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A New Age of Empire


British Member of Parliament George Galloway says that a plan for the division of the Middle East is circulating in the corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent interview, Galloway asserted that ministers and eminent figures in the British government are deliberating the partition of the Middle East, harking back to the colonial map-making in the first quarter of the 20th century that established the modern nation-states of the region. An Anglo-American war against Iraq, he tells me, could be the opening salvo in the break up of the region. Galloway, who met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad this August, states that the war aims of the US and Britain go well beyond replacing the Iraqi leader. "They include a recasting of the entire Middle East, the better to ensure the hegemony of the big powers over the natural resources of the Middle East and the safety and security of the vanguard of imperialist interests in the area – the state of Israel. And part of that is actually redrawing boundaries."

Galloway is privy to such information as he is the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Committee with close relations to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Galloway says that British ministers and former ministers are primarily focused on the break-up of Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the wake of an attack against Saddam Hussein, but are also discussing the possible partition of Egypt, the Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. These officials have become taken with the realization that the borders of the Middle East are recent creations, dating back only to World War I when Britain and France divided the region between themselves. Galloway adds, "There are many ways in which a new Sykes-Picot dispensation could be drawn up in the Middle East to guarantee another few decades of big power hegemony over the area."

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, codified by the League of Nations in 1920, parceled out the crumbling Ottoman Empire extending over much of the Middle East between Britain and France. By the early 1920s Britain, which as the reigning imperial power already effectively ruled Egypt, the Sudan, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, made off with the lion’s share. This divvying up of the region by imperial powers led to the creation of the states of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq among others. Under the aegis of Britain, the modern state of Saudi Arabia emerged in the late 1920s, absorbing the hitherto separate eastern, central and western regions – including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina – of what constitutes the country today.

The partition of the Middle East was partially driven by the oil conglomerates of the time. Britain pushed through the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum’s predecessor) and Royal Dutch Shell, over American oil companies Exxon and Mobil by means of the colonial mandate it had established following WWI. Jockeying over oil resulted in an Anglo-French agreement giving Britain the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. This lead to in Iraq’s modern boundaries, formed in 1921 when Britain combined the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, which were predominantly Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’a Muslim respectively.

Today British and American petroleum interests dominate the scene once more, although Britain is reduced to the role of junior partner. The United States and Britain are home to the four biggest petroleum producers in the world – Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, British Petroleum-Amoco and Royal Dutch-Shell – with the French-Italian TotalElfFina following in fifth place. While a massive upheaval in the Middle East would hurt oil revenues initially, a new constellation of power there could in the long run safeguard the interests of the petroleum conglomerates from the present instability of the region. While the US government has been considering alternate sources of oil in the Caspian Sea area, Russia and Africa, analysts admit that none of these compare to the known riches of the Persian Gulf.

Not surprisingly then, if hawks on both sides of the Atlantic have their way, Saudi Arabia would be at the core of a hegemonically reshaped Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone contains a quarter of the world’s petroleum reserves and is one of the only countries able to increase production to meet rising demand for oil, expected to grow by fifty percent in the next two decades. Yet Saudi Arabia is no longer seen by the US and UK governments as a trustworthy ally, and certainly not one on which they can afford to be so dependent, given the kingdom’s internal vulnerability and its sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalist insurgents (Saudi nationals comprising fifteen of the nineteen September 11th hijackers) – even though such patronage had been coordinated by the United States in earlier, happier times.

"I think the United States in particular has lost confidence in the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, so far as their interests are concerned," Galloway maintains. "They realize that the radicalization of the Saudi Arabian population has proceeded at very great pace, has reached very great depths, particularly amongst young people." The United States and Britain are fearful that the unreliable House of Saud will be overthrown and that the new anti-American rulers will shut off the flow of oil. "The United States is afraid that one day they’ll wake up and a Khomeini type – or be it Wahhabi Sunni Khomeini – revolution would have occurred, and they would have lost everything in the country." The British Foreign Office has warned that dissent, bubbling up from a dissatisfied population that sympathizes with Osama bin Laden and seethes at the pro-American stance of the ruling elite, has reached the point where the country risks being taken over by al-Qaeda.

