Imperial Conspiracy and the Islamic State

The leader of the self-declared Islamic State vows they “will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy,” utterly destroying “borders that were drawn by malicious hands in lands of Islam.”  It’s important to understand that “conspiracy.”

When the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in WW1, Britain conquered Palestine because it needed a route to move large forces fast from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf to defend its interests in India.  Britain then made a secret pact with France and Russia, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, about how they would divvy up the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces at war’s end.

Britain got present day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq.  France got south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq (Britain later managed to get northern Iraq, too, when oil was discovered there).  But for the Revolution that overthrew its Tsar, Russia would have gotten Armenia and north-eastern Turkey.

This schematic of the original 1916 agreement shows the area Russia would have occupied in green, the area France would occupy in dark blue and the area it would control administratively in light blue, the area Britain would occupy in dark red and what it would administer in light red.  The purple areas were to be international zones.

Sykes Picot Schematic

The agreement was endorsed by Hussein bin Ali, the leader of Hejaz, who, in return for leading an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, was promised a post-war Arab empire from Egypt to Persia excepting only Britain’s possession of Kuwait, Aden and the Syrian coast.  Britain considered Hussein the Arabs’ leader because Hejaz incorporated Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Hussein declared himself King at war’s end.  Then in 1924 he declared himself Caliph, political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad and leader of the entire Muslim community.  His arch-rival, ibn Saud, attacked and defeated his forces and unified what is now Saudi Arabia.

Hejaz Map

The area defined as an international zone in the Sykes-Picot Agreement that is now Israel and Palestine was defined that way because Britain’s Prime Minister had declared himself “very keen to see a Jewish state established in Palestine.”  Israel would, it was thought, be too small to defend itself so it would need the international community’s protection.

Promises were made separately and in secret to Arab and Jewish leaders during the war that were mutually contradictory.  One or the other had to be abandoned.

In 1917, Lord Balfour wrote a Declaration that Britain and its allies were committed to establish Israel.  Then in 1918, Britain and France pledged to “assist in the establishment of indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia by setting up national governments [chosen by] the indigenous populations.”

Perhaps Arab leaders could have accepted a homeland for Jews who wanted to “come home” but “national governments chosen by the indigenous populations” negated the unified Arab homeland they had been promised.

This is why, speaking in Iraq, ISIL’s leader said: “We have now trespassed the borders that were drawn by the malicious hands in lands of Islam in order to limit our movements and confine us inside them.  And we are working, Allah permitting, to eliminate them (borders).  And this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement did not clearly define the territory that would become Israel.  How big should it be?  What lands should it encompass?  The Old Testament had placed Israel’s tribes on both sides of the River Jordan, with the Manesseh tribe occupying not just the present day West Bank but also the East Bank, which is the fertile part of present day Jordan.  The Agreement was also less than clear about the eastern border of Palestine.

Israel 12 Tribes Map

In 1919, Chaim Weizmann, who later became President of the World Zionist Organization, made an agreement with a son of the King of Hejaz.  It defined a Jewish homeland in Palestine and an Arab nation that would include most of the Middle East.  That set Israel’s border within present day Jordan but the agreement was short-lived and would never have been acceptable to most Arab leaders.

Israel Faisal-Weizmann Map

In the end the League of Nations agreed in 1922 to a British Mandate for Palestine supplemented by a Transjordan Memorandum.  Transjordan was the site of most battles during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule.  The Mandate system was to provide government for the former Ottoman Empire territories in the Middle East “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

The British protectorate of Palestine was to include a national home for the Jewish people while Transjordan was to be an Emirate governed semi-autonomously by Hussein bin Ali’s Hashemite dynasty, which was also to rule Iraq.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

All these agreements, self-serving and/or well-intentioned, were based on ideas more than reality.

The best way to understand the reality is in terms of the Fertile Crescent, the relatively moist and fertile land where some of the earliest human civilizations flourished (the Crescent can also be defined to include Egypt.)  Writing, glass, the wheel and irrigation all originated in this crescent.

Fertile Crescent Map

The idea of nation states with borders to keep “us” safe and “others” out, the framework for the WW1 colonial powers and us now, is very recent.  Empires in and around the Fertile Crescent rose and fell centered on areas of agricultural surplus.

Settled farmers, seasonally relocating herders, and wide ranging tribal folks changed their allegiance easily to the extent they felt any at all to their distant rulers.  Religion was important as an inspiration for individuals — for rulers, it was a lever of power.

Entities we think of now as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey did not exist for most of history or had different definitions.  Cultures long preexisted nation states and they have far more powerful impact on possible futures.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kurdistan

The Kurds are not a nation and are without a state.  Ethnically Iranian and mostly Sunni Muslim, they live among mountains where Europe and Asia meet south of the Caucasus.

kurdish areas map

About half the 28 million Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, 6 million in Iran, 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and close to 2 million in Syria.  They form about 18% of Turkey’s population, 10% of Iran’s, 15%-20% of Iraq’s and 10% of Syria’s.

Where Kurds live is a battleground at the ever-changing border of great empires based in Turkey, Russia and Iran/Persia.

Ottoman forces that threatened Persia in the 1530s were deterred with a scorched earth campaign in which Kurdish settlements of every size were laid waste, crops were destroyed, resistors were massacred, and all others were relocated.  Destruction of the Kurdish area continued into the 1600s.

Over the centuries and as the fortunes of the great empires changed, Kurds fought sometimes alongside Ottoman forces, sometimes with Iran, sometimes among themselves, and most often against domination by any foreign power.  They remained a tribal people with principalities in present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish States 1835

The Ottoman Empire’s 1829–1879 centralization campaign had little impact on those Kurdish principalities.  Although flickers of Kurdish nationalism sprang up toward the end of the 19th century, the Kurds never united.

Turkey’s Kurds tried to establish autonomy in 1880.  The central government welcomed it at first, hoping to counter a potential Armenian state under Russia.  But they suppressed the uprising when they recognized that Kurds and Armenians, the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, had always co-existed quite well.

Unlike Kurds in Turkey who consider themselves different from the majority, Iran’s Kurds did not.  They were treated as part of Iran’s Islamic majority, unlike Armenian Christians or Jews.  The central government was concerned about Ottoman invasion, Britain’s advance from India and Russia’s from the north , not differences among fellow-Muslims.  While the majority of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are Sunni, they are about evenly split in Iran between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi.

Iran Map 1900

Kurdish nationalism began to grow in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century because of Ottoman oppression of minorities and WW1’s devastation.  Much of the Kurdish area was laid waste by advancing and retreating troop forces and the Ottoman government drove out an estimated 700,000 Kurds, almost half of whom perished.  They also killed or drove into the Syrian desert a million or more Armenians between 1915 and 1916.

After WW1, Turkey’s Kurds became subject to aggressively enforced secular rule.  Kurds to the south fell under France in newly established Syria and under Britain in newly established Iraq.

To protect its new colonial possession, Britain advocated independent and allied Kurdish and Armenian states as a buffer against Turkey and Russia.  That idea died when Greece and Italy invaded Turkey and its Kurds joined the battle against the Christian invaders.

