. The fact that leaders of the FSA often had less standing with Syrians than with the US government undermined their credibility. The fact that they were so cravenly pro-Western further eroded support in Syria where the population, as in many Arab countries, historically contains a wide swathe of anti-colonial sentiment (indeed this is one of the ideological reserves of the Assad regime).
It was this hollowing out of the FSA, a direct result of Western nomination of ‘acceptable’, ‘moderate’ forces in Syria, which created a vacuum which was filled by various Islamic forces, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS).
These forces were small at the start of the Syrian revolution but they grew in proportion to the failure of the Western supported FSA.
The Islamicist groups were and are supported by Saudi Arabia, one of the pillars of pro-Western policy in the Middle East.
The Saudis are oil rich and armed to the hilt, not least by repeated deals with the UK’s primary arms manufacturer BAE Systems. Since the 1990s they have developed a semi-independent foreign policy more hawkish than the US neo-conservatives. In particular they have become the organising centre of counter-revolution in the Arab world since the fall of Mubarak in 2011. They sent troops to crush the Bahrain revolution and aided the West in arming the Libyan forces that overthrew Gadaffi in Libya. They are pitted in a contest for regional power with Iran.
Frustrated by the inability of the West to effectively intervene in Syria (an Iranian ally), the Saudis have been arming the Islamic groups more effectively than the West has been supplying its clients. There has been silence about this on the part of the West because they want to see Assad defeated and because they cannot afford to publically attack the Saudis. The arms supplies from the Saudis to ISIS and others may not have been enough to defeat Assad, but it has boosted ISIS and materially created conditions where the Syrian crisis could interact with the crisis in Iraq.
There are many ways in which the catastrophe of the Iraq war and occupation has created the current crisis, but here I will concentrate on the most important.
Firstly, the decision to dismantle the Iraqi state machine in the aftermath of the invasion hastened the division of Iraqi society on sectarian lines. This is not, as various commentators now alleged, because there was an ‘age-old hatred’ between Sunni and Shia in Iraq. Indeed they lived side-by-side, worked together and inter-married in pre-war Iraq.
But in the absence of the old state the new imperial occupation government had to find a new way of ruling. The way it chose is as old as imperialism itself: divide and rule.
The first US governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, was quite explicit about this policy. He thought Saddam and his supporters were like Hitler’s Nazis and chose to behave accordingly. Troops on the ground have confirmed that this was official policy.
The eventual, post-occupation, result was the sectarian Shia government of Nouri Al Maliki which was, unsurprisingly, pro-Iranian in its foreign policy. This is one of the (for the US) great unintended consequences of the failure of the Iraq war: it made Iran a stronger regional power than it was before.
In Iraq the effect was to entirely alienate the Sunnis from the state. Even before the current crisis the last Iraqi elections earlier this year were attended by high levels of violence and the poll could not even be conducted in the Sunni Anbar province.
This is the very area that borders Syria and which is the stronghold from which the recent ISIS advance has taken place.
This is the vital point: battle hardened ISIS militants may be the cutting edge of the recent advance, but some hundreds of fighters could not achieve this if it were not supported by a Sunni rising against the Baghdad regime.
This is how the West’s failures in Syria and Iraq have now coalesced to bring the Iraqi state to the point of destruction.
The Kurdish region, whose autonomy was part of the occupation deal to gain Kurdish acquiesce in the original invasion, has essentially declared an independent state and seized oil rich Kirkuk which they always believed to be Kurdish. The Shia south is arming with Iranian help and the Sunni rising is far from over.
The third kind of blowback exists in a longer timescale. It dates from the imperial carve up of the Middle East after World War I. The Ottoman Empire was destroyed by the war and the territory it ruled over in the Arab region was divided among the major powers, mostly Britain and France.
A deal made in secret during the war by French diplomat François Georges-Picot and Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes (and only made public when the Bolsheviks published the secret treaties after the Russian Revolution) reneged on promises made by T E Lawrence to the Arabs to create a Greater Syria, gave the mandate of Palestine to the British and Syria to the French.
Unsurprisingly the borders that came of this deal paid scant attention to local religious, tribal, ethnic or historical realities. It is this deal which is now unravelling, as everyone from US foreign policy doyen Zebiniew Brzezinski to Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has noted.
New calls for intervention
As this crisis deepens there will be new calls for intervention. Some unreconstructed Blairites have already issued such demands.
Both President Obama and the UK government have ruled out ground troops, but Obama is still considering air strikes. And the military hardware for the strike is being deployed as I write. The justification, yet again, will be that the situation is so bad that we must react. Time, it will be said because it always is, is short. The enemy is at the gates, and so on. Intervention must be the lesser evil.
But here, as before, intervention will not be a cure but an exacerbator of the problem.
Bombing will kill civilians, and so worsen the detestation of the West and produce more terrorists. It will glue the Sunni insurgents to the ISIS fighters where only a temporary alliance exists now. It will strengthen the Iranians, and we will be told by our governments in the future that we have to face down this threat. It will exacerbate the Iranian-Saudi regional battle for influence.
None of this will help the Iraqi people. None of it will bring peace a single step closer.
From Sykes-Picot to the current crisis Western intervention has been the curse of the Middle East. The beginning of wisdom is to halt this disastrous history of meddling.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.