Reality check on the Middle East

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

The Middle East is in crisis. It is time to take stock of what has happened and why, and start thinking of the long term interest of Australia and other US allies. This article looks at the current situation and then traces the history of some relevant countries, and suggests why we should not rush into another war despite US pressure.

The’ Islamic State’ or IS is the current bogeyman.  It was called the ‘Islamic State of Iran and Syria (ISIS)’ or the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’, the Levant1 referring to the geographical region there.  Now the group refers to itself just as the Islamic State (IS). It has not given itself a geographical name because it wants to extend Islamic rule as far as it can. It has shown great brutality, beheading Western hostages (‘Infidels’) publicly, saying that this is in retaliation for air strikes, which kill their people. 

IS is rampaging in northern Iraq and Syria. This is the part of Iraq that was Sunni and the part of Syria that has been taken by the Syrian rebels who the West and Gulf States had been supporting against the government of Bashar al-Assad. The areas bordering this are the Kurds in northern Iraq, and the Iraqi official government in Southern Iraq (which is Shia Muslim). Turkey is to the North West, Assad’s part of Syria and Lebanon to the West, and Jordan is to the South of Syria.

The Kurds are currently under siege, and the Turks are standing by and watching. The Kurds are the second largest ethnic group in the world without a country, being split across Iran, Iraq and Turkey. They have been demanding an autonomous area from Turkey for years for, which may be why they are appealing elsewhere for arms as Turkey seems to be delaying help. A cynic might suggest that Turkey is more worried about separatist Kurds being empowered than Kurds being killed by IS. Turkey already hosts a million Syrian refugees who have already fled the fighting, and while superficially Western and secular is 99 per cent Muslim.

The Iraq government has requested foreign help, but this is to bomb their own country, which suggests that they have little control of it, and its existing borders may not survive in the long-term.

On the ground, the US started bombing, and about 2 days later it was said that what was needed was ‘boots on the ground’. This sounds like a rapid entry into a long-term difficult struggle.  Australia jumped in, New Zealand may be wise to ponder longer.

Many in the West do not understand the Middle East and the rise of militant Islam is taken by many in the media as ‘inexplicable’, a ‘clash of civilisations’ or some sort of ‘return to medieval times’. This is very superficial and a little history will make the real perspective clearer. 

Christianity started in the year 0, and came from Judaism, the Jewish faith of the Old Testament. Islam came from Judaism modified by the Prophet Mohammed in 622. After his death, Islam split into two groups, Sunni and Shia, like Catholics and Protestants in Christianity, with varying degrees of antagonism between them. The Christian countries waged ‘Crusades’ against Islam from  1095 to 1291, to take the Holy Lands back, but as they did not settle large numbers of people there, the lands reverted to Islam. Peace reigned, but there was always a residual suspicion of Western meddling and aggression.

A good place to start a modern history is after the First World War. The borders in the Middle East were redrawn by an Englishman and a Frenchman, Sykes and Picot. The borders rewarded winners and took territory from losers and divided ethnic groups so that the resultant states were internally divided and easier for a foreign power to control. Lawrence of Arabia’s dream of a united Arab people was not furthered, despite their help during the war. Trust in the West was also weakened by the British ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917 which was sympathetic to the creation of a Jewish state in the area suggested in the Bible. At that time, and until after the state of Israel was declared in 1948, Jews in Palestine were a minority.

After World War II, Iran was controlled by a Shah who gave most of the country’s oil wealth to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There was a democratic revolution in 1951 and the company was nationalised. The US CIA organised a counter-revolution in 1953 which reinstalled the Shah, supported by ruthless secret police with the country’s wealth largely going to the USA. The only place safe from the secret police was the most fanatical mosques that they could not infiltrate. Thus it was not surprising them that the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 was strongly Muslim and very against the USA, though their foreign policy was less aggressive than their rhetoric. For example, they did not help the Islamic Taliban in adjacent Afghanistan during the US actions there which started in 2001. 

While the Iranian army was being purged of the Shah’s sympathisers and was thought to be in disarray, Saddam Hussein of Iraq was encouraged to invade Iran, and was backed fully by the US and Britain. The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980-1988 and cost a million lives. Iran stood up better than expected and truce was eventually declared on much the same borders as before. Saddam Hussein felt that after his hard work he was entitled to a reward, and there is some controversy as to whether he was encouraged in the belief that no-one would mind if Iraq took Kuwait, which they had historically claimed. He invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the US put together a coalition to invade Iraq in 1991. This stopped short of Baghdad, but in 2003 there was a second US invasion because allegedly Saddam Hussein had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ which were, however, never found. 

Iraq is 20 per cent Kurd, 20 per cent Sunni Muslim and 60 per cent Shia Muslim. Saddam Hussein was from the Sunni faction, but was not particularly religious. He suppressed religious extremism and encouraged female education. He had secret police, but all regimes that survive in the Middle East do. After the invasion the US dismantled all police and army and there was looting and disorder. When the US eventually held democratic elections the country was in a terrible mess and the Shias, who were 60 per cent of the population naturally won, splitting the country along religious lines. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north tried to press their claim for a separate state.

The US won Iraq militarily, but has never won the peace. Saddam Hussein had restored electricity quite quickly after the first Gulf War, but it was chronically unreliable under the US administration for years. Removing all those who had run Iraq left a huge vacuum. The displaced Sunnis from northern Iraq and some of the jihadists in the Syrian opposition seem to have formed the group now called IS, the Islamic State, who want a caliphate, a state run under religious law. There has been no tradition of democracy on the Middle East, and from what they have seen of democracy under the US occupation, and the handover to slightly dubious figures who have favoured their own religious or ethnic groups, the ideal world from the Koran probably does not sound too bad.  There are huge amounts of weapons with much dislocation, unemployment and corruption. It is little wonder that extremism prospers. 

