Jerusalem the Capital? Here’s the History

A few weeks ago, in the immediate wake of President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, I filmed a brief lecture of the last 100 or so years of Israeli history–history that so few people are actually taught– condensed into 14 minutes.

You can learn even more about the history of the modern Middle East in my series on that subject, starting with this post.

Middle East Conflict – Part 5: U.S. Policy and Yemen

I wasn’t sure if I would get back to this thread right away or not, as I’ve had a few more lined up on the docket. Then I was watching CBS Evening News tonight (with Scott Pelley), and they had a story intended to pull the heart strings of viewers. Interviewing a Yemeni refugee, they analyzed Trump’s executive orders halting any new refugees entering the United States from a number of Middle East Islamic countries.

Here’s the video:

Now, before I get blasted for my heartlessness on refugee policy by some or my ignorance of national security concerns by others, let me save you the trouble: Commenting on those is not the primary purpose of this post. Want to know my personal opinion on those? Sign up for my email.

I certainly do not have any problem with the story, or CBS interviewing the Yemeni girl. Her story is genuine, as far as I can tell, and there are many like it. It is just such tragedies as this that cause me to feel obligated to clarify reality–a reality all but ignored by the media and unknown by many people. That reality? That the U.S. military is currently subsidizing, equipping and actively assisting the Saudi Arabian government in its massive military operation against Yemen, including deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian aid groups, like Doctors Without Borders.

Here’s the situation in short:

The capital of Yemen (Sana’a) is currently under the control of the Houthis, a term that designates more of a political sect than a religious one, though the Houthis are primarily a branch off of Shi’ite Islam. These Houthis are currently being attacked by Saudi Arabian forces, who, with U.S. support, are siding with an ISIS/Al-Qaeda group inside of Yemen to overthrow the Houthis. In the process of what are primarily air and missile strikes, scores of civilians have been killed. According to the U.N., the war has displaced up to 2.8 million Yemeni (more than 400,000 families), killed around 4,125 civilians and wounded over 7200 (as of October 2016) (More information here, also linked at the end.)

What’s the backstory?

From 1978 to 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh was the “elected” (staged elections without other options) president of Yemen (North Yemen until the unification of Yemen in 1990) – one of the many dictators in the Middle East (read about the rise of these dictators here). In 2009, the Obama administration began giving massive sums of money to Saleh to help fight Al-Qaeda in North Yemen (from over $30 million in 2009 to $176 million in 2010). Instead of fighting Al-Qaeda, Saleh used this money to help finance war against Houthis (who are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda). When Saleh began using this money against anti-regime protesters in 2011 (an outflow of the widespread “Arab Spring”), Obama cut the funding, but also authorized Hillary Clinton’s State Department to help ensure the election of Saleh’s vice president in a one-man election.

Ousted, Saleh then left with massive portions of his military, ironically joining the Houthis, who were happy to welcome their former enemy so long as he could now help them attack the new government in Sana’a. Saleh and the Houthis easily overthrew the new president and re-took the capital, despite the Iranian warning that doing so would provoke Saudi Arabia. The Iranian warning proved to be right, as it was not long after in 2012 that the Saudi government began its attack on Yemen.

Why did the U.S. agree to aid the Saudis? Notwithstanding a long-time alliance with the Saudis, there was a deliberate effort on the part of American policy-makers to “placate” (words from the White House under Obama) the Saudis after tension regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, a deal that upset the Saudi royal family.

So where does that put us now? I could go into detail into the all the consequences of the U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, but I’ll leave that for my sources below. The United States is arming, equipping and actively helping an attack that is creating many of the very refugees that tug on our emotions with stories like that shared by CBS News. And these policies, for now, continue under Trump.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are no good guys and bad guys here. The Houthis are no saintly regime or group (they are actually largely socialist totalitarians). But U.S. policy-makers are not responsible for the actions of the Houthis. Like everyone else, they are only responsible for their own.

I’ll leave you with a couple of items. Human Rights Watch has put out a report on the events in Yemen in 2016. This report goes into a great deal of detail on the war crimes in Yemen from both sides, including Saudi attacks on hospitals and civilian targets. And it’s not their clumsiness doing that; the U.S. is offering our own precision-targeting abilities as part of our aid. You can review the report here.

