International crises can have the effect of making clearer what is going on in the world. At least, that is a potential benefit, although it is one not likely to be used by those who would prefer not to see. Today, the UK political position has become clear with a large majority of 397 versus 223 members of the British Parliament being in favour of bombing Syria. This article looks at the background to why the British government is aiming to get more involved.
The most important reason behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign to bomb Syria is that he does not want the UK to be left out of the running when a new carve up of the region occurs. That means bombs, and bombs mean prizes! Cameron’s rationale is that this is an attack on IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh to ‘protect the UK’, because the UK cannot allow its ‘defence’ to be left up to ‘other countries’. Further, Cameron raises the rhetorical question of what will the UK’s other allies think of the UK if it cannot come to the aid of its ally, France, when France has asked for assistance. For example, what about Britain’s allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, on which many commercial and financial deals depend? The key issue for the British state is that game changing political moves in the Middle East involving Syria and Iraq should not take place without Britain properly being in the game. All those networking opportunities and deals that could be done – but only if you are recognised as a player.
This underlying rationale is cloaked in implausible arguments about defending national security against IS, ignoring, as usual, that the UK has on innumerable occasions trampled on the security of others around the world. Just to mention the Middle East, how about recalling when the Royal Air Force bombed Iraqis in the early 1920s, both to repress revolts and to encourage them to pay their taxes, let alone the bombing of Iraq and Libya in more recent years?
A big problem for all the major powers is that the ‘country’ boundaries that they had drawn, especially in the Middle East, but also in Africa and elsewhere, have no legitimacy. All countries or nations are political inventions that depend for their stability on some form of political agreement, or acquiescence, among the population that exists within its boundaries. This ‘national’ set up can be quite fragile, even in what might look like established states, such as Belgium, Spain and Italy. Most strikingly, even the three-century old political deal between England and Scotland was questioned by Scotland’s independence referendum. How much more fragile are the lines in the sand drawn by external powers in the oppressed countries of the Middle East less than a century ago. Even more damaging was the way in which colonial powers often established reactionary regimes that had little popular support and depended upon the colonist’s military force – a specialisation of the Brits. This often underpinned a repressive society, one that was both defended by the ‘democratic’ imperialist powers and one that liberal critics from these powers would criticise as being backward and reactionary, while ignoring their own country’s role in the proceedings. All this prevented a legitimate political power developing within the ‘national’ borders.
The focus of most attention in the news media these days is on IS. Something this group of brutal, militant jihadis would not want to recognise is that western powers have given backing to Sunni-based regimes in a number of countries, particularly those in which much of the population is not Sunni. Neither would it want to recognise that the key opposition to western rule in these countries has been from secular nationalists – ones whom they have often opposed on religious grounds, while being in the pay of the major powers! However, the main problem IS causes for the major powers today is that it does not accept the national barrier between Syria and Iraq. Some historical examples show that they have a point. The existing national lines are not, as one might say, ‘God given’.
Before 1918, much of what we now call the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, run by Turkey. It was mainly organised on a regional level, with the main objective being to have a local administration that would pay duties and taxes into the centre, Istanbul. These regions were often multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The largely Sunni Moslem ruling centre had no significant prejudice or discrimination against Christians, Jews or other versions of Islam, as long as they paid their taxes and did not cause trouble for the Empire.
After the First World War in 1918, and even before it ended, the UK and France planned to carve up between themselves Turkey’s colonies in the Middle East. A key deal between the two countries, subsequently modified in favour of the British, was the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. This was the deal over which Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, the British intelligence officer fighting with the Arabs against the Turks, had his pangs of conscience about betraying Arab nationalists. Not worrying too much about this problem, however, was the British Prime Minister of the time, the Liberal Herbert Asquith. He said ‘if … we were to leave the other nations to scramble for Turkey [ie its wider empire] without taking anything for ourselves, we should not be doing our duty’.