In 1920, Britain, France and Italy agreed to establish “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominately Kurdish areas” but Turkey’s government was strong enough by the following year to block it.  Then Britain abandoned the idea of a “quasi-autonomous” independent Kurdistan in Iraq in case the French established one in Syria.

Britain next encouraged Turkey’s Kurds to rebel but they stopped that when France ceded its lands north of Syria, which gave the Turkish government a base from which they could easily invade Iraq.   In 1923, Britain signed a treaty with Turkey that made no mention of Kurds.

Kurdish Areas Map 2

But Britain treated Kurds in Iraq well, giving Arabs and Kurds equal rights, Kurdish and Arabic languages equal legal status and dividing the country into Arab and Kurdish regions with separate administrative policies and practices.

When Iraq gained independence, however, the central government set up a unified state dominated by Sunni Arabs that suppressed Kurdish rights, militarized Kurdish regions, and destroyed Kurdish villages, especially where oil was found.  There has been pretty much constant strife in Kurdish Iraq ever since.

Kurdistan Map

Suppression of Iraqi Kurds increased further under Saddam Hussein.   During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, half a million Kurds were sent to detention camps in southern and eastern Iraq, villages were razed and Kurdish towns were attacked with chemical weapons.

After withdrawing its forces in 1991, Iraq’s government imposed an economic blockade on Kurdistan which the UN embargo on Iraq made worse by halting Kurdish trade with other nations.

But Iraqi Kurdistan had achieved de facto independence.

And Kurdistan is now a somewhat functional democracy.  Turkey is becoming its closest ally, major oil companies have made deals with it, and a pipeline to Turkey with a capacity of a million barrels a day is due to come online within a couple of years.

Turkey is also potentially a supporter of a self-governing Kurdish state in Syria.

Kurds only ever wanted to be free from oppression.  Turkey’s Sunni Kurds got on well enough with Christian Armenians, and Iran’s mix of Sunni, Shia and Sufi Kurds were treated as equals by Persia’s Shia rulers, so Kurds can coexist.  They have, however, been greatly abused, violently suppressed by Ottoman Turkey’s Sunni rulers, driven out by Iran in a scorched earth campaign, massacred by Iraq’s Sunni regime, and more.

Their latest battle is against an ever-shifting set of gangs, the worst of which, ISIS, is employing extreme terror to institute what they say will be global religious rule.  Their objectives certainly include temporal power…

What should we do?  Is the solution a nation state whose territory includes all Kurdish areas now in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria?  Should we work to establish that Greater Kurdistan?  And should we then supply it with weaponry to defeat any future threat?

Given what nation states have done in the past, that does not look to be the best idea.  A better approach will emerge when this research is complete.

Beyond the Media Hype: Turkey

Turkey, bordered by water on three sides and high mountains in the east, has lowland only on the coast.  About one sixth of its land can support agriculture, another sixth grazing.  Mountain ridges form a belt just south of the Black Sea.  A ridge in the south borders a central massif in the west and joins the northern mountains in the east.  Narrow straits in the east give Turkey control of the only outlet from the Black Sea.

Turkey Topo

Control of the Turkish Straits is valuable because they provide Russia’s only year-round ocean access.  Its navy is based on the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.  The Straits also offer the only maritime trade route for Romania, Ukraine, Georgia and their neighbors.  International treaties govern what warships can use the Straits and Turkey’s rights to control the passage.

Black Sea Map

Turkey is where Silk Road routes linked Asian and European traders.  Trade for Chinese silk that began in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) expanded enormously enabling Islamic Empires to become the world’s greatest economic power in the 7th-13th centuries when their trade network covered much of Asia, Africa and Europe.  Cultures carried via the Silk Road helped shape the civilizations of China, India, Iran, Arabia and Europe.

Silk Road Map

Turks from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and other ‘stans began moving west long ago.  Some settled along the way.  Others went on to Anatolia, today’s Turkey, to establish what became the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922).  Many of them continued to live as nomads or moved seasonally between upland and plain in eastern Anatolia but three quarters of the population now is urban.  Almost a fifth of Turkey’s population are Kurds, an ethnic Iranian people, in eastern Anatolia.

The head of state  of the Ottoman Empire was also its religious leader.  Administrative, economic and political systems were guided by Islam, but non-Muslims had substantial religious freedom under the “millet” system that protected Christians in Zoroastrian Iran a thousand years earlier and was retained after the Islamic conquest.  Christians flourished under that system and sent missionaries via the Silk Road even to China and India.

The headman of a millet collected and distributed taxes and set laws for his people based on religion.  All Christians, for example, throughout the Empire were part of the Christian millet.  There was no citizenship based on location within the Empire, nor any ethnic separation.  People of every ethnic background in a millet had the same rights and privileges.  The law of the injured party’s millet was applied to crimes by those from a different millet.

The Ottoman Empire peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries after advancing northwest through Greece and Ukraine and southeast into Iran, and gaining control of the Mediterranean and of trade with east Asia via the Indian ocean.  It lost territory piecemeal in the 18th and 19th centuries then, faced with losses on every side, allied with Germany in WW1.  The Empire was utterly destroyed and Turkey was occupied  by the victors.  They were driven out in 1922 and Turkey became independent the next year.

Ottoman Empire Map

 

The new government was led by Mustafa Kemel Atatürk who replaced Islamic law with a secular civil code, gave women full political rights, and gave Turkey its alphabet along with many other reforms.  Ataturk means “Father of the Turks”.  He is the one who gave Turks their identity, and he remains a strong force even though he died in 1938.

Ataturk established many political freedoms although his was the only political party.  His successor established multi-party elections at the end of WW2, in which Turkey was neutral.  When the Soviet Union tried in 1947 to establish bases in the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the US guaranteed to defend Turkey and Greece militarily.

True multi-party democracy began in 1950 but it was interrupted by military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980.  Turkey’s military leaders saw themselves as responsible for protecting Ataturk’s secular state by replacing governments when necessary as a short term corrective.

The 1950-60 government had relaxed Ataturk’s restrictions on Islam.  Then, after short-lived economic growth, it took on huge debt that led to high inflation and dissent that it tried to quell with censorship.  The military took over and executed the Prime Minister.  Unstable civilian governments resumed in 1961, with another coup in 1971.  Violent clashes between ultra-nationalists and communists led to another military coup in 1980 and imposition of martial law throughout the country.

A one-party civilian government supervised closely by the military was established in 1983 and the economy boomed.  Kurdish separatists began an insurrection in 1984 which the government first tried to counter with local paramilitary militias.  In 1987, they placed the entire southeast under emergency legislation that stayed in force until 2002.  Political instability returned in the 1990s.  In 1997, the military forced the Prime Minister to resign, deeming his religious policies a threat to Turkey’s secular nature.

The next government reformed the economy, established human rights laws and began positioning Turkey for membership in the European Union, then the economy faltered again.  Another new government formed in 2002 under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained in power.  It arrested military leaders in 2008 and 2010, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP — Ak means “light” ) is oppressive, corrupt and may be aiming to reestablish an Islamic state.  A 2013 corruption scandal that led to arrests of his close allies provoked riots across the country.  Erdoğan claimed an attempted coup and blocked Twitter and YouTube when he was incriminated in a recording released on the Internet.  Media censorship, electoral fraud, and general disregard for law have branded him in many eyes as a dictator.  Western media are mostly supportive.