And here’s a video I pulled from that report. Yes, this one also tugs at heart-strings. This one helps round out the story.


Middle East Conflict – Part 4: The Current Mess in Syria

A quick TV sound bite just doesn’t do justice to the current mess the U.S. has decided merits its own entanglement in and attention to in the Middle East. That’s what this post will ultimately attempt to clear up.

My first three posts on the Middle East conflicts laid out important background necessary to understanding the current scenario. You can access those here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Now on to our fourth part (but perhaps not our last…?).

Recall the U.S. interventions discussed in the previous post. If you need a refresher, I’d recommend revisiting that post before continuing with this one. If you’re prepared with where we’re at in the narrative, then read on!

There is one more event that I need to discuss to help build our context, this one vaguely alluded to in the previous post. To complicate the web of policy, prior to the First Iraq War in 1990-91, the U.S. policy had actually been in support of Saddam

A group of Iranians during the 1970s

Hussein during his war with Iran (1980-1988). In 1979, after a long-brewing backlash against the U.S.-backed Shah in Iran, demonstrations turned into revolution—or perhaps more accurately described, as is often the case in revolution, in multiple revolutions with varying ends. Ultimately, fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslims won the day, installing the Ayatollah as sovereign in social, religious and political life, and transforming what had progressed into a remarkably secular culture back toward their version of Shari’a.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989)

In all this mess, the U.S. was a natural adversary of the new regime. In addition to propping the Shah up back in 1953, they also allowed him sanctuary in the U.S. in 1979 when Iranians demanded he stand trial in Iran.

Consequently, when strongman dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, declared war on and invaded Iran the following year in 1980, the U.S. (and other Western countries) readily offered financial and supply aid. The long and bloody war essentially ended in a draw. (Incidentally, the Ayatollah’s effective halt to the Iraqi army and the war itself helped rally

far greater support for the Ayatollah among Iranians than prior to the war). And it was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the U.S. retaliation that resulted in the 1990-91 operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. And we’ve made it back to that part of the story.

You’ll have to forgive me for unsatisfactorily omitting narrative elements that help to clarify the Second Iraq War beginning in 2003. For now, it is sufficient to explain that after the First Iraq War, the United Nations had demanded a close eye be kept on Saddam Hussein, and biological, nuclear and chemical development facilities were to be accessible to inspectors on demand. At first relatively compliant, Hussein slowly restricted their access throughout the 1990s, prompting U.S. bombing of Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But it wasn’t until 2003, with an alleged goal of taking out presumed nuclear weapon programs (which proved nonexistent), that we began a full-fledged invasion.

That story is important in regard to the current situation in Syria. Of the Iraqis, about 60% adhere to the Shi’ite tradition and 20% to the Sunni tradition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had risen through the ranks through the revolutionary activity of his uncle, and once dictator, implemented both some secular socialist policy, and strict one-party rule (a common theme for the Middle East dictators of the second half of the 20th Century, if you haven’t caught that). While I’m not going into extensive detail regarding the terrors of his regime, he put down opposition brutally, killed thousands of Kurdish Iraqis with poison gas, and bombed some his own towns. At the same time, he allowed for some economic and educational freedoms not known before in Iraq. A mixed record with terrible abuses, to be sure!

Why does all this matter? Because when the U.S. deposed him in 2003 (declared a stunningly rapid success at the time), it opened the floodgates to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based military, members of which flowed into Iraq from Afghanistan and other nearby states, building on the already angry rhetoric spewing from people like their leader, Osama bin Laden. For a decade, the U.S. found itself caught in in the middle of a vicious civil, sectarian war. Oddly enough, that put the U.S. on the side of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which, with the U.S. military, virtually kicked the ruling Sunnis and their adherents out of Bagdad (which is now 85-90% Shi’ite). Numerous Sunni militias formed in opposition, and many eventually joined Al-Qaeda.

But we still need to link back to Syria. Don’t worry; we’re still headed there.

