The geo-political structure of the Middle East has changed almost diametrically since 1990. It is no coincidence that it was in 1990 when the Gulf War inaugurated decades of direct western Meddling in the region that had been mostly limited to indirect meddling and broad, often thwarted ambitions between 1957 and 1989.
Here are some of the key points of these changes:
1. The Historical Background
A worldly young person of today would find news bulletins about western meddling in the Middle East from the first half of the 20th century, far more familiar than those from the 1960s, 70s or 80s.
During much of the first half of the 20th century, the Middle East became a playground for western countries during the final decades of traditional late-modern Imperialism.
During the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, a theatre of the First World War, Britain and France secretly divided the Levant and historic Mesopotamia in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.
This agreement solidified what more or less corresponds to the modern borders of Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Jordan (first called Trans-Jordan) and Syria.
A year later, Britain authored the Balfour Declaration which set the stage for Zionist immigration to British Mandate Palestine.
In the 1920s, Britain turned its back on the Hashemites of the Hejaz and instead started to back the House of Saud which conquered the Hejaz in 1925. Ibn Saud eventually united his conquered lands in 1932, forming the Kingdom Saudi Arabia.
Britain and France dug in during the 1930s and the onset of the Second World War delayed any and all decolonisation measures.
By the late 1940s and 1950s, many former mandates, puppet states and colonies in all but name, began to break free of French and British rule.
Most notably, in 1952 Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolution in Egypt against British domination and he won a resounding victory.
The following year however, Britain asked the United States to remove the democratically elected left wing nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in Iran. The CIA obliged.
This would be the last hurrah for the western Imperial powers in respect of Middle East meddling, at least in an overt sense.
In 1956, Britain, France and Israel declared war on Egypt over Nasser’s nationalisation of the Anglo-French owned Suez Canal. In a rare moment of unity, both the US and USSR forced the imperialist forces to withdraw. Thus ending decades of direct western meddling in Middle East affairs.
2. The Settled Realities Between 1957 and 1989
By the late 1980s, the most power states in the Middle East were as follows
–Iraq: Led by a powerful President Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a rich oil producing country with a formidable armed forces. Although Iraq engaged Iran in a long war with no meaningful settlement throughout the 1980s, even so, the idea that Iraq would be anything but a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s, was unthinkable.
–Egypt: Although Egypt’s harrowing foreign policies died with Nasser, Egypt remained stable and firmly in the hands of broadly Nasserist leaders. The idea that anything else would be the case in Egypt was of course, summarily unfathomable in the late 1980s.
–Libya: The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya set up by Muammar Gaddafi in 1977, was a firm break with the past. The new state was a country based on Gaddafi’s Third International Theory. Libya’s ferocious independence was not just manifested in the country’s philosophical creed but also its economic might, infrastructural achievements and prowess in foreign affairs.
–Syria: Under President Hafez al-Assad (1970-1990), Syria achieved a level of foreign policy and economic independence that irked both Israel and the United States. In spite of this, Syria remained untouchable, even throughout the neighbouring Lebanese war. Syria’s total defeat of the Muslims Brotherhood in the early 1980s, was a further sign of Syria’s strength and independence.
–Israel: From its inception as a state in 1948 up to 2006, Israel never technically lost a war. Israel’s military might remained for many, beyond question. We’ll see in the next sections how this too changed.
In spite of three Arab-Israeli wars during this period (1967, 1970 and 1973) as well as the Lebanese Civil War(1975-1990) and Civil War in North Yemen (1962-1970), the leadership of the Arab world remained remarkably stable. Furthermore, the Arab world’s ability to resist western attempts at covert meddling, remained remarkably successful, especially in hindsight.
3. The Awkward 1990s
With the exception of the two Yemeni states which united in 1990, there where no great changes of regime in the Middle East in the 1990s.
What happened was a prelude to the regime change hysteria of the 2000s. Iraq was the testing ground.
In 1990s, the western powers along with a foolish Egypt, devious Saudi Arabia and a Syria who still hadn’t come to terms with the Ba’athist split of 1966, invaded Iraq.
In the aftermath of this, the US led the UN to forces economically crippling sanctions on the once rich Republic.
In 1998 Bill Clinton bombed Iraq in what was a war in all but name.
By the end of the 1990s, many still felt that regime change was something which belonged in a bygone era.
All of this of course happened simultaneous to a Civil War in Algeria which begun in 1991. The war ended in 2002 when government forces emerged victorious against an Islamist insurgency.
4. Imperialism Strikes Back 2003-today
The results of the western wars on Iraq (2003), Libya (2011), Egyptian political interference in 2011 and today’s interference in Syria and Yemen, have all resulted in the unthinkable happening; a total inversion of the power structure in the Middle East.
–Iraq: Since 2003 Iraq has been a broken country both physically and due to sectarian political divides which often end in bloodshed. The Ba’athist monolith has been reduced to a sectarian playground for terrorists.
–Libya: The once unshakeable Gaddafi was overthrown by a smiling Hillary Clinton duing a NATO led war and the result has been the emergence of a failed state that cannot even agree on a single legitimate government.
–Egypt: After Barack Obama threw long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak to the dogs, which paved the way for rule by the Muslim Brotherhood between 2012 and 2013, under President Sisi, Egypt is returning to normalcy.
–Iran: After being isolated from much of the Arab world during most of the 20th century, Iran has become not only a regional power to be reckoned with, but a force for peace and stability. Iran’s opposition to Salifist terrorism as demonstrated by its aid of Syria, has put Iran in a position as an important regional power-broker. Iran’s position in the Astana Peace Talks for Syria is one of the manifestations of this.
Iran also now represents a monumental counter-weight to Saudi/Wahhabi ambitions in the wider Sunni Arab world.
–Israel and Hezbollah: In spite of still having a formidable air force and nuclear weapons, in 2006, Israel suffered its first battle-field loss in its war against Hezbollah. The once invincible Israel is invincible no more.
This has had the effect of elevating Hezbollah’s prestige not just in Lebanon but throughout the Arab world and not just the Shi’a Arab world at that.
5. As Things Stand
The US, UK, France and others have done a remarkably good job of destroying strong, united, independent Arab states that once towered over regional geo-politics. But in spite of this, a new force of anti-imperialist actors has emerged.
Iran and Hezbollah are of course the rising powers in this respect and Syria remains in a position of strength in this alliance. Syria after all is the only Middle Eastern country which has thus far been able to resist western imposed regime change. The others have all fallen, even though as recently as 1989, this would have been difficult for many to imagine.