It’s not often that I write about events outside of Wales, but I feel moved to say something about the current crisis in Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan. While the situation in the region is not entirely the fault of the West, we cannot escape blame, and it goes back a lot further than George Bush and Tony Blair. The Middle East today serves as a stark reminder of what can go wrong when greed and short-sightedness combine with military might.
A century ago this region was all that remained of the Turkish Ottoman empire, stripped of its European territories but still covering a considerable area. (Click on map to enlarge.) When Turkey joined with Austria-Hungary and Germany to fight against France, Britain, Russia and Serbia in World War One, then a German victory became the only hope for saving the Ottoman empire, and perhaps even that wouldn’t have been enough.
Turkey’s involvement in the war was largely restricted to defending Turkey proper, most notably at the battle of Gallipoli, but there was activity further afield, with military engagements involving regular forces of the Allies and also guerrilla actions by Turkey’s Arab subjects. The examples of the latter with which most people are familiar are those covered in T. E. Lawrence‘s autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom and later, in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
Long before Turkey was actually defeated the vultures – in the forms of Britain and France – were circling, and debating who was to have which part of the soon to be dismembered corpse. The negotiators were Mark Sykes and Georges Picot who, in 1916, set about dividing up the Arab and Kurdish lands of the Ottoman empire with straight-edge rulers and little or no regard for ethnic, religious or other distinctions. Summed up in a phrase used by Sykes: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre (on the Mediterranean coast) to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk (in Kurdistan)”. Of course neither Arabs nor Kurds were consulted in the drawing up of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the whole exercise was done in the interests of France and England. Which betrayed those Arabs who had fought with Lawrence believing they were to be rewarded with independence, and also cheated the Kurds, who had been led to believe they were to gain independence from the collapse of the empire wherein most of them lived.
As the twentieth century progressed Turkey became a (nominally) secular and (ostensibly) Western state and is now hoping to join the EU; the Arabs gradually gained their independence, which then saw a succession of kings and ‘strongmen’ come and go; Israel was established and grew in strength; while 20 million or more Kurds suffered discrimination and oppression at the hands of Turks, Arabs and – to a lesser extent – Iranians. But perhaps the most important political and economic development was that oil was discovered in vast quantities beneath the deserts of the region, and it was this discovery that influenced more recent developments.
A rumour that refuses to die is that Saddam Hussein was toppled from power in 2003 by the USA – aided by a coalition of the star-struck and the wilfully stupid – because he was threatening to trade Iraqi oil in Euros, rather than dollars. To explain, briefly; the USA makes countless billions of dollars every year from doing nothing, simply because crude oil is traded in US dollars. If Saddam had carried out his threat, then other countries would almost certainly have followed suit, Russia (the world’s biggest oil producer in 2013), Iran (No 4), China (No 5), Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela (No 9), with others having to fall into line. This may of course be nothing but a conspiracy theory . . . but it’s a lot more credible than the nonsense we heard about weapons of mass destruction, or the idea that an absolute tyrant who tolerated no challengers was supporting and nurturing Al-Qaeda.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was about oil, oil for the USA. (As was the earlier Gulf War to ‘liberate’ Kuwait.) This unquenchable thirst for oil explains the toleration of slavery and other forms of barbarism in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. In fact, oil explains just about everything the West has done in the region, particularly since World War Two, beginning with the removal of the democratically elected Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, engineered by MI6 and the CIA. His crime? He wanted to use Iranian oil for the benefit of the Iranian people. (Be warned, Alex Salmond!)
As this noble and honest nationalist put it at his trial: “Yes, my sin – my greater sin . . . and even my greatest sin is that I nationalised Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire . . . This at the cost to myself, my family: and at the risk of losing my life, my honour and my property . . . With God’s blessing and the will of the people, I fought this savage and dreadful system of international espionage and colonialism . . . I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests”.
And so it continued, anyone who challenged Western interests was undermined and removed, any butcher with billions in foreign bank accounts who was perceived to be serving Western interests was supported. The collapse of the Soviet Union encouraged the Americans to act even more recklessly; with what passed for US foreign policy being determined by old CIA dictums such as, ‘The enemy of my enemy must be my friend’ and ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch’. Which, inevitably, and among other successes, resulted in arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, and supporting Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. Short-termism in the diplomatic and military spheres to complement that in the economic sphere that resulted in the Crash of 2008.
Of course, the problem with undermining or removing strongmen is that once they’re gone things start falling apart, and all manner of undesirables emerge. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and that’s what’s happening now in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Making recent US foreign policy the classic definition of madness – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Finally realising this may explain why the US refused to help the more moderate opponents of Bashir al-Assad in Syria which, as we now know, has led to the emergence of something infinitely more dangerous – the jihadist butchers of IS. So that even by doing the right thing for once the USA has cocked up, again.
