The Deadly Legacy Of Imperialism

BUSH AND Blair’s war in Afghanistan has encountered mass popular opposition in many parts of the Muslim world. In the Middle East and Gulf states, many people remember imperialism’s bloody record throughout the region. ROGER SHRIVES looks at the crimes of imperialism in this area of great importance economically and politically.

The Deadly Legacy Of Imperialism

IMPERIALIST POWERS in the West have invaded, attacked, lied to, and connived against the people of the Middle East for centuries. For nearly 100 years, the main reason has been to control the region’s huge oil reserves.

Before oil, imperialist powers had mainly a strategic interest in the area. The Middle East was on the profitable trade route to India so British imperialism’s main concern was to build up “protectorates” and feudal kingdoms as military bases. Kuwait came under Britain’s “protection” in 1779 while Bahrain became a protectorate and military base in 1861.

When oil production became big business, control over the Suez canal and the Gulf became vital. In 1909 oil extraction began in Iran. That same year a treaty between Britain and Tsarist Russia divided the country between them. A British firm got concessions to exploit the oil fields and Britain tried to turn Iran into a protectorate.

Suez canal

The 1914-18 war killed off the ailing Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey. As it disintegrated other imperialist powers, particularly Britain, used divide and rule tactics to stop the local people gaining any real control.

British imperialism led the Arab masses – who had fought alongside British troops against the Turkish forces – to expect independence and a homeland of their own.

But the Suez canal and the Gulf were now vital seaways for Western powers. The war itself had shown how essential oil was for their military needs and how profitable it was. Most of all, after 1917, Western imperialism feared that the Russian revolution could spread to the Arab world. Their solution was to ram the lid down tight to prevent an Arab uprising.

Rival imperialisms carved up the Ottoman empire’s Arab territories. Britain and France set up feudally run client states as a bulwark against Arab revolution. France got Lebanon and Syria, relying on the Christian minority to protect them in Lebanon.

Britain gained what became Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. Britain’s foreign secretary Balfour told Jewish people, discriminated against in the West, that they could have a homeland of their own within the borders of their Palestine mandate.

This was done for self-seeking reasons – in particular Britain’s rulers hoped that a Jewish state might protect their control of the Suez canal. Jewish emigration started to Palestine. Of course this treaty, confirmed by the League of Nations (or League of Imperialist Bandits as Lenin styled them) in 1920, contradicted Britain’s cynical promises to the Arabs.

Puppet regimes

AFTER OIL was found, national independence movements and growing workers’ movements forced the imperialist powers to leave most of the Middle East. But the hugely profitable oil firms tried to prevent real independence.

They opposed any moves towards pan-Arab unity, largely because they needed to use smaller semi-feudal states, with less pressure from massive poor populations, to keep oil prices low.

When Britain consolidated power in Iraq, they made sure that they seized control of the oil-rich area of Mosul. They then signed a secret deal with their rival, France, guaranteeing them a share in Iraq’s oil.

In 1920, scared of nationalist uprisings, particularly just after the Russian revolution, the British RAF put down an Iraqi revolt, killing 9,000 civilians in their bombings. Britain had a puppet king crowned.

Kuwait was kept separate from Iraq with a royal dictatorship. Britain’s intention was to create a “police station from which Iraq, South Persia, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf could be controlled.” Mass demonstrations in Iraq demanded independence but it was only with these safeguards, and a British-appointed prime minister, that Iraq gained nominal independence in 1932.

During the second world war the imperialist powers offered Lebanon independence from France if they turned against the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. But France refused to leave and had to be forced out in 1946-47.

Radicalising effect

THEN IN 1948 Britain and the US backed the creation of the state of Israel. After the horrors of Hitler’s genocide, many people in the West had genuine sympathies with a Jewish homeland. But the wishes of the Arab masses were totally ignored and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians started a human and political problem that still lasts and is at present worsening.

The Palestine question radicalised the movements in the area. In Egypt defeat of the Arabs in the 1948-49 war with Israel showed up how corrupt and inadequate the old regimes were. Colonel Nasser and other army officers seized power in 1952. Their reforms aimed to win workers and peasants over to their side, although they didn’t break with capitalism.