The challenges for Turkey are to establish a government that does not depend on military approval and is responsive to civil rights demands from all parts of society, especially Kurds in the east who feel closer to their fellows in Iraq and Iran.  Erdogan’s strategy is the usual strongman approach.  Turkey may not in fact have a better future without its secular military leaders.

Turkey’s relative advantage is that its geographic borders do make it a natural nation state unlike Iraq, Syria and others to its south whose territory was defined in the 19th and early 20th centuries by colonial powers with a ruler.

But what is a nation state?  State implies territory and nation implies culture, so a nation state implies a territory with a common culture.  Several states in this series of posts are multi-ethnic and/or multi-cultural.  They do not have the common culture that makes for a natural nation state and unlike the Ottoman Empire, they have no system to accommodate diversity.

The nation state idea arose from Romantic Age fantasies about racial heritage in early 19th century Europe.  States were replacing dynastic monarchies whose territory had often changed with the marriage of a king’s daughter.  Many states came to embrace ideas about the unique and superior nature of the people within their “traditional” borders.  The concept evolved in the 20th century into the idea of a fatherland, and that led to genocide in some nation states along with a world war over territory.

A different concept of nationalism arose in the second half of the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined.  Europe’s great nations were thriving as nation states, why not Arab nations, too?  In the early 20th century when much of the Arab world fell  to Europe’s colonial empires, the idea grew stronger.  All Arabs wanted the colonial powers gone — many wanted to replace their form of rule with a federation of Arab governments.

Arab World Map

When Arab independence came, mostly during or after WW2 and often with a ruler chosen by their imperial master, Egypt, Syria and Iraq made an abortive federation agreement, and there were other attempts, but local priorities and the drive for power always prevailed.

In fact, independent Turkey would never have allied closely with its Arab neighbors whether or not they united, nor would Turkey ally closely with Iran, and neither would Iran with the Arab world.  There’s simply too little history of good self-government, or willingness to trust.

Unsurprisingly, most post-Ottoman states have been stable only under a dictator whose military power subdued ethnic and religious rivalry within an arbitrarily defined territory.

So, how does the future look for Turkey and its neighbors?  Turkey and Iran have good potential as nation states.  Recently independent Kurdistan may have, too, but it has no natural borders.  Syria and Iraq are on the brink of fragmentation.  The Islamic State has no territorial or ethnic history, but its leaders may be sufficiently brutal to thrive for a time.

It is hard for Westerners to see a good future for the people of this area because we can no longer imagine any system of government other than nation states.  We think dynastic monarchies in the Middle East just need to become secular democratic republics like ours.  But the Ottoman millet system, for example, worked better than most nation states.

Hamilton argued in Federalist Paper 25 that power-seeking leaders of US states would make war on each other if they had military capability.  These nation states are doing exactly that.  We should stop arming them to escalate battles we do not understand.

We must also recognize that centuries of abuse by Europe’s colonial powers and now our own wars in Iraq and elsewhere have bred deep and inevitable mistrust of whatever help we may offer.

Beyond the Media Hype: Iraq

A stony plain west of the Euphrates inhabited by a few pastoral bedouins covers almost two-fifths of Iraq, which overall is about the size of California.  Rolling upland between the upper Tigris and Euphrates is also largely desert.  Highlands in the northeast provide Kurds with some grazing and cultivation but three quarters of all Iraqis live on an alluvial plain from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf through marshland from where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.    Crops are increasingly limited south of Baghdad by salinity from river-born and windblown sand.

Iraq Topography

Three-quarters of Iraqis are Arabs, most others are Kurds.  Most sources say two thirds of Iraqis are Shia, one third Sunni.  But some claim there’s a Sunni majority.  Kurds (17% of the population) are mainly secular Sunnis as are most Turkmen (around 5%).  What is disputed is how many Iraqi Arabs are Shia or Sunni.

Christianity was brought to Iraq in the first century by the Apostle Thomas and Christians were in 1950 as much as 10% of the population.  Many have fled and there are fewer than 1% now.  The majority of Jews also fled after riots in 1967 when Israel captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The forces at work in Iraq now have deep roots in the past.  Centuries of battles between Persian and Eastern Roman empires that exhausted both paved the way for the Arab-Muslim conquest and the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate to be established in Baghdad in the 8th century.  It soon dominated the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and Baghdad became the leading city of the entire Arab and Muslim world.  It was for five centuries Islam’s center of learning.

Umayyad Califate

That glorious age came to an end in 1257 when Genghiz Khan’s Mongols swept in from the far northeast and sacked Baghdad.  Sunnis had dominated throughout the Abbassid caliphate but Shia were able to convert others when it fell and more importantly, Sufi mystical Islam became popular in Iran, preparing the way for a subsequent Shia regime.   In the mid 1300s, the Black Death halted recovery in Iraq and throughout the Middle East where fully a third of the population died (45-50% in Europe).   Then in 1401, another Mongol warlord came, sacked Baghdad again and massacred the Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq.

The Shia Safavid Empire that arose next in Iran began with a battle in 1499 led by their first ruler when he was twelve.  He captured Tabriz two years later, declared independence from the Ottoman Empire (see below) and held most of present-day Iran by 1510.  He set up a well administered theocracy that brought a nomadic society under control and financed an army that soon conquered much of Iraq, Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran Safavid Empire 2

The Safavid Empire ruled for more than two centuries, and enforced conversion to Shia under penalty of death.

The Ottoman Empire had been expanding in stages from the early 1300s.  Their siege of Constantinople in 1453 brought the Byzantine Empire to an end and left them in control of trade with the Far East.  They took Iraq from the Safavids in 1533.

Ottoman Empire

Iraq remained a battle zone between the Sunni Ottoman and Shia Iranian empires from then until the Ottoman Empire finally fell at the end of WW1.

The result of those centuries of turbulence is a Sunni population where Iraq borders Turkey, Kurds in the northeast, and a Shia population where Iraq borders Iran in the south.

Iraq Ethic and Religious Groups

The British got control of Iraq when the Ottoman Empire fell and established a Sunni government with a king from French Syria.  Iraq gained independence in 1932.  In 1941, Britain invaded to protect oil supplies following a military coup and reestablished the monarchy.  There was another military coup in 1958, and that regime was overthrown by the Ba’ath Party in 1968.

The Iraqi Ba’ath Party formed in 1951/2 was Arab Nationalist, socialist, and primarily Shia but it slowly became Sunni and dominated by the military.  When General Saddam Hussein gained control in 1979, he welcomed the fall of Iran’s Shah, but Ayatollah Khomeini, wanting the Islamic Revolution to spread, armed Shiite and Kurdish rebels in Iraq, so in 1980 Iraq declared war.  After some initial success, its forces were driven out in 1982 and for the next six years, Iran was on the offensive.  The war ended in stalemate with half a million to 1.5 million dead.

