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How they carved up the Middle East

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WESTERN powers have intervened in the Middle East for over 200 years. Here are just some of the key events in this bloody history of imperialist intervention in the region:
Issue 1771

WESTERN powers have intervened in the Middle East for over 200 years. Here are just some of the key events in this bloody history of imperialist intervention in the region:

1779: Britain’s East India Company, backed by British military power, establishes control over Kuwait.

1798: French troops led by Napoleon invade and occupy Egypt for three years.

1820: Britain establishes control over part of the Gulf coast.

1830: France invades Algeria. Resistance movement led by Abd el Kader erupts.

1837: Britain seizes control of part of Iran, on the pretext of ‘defending Afghanistan’.

1840: France sends 115,000 troops, a third of the entire French army, to crush the Algerian rebellion, waging ‘a war of extermination’.

1845: French troops asphyxiate an estimated 500 men, women and children in Algeria by setting fires at the mouths of caves where fleeing people had taken shelter.

1860: British and French forces intervene in Lebanon. Spain invades and occupies Morocco.

1861: Bahrain becomes a British ‘protectorate’.

1869: European banks take effective control of Tunisia under ‘international financial commission’ to enforce payment of debts.

1876: Britain and France take control of Egypt’s finances to enforce debt payment.

1881: French army occupies Tunisia and creates protectorate.

1882: Britain invades Egypt and bombards the city of Alexandria, making the country effectively a British colony.

1891: Britain imposes ‘friendship treaty’ on Oman, effectively making it a British protectorate.

1909: Britain and Russia divide Iran between them, and Britain gets sole rights to exploit the country’s oilfields.

1916: Britain and France agree secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, dividing Arab territories of the collapsing Ottoman Empire between them. Britain grabs what is now Palestine, Jordan and Iraq as well as Egypt. France controls Syria and Lebanon.

1917: Foreign office chief Arthur James Balfour declares that the British government ‘views with favour’ the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

1919: British forces repress rebellion in Egypt.

1920: League of Nations, forerunner of United Nations, ‘legalises’ British and French carve-up of the Middle East.

1920s: Britain uses new weapon of air bombardment against rebels in Iraq and expands areas under its control along the Gulf coast and around Aden.

1925: French forces crush rising in Syria.

1941: Britain and Russia invade Iran and install the Shah as ruler.

1948: Israel created, backed by US and Britain. Some 700,000 Palestinians driven from their land.

1953: US CIA helps organise a coup to overthrow Iranian prime minister Mossadegh, who had tried to nationalise oil, and reinstall Shah as absolute ruler.

1950s: French forces wage brutal war to try and keep control of Algeria, deploying 500,000 troops and systematically using torture. Over one million Algerians die in the war.

1955: British troops crush nationalist rebellion in Oman.

1956: Britain and France, along with Israel, invade Egypt after President Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal. British forces bomb Alexandria, Cairo and Port Said. British troops crush rebellion in Bahrain.

1958: US sends 10,000 troops to intervene in Lebanon to ‘pacify’ the country.

1962: CIA organises coup in Iraq, killing tens of thousands of Communists and marking the beginning of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power.

1967: Israel attacks Egpyt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in Six Day War, and seizes control of West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, which it has occupied ever since.

1970: Britain begins long war in defence of the slave-owning ruler of Oman.

1982: Israel launches full scale invasion of Lebanon. Ariel Sharon later found to be ‘indirectly responsible’ for massacre of 2,000 Palestinian refugees in camps near Beirut.

1983: US navy repeatedly shells Lebanon, killing dozens of civilians.

1988: US warship in Gulf shoots down Iranian passenger plane, killing all 290 people on board.

1991: Gulf War-US-led forces slaughter over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and conscripts.

Watchdog Israel

A PILLAR of US power in the Middle East is Israel. There is a mistaken argument that US support for Israel is down to the ‘Jewish lobby’. The US backs Israel for its own strategic interests. It fears that the rulers of the Arab states are not wholly reliable allies, and may be pushed to challenge Western interests.

