Sunday, June 15, 2014


In the 1980’s the US supported Saddam Hussein when he was using poison gas against Iran and his own Kurdish population; in the 1990’s we starved Iraq with a punishing embargo, while at the same time looking the other way when the regime repressed uprisings by Kurds in the north and the mostly poor Shi’a majority in the south; after the 2003 invasion US troops stood by while Iraq’s cultural patrimony was looted and destroyed; we first installed a subservient regime under a US pro-consul, then cultivated a Shi’a-dominated government after elections boycotted by much of the Iraqi population; we looked the other way when “our” Iraqi government and its supporters emptied Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods under the noses of  US occupying troops; then we allied with Sunni tribal leaders to fight “al-Qaeda” but continued to look the other way when the new Iraqi government oppressed and disenfranchised non-Shi’a Arabs; now we seem to be trying to maneuver regime change in Baghdad to remove the same government we once empowered..

There was no “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (or Syria) before our invasion. And, it must be noted, funding for the religious fanatics comes from “our” allies Turkey and the Gulf petro-monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and others -- along with US-allied Pakistan in the background.  Just like the “Freedom Fighters” in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, where Osama bin-Laden came to prominence., there are now rising voices from our DC elites for US airstrikes against the Iraqi insurgents, to send US military trainers for the Iraqi army or even to deploy US troops on the ground. Very few seem to have learned the lesson that US intervention is the cause of the present nightmare in Iraq, not the solution.

The catastrophic outcomes of neo-colonial “divide and rule” have a lineage extending back throughout the 20th century in the Middle East and beyond.  

Once it was the British and French empire builders sowing chaos; now it is US neo-conservative and neo-liberal “democracy promoters.”  Same chickens, different roost.

In the light of recent events, the Middle East under the Ottoman Empire is looking better in retrospect.  Or at least the possibly alternative history the region might have had without colonial intervention by European powers.

I wrote about that a few years back:

The railroad not taken, in the Middle East

In 1914, a traveler could board a train in Istanbul and – with a few detours around some unfinished tunnels – cross the Anatolian plateau past the Taurus Mountains into Syria. From Damascus, the new Hejaz Railway continued on through modern-day Jordan to Medina in Arabia, with branch railways connecting to Beirut and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. Another line ran between the main Palestinian port of Jaffa and Jerusalem. A major rail project to link Damascus and Baghdad -- and eventually Basra on the Persian Gulf -- was under construction, with long segments already completed.

This was possible because most of what we call The Middle East was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was no paradise, but within its larger regional structure a relatively lax central administration left room for considerable local autonomy. The Ottoman system also allowed a measure of cultural pluralism, with self-management and protection for different ethnic/religious communities. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side-by-side and ran their own communal affairs, generally with little friction and minimal intervention by the central authorities.

This arrangement was already being eroded by rising nationalisms – not least among the Turks themselves -- in the years before the First World War, but it was destroyed utterly by military defeat and the intervention of the Great Powers. In the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement Britain and France divided the Ottoman territories into colonial spheres of influence. Then they carved out a patchwork of weak protectorates, delineating the borders that would eventually become Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine – all without the consent of the indigenous peoples of the region. In the process, they helped to inflame and exacerbate ethnic rivalries in the classic colonial pattern of “divide and rule.”
Recognizing the strategic importance of the railroads, the occupying powers also specified in great detail how the lines would be parceled out between them. The British were especially keen to develop rail transport within its sphere. By the 1940’s, they had established regular train service from Cairo up the coast of Palestine through Gaza and eventually extending on to Beirut.

Haifa, with its new deepwater port, soon became the main transportation hub in Mandate Palestine. Its rail maintenance yards were also the largest industrial enterprise in Palestine, with a workforce of more than 1200. However, when Arab and immigrant Jewish workers agitated for labor unity in Haifa, their efforts were frustrated by the Zionist union Histadrut, which was promoting a policy of exclusively “Hebrew Labor” in preparation for the founding of a Jewish State.