The US had broken with Iran when the Shah fell and supported Iraq in the 1980-1988 war, but when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, US-led forces quickly drove them out.  The Iraq/Kuwait border had been fixed by the British in 1913 and accepted at first by independent Iraq but it was disputed since the 1960s.  In 2003, claiming  that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the US reversed course and led an invasion.  Saddam Hussein’s government  was replaced by a Shia-led one that excluded many former officials and disbanded the mainly Sunni army, then chaos and intense violence ensued between Sunnis and Shias.

US leaders assumed a Shia government would be pro-American because Saddam Hussein had oppressed Iraq’s Shias.  Instead, it cautiously allied with Shia Iran, which the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel saw as a great threat.  VP Cheney warned of “a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world.”  Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of an Iranian-led imaginary crescent that would stretch from Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait through Iran to Syria and Lebanon.

sunni shia middle east

Those fears were fanciful.   There is much more in common between Sunni and Shia Iraqis than between Iraqi and Iranian Shia.  Iraq’s Shias are chiefly Arab while only 2% of Iranians are Arab, the majority being Persian (60%+) while those in the north are mostly of Turkish heritage (20%+) and Kurds (10%).  The conflict between Sunni and Shia in Iraq is chiefly about the right to rule.  It results from the Shias’ long suppression by Sunni governments in Baghdad.

Now Iraq’s leader since last September is trying to build trust with the Kurds and Sunnis who were alienated by his divisive Shia predecessor.  His view of Iran and Iraq’s strategic imperatives is clear.  He says he will “take any assistance, even from Iran” against the Islamic State that, in the aftermath of our destruction, now controls large parts of Iraq.  Iran began providing direct military aid to Iraq in mid-2014 and an Iranian General now appears to be commanding both Iraqi and Iranian forces against the Islamic State.

Iraq Military Situation

So…  Our government at this time finds itself supporting Iraq’s Shia government, increasingly less committed to overthrowing the Shia regime in Syria as its Sunni Arab allies want, and seeking to end its estrangement from Iran.

Confusing as that is, it is good to stop escalating bloodshed by arming adversaries whose allegiances keep changing.  I will explore what to do about the Islamic State in a future post.

The chaos in Iraq now is very far from new.   Its future will continue to be determined by its position between powerful rivals, and whether it can establish an effective government for all Iraqis.

Beyond the Media Hype: Syria

Centuries of violence underlie the civil war that has so far killed over a hundred thousand Syrians, driven out two million refugees, and displaced six and a half million internally, and it is just part of a war where we and other powers are fighting for our own conflicting aims.

Syria is where agriculture and cattle breeding began in Mesopotamia around 10,000 BC.  It has been under empires of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Turkey.  It was held a thousand years ago by French, English, Italian and German Crusaders.  After WW1 when Iraq was taken by the British, it fell under France.  Britain later offered not to establish a Jewish state in Palestine in return for hegemony over a Greater Syrian state but France retained control until 1946.  Independent Syria made a chaotic start and was stable for only forty years.

Mesopotamia and Syria

Syria’s population includes Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Turks and others.  Roughly three quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, including Kurds who make up 9% of the overall population.  Shia Alawites (12%) and Christians (10%) make up the rest along with small numbers of Druze and others.

Although Sunni Arabs are by far the majority, Syria is ruled by Shia Alawites from the narrow coastal region that is separated by a mountain range from a semiarid steppe zone that covers three-quarters of the country and which is bisected by the Euphrates valley where cereals and cotton thrive.  The east is desert.  In the extreme northeast there is oil and natural gas.

Syria Topography

Newly independent Syria had military coups, twenty different cabinets and four constitutions in its first decade.  Martial law was in place for more than half a century after Israeli, British and French forces invaded Egypt in 1956 to regain the Suez Canal.  Syria signed a pact with the USSR when they were forced to withdraw then united with socialist pan-Arab Egypt from 1958-61.  The Arab Republic of Syria came into being in 1963 in a Ba’ath Party coup emulating one just before that in Iraq.

The Ba’ath Party was established in 1947 by a Christian, a Sunni Muslim and an Alawite Shia Muslim, anti-imperialists who aimed to replace religion with socialism and social reform.

In 1966 traditional Ba’athists were overthrown by Alawite army leaders.  In 1970, air force leader Hafez al-Assad seized control and ruled Syria as a strongman until his death in 2000.  He was succeeded by the present ruler, his son Bashar al-Assad.

In 1967 Syria lost half the Golan Heights when Israel also captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. After losing more of the Golan Heights in 1973 when Syria and Egypt invaded Israel, Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 and remained there until 2005 supporting proxies like Hezbollah to prevent Israel from taking southern Lebanon.  Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.

Yom Kippur War map

Syria’s current Ba’athist Alawite regime is based in what was an Alawite State when Syria was ruled by France.  Under the Ottomans, the head of each ethno-religious group — Arab Shia, Arab Sunni, Greek Christian, Assyrian Christian, etc —  administered the laws of his community.  France defined Lebanon’s borders to put Sunni Muslims under Christians who were allied with France, and divided Syria into the State of Damascus at the heartland of the Sunni Arab majority, the State of Aleppo at the trading center of Kurds, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others who felt closer to Baghdad than Damascus, and the Druze and Alawite States where people are “sort of” Shia.

Alawites celebrate many Christian festivals, use bread and wine in their ceremonies, and believe they originated as divine light but were cast out of heaven for disobedience and must expiate their sin over many lifetimes.  Their God has three emanations that manifest in human form, most recently as father of the Shia faith, Ali, the prophet Muhammed and Salman the Persian who was born into a Zoroastrian priestly family, converted to Christianity, heard of the coming of another prophet and found Muhammed.  Salman was the first Persian convert to Islam and the first translator of the Quran.

For political reasons, the Alawites have been recognized as true Shias by Iran’s supreme leader.

French Mandate Syria and Lebanon

The US view of Syria has changed greatly since the civil war began in 2011.  In the early years of our War on Terror we were quite approving.  The Dept of State’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report noted that Syria’s Government “suppresses extremist forms of Islam [and] made affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death [in] 1980.”

We thought Bashar al-Assad was, like his father, keeping his people under firm control: “The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups mainly attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.”

Syria

But when Saudi Arabia recognized the Syrian National Coalition formed in Qatar in 2012 as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and France and Turkey declared it the “only representative of the Syrian people” our State Dept issued a press release saying: “We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve.”

The State Dept’s 2013 Human Rights Reports: Syria said: “Syria is a republic ruled by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Asad … The Asad regime continued to use indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests and conducted air and ground-based military assaults on cities, residential areas, and civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals throughout the country.”

Our media said nothing about the issues, just demonized Bashar al-Assad, the same playbook they used for Nicaragua’s Ortega, Panama’s Noriega and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The State Dept report continued: “on August 21, the regime used sarin gas and artillery to target […] suburbs of Damascus, and killed over 1,000 persons.”  President Obama asked Congress to approve the use of military force “to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”

But just as there was no evidence for the “weapons of mass destruction” President Bush used to justify invading Iraq, there is no evidence that al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the sarin gas atrocity or has any weapons of mass destruction.

We did supply sarin gas that Saddam Hussein used on Iraq’s Kurds, but the gas used in Syria was not weapons-grade.  It appears to have been used by rebels who hoped to provoke us into helping them topple al-Assad’s government.