After a few years of siding with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq (which of course, inadvertently supported the Ayatollah in Iran), the Bush administration began a policy switch (called the “Redirection”) in 2006, shifting support back toward Sunni groups, but primarily in neighboring Syria. Wikileaks documents from that time expose a deliberate desire to provoke a Sunni uprising in Syria with the intention of destabilization there. This was corroborated by further leaked Pentagon papers in 2011. Now operating under the Obama administration, these latter documents state that, “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [of anti-Assad groups] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”. Who is referred to as the supporting powers? The U.S. and her allies. The same leaked documents listed “The West, Gulf Countries and Turkey” as the “supporting” powers, while also listing “Russia, China and Iran” as the powers supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime (background described in Part 2). (In fairness, the same leaked document admitted that such a organization as mentioned would threaten the peace process of Iraq.)

Quick clarification: The “Salafist” ideology referenced here is the radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology that drives Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other ideologically-affiliated groups.

In other words, U.S. policy in Iraq was in support of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, while at the same time favoring, or at least not opposing (but to be clear, not directly facilitating) the creation of a fundamentalist group in eastern Syria that would destabilize that country and help promote the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. (Yes, I know the big question is “why.” Keep reading; I will get there.)

That fundamentalist group proved to be ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. policy actively supported ISIS (and obviously, the U.S. is no friend of ISIS; quite the opposite), but it is hard to imagine the creation of ISIS without U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But I get ahead of myself…again.

Opposition to the Assad regime in Syria grew steadily in 2011 into a full-fledged sectarian, multi-faced civil war that many of my readers will have followed on the news for years, now. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been clearly on behalf of “moderate” rebel groups in Syria. Why use quotes? Because moderate, of necessity, must be used loosely. Virtually all opposition groups to Assad are sectarian and fundamentalist, though certainly some are more extreme than others.

Of these groups, perhaps the most powerful in early opposition days of 2011 and 2012 was al-Nusra (alternatively known as the al-Nusra Front), which was essentially the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

The problem is, many of these “moderate” groups supported by the U.S. ultimately became arms procurement groups for al-Nusra, meaning that many ultimately got their funding by selling weapons to al-Nusra, some of these weapons even supplied to them by the U.S.

So why did the U.S. even care about destabilizing and ultimately seeing the replacement of Assad in Syria? I alluded to this before. Two key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi-Arabia, were both clearly upset by U.S. support of Shi’ites in Iraq. Assad, himself a nominal Shi’ite, is a primary ally of Iran. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have been clear about, though somewhat hidden under humanitarian rhetoric, taking out Assad would be a clear strike against Iran and a clear benefit for both Israel, which has a vested interest in ensuring that their own bordering enemies don’t grow too strong, and Saudi-Arabia, an avowed enemy of Assad.

Back to ISIS.

Virtually non-existent in 2012, ISIS was another group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. In 2013, it had a falling out with al-Nusra, putting the two groups at odds. In 2014, as many will recall, the nearly unheard of ISIS suddenly captured major Syrian cities, and expanded rapidly across eastern Syria and into Iraq, reaching as far as the outskirts of Bagdad. And of course, as many readers know, ISIS has declared itself an Islamic Caliphate, brutally claiming the lives of countless Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, westerners, and anyone else who doesn’t pledge allegiance to their ideology and rule.

So now what? The complexities of who supports who against who with who is enormous, and I won’t go into all that detail in writing. My goal has been to explain how things have come to where they are now. In conclusion, I include two videos below. The first, in addition to the visual benefit, does an excellent job explaining the current mess. The second is a piece by investigative journalist Ben Swann with revealing statistics on the tragedies of what has transpired in the Middle East.

Googling “before” and “after” pictures of Syria reveals many terrible scenes like this one, taken in Aleppo, one of the largest cities in Syria.

All in all, it’s hard (yes, I do tend to write in deliberate understatements) to show anyone walking away from the mess with clean hands. Perhaps we should understand that there are no praise-worthy members of this conflict. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, displaced, many finding solace in the same ideology that drives ISIS. Towns once thriving metropolitan areas are haunted by rubble and silence. Numbers uncounted have had their lives destroyed or taken. This does not imply that the situation under the dictators was good, but its certainly hard to make the claim that things are better. Perhaps, going forward, we should consider the unintended, or often very much intended, consequences of policy. So far, nearly every policy decision has led to its own bitter fruit of greater problems and more lives destroyed. A dose of humility and reflection may be in order. Watch the two videos below:

Middle East Conflict–Part 3: Roots of Modern Radical Islamic Movements

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.

Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, 1953

Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, 1953

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.

Soviet forces in Afghanistan

Soviet forces in Afghanistan

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.”

Sadam Hussein (1980s)

Sadam Hussein (1980s)

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).

al4Are 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.)


Middle East Conflict–Part 2: Protectorates to Military Rule

In the last post, I offered clarity on the nature of the Middle East prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this part, we’ll continue that narrative from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of individual, if somewhat complicated modern-like states.

After the Young Turks—a political movement that sought stronger ties to Europe and pushed for a modernized Turkey—was able to bring the Ottoman government under its control in 1908, they followed up with their program by eventually signing a military alliance with Germany. I don’t have time to get into all the reasons for that particular decision here, nor is that particularly relevant to our discussion, but they hoped a favorable outcome in the war would give them greater influence on the world stage, and longstanding conflict with the Russians was certainly a part of their decision.

Whatever the reasons, the results proved catastrophic for the empire, and the once large and powerful Ottoman Empire came to an end. In Paris in 1919, among the number of treaties forced on the losers of the war by the Allies* was the Treaty of Sévres, the treaty made with the Ottomans.

Under the treaty terms, Turkey would be left with most of Anatolia. The vast majority of the remainder of Ottoman territory would become League Mandates—essentially, protectorate states of the newly created League of Nations. In practice, this meant that Britain and France would govern these territories. So what were these territories?


Ethnic groups in the Middle East (I am aware you can’t read the key; a quick Google search will turn this or a similar map up)

Hold that thought for a moment. Remember how complicated the Middle East was? The region is awash in various ethnicities. To name a few: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeri, Arabs, Jews, Persians, et cetera. This is only on the broad level, as within each of these and the other ethnicities are different groups that can be more and more localized. In additional to ethnic differences were vast arrays of cultural differences region by region and even village by village, differences hard to perceive to westerners observing through media reports. Also, there were key religious differences, differences beyond the standard three thought of by those who have not studied the region: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The most volatile of differences perhaps is between the Sunni and Shi’ite (alternatively, Shi’a) traditions of Islam, which have been in conflict since the death of Mohammad (forgive me for not expanding on this here, as I am sensitive to length).

So how do you organize such differences into protectorate states? Add onto these differences the basic understanding that the modern idea of a political state was all but a foreign concept.

mandateNevertheless, the League of Nations (again, mostly the British and French) set about drawing up borders and labeling the regions within them. And each new protectorate was promised independence as soon as it had learned how to self-govern. That was the mandate in the Treaty of Sévres.

In essence, modern political states—or nations (in our context)—had to be invented.

And so the protectorate states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan (later to be renamed Jordan), Iraq, et cetera, came into existence. In Syria, my ultimate direction with this background, the Syrian people group (versus the Kurds, Assyrians or Arabs), having gained the name of their nation, quickly assumed that the nation must be mostly Syrian—that Syrian must be the “national” ethnic group. The same in Lebanon, Transjordan, and so forth. In rich sarcasm, there is but little alternative conclusion: what can go wrong? The politics that followed the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire varied state to state, but a general trend can be observed: dominant groups within each nation thought the country was uniquely theirs, as I said before. A tribal mentality among the leaders would be more and more resented by other tribes and groups, before military dictatorships would ultimately come into power. But I get ahead of myself.

Some protectorate states, such as Palestine and Iraq, were put under British control, and others, such as Syria and Transjordan, came under French jurisdiction. Both nations maintained relatively strict control over their mandates (the French more so than the British), as the terms of independence had been based on the vague and open-ended condition that each nation learn to govern itself. And particularly in the case of France, the French regulators in their territories operated mostly to benefit France at the expense of the local population.

European dominance ended with World War II. Despite emerging as victors, the British economy and military apparatus could no longer support their vast colonial empire, and the French, under German control for the duration of the war, were clearly in no better a position. The Middle East mandate nations were neglected by their European overlords.

And naturally, Middle Eastern overlords filled the void. However, the process by which these overlords could come into power was rooted in the European governance system. In an effort to turn their invented states into functioning nations, the British and French had supported the creation of highly-integrated and diversified militaries. Why? Apart from the practical goal of using the military as their enforcement branch, the Europeans were attempting to build a sense of nationalism – a strong sense of nation (for example, “we are Jordanians” as more predominant than “we are Arabs”) – in a place where no such idea had previously existed. Where better than a nationalistic military made up of many different ethnicities?