At that time the Suez canal was run by an Anglo-French private company which made £170 million a year in profits. In 1956 Nasser nationalised it. Britain (half of whose oil came through the canal) France and Israel invaded, bombing Egyptian cities. US imperialism, then less gung-ho than Britain on this subject, refused to support declining British imperialism which backed down.


But in Iran in 1953, when a reformist nationalist prime minister Muhammad Mussadiq tried to nationalise oil reserves in his country, expropriating the Anglo-Iranian oil company, it was the US CIA which organised first an economic blockade then a coup.

Almost absolute power was restored to the Shah who encouraged capitalist modernisation and dictatorship, aimed most against the nationalists and the Left.

In Algeria from 1954 to 1962, the National Liberation Front fought to throw out French imperialism. France sent over half a million troops, destroyed 8,000 villages, killed over a million Algerians, but failed to hang on to their former colony.

Many imperialist interventions after that were against moves towards Arab unity. In Lebanon in 1958 10,000 US marines landed to pacify a country which was demanding closer links with Nasser’s Egypt and with Syria. At that stage British imperialism was considering military occupation of Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar to defend its oil profits.

In 1963 in Iraq, US CIA compiled a list of names of tens of thousands of Iraqi Communist Party members and gave it to right-wing army officers. Many left-wingers were tortured or killed by a coup against president Qasim whose land reforms and restrictions on oil profits had encouraged exaggerated talk of a “new Cuba”.

The Ba’ath regime responsible for this coup is the same one as Saddam Hussein leads today. The CIA in effect built up the brutal dictator who they’ve spent the last decade trying to remove.

In 1967 Israel attacked the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupied the West Bank, previously part of the state of Jordan, the Gaza strip and the Golan Heights, part of Syria since the first world war.

In 1975 Lebanon started a civil war which increased the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) influence. Israel invaded in 1978 to destroy PLO bases. When they withdrew they left Christian militias in charge of part of South Lebanon.

Israel invaded again in 1982, occupying two-fifths of Lebanon, including Beirut. In one incident the current Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon gave his Christian militia supporters a free hand to murder 2,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps near Beirut.

Over the years Israel has annexed land, bombed neighbouring countries and defied resolutions from the UN many times but it gets no sanctions and it doesn’t get bombed by the US.

On the other hand the US Reagan administration always linked Libya with terrorism. The US air force shot down two Libyan planes in 1981 and bombed Tripoli in 1986 in an attempt to kill Libya’s leader Gaddafi.

New world disorder

IN THE 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq, the US and the West backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because Iran’s Islamic regime with its huge army was seen as destabilising the region by upsetting the balance of power. US imperialism didn’t want any one local state to dominate the Gulf region.

Iraq was vital in blocking Iran, though at least 350,000 died in that war. But when Saddam too started getting regional imperial aims and invaded Kuwait, the US turned against him in the 1990-91 Gulf War which killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians to defend oil profits. Two-thirds of the West’s oil supplies come through the Gulf region (See The Socialist 19 October).

Bush promised a new world order including a Middle East free of armaments if the Arab and Muslim people helped get Saddam out of Kuwait. Shortly after the war, a summit sold more guns and missiles to both Arab and Israeli armies than ever before.

Since then US imperialism, now the world’s only superpower, has tried to keep a lid on the region by such means as sanctions which have killed thousands of Iraqi children every month.

Even in the conflict in Afghanistan, where the power and prestige of US imperialism are bigger factors, the major powers still aim to keep and even extend their control over the area’s huge resources.

Capitalists in many countries are now dreaming of a “post-war” Afghanistan, which could have big gas reserves and could be a corridor for transporting huge quantities of oil from the Caspian Sea area.

Throughout the last century, many mass movements of the area’s workers and peasants have fought against imperialism’s trampling of democratic, national and religious rights (more on this in future issues – eds).

The main task now is to build mass parties of the working class and poor and fight for a socialist solution which can meet everybody’s needs not just those of the obscenely rich oil magnates and pampered rulers both within the Middle East and the imperialist nations.