"Saudi Arabia could easily be two if not three countries," Galloway says, summarizing the neo-imperialist position discussed in British government circles, "which would have the helpful bonus of avoiding foreign forces having to occupy the holiest places in Islam, when they’re only interested really in oil wells in the eastern part of the country." According to him, the US troops based throughout Saudi Arabia could be withdrawn from the areas containing Mecca and Medina, the most hallowed sites in the Islamic world, where US military presence is a source of great resentment for many Saudis.

Instead the soldiers would occupy only the Eastern Province of the country, which borders on the Persian Gulf and is inhabited by Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority. This area contains the major oilfields, including the largest oilfield in the world, Ghawar, as well as the industrial centers of the kingdom. "The theorists of this idea have fastened on to the fact that a very substantial proportion of the population in the Eastern Province, where the oil is, are Shi’ite Muslims with no particular affection for the ruling Wahhabi clique who form the House of Saud." Galloway adds that for the first time, leaders in the West are becoming concerned with the human rights of the Shi’a population, which "now that they coincide with Western interests, are moving up the agenda."

In the United States, those in interlocking circles around the Bush administration have been calling for the dismemberment of Saudi Arabia. This past July, an analyst from the US government-funded Rand Corporation presented a briefing in Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s private conference room titled "Taking Saudi Out of Arabia," which advised the assembled luminaries of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board that the US government should demand Saudi Arabia stop supporting hostile fundamentalist movements and curtail the airing of anti-US and anti-Israel statements, or its oilfields and financial assets would be seized. A month later Max Singer, co-founder of the rightwing US think tank the Hudson Institute, gave a presentation to the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, in which he counseled the US government to forge a "Muslim Republic of East Arabia" out of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. A war against Iraq, following the pronouncements of neo-conservatives closely affiliated with the American and British governments, could start the process of remolding the region and end in the replacement of Saddam Hussein with a Hashemite king in Iraq, extending eastward the reign of the monarchy of longtime US ally Jordan. The cousin of late King Hussein of Jordan ruled Iraq until 1958 when he was killed in a military coup. Hawks such as Michael Rubin, who in October joined the Pentagon as their expert on Iraq and Iran, have encouraged the reinstatement of the monarchy. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Rubin applauded the attendance of Prince Hassan of Jordan, the brother of the King Hussein, at a meeting of the motley Iraqi opposition in London – along with Pentagon and members of Vice President Cheney’s staff – this past July, where Hassan indicated that he could head the new regime.

The hawks believe, furthermore, that the overthrow of the Iraqi government would lead to a "domino effect" in the rest of the region. A war against Iraq could provide the opportunity for excising the presumed sources of malignancy in the region: the Syrian and Lebanese governments, the Palestinian Authority, the Iranian theocracy, and pro-American but unstable regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt. A reformulated Middle East would oust the troublemakers – regardless of whether or not they were originally created and supported by the West – and leave the region turning on the axis of US client states Israel, Turkey, Jordan and a recolonized Iraq.

Britain’s preeminent conservative magazine, The Spectator, succinctly puts the newly found virtues of instability. "When Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, warns the BBC that a US invasion of Iraq would ‘threaten the whole stability of the Middle East’, he’s missing the point: that’s the reason it’s such a great idea. Suppose we buy into Moussa’s pitch and place stability over all other considerations. We get another 25 years of the Ayatollahs, another 35 years of the PLO and Hamas, another 40 years of the Ba’athists in Syria and Iraq, another 80 years of Saudi Wahhabism..It’s the stability of the cesspit."