In this context, the UK took over and invented the modern boundaries of Iraq in the early 1920s, out of an area that, more or less, had been called Mesopotamia by classical scholars. By 1926, Britain had edged out France and added the Mosul region (now called the Nineveh Province) to the new Iraq, which was under its domination, after large potential oil resources were discovered there. Britain had far less interest in Syria. It had already manoeuvred to get the Palestine Mandate from the League of Nations, so having access to Eastern Mediterranean coastal ports and a means to protect the hinterland to the Suez Canal. Basically, the British left the Syrian region to French imperialism, which also allowed France’s division of Syrian and Lebanese territory. Arab nationalism’s plans post-1918 for a ‘Greater Syria’, incorporating most of the previous areas, were then stymied. As part of the new arrangements, in 1921 Britain made Faisal, a capable but trusted collaborator, the King of Iraq, as long as he dropped his previous claims to rule Syria. Britain had a dominant role in Iraq for decades afterwards.
The UK also invented the country now called Jordan in the early 1920s. Initially called ‘Transjordania’, it was made up from part of the area awarded to the British with the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate. This area was a place in which they could place their Hashemite stooge, Abdullah, the incompetent older brother of Faisal, and keep him out of trouble (especially trouble with Saudi Arabia). Their rationale was mainly to have a military base in a strategic area and with a compliant country ruler, although that meant subsidising him more than they had bargained for.
As is often forgotten these days, there had been several attempts to construct Arab unity in the Middle East region, even after the challenges to the Ottoman Empire during and immediately after World War One. These were often undermined by internal rivalries between different governments, the most recent being the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria, in 1958-61.
A big problem in all this also comes for Israel, the least legitimate state of all in the region, one that is based not on imperial line drawing after 1918, but in 1948, and also upon the theft of land beyond these artificial borders. Of course, Zionists like to claim that Palestine is theirs, ‘a land with no people, for a people with no land’. But while Palestine was not previously a ‘nation’, being part of the Ottoman Empire, the racist, absurdly ethnic definition of being a Jew common to the Zionist outlook, something that dates from 19th century European racism, can still less invent its own ‘nation’ in this area, one that its aggression extends to ever wider borders. When boundary lines are being redrawn by IS, or being pushed back by the major powers, can the undisturbed extension (even ‘internally’) of Israel’s borders continue? No wonder the voluble Israeli government has kept relatively quiet on this issue!
The US role in the Middle East is paramount, but clearly not in anything that can be considered to be ‘control’. Russia has been a relatively new element, also militarily involved, with its aim being to support Syria, where it maintains a seaport, and also to prevent itself from being enclosed by the ever-expanding NATO forces surrounding its borders. Problematic for the US, this has undermined the influence of the supposedly overwhelming power of the US military, although the US will attempt to push Russia to agree to its aim of regime change in Syria. France, like Russia, having been attacked by IS, but having lost much influence in Syria, wants to re-establish an interest there, and determinedly bombs Syria to exact revenge. Its efforts nevertheless kill many civilians and Hollande’s firepower only highlights how fragile is his own domestic political support.
As for the UK, the government pretends that there is a pliable 70,000 group of rebels to oust Syria’s Assad. It may even give them almost ‘democratic’ credentials, but the main thing is that they will bend, at least a bit, to British interests. After all, showing British flexibility, British official flags were set at half-mast for the death of that other great leader, Saudi King Abdullah in January 2015, as a sign of the lucrative defence, commercial and financial deals with the right kind of regime.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, is in a more tricky position. He has had a consistent view that he is against the UK military bombing of Syria, although he also thinks that it would be OK if the United Nations legitimised such an imperial policy. He considered that the decision to go to war was a ‘most serious, solemn decision’, but then refused to exert any leadership discipline over his MPs’ votes, with no threat of sanction if they disagreed with him. I cannot say I was surprised, since he has found it possible to belong to the pro-imperialist Labour Party for more than three decades. The farce here is that a Labour MP voting for the Conservatives’ austerity measures would have faced party sanctions, whereas, if an MP votes to bomb Syria, that is a matter of conscience.
Tony Norfield, 2 December 2015
(note: some later rephrasing of text, 6 Jan 2016)
(note: some later rephrasing of text, 6 Jan 2016)
 I am too polite to mention that Dave’s first foray into military matters, teaming up with French President Sarkozy to encourage US and ‘allied’ intervention in Libya, has not turned out that well.
 This and some other details are taken from an informative and well-written work by John Keay, Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East, John Murray: London, 2003.