Now, four years into the civil war, Syria looks much as it did under the French Mandate except that the government still at this time controls a large part of what was the State of Damascus as well as the Alawite and Druze States.  Most of what was the State of Aleppo is now controlled by the Islamic State while the northeast is held by Rojavan forces.

Syrian Civil War

The Rojavan, aka Western Kurdistan, manifesto says: “The democratic confederalism of Kurdistan is not a State system, it is the democratic system of a people without a State… It takes its power from the people.”  Kurds want Kurdistan to include parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, too.  Kurds following Ottoman policy in the early 20th century massacred Christians throughout that area and were rewarded with their land.  More than half Syria’s poor are of Kurdish origin.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which controls territory in Iraq as well as Syria began operating under a different name in Jordan in 1999.  When we invaded Iraq in 2003 they attacked our forces, made suicide attacks on civilan targets and beheaded hostages.  They pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 with the intent: “to free Iraq’s Sunnis from Shia and foreign oppression, and to further the name of Allah and restore Islam to glory.”  Early in 2014 al-Queda disavowed loose-cannon ISIL.

The al-Nusra Front is an al-Queda branch formed in Syria and Lebanon in 2012 that aims to overthrow the al-Assad government and replace it with a fundamentalist Sunni state.  They are focused on that alone and have warned against Western intervention.  ISIL announced its merger with al-Nusra in mid-2013 but fighting broke out between them a year later.

ISIL now controls much of Syria and Iraq while Syrian and Iraqi Kurds dominate the northeast.

Military Situation Iraq Syria

I will delve deeper into Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State which in mid-2014 claimed religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

So… our air strikes are now leading the battle against the Islamic State, but we destroyed Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime in Iraq and say we will also end Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, which clears the path toward a fundamentalist Sunni regime like the Islamic State.

Does what we’re doing make sense?  Our military can destroy, but will we like what comes next?

This 1993 article by Robert Kaplan is excellent.

Beyond Media Hype: No Time for Peace

My mom and dad liked to remember how, as I lay in my crib in wartime London, I would coo happily to the wailing air raid sirens.  Only babies should be so innocent.

We have come to believe it is not only right but good to send our children to kill, and we revel in the destruction our media presents.

Just this century, we’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, Yemen since 2002, Iraq since 2003, NW Pakistan since 2004, and now against ISIL.

I’m working to understand that part of the world.  I’ll post about Syria later this week then Iraq, the Kurds, ISIL and more.  But meantime, I want to make an overview comment about our appetite for war.

We borrowed almost $1,000bn for our war in Afghanistan and must borrow several hundred billion dollars more for medical and other costs that continue.

Adjusted for inflation, we spent more just on reconstruction in Afghanistan than on the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild western Europe after WW2.

We borrowed close to $2,000bn for our war in Iraq.

We have already paid interest of $260bn on what we borrowed for those wars and our medical spending on veterans from them is already more than $130bn.

The results?  The Taliban are ready to take over again in Afghanistan, we left Iraq in chaos and that war led to the rise of our latest enemy, ISIL.

Why do we keep doing this?  Because it has become our habit.

We no longer question our need for enormous armed forces.  We spend enormously every year to make them ever stronger.

It seems natural to use our force, our weapons manufacturers urge us to do so, and there are always opportunities against alleged threats or when others are killing each other.

President Eisenhower, who knew the agony of sending people to be killed, famously warned us about our “military-industrial complex.”

Here’s a less well known statement from Secretary of State William Marcy about why we would not sign an 1856 Treaty to ban privately owned ships in war:

The United States consider powerful navies and large standing armies as permanent establishments to be detrimental to national prosperity and dangerous to civil liberty. The expense of keeping them up is burdensome to the people; they are in some degree a menace to peace among nations. A large force ever ready to be devoted to the purposes of war is a temptation to rush into it. The policy of the United States has ever been, and never more than now, adverse to such establishments, and they can never be brought to acquiesce in any change in International Law which may render it necessary for them to maintain a powerful navy or large standing army in time of peace.

Our policy changed.  We now believe we must at all times maintain by far the world’s largest armed forces.  Since 2001, our defense department’s base budget has increased by $1,300bn more than its pre-9/11 forecasts.

Our current policy has brought an end to our “times of peace.”

Beyond the Media Hype: Yemen

Yemen, a crossroad of cultures where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean, was always important for trade between Europe, Africa, India and further east.  Shipping along its coasts is among the world’s most active and strategic.  It has been ruled by sun worshipers, all three Abrahamic religions — Jews, Christians and Muslims, its location has several times enabled its rulers to control most of the Arabian Peninsula, and it has forever been bedeviled by tribal rivalry.

Only 2% of Yemen is arable land.  Its mountainous interior is ringed by narrow coastal plains and in the north and east by desert.  The western highlands reach 10,000 feet, have relatively fertile soil and get enough rain for sorghum, coffee, bananas and such (coffee is first known to have been cultivated in 15th century Sufi monasteries in north Yemen.)  The central plateau gets enough rain for wheat and barley in wet years.  The northeastern desert gets little to no rain at any time.

Yemen Topography

Yemen’s sun god worshiping rulers for a thousand years were conquered around 270 AD by the Himyarite whose king a century later converted to Judaism, seemingly to maintain good relations with both Roman Christian and Persian Zoroastrian empires.  The Himyarites were defeated in 525 by Aksumites from Ethiopia whose king converted to Christianity around 350 when the Roman emperor also began trying to convert Yemen to Christianity.  Fighting between Jewish and Christian warlords continued for centuries, then in 630 Mohammed introduced Islam in the person of his cousin, Ali.

Ali is considered by Sunnis nothing more than the fourth of Mohammed’s elected successors as leader of all Muslims.  Shias, however, consider him Mohammed’s rightful successor.  That disagreement plunged the Muslim community into violent conflict that still persists 1,400 years later.

Muslim Yemen was ruled by a Shia dynasty founded in the north around 1040, then Sunni ones of Kurdish origin that invaded from the south.

Yemen Ethnography

When Portuguese merchant ships arrived in the early 16th century, the governor of Egypt began conquering Yemen to protect the Ottoman trade route with India.

Then the British entered three centuries later wanting a base to stop pirate attacks on their trade with India.  They were in 1838 granted by a local Sultan 75 acres around the ocean port of Aden.  After the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 cutting 4,300 miles off the sea voyage between Europe and India, Aden became a coaling station. and Britain expanded inland from there.

While Britain gained control of south Yemen, the Turkish Ottoman empire retained nominal control in the north although tribal chiefs there made real control impossible.  In 1918 when the Ottomans fell, a kingdom was established as North Yemen that in 1962 became the Yemen Arab Republic.

South Yemen continued to be ruled as part of British India until 1937.  It remained a British protectorate until armed struggles that began in 1963 resulted in its independence in 1967 when Britain was also forced by Egypt to relinquish control of the Suez Canal.

Marxists gained power in South Yemen in 1969, established the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and formed close ties with the Soviet Union, China, East Germany and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  The Soviet Union gave them strong support for which in return they got access to South Yemen’s ports.

