The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Middle East powder keg:
Created by imperialist domination

Sep 24, 2001

The attacks on September 11 in the U.S. are a consequence of the explosive situation in the Middle East, a region that has been ravaged by wars and conflicts that often last for decades and that feed on themselves. What has turned this region into such a powder keg has been its domination by the great outside imperialist powers that have literally sucked the wealth out for their own enrichment, at the expense of the vast majority of people, who are forced to live under abject poverty. To ensure the continual flow of profits, the big imperial powers have invaded and occupied parts of the region with their own troops, imposed dictatorial regimes over the population and set the different peoples against each other.

The division of the Middle East

Their domination dates back over one century. By the end of the 19th century, the big Western European powers, as well as the U.S. and Japan, began to reinvest outside their own countries their growing profits from exploiting their own working classes. They divided up and colonized big parts of Africa and Asia.

In this first period of imperial conquest, the Middle East was a target of Britain, France and to a lesser extent Germany and Russia. It was a very important prize, not just because of its natural resources, including oil and such agricultural products as cotton. Because the Middle East sits astride three great continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, it also had a unique strategic importance both for trade and the military. The big imperial powers fought not only the people living there, but each other for control of this region. Already by 1869, the 100-mile-long Suez Canal that linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea was opened. French investors first controlled the canal, but they were soon supplanted by the dominant imperialist power of the time, the British.

Up until World War I, most of the Middle East remained under the control of the old Ottoman Empire, which for centuries had been in a state of decline and decay. World War I hastened its collapse. The victors of that war, the British and French governments, divided control of the Middle East between themselves. To France went today’s Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got a territory covering today’s Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. These borders were drawn not by the people of the region, but by the imperial powers, simply to suit their own interests. Of course, all this was taking place under the suspicious eye of the U.S., the rising imperialist power, which in the coming decades would begin to play a more and more dominant role in the region.

The impending collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the temporary weakening of the grip of the other imperial powers as a result of World War I, combined to generate great expectations among the Arab masses throughout the region. With the end of the war, demonstrations, strikes and revolts against foreign rule took place in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Despite brutal repression by British and French troops, these revolts often lasted months. This led the colonial powers to search for Arab leaders, whom they could rely upon to defend their interests. Thus, the British imposed King Faisal, who had come from Syria, to rule over Iraq. The French selected a religious minority in Lebanon, the tiny Maronite Christian bourgeoisie, to rule over Lebanon.

By the early 1930s, the U.S. began to make inroads in the Middle East at the expense of its two main rivals, by gaining control over the potentially vast oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Saudi Arabia was the most backward country in the Middle East and it was the only area in the region that had remained unaffected by the power games of the imperialist rulers. But under the financial pressure brought on by the Great Depression, the feudal rulers of the country, the Saud family, were forced to sell off an oil concession covering 500,000 square miles. This prize was won by a joint venture of the Standard Oil Company of California and Texaco. Together, they formed Arabian American Oil Company, or ARAMCO, which held the monopoly control over oil production in Saudi Arabia.

Altogether, on the eve of World War II, eight companies controlled all the oil production and prospecting rights in the Middle East: five were American, one British, one French and one Dutch. Thus, the great wealth being produced in the Middle East was already being sucked out of the region, to enrich the great imperial powers.

The creation of Israel

Among the vast numbers of refugees created by World War II were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, who survived the Nazi concentration camps and the persecutions at the hands of many governments in Europe. They had no home to return to, but neither did they particularly want to settle in Palestine despite the call of Jewish nationalists, the Zionists. If they ended up in Palestine, it was primarily because the rich countries barred most of them from entering their territories.

In Palestine, which was under the control of the British, local Zionist groups had been demanding an independent state since the 1930s. Of course, the local Arab population was also fighting to get out from under imperialist domination. But instead of joining forces with the Arabs, not only against the imperialist powers, but also against all the reactionary and brutal dictatorships in the region, the Jewish leaders decided to fight for a Jewish state – against the British and against the Arab population.