The populations of Iran, Syria, Egypt and beyond presumably would be so emboldened by the example of a "democratic Iraq" that they would rise against their own despotic rulers, leading to pro-American regimes throughout the Middle East. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has made apparent his hopes for sweeping changes in the Middle East resulting from a war against Iraq, stating that an American-imposed regime in Iraq would, "cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, but across the whole Arab world." However, another sort of domino effect would probably be more likely, in which radical anti-American protesters move to overthrow their governments and the US intervenes to prevent the emergence of such hostile regimes. The US long ago granted itself permission to intervene in Saudi Arabia if the House of Saud were threatened by internal revolt, and this could be extended elsewhere under the license of the "war on terrorism".

If the United States and Britain mounted a war against Iraq, Syria, which the US accuses of sponsoring terrorism, might not last the tumult. The Pentagon’s Rubin wrote in March in a publication of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "The Bashir al-Assad government in Syria should interpret the US decision not only to attack al-Qaeda, but also to target their Taliban hosts as an indication that Washington will hold Damascus responsible for the deaths of any American citizens at the hands of groups hosted by the Syrian government."

Current Undersecretary of Policy at the Department of Defense Douglas Feith, preceding his appointment to the Pentagon’s number three position, along with other hawks including Richard Perle, wrote "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," which laid out a broad neo-conservative agenda for the Middle East. In it he advised the Israeli government to "work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll-back some of its most dangerous threats," including attacking Lebanon and Syria.

An attack on Iraq could give the Israeli Right an opportunity it would welcome to settle scores with its neighboring – and domestic – opponents. "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria," wrote Feith, Perle, et al. "[If Saddam's Iraq were overthrown] Damascus fears that the ‘natural axis’ with Israel on one side, central Iraq and Turkey on the other, and Jordan, in the center would squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi Peninsula. For Syria, this could be the prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East which would threaten Syria’s territorial integrity." Syria’s client state Lebanon, long the battleground for external conflicts, could again face a military assault by Israel. Most ominously, under the cover of a war on Iraq, Israel could once and for all settle the "Palestinian question" by expelling the Palestinian population to Jordan as many in Israel have been advocating.

Lastly, a potential consequence of a US ouster of the Iraqi government could be that it would leave the Shi’a theocracy in Iran with too much regional weight in the eyes of the neo-conservatives – setting the stage for a replacement of that regime. Iran is paired with Iraq in constituting two prongs of the State Department’s Manichean "axis of evil," and stands accused of sponsoring terrorism throughout the Middle East. In keeping with the royalist thrust of neo-con thinking, the Iranian clerics could be replaced by the monarchial rule of the son of the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who has been waiting in the wings in suburban Virginia.

The threat of partition or region-wide "regime change" accompanying a war against Iraq has not been lost on the governments and peoples of the Middle East. Syrian officials are concerned not only that a war could provide the pretext for an invasion of Syria and Lebanon, but also that if an attack results in the breakup of Iraq along Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni lines, the threat of secessionist movements could imperil Syria’s own territorial unity, given the similarity of its ethnic composition to Iraq. Likewise, the Iranian government is concerned about larger US hegemonic designs beyond Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Many in the Middle East see the United State’s role in the partition settlement of Sudan – the US has bankrolled the Christian rebels in the oil-rich south against the Islamic government based in Sudan’s north – as foreshadowing a larger remapping of the region.

Whether the imperialist strategem of the neo-conservatives comes to pass remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the potential for such a cynical adventure to go wrong would be quite high. Colonial undertakings have a tendency to not work out as expected, even if the fantasies of draughtsman in the Pentagon and Britain’s Whitehall are implement through "native" proxies such as the Iraqi National Congress or an expanded Hashemite monarchy. This is especially the case when the populations of the areas to be shaped, rather than viewing the US as deliverers of a pipedream of "democracy," are intensely hostile to the imperial designs of the West.

Sasha Lilley is an independent producer and correspondent for Free Speech Radio News.

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