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad ran an autocratic but relatively secular, mildly socialist regime where many minority groups, including Christians felt relatively safe. Democracy protesters marched in 2011 to try for more democracy and he had promised a new constitution, though many were sceptical. A number of countries wanted him removed. He was an enemy of Israel, and an ally of Iran. He was accused of interfering in Lebanese domestic politics to get a regime there that was favourable to him. He was relatively democratic compared to the pro-Western Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, and he was a successful mildly socialist regime with free education and health care.  So he was opposed by a motley group from liberal-democrats to fanatical jihadis funded by many different groups. It would also seem that the radicals swiftly took over from moderate democratic elements in the coalition. There were gassings, blamed on Syria, but possibly done by others, and the Russians and Chinese continued to support Assad, who clearly also had reasonable support in his own country. The continuing civil war has a million refugees in Turkey alone.

The US claims to uphold democracy. But this claim does not stand scrutiny. In Iran the CIA toppled democracy and installed a Shah. When he was toppled they supported Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. They then invaded Iraq, twice. They have sanctions to weaken the Iranian economy because the Iranians were supposedly enriching uranium. They supported and trained religious extremists to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, then when the Taliban won, invaded Afghanistan.  They helped the Israelis invade Lebanon (which was the reason Osama Bin Laden gave  for the 9/11 New York Bombing). They supported rebels in Syria, where religious jihadis seem to have taken over the resistance who are now worse than Bashar Al-Assad. They supported the rebels in Libya, which has split the country on ethnic lines and created great instability. They supported the democratic revolution in Egypt, but then helped an army whose coup overthrow the elected Muslim government. Their aid to Egypt has been principally as weapons to the army. The US consistently supported the Saudi government, which is very undemocratic and relies heavily on the secret police to suppress the religious fanatics who are actively supporting the jihadis in many countries. The US has also supported Israel with money and weapons, including tolerating nuclear ones. Israel has taken the Bible literally and acted as God’s Chosen People, pushing most of the Palestinians out of the country into refugee camps and taking the land from those who remain within Israel, a very sore point in the Middle East where all the people are both Arab and Muslims.

Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Egypt have all been massively affected by US action. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain have non-democratic governments supported by the US. Israel is a democracy, but has expelled most of the Palestinians so that they cannot vote. If they could they would be a majority instead of about 20 per cent of the population. Israel borders Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and is now the major regional military power, especially as all the others have been so weakened. Yet it takes a conveniently low profile in all this.

The West has interfered in the Middle East, massively disrupting the emergence of more unified Arab civilisation, as envisaged by Lawrence of Arabia during World War I. They have generally funded anyone who will help with the current problem, which has often led to problems later. This is probably why Turkey is reluctant to help the Kurds, and Israel may not want Lebanon funded.

The West has minimal-credibility now, and the idea that Islam has gone mad and hates the West for no reason is a comforting nonsense. The idea that people will be loyal to their new land rather than their ethic roots is also one that is convenient, but may not be true. One could see this situation as a cascading series of US policy blunders, but if one asks who has benefited from all this turmoil, the obvious answer is the arms industry and Israel.  

The latest panic about the emergence of the Islamic State should not make US allies commit to yet another US military action. It is not clear what would happen even if the Islamic State were defeated militarily; who would have power? Syria with Bashar al-Assad? Iraq, bombing its way to sovereignty? Iran, newly rehabilitated? The Kurds, newly powerful? 

It has been suggested that Iran is needed militarily to beat IS. The point is that Iran is Shia. IS and 80 per cent of the Arab world, including Saudi and most of the funders of the Syrian rebels are Sunni. So, if Iran were included in order to get a victory, there may be serious repercussions. Presumably the Iranians would want something in return. Saddam wanted Kuwait as reward when he helpfully invaded Iran and the fallout of that was considerable! The Kurds will presumably want a Kurdistan. The current Iraqi regime may have to cop losing the Kurdish north in the short term, but the Sunnis would not like losing their bit of Iraq.

Turkey is playing a rather dangerous double game already. It is member of NATO and an important element of US containment of Russia. Thanks to Kemal Ataturk, it is the only Arab state  with a secular constitution and writing with a western alphabet. It wants to join the EU. But the recently elected President Erdogan relies on the relatively uneducated Muslims on the eastern side of the country (the Kurdish side) as his power base and the voters are relatively polarised.  His wife wears a veil and 'has no profession' as the Istanbul secular intellectuals put it, meaning that she is an uneducated and/or unliberated Muslim wife. So empowering Kurds and stirring up one section of the Muslims may be quite dangerous for Turkey, particularly if the economy falters. Yet the US is forcing this, pressuring Turkey and giving weapons  to the Kurds directly.

It is time for cool heads. People have spread all over the world, and ideas and opinions are now international. Terrorism is a military tactic generally used by the weaker side and involving civilians everywhere. Countering it costs a lot of money and destroys trust and civil rights. We do not have to follow the US wherever they go. Countries that do not have a direct interest in the Middle East should cease military input and confine their activities to trading fairly and offering humanitarian aid. 


THis is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the Otago Times on 20 October. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans is a former member of the Legislative Council in the NSW Parliament for the Australian Democrats and a former executive member of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He now lives in Sydney and Otago. Image from Washington Post as at June 2014.


1. The Levant was an archaeological term, so is not so precisely defined, but encompasses part of the Eastern Mediterranean Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, part of Turkey, and at times part of Iraq and the Sinai.