After World War II, the Zionist rulers sought the support of the big imperial powers to proclaim a Jewish state. However, those powers were divided on the issue. The British, who were trying to hold onto control of Palestine, opposed the idea, and continued to try to repress the Zionist movement, including by fomenting anti-Semitic sentiments amongst the Arab population. But the U.S. supported the Zionists, partly in order to weaken British control over the region.

A three-year civil war ensued, in which heavily armed Zionist terrorist groups, thanks largely to U.S. financial support, carried out a kind of “ethnic cleansing” campaign against the Arabs, to drive them off their own land and out of their own towns and villages. Meanwhile, both Jewish and Arab nationalists did everything to make it impossible for the two populations to join forces against imperialist domination. For instance, among many other examples, the Jewish Irgun bombed the Haifa oil refinery, one of the few workplaces where Jewish and Arab workers were still working side by side. Arab nationalists, on the other hand, murdered a Jewish dockers’ union leader who advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state in which Arab and Jews would live on equal terms. In this way, two oppressed peoples were driven to fight against each other. A wall of hate was built up between them.

In May 1948, Israel, a Jewish state, was declared, and British troops left. Troops from Arab countries attacked the newly independent state, but they were no match for the better armed and organized Israeli army. The new Israeli state refused to allow vast numbers of Arab refugees to return to their lands. Thus, while Jewish refugees from Europe were pouring into Israel, a new population of Palestinian permanent refugees was being formed, outcasts destined to try to survive in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries, suffering from terrible poverty, misery and disease.

In every respect, the setting up of the reactionary, religious-based state of Israel was a catastrophe for the population of the entire region. It defused the postwar anti-imperialist struggle in Arab countries by deflecting it against Jewish settlers. It also allowed the Arab rulers to divert toward Israel the discontent against their own rule. Thus, right from its inception, the state of Israel emerged as a valuable instrument for imperialism. Israel became completely dependent on the U.S. for large subsidies to keep its economy running, as well as vast amounts of military aid. It is now a U.S. client state, a U.S. outpost in a very explosive, but vital region.

As for the Jewish population, Israel was far from the refuge that they sought. The Jewish people who settled there were besieged by a hostile Arab world that surrounded them. And they were forced to sacrifice in war after war, which served only to maintain the imperial world order.

Continued Arab upsurges – and their containment

Starting in the early 1950s, a new nationalist wave broke out amongst Arab peoples in country after country. They opposed the domination of the region by imperialism, including in Iran, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. But while these revolts often had the broad support of the masses, they never were able to fully break from imperialist domination. Some of the new regimes, like in Iran, were overthrown by the CIA. At most, other regimes were able to gain a small distance from imperialism for a limited time, while they remained dictatorships against the population.

But at the end of the 1960s, the revolt of the Palestinian people really threatened to upset imperialism’s domination in the region. Since the late 1940s, the Palestinians, who were pushed into refugee camps, had been promised by the big Arab powers that they would one day be allowed to return home. But in 1967, Israel defeated a coalition of Arab armies, in a sweeping victory that allowed Israel to gain new territory, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, there were hundreds of thousands of new Palestinian refugees, and any illusions that the Palestinian peoples had in the promises by the big Arab powers were dashed. This led to a growing Palestinian movement in the refugee camps that dotted Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. The movement held out the potential to spread to the poor Arab masses throughout the Middle East. The Palestinians often lived and mingled amongst these masses of people. The fact that they organized themselves into militias, and that they were armed, led others to look to them for inspiration in fighting against their own discredited, corrupt regimes.

Sensing this, the rulers of many of these Arab countries moved to crush the Palestinians. This started in Jordan in 1970, when King Hussein’s army attacked the Palestinian refugee camps during what was called Black September. Thousands were massacred, and most of the Palestinian refugees were expelled to other countries.

But in Lebanon, a few years later, when the Lebanese ruling class tried to do the same thing to the Palestinians, it touched off a broader revolt, in which the poor of Lebanon joined with the Palestinians for a short time. Unfortunately, this unity was broken first of all by the nationalist Palestinian leaders, who feared a more sweeping revolt by the poor, and whose aim was only to seek an accommodation with imperialism and the other regimes of the region. They managed to break the unity of the poor; this caused the revolt in Lebanon to degenerate into a civil war between the different ethnic groups. Eventually, order was imposed in Lebanon by the surrounding powers, Syria in the north and Israel in the south, and the Palestinians were once again crushed.