North and South Yemen united in 1990 with North Yemen’s leader as President.  He outraged our government later that year by opposing military intervention from non-Arab states when Iraq invaded Kuwait.  Saudi Arabia supported us by expelling 800,000 Yemenis.

South Yemen seceded in 1994 with active support from Saudi Arabia but was defeated in a brief civil war.  There is still substantial support in south Yemen for an independent state.

When rebellion by Shia Houthis began in the north in 2004, the weak government tried allying with al Queda in unsuccessful counter attacks.  Then we began drone attacks on al Queda when in 2009 the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches merged to form al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen.  Yemen’s government was now trying to defend itself against Shia rebels in the north, separatists and AQAP in the south.

Yemen never had effective government institutions.   Since it was unified, leaders of competing tribal, regional, religious and political groups have collaborated just enough to make it the 164th most corrupt of 182 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 survey, and it was ranked last of 135 countries in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report for violence against women.

Pagan, Jewish and Christian influences from before Islam’s arrival are long gone.  For a thousand years the former North Yemen has been Shia, the former South Yemen Sunni and the two have been proxies in great empires’ wars to control trade routes.  Yemen’s history of never-ending struggles for power and wealth make it hard to see how a stable, unified, modern form of government can be established.  

The latest development is, a few days ago Yemen’s President Hadi, who replaced the previous leader in a 2011 pro-democracy uprising and was trying to end secessionist and tribal unrest, resigned in frustration.  Al Queda forces already controlled much of the south.  Now Houthi rebels had taken control of the capital, Sana’a.  Warriors from north Yemen always have been formidable and their latest incarnation, the Houthi, were doing better against al Queda than the government forces.  They seemed set to take over. 

Yemen War 2015

Yemen War legend

 

So what should our government do? We have spent nearly $1 billion on military, economic and humanitarian assistance in Yemen since 2011.  Who should we support now?  Who are the good guys?  Who, for that matter, are the bad ones?

Can Yemen’s government survive and will its next leader, like ex-President Hadi, support our drone attacks on AQAP?  Or will the next government turn back to AQAP to counter the Houthi?

Who are the local great powers supporting?  Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist regime supports the Sunni in south Yemen, and AQAP is supported by Saudi Arabians.   Iran’s fundamentalist regime supports the Shia Houthi in the north, which borders Saudi Arabia.

We support the Saudi regime and have opposed Iran since its 1979 revolution.  President Bush branded Iran in 2002 part of “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”   We have been placing ever-tighter economic sanctions on Iran.

Echoing President Bush, National Security Adviser Rice said, “Iran’s direct support of regional and global terrorism and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, belie any good intentions it displayed in the days after the world’s worst terrorist attacks in history.”  In 2003, we invaded Iraq on the pretext that it already had weapons of mass destruction.

So should we continue to support Yemen’s weak government, should we instead support the Houthi  who have been more successful than the government against al Queda, or should we join Israel in supporting Saudi Arabia and its proxies who include al Queda in south Yemen?

Our government is deeply divided.  President Obama is engaging in diplomacy with Iran.  Congress just invited Israel’s leader to address them for a third time on why we should support Saudi Arabia and cripple Iran whose leaders support Hezbollah, the Shia force Iran established in 1982 to resist Israeli occupation in Lebanon.

We have no good allies in this part of the world.  The forces in north and south Yemen are on opposite sides of a 1,400 year-long battle that never had much to do with religion, was always about power, and is now amplified by rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Battles for power in the Middle East now are much like those between Protestant and Catholic nations in medieval Europe.

Our military actions in the Middle East lead only to more suffering (as well as dependable sales of weapons.)  Instead of continuing to make war, we should support UN peace-keeping forces.

And what about terrorism?   No matter how horrific and whether committed in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other religion, or whether committed in the name of communism, anti-communism, anarchism or any other ideology, terrorism is a crime of violence.  Crime cannot be ended by war.

Crime cannot be ended at all, in fact, but it can be minimized when the rule of law is supported by an effective system of justice and policing.  After exploring more of the Middle East, I will consider how international justice and policing could more effectively counter al Queda and other terrorists.

Beyond the Media Hype: Fear and Loathing

It is traditional to express a wish around this time of year.  Mine is that all of us will come to feel this truth more — we are all the same.

It is also traditional to make a personal resolution.  Mine is to continue diligently training myself to act on this truth.  If all of us did, we would “save the world” — we would end suffering.

All the sameThat’s what motivated all these posts I originally titled “Fear and Loathing of…”  Someone I love said, “I wish you’d stop with the fear and loathing” and I knew it was a distressing title but it highlighted what is so dangerous, the fear and loathing our media stimulates.  On reflection, I think it amplifies the emotion so now I’ve renamed them “Beyond the Media Hype…”

Progressives fume about Fox News.  They’re right because 60% of Fox’s statements are mostly or completely false, less than 10% are true and less than 20% are even mostly true.  But it’s not just Fox News.

Politifact Fox

Conservatives fulminate about MSNBC.  They’re also right.  Almost half (44%) of statements there are mostly or completely false, again less than 10% are true, and although the percentage is better than with Fox News, less than 30% are mostly true.

Fox News and MSNBC give us stories to feed our hatred.  Better to watch CNN because fewer than 20% of their statements are mostly or completely false and 60% are true or mostly true.

Politifact MSNBC

But nonetheless, 18% of the statements on CNN are mostly or completely false.  We must not believe everything there.

Politifact CNN

Democracy cannot work when 3 of every 5 statements on Fox News are mostly or completely false, more than 2 of 5 statements on MSNBC are mostly or completely false, and even on CNN, only 3 of 5 statements are true or mostly true.

This is not a theoretical issue.  Falsehoods in the media persuade us that we have enemies, people who are fundamentally different from us, people we must destroy.

We are so easily led  to imagine those who seem different from us in some way are our enemies.  That’s why I originally titled these posts “Fear and Loathing Of/In …”

We fear being swept aside by immigrants, especially Muslims, we fear who knows what violence from Iran, Saudis are beset by conflict with each other that exacerbates our mutual suspicion, and so on and so on and so on.

I will continue to explore Middle Eastern nations and the ethnic, religious and other rivalries that transcend their arbitrarily imposed borders to set the context for a deeper exploration of what is really going on.

But please don’t wait.  We really are all the same — we all want to be more happy.  We all will be more happy if we become more kind, and we will grow more kind as we become more happy.

Beyond the Media Hype: Saudi Arabia

Where next to combat my ignorance about the Middle East?  Here.  We Americans fear and loathe Arabs in general but we imagine Saudis to be our friends.

Saudi Arabia is mostly inhospitable desert that covers 80% of the Arabian Peninsula.  The prophet Muhammed united nomadic tribes here in the early 7th century and established an Islamic state that his followers rapidly expanded.   The center of the Muslim world soon moved to better lands and most of what is now Saudi Arabia reverted to tribal rule.

In the 16th century, Ottoman rulers of Turkey north of Iraq added the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula to their empire.  Their control of the area varied over the next four centuries.  In 1916, tribal leaders encouraged by Britain mounted a failed revolt then the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW I.  Ibn Saud, who founded today’s Saudi Arabia and avoided the revolt, continued his three decades long campaign against his regional rivals.

