Let the Mid­dle East gov­ern it­self

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

It is time for the United States and other pow­ers to let the Mid­dle East gov­ern it­self in line with na­tional sovereignty and the United Na­tions Char­ter. As the US con­tem­plates yet another round of mil­i­tary ac­tion in Iraq and in­ter­ven­tion in Syria, it should recog­nise two ba­sic truths.

First, US in­ter­ven­tions, which have cost the coun­try tril­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of lives over the past decade, have con­sis­tently desta­bilised the Mid­dle East, while caus­ing mas­sive suf­fer­ing in the af­fected coun­tries. Sec­ond, the re­gion’s gov­ern­ments – in Syria, Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and else­where – have both the in­cen­tive and the means to reach mu­tual ac­com­mo­da­tions. What is stop­ping them is the belief that the US or some other out­side power (such as Rus­sia) will de­liver a de­ci­sive vic­tory on their be­half.

When the Ot­toman Em­pire col­lapsed at the end of World War I, the great pow­ers of the day, Bri­tain and France, carved out suc­ces­sor states in or­der to en­sure their con­trol over the Mid­dle East’s oil, geopol­i­tics, and tran­sit routes to Asia. Their cyn­i­cism – re­flected, for ex­am­ple, in the Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment – es­tab­lished a last­ing pat­tern of de­struc­tive out­side med­dling. With Amer­ica’s sub­se­quent emer­gence as a global power, it treated the Mid­dle East in the same way, re­lent­lessly in­stalling, top­pling, brib­ing, or ma­nip­u­lat­ing the re­gion’s gov­ern­ments, all the while mouthing demo­cratic rhetoric.

For ex­am­ple, less than two years after Iran’s demo­crat­i­cally elected par­lia­ment and prime min­is­ter, Mo­ham­mad Mos­sadegh, na­tion­alised the An­glo-Ira­nian Oil Company in 1951, the US and Bri­tain used their se­cret ser­vices to top­ple Mos­sadegh and in­stall the in­com­pe­tent, vi­o­lent, and au­thor­i­tar­ian Shah Reza Pahlavi. Not sur­pris­ingly, the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion that over­threw the Shah in 1979 brought a wave of vir­u­lent anti-Amer­i­can­ism in its wake. Rather than seek­ing rap­proche­ment, how­ever, the US sup­ported Sad­dam Hus­sein dur­ing Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

Iraq fared no bet­ter with the Bri­tish and Americans. Bri­tain ruth­lessly cre­ated a sub­servient Iraqi state after WWI, back­ing Sunni elites to con­trol the majority Shia pop­u­la­tion. After oil was dis­cov­ered in the 1920s, Bri­tain as­sumed con­trol over the new oil fields, us­ing mil­i­tary force as needed.

The US sup­ported the 1968 coup that brought the Ba’ath Party – and Sad­dam – to power. With Sad­dam’s in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990, how­ever, the US turned on him, and has been en­twined in Iraq’s pol­i­tics ever since, in­clud­ing two wars, sanc­tion regimes, the top­pling of Sad­dam in 2003, and re­peated at­tempts, as re­cently as this month, to in­stall a gov­ern­ment that it con­sid­ered ac­cept­able.

The re­sult has been an un­mit­i­gated catas­tro­phe: the de­struc­tion of Iraq as a func­tion­ing so­ci­ety in an on­go­ing civil war, fu­eled by out­side pow­ers, that has caused eco­nomic ruin and col­laps­ing liv­ing stan­dards. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqis have died in the vi­o­lence since 1990.

Syria en­dured decades of French dom­i­nance after WWI, and then al­ter­nat­ingly hot and cold re­la­tions with the US and Europe since the 1960s. Dur­ing the past decade, the US and its al­lies have tried to weaken, and then, start­ing in 2011, to top­ple Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime, mainly in a proxy war to un­der­mine Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Syria. The re­sults have been dev­as­tat­ing for the Syr­ian peo­ple. As­sad re­mains in power, but more than 190,000 Syr­i­ans are dead and mil­lions have been dis­placed as a re­sult of an in­sur­rec­tion sup­ported by the US and its al­lies (with As­sad backed by Rus­sia and Iran). Some US of­fi­cials are now re­port­edly con­sid­er­ing an al­liance with As­sad to fight the mil­i­tant Is­lamic State, whose rise was en­abled by the USbacked in­sur­rec­tion.

After decades of cyn­i­cal and of­ten se­cret in­ter­ven­tions by the US, Bri­tain, France, Rus­sia, and other out­side pow­ers, the re­gion’s po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions are based largely on cor­rup­tion, sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics, and brute force. Yet when­ever a new Mid­dle East cri­sis erupts, the lat­est be­ing trig­gered by the Is­lamic State’s re­cent gains, the US in­ter­venes again, per­haps to change a gov­ern­ment (as it has just or­ches­trated in Iraq) or to launch a new bombing as­sault. Back­room deal­ings and vi­o­lence con­tinue to rule the day.

Pun­dits claim that Arabs can­not man­age democ­racy. In fact, the US and its al­lies sim­ply don’t like the re­sults of Arab democ­racy, which all too of­ten pro­duces gov­ern­ments that are na­tion­al­ist, anti-Is­rael, Is­lamist, and dan­ger­ous to Amer­ica’s oil in­ter­ests. When the bal­lots go in that di­rec­tion, the US sim­ply ig­nores the elec­tion re­sults (as it did, for ex­am­ple, in 2006, when Ha­mas won a large majority of the popular vote in Gaza).

The US can­not stop the spi­ral of vi­o­lence in the Mid­dle East. The dam­age in Libya, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq de­mands that a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion be found within the re­gion, not im­posed from the out­side. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil should pro­vide an in­ter­na­tional frame­work in which the ma­jor pow­ers pull back, lift crip­pling eco­nomic sanc­tions, and abide by po­lit­i­cal agree­ments reached by the re­gion’s own gov­ern­ments and fac­tions.

Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE, and other neigh­bours know one another well enough – thanks to 2,000-plus years of trade and war – to sort out the pieces them­selves, with­out in­ter­fer­ence from the US, Rus­sia, and the for­mer colo­nial pow­ers of Europe. The coun­tries of the Mid­dle East have a common in­ter­est in starv­ing hy­per-vi­o­lent groups like the Is­lamic State of arms, money, and me­dia at­ten­tion. They also share an in­ter­est in keep­ing oil flow­ing to world mar­kets – and in cap­tur­ing the bulk of the rev­enues.

I am not claim­ing that all will be well if the US and other pow­ers pull back. There is enough ha­tred, cor­rup­tion, and arms in the re­gion to keep it in cri­sis for years to come. And no­body should ex­pect sta­ble democ­ra­cies any time soon.

But last­ing so­lu­tions will not be found as long as the US and other for­eign pow­ers con­tinue to med­dle in the re­gion. One hun­dred years after the start of WWI, colo­nial prac­tices must fi­nally come to an end. The Mid­dle East needs the op­por­tu­nity to gov­ern it­self, pro­tected and sup­ported by the UN Char­ter, not by any in­di­vid­ual great power.

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