And as Europeans withdrew to lick their wounds, many military dictators rose to the forefront of the political scene. Where civilian leaders were reputed to be seen as sectarian and corrupt**, military leaders boasted on their nationalistic and diversified bases.

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, one of the multiple military dictators to take control of former League Mandate countries

Still, most states were ruled by civilian governments ruled in the wake of the European withdrawal. One key event resulted in numerous military dictatorships coming to power: the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-1948. Despite massive financial and military support from Middle Eastern and North African countries all over the region, from Syria to Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the Palestinians still ultimately lost the war, throwing nearly every nation in the area into instability. Civilian governments further lost credibility with their people, and some wanted the stability and diversity offered by military rule.

And as they did so, military commanders took over. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Algeria and Yemen all saw their governments taken over by military dictators. In Syria, the military commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Bashar al-Assad, took over the government***.

Hafez al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad

What did these military dictatorships look like? Contrary to the naïve opinion that they were strictly Shari’a-based, most were, in fact, mostly secular in nature. Also, most, including the government under Hafez al-Assad, were highly authoritarian (see this post for more on the basic terms) and fascist.

As expected, honeymoons celebrating the new governments were short-lived, if lived at all, and opposition was shortcoming. But with the military apparatus in place, dictators like Hafez al-Assad did not tolerate dissent, putting it down quickly and brutally. For most, when their sons or heirs took their place, the same policy continued, and does so still under Bashar al-Assad in Syria (where he still has control).

And they earned themselves the reputation they are notorious to westerners for today: strict, harsh, intolerant and powerful authoritarians. And one by one, these military dictators and their dynasties have been or are replaced. Part of the reason: what has been labeled “the Arab Spring.” Part has been due to Islamic radicalism. Finally, Western intervention, as in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, has also played a key role. But this is where the modern narrative really begins to get messy. Why and how did the U.S. and other European powers get involved in the modern state of affairs? More than that to come.


*To note, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S. had lofty goals for the Paris Peace Conference, but few points were realized; the British, French and to a lesser extent, the Italians, essentially had control of the peace terms.

**And notably, for our purposes, in Syria, where the French had not allowed indigenous populations to be involved in the government.

***Assad did not officially become Prime Minister until 1970, but moved through the ranks and worked to operate a coup in 1963. He would rule until 2000.

Middle East Conflict–Part 1: Under the Ottomans

Our political candidates and commentators bring up Syria quite often. And with reason. The nation is embroiled in conflict–a very, very complicated conflict. What on earth is going on over there? Should we be over there? Well, like most things, it’s rooted in history–in this case, a history often overlooked and/or not understood by westerners. I get into the history first, and this will all help to make the current situation there make much more sense, and maybe offer some clarity to you all that our political “elites” really need to understand.

Yes, we know there is a large Islamic caliphate and terrorist organization known as ISIS. We know there is a massive emigration and refugee movement from war-torn regions. We understand that there is a leader in Syria who these same elites claim must be transitioned out of power. We know that the U.S. has been involved in Middle East affairs for at least a decade and a half (we’ve been involved much longer, but many of my own generation are not aware of this).ht_isis_parade_libya_06_jc_150219_4x3_992

I’m going to take this particular blog, and a few afterward, to bring clarity to the current situation in particularly Syria and more broadly the Middle East. Specifically, I hope to do so by shedding light on important history regarding the formation of the modern Middle East and then details on the intricate labyrinth and nebulous nature of the current and numerous interests all operating specifically in Syria.

Truly, it’s something of a madhouse. For a glimpse, consider that at this moment…

  • The U.S. supports Sunni rebel groups in Syria while supporting Shi’ite forces in Iraq
  • The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, who both fight each other and who both fight against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator
  • The U.S. is targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Russia is also doing, and at the same time opposed to Russia’s support of Assad
  • The U.S. is opposed to the Badr Brigade in Syria, the same group that served as a primary ally in the Iraq War.
  • The Kurds, a current key U.S. ally, have a branch operating against Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, another U.S. ally in the Middle East.

