The West and the Middle East

Middle East turmoil has led some analysts to look back and speculate on the Sykes-Picot agreement and whether or not current borders would survive.

The very first of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points read: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Since plans to partition the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot agreement did not fit the definition, the system of mandates set up by the League of Nations emerged as a compromise. Following is a passage from Peter Mansfield’s “History of the Middle East”:
“It must be said that some British and French statesmen regarded the distinction between mandates and colonies as no more than fiction. One of the frankest was the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, who told the House of Lords on 25 June 1920,
“It is quite a mistake to suppose… that under the Covenant of the League of Nations or any other instrument, the gift of the mandate rests with the League of Nations. It does not do so. It rests with the Powers who have conquered the territories, which it then falls to them to distribute, and it was in these circumstances that the mandate for Palestine and Mesopotamia was conferred upon and accepted by us and that the mandate for Syria was conferred upon and accepted by France.” (1)

The system of mandates was a great disappointment for Arabs who were expecting independence right away. This is how Margaret MacMillan sums up the period in her remarkable book, “Peacemakers”:

“Britain and France paid a high price for their role in the peace settlements in the Middle East. The French never completely pacified Syria, and it never paid for itself. The British pulled back in Iraq and Jordan as quickly as they could, but they found they were stuck with Palestine and an increasingly poisonous situation between Arabs and Jews. The Arab world as a whole never forgot its betrayal and Arab hostility came to focus on the example of Western perfidy nearest at hand, the Zionist presence in Palestine. Arabs also remembered the brief hope of Arab unity at the end of the war. After 1945 the resentments and that hope continued to shape the Middle East.” (2)

On August 20, 1953 Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by American and British intelligence services. (President Obama in his landmark Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, admitted that “… the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government…”)
In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. On October 29, 1956, Israeli armed forces pushed into Egypt toward the Canal and they were followed by British and French forces. Bowing to hostile world reaction, particularly from the Eisenhower administration, the British and French forces withdrew in December and the Israelis in March 1957.

Coming to recent times:
On October 7, 2001 the US and the UK launched Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban.
In March 2003, they invaded Iraq.
On March 19, 2011, France, the UK and the US launched military operations against Qaddafi.

At present, because of Russia’s intervention in Syria and the situation in Aleppo, some are calling for a more robust US military response. Others are saying that President Obama’s failure to intervene decisively early on ensured that there was no clear military or nation building option and pushed rebel groups towards extremism. There are those who are advocating changes to borders drawn after the First World War. Yet, nobody claims that earlier Western interventions in the Middle East were a good investment in the evolution of relations with the region. Operation Enduring Freedom was an understandable and widely supported reaction to a horrific act of terror but nation-building from the outside has so far failed in Afghanistan.

In a turbulent region where countries are unable to put their own house in order let alone resolve differences between them, one may understand the temptation for external powers to intervene, especially when there are calls coming from within the region. However, the Arab Spring has already confronted the West with unexpected challenges. Former regional leaders who had for long been treated as friends suddenly metamorphosed into oppressive dictators reflecting the contradictions between West’s public discourse on democracy and its economic interests. What some initially supported as a “generational phenomenon” facilitated by Twitter, Facebook rapidly turned into winner-take-all kind of violent competition for power leading to a divisive migration crisis for the West if nothing else.

President Obama was right to resist calls for military action in Syria because this would have been just another ring in a chain of failed Western interventions in the Middle East. There is not going to be a happy end to the Syrian conflict with or without further American military involvement. If Washington can help promote internal peace in Iraq beyond ISIL, continue to press for Syria’s political transition, encourage intra-regional dialogue and resist suggestions for redesigning the Middle East this would be a better investment in Washington’s relations with the region than a new intervention. Causing disappointment by not intervening is a better and less costly option than doing so by intervening “decisively”. Regardless of what the future may bring, regional leaders will continue to blame external powers for their problems. In the past they had grounds to do that. This should no longer be the case.
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(1) Peter Mansfield, History of the Middle East, Penguin Books, pp.221-222.
(2) Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers, John Murray (Publishers), p.420.

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