The US sees Israel as a reliable pro-Western watchdog in the Middle East. Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of US aid. That’s why the US and Britain have stood by while Israel has expanded at the expense of the Palestinians.

The price worth paying for oil

THERE IS one overriding reason today for Western intervention and propping up tyrannical regimes in the Middle East-oil. Some two thirds of the West’s oil supplies pass through the Gulf , and the region is the source of over half the world’s proven oil reserves outside the former USSR.

Oil is the single most profitable commodity in the whole history of capitalism. As Dilip Hiro, writing in the Guardian, pointed out, ‘With 262 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, Saudi Arabia possesses a quarter of the global total, the highest in the world, and more than twice that of the next country down the list.

‘At the present rate of oil extraction Saudi oil reserves will last more than 100 years, and those of the United States less than ten.’ To get its hands on the Middle East’s oil wealth the West has been prepared to intervene in the most bloody fashion.

Even before oil was produced in large quantities, the West intervened to guarantee trade routes and strategic military objectives. The borders of most Middle Eastern countries were drawn and imposed by the West. Sometimes Western rulers and apologists dress up intervention in the Middle East with talk of more noble causes. Occasionally they are more honest.

The US business paper the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, ‘It is possible to see all these countries [in the Middle East] as imperialist creations that allow the West to play one against the other in the interests of cheap oil.’

In the 1950s Britain’s foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd put the argument with brutal simplicity: ‘At all cost these [Middle Eastern] oilfields must be kept in Western hands. We need, when things go wrong, to ruthlessly intervene.’ Securing the oil means shoring up US power across the region, propping up favourable regimes and crushing anyone who challenges Western interests.

The US and its allies were prepared to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people, including fleeing Iraqi conscripts, to win their war against Iraq in 1991. That war was supposed to be about ‘poor little Kuwait’. But there was no real democracy in that nasty little state. As an American general admitted, ‘If Kuwait grew carrots we wouldn’t give a damn.’

Since then, continued Western bombing and sanctions against Iraq have killed 500,000 children, according to a report by the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF. In a report in July 2000 UNICEF said that if there were no sanctions ‘there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in the country as a whole in the eight-year period 1991 to 1998’.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accepted that figure. On a US TV programme she was asked if the price of half a million children dying was worth it. She replied, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.’

Rich jet-set world, poor live in slums

THE US has always pursued a twin-track strategy in its attempt to secure domination of the Middle East and its oil supplies. One pillar of that strategy has been the way the US, like Britain and France before it, has propped up Arab rulers who would serve their interests and intervened to remove rulers who dared challenge them.

The rulers of the Arab states lining up with the West in war today are no longer simply puppets of powers like Britain and the US. They have become junior partners, with their Western counterparts, in the global ruling class.

The ruling elites in countries like Saudi Arabia jet around the globe living luxurious lifestyles. They sit in boardrooms and play the money markets of global capitalism. One Saudi prince, Prince al Walead bin Telal bin Abdulaziz al-Aud, has invested some $400 million in the US stock market since 11 September, helping to prevent a greater collapse of share prices.

The Middle Eastern rich frequent plush casinos in London or New York, or rub shoulders with the queen and the rest of the world’s rich. But many of the people they rule over in the Arab world live in dire and worsening poverty.

As expert on the Middle East Dilip Hiro reported in the Guardian, ‘A decade ago joblessness among Saudi nationals was unheard of. Now the official unemployment rate is 18 percent and rising. ‘An advertisement for ten jobs at the Riyadh military academy resulted in more than 1,000 applicants turning up, with several getting injured in the melee. ‘From the early 1980s, when Saudi Arabia’s per capita annual income was on a par with the US’s $28,000, the figure has fallen to below $7,000.’

There is even greater poverty among people in great cities like Cairo in Egypt. And the Palestinians, peasants and rural poor across the Middle East live in even worse conditions. Some are forced to live in cemeteries or scratch a living from rubbish tips.

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