But this did not spell the end of revolts against imperialist domination. In the late 1970s, while the civil war in Lebanon simmered, the long repressed people in Iran revolted against the corrupt and extremely repressive rule of the Shah. The revolt encompassed the majority of the working class, students, the urban population. By 1978, the country became more or less ungovernable. Oil workers seized control of their production sites and refineries. The urban population was in a state of constant mobilization. In January 1979, the Shah left the country. The poor classes had overthrown one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, they were then robbed of their victory when the opposition unified behind the Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs. Khomeini carefully made sure to keep the old repressive state apparatus; it was now run by a new hierarchy dressed in the robes of Islam. He then promptly turned on the population and imposed an equally repressive regime on them.

Permanent warfare: imperialism triumphant

The following two decades have been characterized by wars, fueled by rivalries amongst the different regimes, as well as by imperialism.

To try to take advantage of the disorder in Iran and grab contested territory, neighboring Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran, with the encouragement and support of U.S. imperialism and its allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. For the U.S., the Iran-Iraq War, that lasted through most of the 1980s, was a means to first of all use the Iraqi regime to bleed the Iranian Revolution, while at the same time, weakening Iraq. For this reason, the U.S. funneled support first to Iraq, then to Iran, and then back to Iraq. The result: over one million people were killed and both countries were drained and bled, opening up both regimes to be more “reasonable” – that is to say, weaker – in their dealings with the U.S.

After the war, a desperate Iraqi regime invaded neighboring Kuwait, in order to secure more favorable terms both for the huge debts that it had built up during the war, and for the sale of its main export, oil. The U.S. then used this invasion to crush Iraq with the Persian Gulf War. It then continued to use the excuse of Hussein remaining in power to keep bombing the country and to impose terrible economic sanctions. Iraq, once one of the more prosperous Middle Eastern countries, was turned into an impoverished land, in which over half a million children have died before they reached five years old.

And while the Palestinian population has quite remarkably revolted twice more: once in 1987 and then again starting last year, they too have been repressed by the Israeli government with the use of U.S. jets, helicopter gun ships, rockets, bombs and bullets. Today, the Palestinian population has been relegated to what amounts to bantustans, or reservations. Their youth are being shot down in the streets, their homes are bulldozed, their leaders are openly assassinated. Young and even some middle-aged Palestinians with families, have carried out suicide bombings, that is, blown themselves up in acts of sheer desperation.

The ordinary Israelis also face a desperate situation, since increasingly, they have become the targets of this terror. Although they have suffered only a tiny fraction of the casualties of the Palestinians, they too are forced to live under the shadow of daily violence and terror. For them too, Israel has become a kind of prison, from which there is no escape.

The balance sheet of imperialist domination

In other words, imperialism has turned the Middle East into a land of permanent warfare, impoverishment and misery. They have turned it into a land that is under the constant surveillance and patrol of the U.S. and the other big imperialist powers. Not only does the U.S. have bases surrounding the Middle East in Turkey and Greece, it also has 26,000 troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, along with 30 warships and 325 aircraft. The Sixth Fleet is now permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf. There has not been such an imperialist garrison in the Middle East since the last years of colonization after World War II, and it is now being reinforced by more naval task forces, bombers and troops.

Of course, this massive U.S. armed presence in the Middle East is not, in any way, meant to protect the interests of the ordinary people in that country. On the contrary, it is there to defend the enrichment of a handful of massive companies.

This enrichment is paid for first by the peoples of the Middle East. But it is also paid for by the working people of this country, not just with our tax dollars, which could be going to pay for schools, health care and other social services, but with the lives of our young people in the military – and, now with the bombings of September 11, the lives of thousands of ordinary working people.

Working people in this country have every interest to oppose the foreign adventures of this government. Our side is with the people in the Middle East who have to face not only their own dictators (and terrorists), but most of all U.S. imperialism.