Many people throughout the Western world do not understand what is happening in the Middle East. Much of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the complicated relations between countries, land, people, and political objectives. One particular myth is these conflicts go back as far as the Crusades and the wars between Muslims and Christians. However, this is not the case for current modern day conflicts, wars, and the destabilization that has taken hold of the region. Although, one could argue that outside foreign influence is responsible for starting the present day chaos, still there exist conflicts between different Muslim countries, people and rulers.
It appears that the current destabilization began around WWI due to strategic interests of the British and French mostly concerning Mediterranean Sea routes. In effect, the Mediterranean Sea provided any country that controlled it major sea routes for access and trade especially with India. The British Empire understood that in order to control the route to India, it would have to control the Suez Canal. However, the presence of the Ottoman Navy presented a threat to British interests. As a result, the British and French decided to divide the area into smaller regions so that the Ottoman Empire would have difficulty controlling them all. It was during WWI that the British and French implemented their plans.
It is particularly important to understand that one of the largest provinces of the Ottoman Empire was Ottoman Syria which included the modern day countries of Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. The British and French divided this area with a “secret” agreement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916). The agreement drew a horizontal line dividing the region from the mountainous, interior East to the sea in the West with the French controlling the Northern half and the British controlling the Southern. Also, in order to prevent any regional power from developing strength, the British and French further divided the region. It seems that the maritime Christians received land in the North and a portion of Ottoman Syria became a separate country – Lebanon. More important, prior to this Lebanon did not exist as an independent state and its main reason for unity was religious demography.
Now, the British allied with several Arab tribes and clans and made conflicting promises to various groups. At this time, the most important ally was the Hashemite people who ruled all of the Western region of the Arabian Peninsula. It is believed that the British and French played these groups against one another and when the Soviet Union made public the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it caused trouble in the region.
In the early 1900s, the Saud Family launched a conquest to capture all the Arabian Peninsula including that portion controlled by the Hashemite people. By 1925, they had gained control over the Eastern and Central portions of the peninsula establishing the Third Saudi state which later became modern day Saudi Arabia. In time, the Hashemite’s lost control of their portion of the Arabian Peninsula to the Saud family. However, by the time this happened, the British had already given the Hashemite people (their important allies) two new kingdoms to the North, Iraq and another North of the Arabian peninsula named Trans-Jordan. Further, when the British withdrew in 1948, this land became known as Jordan and remained under the rule of the Hashemite clan. However, the people on the opposite side of the Jordan River (modern day Palestine) were the same ethnic people – Arabs. This means that Palestine became divided between Palestine in the West and Jordan in the East but with the same ethnic group.
The Western side of the Jordan River (Palestine) had been receiving Jewish immigrants from as early as the 1880s. They joined small Jewish communities that existed there and this immigration became part of what was later called the Zionist Movement. These people wanted to create a Jewish state, they raised funds, and purchased land from absentee landlords living in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. In effect, the landlords sold the land from under the local Arab population (Hashemite) causing them to become dispossessed. From the Jewish point of view, this was a legitimate acquisition of land, however, the Arab population living there viewed this as dispossession because many were evicted from their lands. Therefore, what began as a legitimate real-estate transaction turned into dispossession and conflict.
After WWII, there was a massive immigration of Jewish people following the Holocaust and they became the majority ethnic group in the region. Also, nationalism had arrived in the Arab world. For example, the Syrian state considered Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine as part of their historic lands. In addition, they viewed the Sykes-Picot Agreement as a violation of their territorial rights and opposed the formation of an independent Jewish state similar to their opposition of Lebanon and Jordan forming independent states. In effect, they saw these areas and it’s populations as belonging to Syria and not as independent nations. After 1948, nationalism took hold in Jordan and it took control of the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem. However, there were tensions between the Palestinians and the Hashemite rulers. More important, the Hashemite’s viewed Israel as a guarantee of Jordanian security against the Palestinians. By 1970, the Hashemites fought a bloody war against the Palestinians forcing the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) out of Jordan and into Lebanon. This became known as “Black September” and another war followed, the Lebanese Civil War in which Syria actually invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLA. Like Jordan, Syria was unwilling to support Palestinian statehood.
In addition, Egypt was another nation that did not recognize Palestinian nationhood. In 1948, the Egyptian Army occupied the Gaza Strip because it saw Gaza as part of the peninsula. They viewed the region as an extension of Egypt and not as a distinct state. When Gamal Abdel Nasser ascended into power in 1952, he had a vision of a “single, united, Arab republic” – both secular and socialist. And by 1958, this concept became a reality when Egypt and Syria formed a new federation. However, Jordanian national interests viewed this new union as a threat and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and Iraq formed an Arab Confederation. Unfortunately, this confederation failed within it’s first year and the Hashemite rulers and Iraq lost control of the land due to a coup by Nasserist military officers.
Yet, Nasser’s idea of a united Arab republic went further. It considered Palestine as part of its union but not as an independent state. This idea was enough to unite both Nasser and Arafat of the PLA. However, Arab nationalism did not support the PLA idea of an independent Palestinian republic. More important, Nasser’s vision of a socialist union of Arab nations threatened the conservative monarchy of the Arabian peninsula. As in Iraq, it was Nasser’s intention to overthrow this monarchy as well. These were the dynamics that lead to the Arab Cold War where Arab socialism, represented by Egypt, Syria and Iraq (with support from the Soviet Union) fought against the Arab monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Jordan (supported by the United States).
It is essential to understand that Palestinian nationalism did not emerge only against Israel. Moreover, it is important to note that Palestine is at the cross roads of much of the conflict in the Arab world. For this reason, Palestinian nationalism represents a significant challenge to the entire Arab world. On one hand, Syria views Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel as historic Syrian territories and claims to have rights over these lands. On the other, Egypt follows the concept of Nasser for a united Arab republic and part of this plan is expanding its territories to include Palestine and Israel. And this is the actual reason why Egyptian and Syrian interests clash over Palestine. But then there is Saudi Arabia to consider because they want to protect their interests against Nasserian anti-monarchy concepts. In addition to all this conflict, there still exist the Hashemite people in Jordan afraid that the last vestiges of a Hashemite monarchy can collapse under the weight of Palestine as an independent nation. Something to consider: even if there were no conflict with Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia would still clash over Palestine.
Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books; Said, E. (1995). The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. New York: Pantheon Books; Sayyid, K. (Producer). (2012, 07/15/2017). Origins of the Middle East Mess. Caspian Report. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9xfK92Zv68;
2 thoughts on “Mess in the Middle East”
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