The railroads would mostly not survive the wars that followed the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine. In the ensuing fighting, key sections of the Haifa-Jordan railway were sabotaged by the Jewish Hagana and never rebuilt. Most of the Palestinian workers at the Haifa rail yards were terrorized by Zionist attacks and soon found themselves refugees in neighboring countries. In Lebanon, the rail system was shattered by inter-communal civil war and Israeli bombing during the 1970’s and 80’s. The Hejaz railway was mostly abandoned, its grand terminal in Damascus lying empty today. In Egypt there is no longer rail service east of the Suez Canal.

Ironically, Israel is the only state in the region which has put significant resources into developing its internal rail network. But employment on the railway – like most of Israel’s public sector and utilities -- is more or less reserved for Jews only. The few Palestinian employees have been struggling in court to retain their jobs in the face of a new regulation that railroad workers must have served in the Israeli army – thus excluding Arab citizens.

Given the decades of bloody conflicts that followed intervention of the European powers, it is not surprising that many in the Middle East now look with a certain nostalgia on the period of Ottoman rule. Of course, no one actually imagines a return to the vanished empire, but it is becoming equally clear that long-term prospects for sustained development will require a renewed regional integration. Ironically, it is modern Turkey, seemingly rejected by Europe, which has lately become the key promoter of political and economic cooperation among its Middle East neighbors.

These days, it may be hard to be optimistic for Middle East peace in the face of a seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine conflict. But the current status quo of occupation and violence is not sustainable. Sooner or later, there will be a resolution – either through two states in an economic association (whose possibility seems to be receding), or in a single bi-national country with equal rights for all its citizens. Either outcome could be a powerful stimulus for regional development.

Taking the long view, it is worth remembering that for generations France and Germany fought wars vastly more destructive than anything experienced in the Middle East. But today, in the European Union, you can get on a train in Berlin and travel to Paris without ever having to show a passport.

Earlier this fall a group of Palestine Justice activists from Cape Cod organized a “Rails for Reconciliation” event, which involved taking Amtrak’s “Downeaster” from Boston to meet a group of like-minded folks for a rally in Sacco, Maine. Participating along with WLPF members from the Cape were Holocaust survivor and Gaza Freedom Marcher Hedy Epstein, young Irishman Fiachra O’Louain, who was one of the people roughed up by Israeli commandos in the last Free Gaza Flotilla, and myself. This was adapted from remarks I was asked to make at Boston’s North Station.

  Black Flags Over Mosul
An army of Sunni fighters affiliated to al Qaida crossed the Syrian border into Iraq on Tuesday, scattering defensive units from the Iraqi security forces, capturing Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul, and sending 500,000 civilians fleeing for safety. The unexpected jihadi blitz has left President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy in tatters and created a crisis of incalculable magnitude. The administration will now be forced to focus its attention and resources on this new flashpoint hoping that it can prevent the makeshift militia from marching on Baghdad and toppling the regime of Nouri al Maliki.  Events on the ground are moving at breakneck speed as the extremists have expanded their grip to Saddam’s birthplace in Tikrit and north to Baiji, home to Iraq’s biggest refinery. The political thread that held Iraq together has snapped pushing Iraq closer to a full-blown civil war.   More
Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began... The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way… Sunni grievances against the government are real and legion: job discrimination, undue prosecution of activists, human rights violations by the police, welfare cuts that "punish" the Sunnis for their collaborationist role in past dictatorships. Well before this uprising, "the Sunnis [had] lost faith in the political process and the jihadists were once again able to make inroads among them."  More

The Fall of Mosul and the False Promises of Modern History
The fall of Mosul to the radical, extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a set of historical indictments…  Integrating Mosul into British Iraq, over which London placed Faisal bin Hussein as imported king after the French unceremoniously ushered him from Damascus, allowed the British to depend on the old Ottoman Sunni elite, including former Ottoman officers trained in what is now Turkey. This strategy marginalized the Shiite south, full of poor peasants and small towns, which, if they gave the British trouble, were simply bombed by the RAF. (Iraq under British rule was intensively aerially bombed for a decade and RAF officers were so embarrassed by these proceedings that they worried about the British public finding out.)  To rule fractious Syria, the French (1920-1943) appealed to religious minorities such as the Alawites and Christians.  More

No comments:

Post a Comment