Everyone expresses surprise at the speed of the IS advance, almost a case of, ‘Where did they come from?’, which is strange, for the USA has satellites that can read car number plates; they have known about IS for months, the CIA has known its strength, its movements . . . but seemed unconcerned. Why the change of heart? There are, I suspect, two reasons. First, it may be significant that IS began to make news at a time when the US and its allies needed a distraction from other deeds being perpetrated in Gaza. Second, IS was now threatening the Kurdish oilfields, where there are many US citizens, military and civilian. Yes, there is a real humanitarian tragedy, but this has simply been used to disguise the true reasons for the sudden concern about IS. Just ask yourself, ‘What exactly has the US done to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and Christians?’ Well, they dropped a few bottles of water, and that seems to have been about it.
Even so, the Kurdish Peshmerga should have been able to defend both Yazidis and Christians by holding off IS . . . if they’d had the weapons. One of the more revealing facts to come out of the region recently was that in one engagement the Peshmerga had to retreat because a) IS had superior weapons and b) the Peshmerga ran out of ammunition! The Kurds are the West’s most reliable ally in the region; Kurdistan is as close as you’ll get locally to a democratic and secular society (that’s why the Christians and Yazidi fled to Kurdistan); so why the hell are they not properly armed? Well, you see, that would upset the Turks, who worry about weapons getting into the hands of their own Kurds or, more specifically, the PKK guerrillas. Which means that the USA, in order to pander to an increasingly Islamist government in Ankara – that oppresses its own Kurds – leaves its only real ally in the region almost undefended. What sort of a foreign policy is this that can’t even work out who the good guys are?
Properly equipped the Peshmerga can secure Kurdistan and the contested areas (from many of which they were ‘cleansed’ by Saddam Hussein) but they are unlikely to venture far into Sunni Arab areas for any lengthy campaign because that would be interpreted by the Sunni Arab tribes as an act of aggression, and likely to drive them towards IS. That said, the Kurds would probably engage in a short campaign to defeat IS (which the West should support on purely humanitarian grounds), but it is not the long-term answer, nor must the West use and then abandon the Kurds as it has done in the recent past. When the alternatives are considered it becomes clear that this is the best option, for those alternatives would appear to be: giving aid and support to the almost exclusively Shia military of Iraq (i.e. the regime that has already alienated the Sunnis); encourage Bashir al-Assad to go on the offensive; urge the Turks to
intervene; turn a blind eye while the Iranians send in the Revolutionary Guards; or put US military boots on the ground again.
The reason there isn’t a more inclusive regime in Baghdad is all the fault of a cack-handed implementation of ‘democracy’. Because when outsiders insist that a divided country like Iraq starts using a political process with which its people are entirely unfamiliar then the people will vote along sectarian lines and the largest group will inevitably dominate at the expense of the other two. Trying to balance things out by giving Sunni Arabs and Kurds a share of power greater than their numbers merit will only antagonise the Shia Arab majority. Given that the Baghdad regime and its military have no support outside Shia areas means that unless the Kurds can be persuaded (and equipped) to intervene against IS then this tragedy will have to play out to whatever conclusion awaits the long-suffering inhabitants of the region.
Once IS is defeated there must be an acceptance that Iraq is no longer a viable country; and that cohesive political and social entities are not created by straight lines drawn on maps by people who don’t have to live with the consequences. The same might apply to Syria and Lebanon, and perhaps other countries in the region. The Kurds must be given a secure and defensible homeland guaranteed by international treaty. Partly because it is their inalienable right, partly because the Kurds may be the only hope for a democratic and pluralist society in the region (and a refuge for minorities), and partly because it is in the long-term best interests of the West. And it should go without saying that once IS is defeated there will inevitably have to be trials for the crimes committed, whether the suspects come from Grangetown or Grozny.
Let no one be in any doubt that I have the best interests of the West at heart; it’s just that I happen to believe that those interests will be better served from now on by being true to what we have always preached – democracy, religious freedom, protection for minorities, equality for women, freedom from arbitrary arrest, altruism, open and honest business transactions, etc., etc., and insisting that we will not deal with countries that cannot support these same values. (In fact, the ‘ethical’ foreign policy promised by one of Blair’s henchmen.) Because if Russia can be punished with sanctions for the heinous crime of seeking to defend fellow Russians, then why should Saudi Arabia and Kuwait escape sanctions for funding IS?
Finally, while I wish the Scots every success on September 18th – and I’ll be there myself – I also look forward to a world that is much less reliant on oil. Not because I have anything in common with environmentalists and the like (God forbid!), but because I am sick and tired of slimy, two-faced bastards claiming to represent me and the wider ‘Western community’ lying through their highly polished teeth as they suck up to despots who may have fleets of private jets but still live in the Middle Ages; moral degenerates who have emerged from of the cesspit of ‘the political centre ground’, with their fixed smiles and their talent for ignoring or explaining away all manner of brutality, corruption and evil just to keep the oil pumping.
Footnote: As I was about to publish this piece I came across this post in the New York Times, which is correct up to a point but obviously cannot be too critical of the USA.