He established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 as an absolute monarchy governed under a puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi that is practiced by 85–90% of Saudis.  The other 10-15%, who face systematic discrimination, are Shi’a.   No faith other than Islam is permitted, conversion by Muslims to other religions is outlawed and so is proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The royal family controls all the kingdom’s important posts.  Around 200 of more than 7,000 princes occupy the  key ministries and regional governorships.  The country in effect belongs to the Ibn Saud family.

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north with Egypt, Israel and Palestine to Jordan’s west.  Syria is in the northwest and Iran is a few miles east over the Persian Gulf.  These borders were drawn up by the British and French at the end of WW I with little regard for tribal, religious or ethnic realities.

Saudi_Arabia_map(Map created by Norman Einstein, February 10, 2006)

Saudi Arabia is interesting to two communities.  Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammed and the site of his first revelation of the Quran, is Islam’s holiest city.  Non-Muslims are prohibited from it and a pilgrimage to it is mandatory for Muslims.  That Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and exporter and has the world’s second largest proved petroleum reserves motivates our interest.

Oil was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859, Russia found it in the Caucasus in 1873, then the British found it in Iraq in 1903.  They promptly declared they would “regard the establishment of a naval base or a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.”  Five years later, they struck oil in Iran.

Three years after that, the British began converting their navy from coal, of which they had ample supplies, to oil, of which they had none.  They landed forces in Iraq in 1914, captured Baghdad and began projecting power from there.  More oil was found in the Persian Gulf, starting in Bahrain in 1931 and followed by Kuwait and Qatar.  Then in 1933, Americans found oil in Saudi Arabia.

American businessmen were cautiously welcomed by the Saudi king as less threatening than Britain or other colonial powers.  He negotiated well with Aramco executives, the business established to export the oil, and later with the US government, trading oil for infrastructure development that transformed Saudi Arabia in a very short time from a medieval fiefdom to a 20th century one that became leader of the petroleum exporters, OPEC.

Oil_Reserves_Top_5_Countries

Saudi Arabia gained control of 20% of Aramco in 1972, full control in 1980 and was by 1976 the largest oil producer in the world.  In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against Western countries that supported Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 led Saudi Arabia’s king to fear rebellion by the Shi’a minority in the east where the oil is located, and in the same year protesters against laxity and corruption in his government seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  These events led to enforcement of much stricter religious observance and a greater role in government for Muslim legal scholars.

The royal family’s relations had been primarily with Aramco leaders until the reign of King Khalid starting in 1975.  After 1975 was when Saudi and US foreign policy grew closely aligned.

Saudi Arabia provided $25B to Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran, which we supported.  It condemned Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and allowed US and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.  But it did not support or participate in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The US by then no longer seemed a dependable ally.

There is significant opposition in Saudi Arabia both to US influence, and to the absolute monarchy.  The strongest opposition comes from Sunni religious leaders who want a stricter form of Islamic rule.  Others want the opposite.  The Saudi government was rated the 5th most authoritarian government out of 167 in 2012.  Women have almost no rights, it’s the only country in the world that bans them from driving.  There is also opposition from the Shi’a minority as well as tribal and regional opponents.

The Saudi royal family’s greatest fear, however, until the recent rise of the Islamic State whose stated goal is leadership of an Islamic world, has been Iran’s growing influence.  They are more alarmed now the US and Iran seem to be inching closer to a rapprochement.

So the Saudi royal family needs US military support but is at odds with us among other reasons because, like every other nation in the Middle East, they opposed the creation of Israel and are supportive of the Palestinians.  They have condemned the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but the Saudi royal family is Sunni and Hezbollah are Shi’a.

The royal family must also deal with anti-American feeling among the Saudi people.   Osama Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and it is widely believed, in former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s words, that: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Very recently, the king criminalized “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” fearing that Saudis taking part in Syria’s civil war will return knowing how to overthrow a monarchy.  Syria now defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”  One of the groups they have named as a terrorist organization is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fear of its neighbors motivates Saudi Arabia to spend more than 10% of its GDP on its military, among the highest percentage of military expenditure in the world.  The kingdom has a long standing military relationship with Pakistan.  Some believe it funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and could purchase such weapons from them for itself.

A good representative of what the Saudi government fears is Safar al-Hawali, a scholar who was a leader of the 1991 movement opposing the presence of US troops on the Arabian peninsula and a leader of a 1993 group that was the first to openly challenge the monarchy.

No surprise that al-Hawali is also a critic of the US government.

In 2005, al-Hawali wrote in An Open Letter to President Bush “the Roman Empire claimed to be the symbol of freedom and civilized values, just as you referred to America in your first statement after the incidents of September 11.  It was the greatest world power of its day, the heir of Greek civilization.  It had a Senate and a façade of democracy.  The Roman citizen had freedom of religion and personal behavior.  All this made it superior to other Empires throughout the world, and yet history does not speak well of this Empire because of the repulsive crime with which it stained its reputation: the persecution of the Christians.”

Elsewhere, al-Halawi wrote: “Since World War II, America has not been a democratic republic: it has become a military empire after the Roman model … the American way can be discerned and defined in one word: war.  America unhesitatingly enters into war anywhere in the world … Thus we notice that America is always seeking an enemy, and if it does not find one it creates one and inflates it using its terrible media to persuade its people’s conscience that the war it has declared is necessary and for a just cause.”  (“Inside the Mirage” Thomas A. Lippman, p. 328)

We imagine Saudi Arabia is our friend, but our thirst for oil provokes their memories of colonial powers.  Saudis and others in the Middle East don’t understand our unquestioning support for Israel.  Their Muslim leaders are as suspicious of American Christians as we are of them.  Inside Saudi Arabia the Shi’a minority is oppressed by their Sunni rulers, Wahhabi fundamentalists battle progressives, and nobody except the royal family can have a role in government.

Preconceptions like the ones we and Saudis hold about each other are not a dependable basis for friendship.  Instead, they fuel hatred.

Beyond the Media Hype: Iran

A 2013 BBC poll found 87% of Americans view Iranian influence negatively, which is odd because few Americans ever met an Iranian.  What caused the negativity?

Our relations with what was Persia used to be positive.  We established diplomatic relations in 1883 when Persia, like many other nations, was threatened by British and Russian colonizing although there was little contact between us until 1906 when Persia established a constitutional monarchy.

The Shah was forced to accept an elected parliament.  The Qatar royal family had borrowed massively from Britain and Russia, ruining the country’s finances, so Persia’s new parliament appointed an American, Shuster, as Treasurer General to set things straight.

But Britain and Russia continued to dominate Persia and its neighbors.  Following their formal agreement about which of them would control which parts of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet, they pressured Persia in 1911 to expel Shuster.

In 1921 when the treasury was empty again, another American, Millspaugh, was hired to straighten things out.  He freed the country from foreign loans by 1927 and Persians came to see the US as their liberator from Britain and Russia.

In 1925, Reza Shah deposed the last Qajar Shah and founded the secular Pahlavi dynasty.  He introduced reforms that modernized the nation he renamed Iran, but he was a despot.  He was forced to abdicate in 1941 at the time of a WW2 Anglo-Soviet invasion.