And I am only brainstorming a little bit of what could be the full enumeration…

I’ll get to all that! But first, how did the modern Middle East develop as it did? Many westerners are offered a vague, watered-down fly-over version of Middle Eastern history that amounts to something like, “There was a Roman Empire and then the Eastern Roman Empire, then there were Muslims, then a few Crusades and the evil Europeans tried to take over Palestine, and then mysteriously we have modern European nations that are ruled by evil dictators (in some countries) who need to be replaced by benevolent American and European foreign policy experts.”

The full picture gets as omitted from historical lessons as Kansas does by national Democratic candidates. And granted, that may in part be due to its complexity.

Now, while the importance of understanding the longer-range history of the Middle East merits its own study, I am only going back to the late Ottoman Empire (in this post) and afterward (in the upcoming posts), as the politics following the end of the Ottoman Empire are the most pertinent in understanding the present in places like Syria and Iraq. Ask many an American what the Ottoman Empire is, and you’ll get the same look you might by asking them to interpret the Star-Spangled Banner in Chinese.


The empire saw steady decline from its height in the 16th and 17th Centuries until the beginning of the 20th Century, by which point, on the eve of World War I, it was known as the “sick man of Europe.” A “last minute” attempt in 1908-1914 to secularize and industrialize Turkey (the heart of the empire) was too little, too late; in the end, a decision to enter the war on the side of the Germans and Austria-Hungarians secured their ultimate end. This landed the empire in the hands of the British and French victors, who, as we’ll see shortly, got to do what I consider to be a favorite activity of theirs: drawing lines on maps and calling them borders. (Forgive my oversimplification here; I will hope to offer some clarity to this point in the next post.)

The whole purpose of my commentary on this background is important to understanding the current Middle Eastern situation. Under the Ottoman Empire, for the greater part of its rule in the latter years, the Sultan and his government in Istanbul allowed for broad decentralized power. What this meant was that, outside of Turkey itself, the lands under Ottoman territory were somewhat lightly regulated by Istanbul, despite mandates that the peoples of the empire uphold Shari’a—Islamic—Law. Regions within the entirety of the empire were required to pay their taxes to Istanbul, but there was little to no extensive military or bureaucratic web able to secure any strict code of law across the entirety of the mostly-desert empire.

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

And this is not to say that there was none of this; certainly that is not the case. Nor is this to say that the empire was one of consequential liberty; that is also a false conclusion. Certainly, many regions—especially the more populated—of the Ottoman Empire were ruled by their own local overlords in any variety of Islamic code, and the legal system would have been strictly based in Shari’a for many people (with exceptions, often at the expense of an additional tax; many Christians lived in modern-day Syria and some Jews lived in Palestine).

Nevertheless, much of the empire was set up in a very decentralized fashion based in local regions and ethnicities. Much was feudalistic, with a local landlord overseeing various regions of peasant-workers, other parts were more loosely governed in a sort of farming or herding tenancy-based system (as was much of the case in Palestine). Professor Akram Fouad Khater, in his source document anthology, Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East, explains the situation succinctly: “Before World War I, the Middle East and North Africa were fluid geopolitical spaces in which peoples with various languages, cultures, and ethnicities intermingled in the cities and larger towns and many others lived in rural isolation” (page 109, 2003 edition).

The main point, here, is that the Middle East is no less ethnically complicated than the tribes of North America upon the arrival of Europeans (which a quick google image search can show was covered in a multiplicity of various tribes).

In essence, there were no nations as we think of them today. There were many, many tribes and ethnicities and some large and some nuanced religious differences among them all as a part of a broader, loosely administrated empire. (And for all you PC-obsessed folks out there, I am not saying the Middle East was some epitome of perfect unity in diversity…that’s hogwash. Certainly the Middle East was as laden in inter and intra-religious, ethnic, and political conflict as anywhere else. That’s not the point here. The point is to understand what the Middle East was like prior to the modern states that compose it now so that we can understand how the creation of those states contributes to the current U.S.-embroilment in places like Iraq and Syria.)

Again, Khater puts it very well: “None of their political experiences prepared them to conceive of a political entity that was smaller than an empire and larger than a city or village” (page 110).

Enter France and Great Britain to figure out a new way to administer the Middle East in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in World War I. That’s next.