The last two posts of the Middle East have offered a bird’s eye view of the political development of the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In this post, I’ll continue to build the modern narrative toward current Western intervention by highlighting key events that led to the rise of radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda (and its offshoot, ISIS).
First, a quick recap: After the division of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations divided the Middle East (and North Africa) into protectorate states under the jurisdiction of France and England under the condition that these protectorate states (or mandates) would earn independence as they learned to rule themselves. After World War II, Britain and France largely withdrew from the region, leaving unstable civilian governments in place, governments that were replaced in rapid succession after the Israeli War of Independence (1947-8) by secular military dictatorships. This is the time period during which Hafez al-Assad, Muammar Gadhafi, and others came into power.
And while local and national politics are, of course, more detailed and complex, this bird’s eye view is sufficient for our purposes.
The decades following these new regimes (roughly from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s and 2000s) were characterized by continued authoritarian rule, the silencing of political opposition, economic stagnation, political corruption related to the oil industry, and suppression of minority groups or ethnicities.
These conditions, quite understandably, fueled opposition movements against the regimes in place. These opposition movements, very broadly speaking, fell into two main veins: secular opposition and radical opposition. Secular opposition was, for the dictators, much easier to control and silence; they did not gain much support from a largely Islamic population, and accusations of atheism were far more effective in keeping larger numbers from joining.
The other opposition vein, Islamic radicalism, however, began to see considerable growth, especially in the late 1990s. In countries across the Middle East, revolts spiked against the dictatorial regimes, largely without success for the time being. What drove and fueled these revolts?
In addition to the conditions described above and the very fact that the dictatorships were largely secular, American culture had begun to show up in cities. American rock music and secular culture, mostly permitted under the regimes of the time, was an easy rhetorical target for Islamic fundamentalists who saw this as a gross violation of their beliefs, and those who felt the same were often drawn into their rhetoric. The fundamentalists and their more extreme counterpart, the radicals, advocated a return to their own form of Shari’a Law.
But such movements had much more dangerous roots; these were not the only reasons for the increase in the Islamic fervor. Let me walk you through a number of events crucial to understanding the current chaos the Middle East.
Many radical groups could point to direct U.S. intervention that had already operated in nearby Iran (Persia). And that takes us back to a very important story in our understanding of the Middle East…
We’ve so far neglected Iran, as it wasn’t a part of the Ottoman Empire (it had been at one point, but not by 1914) and, therefore, not a mandate created from its demise. After World War I, the British began to invest heavily in Iran for a couple of reasons. First, it served as an important buffer zone between the increasingly powerful Soviet Empire just to the north and the very valuable British colony of India (which at that time included what is modern-day Pakistan). Second, the British established a very lucrative oil industry on the Gulf of Persia.
There is a very important distinction that needs to be addressed in a later post: that Iran (and more than 50% of Iraq) is heavily Shi’ite (or Shi’a), while much of the rest of the Middle East adhere to the Sunni tradition. This makes Iran a natural enemy of Sunni regimes, such as Saudi Arabia. That particular distinction would fuel conflict between Iran and Sadam Hussein’s Sunni government. But that needs to be left for later development.
In any case, Iran was becoming increasingly democratic and secular throughout much of the 20th Century, especially after 1920 and a civil war at that same time. Although ruled by a Shah (king), a parliament and its chosen Prime Minister were gaining popularity and influence. A key reason for this was anger fueled against the Shah who, in the 1920s, sold all Iranian oil rights to Great Britain until 1993.
Enraged, an increasingly assertive Iranian Parliament chose as their Prime Minister in 1953, Mohammad Mossedegh, who followed up his election with the widely popular nationalization of the British oil industry operating in Iran. With British oil and imperial interests at stake, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, pushed the U.S. for help in operating a coup in Iran. An aggressive Allen Dulles, CIA director, and his brother, John Dulles, Secretary of State, convinced Eisenhower to “okay” the coup, which the CIA successfully operated from the U.S. Tehran embassy. They placed Mossadegh under house arrest and propped up the diminished power of the Shah.
The reasons for the U.S. operation of the coup are far more extensive than we can examine here…another item for my “to write about list.” Nevertheless, the operation marked a sharp turning point U.S.-Middle East politics. Many politicians in Iran and across the Middle East had looked to the United States as a mediator between the aggressive British and French and their own interests. Now, having the U.S. CIA as the actor in the reassertion of a very unpopular king and the arrest of a very popular Prime Minister, anti-westerners across the Middle East had a handy source of fodder for their increasingly radical rhetoric. (In Iran particularly, this growing rhetoric would result in the tumultuous backlash Revolution of 1979, resulting in the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the rise of the supreme Shi’ite leader, known as the Ayatollah, to the helm of Iranian religious and political life. All this will be covered more in depth to come.)
Okay, return with me now to the growing radical movements of the mid- to late-1990s. Differences between Shi’ites and Sunni’s aside, the U.S. intervention in Iran had already left a deeply sour taste in the mouths of many Middle Easterners for U.S. policy when U.S. secular culture began to pop up in their cities.
And yet, were the growing frustrations of Islamic fundamentalists enough to bring unity to their various groups? Not quite.
Stick with me here. There is another story that needs to be told: Afghanistan. I’m not going in depth in the history here; just relaying an important narrative. In the 1980s, for almost a decade, Soviet forces attempted a prolonged invasion of Afghanistan. Supported and armed in part by the United States (Cold War policy in the U.S. taking a front seat here), a young Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden was able to successfully lead a defense of Afghanistan against the Soviets, calling this defense a “holy war” (jihad) on behalf of fundamentalist Islam.
Encouraged and emboldened by his success against the U.S.S.R., bin Laden quickly re-oriented his powerful and radical Islamic military—Al-Qaeda—to, as Professor Khater states, “recreate an Islamic state that would unite the Islamic world and replace secular or quasi-Islamic governments.”
Yet, the story is even more complicated. Another key event played a role in turning Al-Qaeda and other groups against the U.S. and not just against secular Middle Eastern governments: the First Iraq War of 1990-1991. Again, not a narrative I can expound on here, the operation of U.S. troops against the Iraqi army under Sadam Hussein (the same army the U.S. had supported against the Ayatollah of Iran in the 1980s!) was more rhetorical fodder against the U.S. Not only that, but in an often forgotten piece of foreign policy, the U.S. military bombed targets in Iraq during the late 1990s.
And pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Al-Qaeda was either directly or indirectly involved in radical revolts across Middle Eastern countries in the 1990s, all of which were unsuccessful. So in 1998, feeding on an already strong anti-American sentiment growing throughout the Middle East, Osama bin Laden openly stated his intended plans and call to arms:
“…the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples… in compliance with God’s order, we issue the follow fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim…We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it…” (quoted in Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East by Akram Fouad Khater, pages 365-365).
Are you beginning to see the complexities of the Middle East situation? And this only leaves further questions: what about U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s? How did the U.S. alliance with the Saudi royal family come about? Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?
Yes, I know I cannot fully flesh out the material. A book, perhaps, would be a better project for that, than a blog. But perhaps I can continue to shed a bit of light on the current situation…?
So what does all this have to do with Syria? Indirectly, everything. The same radical movements that began in the 1990s continue to feed on similar fuel today. ISIS, a breakoff from Al-Qaeda, operates with the same goal of a unified Islamic Caliphate. U.S. operations in Iraq in 2001 and onward only complicated matters extensively, resulting in further backlash and entangled alliances. More on all of that to follow.
(Too busy to read this? Listen below! Please forgive the small issues; I am new to recording myself as I read.)