In 1942, Millspaugh was invited back by Iran’s parliament but he was forced out in 1945 by Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, because he kept refusing to increase military spending.

In 1953, the government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and the British MI6 after Iran’s elected leader tried to nationalize its oil industry, 80% of the profits of which were going to Britain.  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was reinstated as a close US ally.

During the Cold War, we supported Iran’s and many other unpopular and repressive regimes as bulwarks against the Soviet Union.

In 1979 when widespread unrest forced the Shah to flee, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and established an anti-American, radical Islamic regime.  Iranian students, angry when the Shah was admitted to the US, stormed our Embassy and held hostages.

That was the end of secular Iran and friendly relations with the US.

We made a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in 1980, they were released immediately Reagan replaced Carter, then things got murky.

Iraq hoped to take advantage of the chaos in Iran and attacked without warning in 1980.  Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, fearing the Iranian revolution could spread, provided support.  Saudi Arabia is thought to have provided $1B/month.   Support also came from France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the US, including intelligence on Iranian deployments from our satellites and radar planes.

President Reagan said we would “do whatever is necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.”  We sold poisons for chemical weapons Iraq used against Iran and its own Kurds.  The war ended in stalemate in 1988 with perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and as many civilians killed.

In 1985 while we overtly supported Iraq, we also secretly sent weapons to Iran in exchange for help freeing US hostages in Lebanon.  We illegally sent the profits to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and when that became public in 1986, President Reagan suffered a short-lived political crisis.

In 1988, we shot down an Iranian commercial flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranians, most of whom were on their way to Mecca.

When the war ended, Iraq could not repay the $14B it borrowed from Kuwait and asked that the debt be forgiven, saying they had prevented Iran from over-running Kuwait.  Kuwait did not agree.

In 1990 Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling, then invaded and announced that Kuwait was now part of Iraq.  US-led forces drove Iraq out early in 1991.

That was when Iraq ceased to be our ally.  In 1993 we adopted a new “dual containment” policy that aimed to end the regional ambitions of both Iran and Iraq.

Iran elected a reformist president in 1997 but in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran part of an “axis of Evil” and said Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Then in 2005, Iran elected a conservative president.  He called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Iran resumed uranium conversion.  US Secretary of State Rice termed Iran an “Outpost of Tyranny” along with Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Belarus, and Zimbabwe.

But in 2006, Iran’s president wrote to President Bush calling for dialog.  We made no direct response but agreed to join European nations in talks with Iran if Iran suspended uranium enrichment.  In 2007, for the first time in 27 years, officials of Iran and the United States met face-to-face.

In December 2007, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  But nonetheless, the UN ratified four rounds of sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2010 and the US and EU also imposed sanctions, including on its financial sector in 2012.  The US Treasury claims Iran’s currency lost two-thirds of its value in the next two years.

In 2013, Iran’s next President, a reformist, called President Obama, the first between US and Iranian heads of state for 30 years.  Diplomatic discussions began but our State Department website says: “The current Iranian government still has not recognized Israel’s right to exist, has hindered the Middle East peace process by arming militants, including Hamas, Hizballah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and continues to play a disruptive role in sustaining violence in the region, particularly Syria.”

Is that what really motivates our government?

No.  In 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said:  “Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis.”

In 2008, Democratic Senator Robb and GOP Senator Coates wrote:  “Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable. It would threaten U.S. national security … the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent.”

What really motivates us, then, is that nuclear weapons would prevent us from attacking Iran.  It’s quite a stretch to claim Iran is an existential threat to us.

Our media portrays Iran’s leader (whoever he may be at the time) as a new Hitler who will stop at nothing to dominate the world.  But that’s nonsense.  Iran will not commit suicide by using a nuclear weapon against us or Israel.  We both have huge nuclear stockpiles.

Positioning Iran in that way tells them they would be fools not to acquire nuclear weapons.  The dictators who gave up that quest, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, provide the lesson.

It is rational for Iran to want nuclear weapons.  We toppled their democratically elected government and installed a despotic ruler in 1953, we backed Iraq’s war against them from 1982-8, President Bush threatened a military strike, Israel often does, we’ve imposed the harshest ever sanctions, and they see what we’ve done to their neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally, it is not irrational for Iran to back Hezbollah’s battle against an Israel that keeps threatening military action.  A deal to end that support would be good for us as well as Israel because Hezbollah is a far more capable terrorist group than al Qaeda ever was.

It is true that Iran has a terrible human rights record.  In 2013 it ranked 167 in the world, according to the International Human Rights Indicator.  But we don’t care about our allies’ human rights: think Mubarak, Gaddafi, and for many years, Saddam Hussein.

What we care about is compliance with our foreign policy.  Egyptian dictator Mubarak was OK with Israeli military action in Lebanon and occupied Palestinian territories.  Gaddafi became our friend until he spoke of nationalizing Libya’s oil.

We supported Iraq’s war on Iran then made war on Iraq, threatened Syria, are making drone attacks in other Middle East nations, and now we say the “Islamic State” is the enemy.    But if we really do want to destroy the Islamic State, we need Iran as a partner because air strikes won’t be enough.

And more importantly, the power vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to flourish must be resolved unless we want perpetual instability in the Middle East.  There must be a political solution, which means we must talk with Iran not just because of their concerns but because they influence Shia leaders in Syria and Iraq.

Our leaders fear an Iran with nuclear weapons that would neuter their freedom to attack.  But what makes we the people fear Iran?  What is our underlying fear?

This poster from a Facebook friend, many of whose beliefs distress me, offers a clue:

Pastor Saeed Poster

Iran jailed Pastor Saeed for “undermining national security.”  His Christian missionary work did not threaten territorial security.  He was working against the religion on which Iran’s laws are based.

We, just as the colonial powers did, send missionaries to “foreign lands” to replace their beliefs with our own.  The poster’s publisher, ACLJ.org, is an arm of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, Inc.  Christian evangelism tends to suggests we aim to make the whole world American.

Iran’s leaders may also wonder if temporal victory really is our aim.  President Reagan believed in the Rapture, when all true believers will be taken into heaven and all others will face tribulation.  On at least eleven occasions he said the end of the world is coming, maybe soon.  President Bush had similar beliefs but, since the Cold War was over, he saw the Antichrist not in Russia but the Middle East.

Still though, why would so many Americans want no deal to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons?  How could the pastor’s release from jail be more important than nuclear proliferation in the Middle East?

Because humans are programmed to fear “the other.”  Some small group becomes noticeable, we don’t know any of them personally, we don’t know much about them, they seem different from us, we imagine they are all the same and rapidly growing in number, then we feel threatened.

Jews have been “the other” in many societies throughout history.  Roman Catholics were “the other” here when Kennedy was running for President.  More recently Muslims have become “the other” here and in Europe.

Now we imagine all Muslims are the same, and because the ones we’re shown by the media are terrorists, we imagine all Muslims to be potential if not yet actual terrorists.

Nothing I or anyone else can say will eradicate that fear.  It will only evaporate as more of us get to meet more Muslims, or if our media first positions some new small group as “the other.”