|David Cameron with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose family have ruled Qatar as an |
absolute monarchy since being installed by the British 150 years ago.
Over the past year, the British government have bombed rebels into power in Libya –and are desperately hoping to do the same in Syria–whilst simultaneously aiding and abetting the crushing of rebel forces in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Some commentators have called this hypocritical. In fact, there is no contradiction: the British government is engaged in a vicious, region-wide attack on all independent, anti-colonial forces in the region, be they states or opposition movements. Client regimes – in many cases monarchies originally imposed by the British Empire – have been propped up, and states outside the orbit of Western control have been targeted for destruction. The policy, in other words, has been entirely consistent: a drive towards the total capitulation of the Arab world; and more specifically the destruction of any potential organised resistance to an attack on Iran. What is more, it has been planned for a long time.
The Arab spring did not come out of the blue; it was both predictable and predicted. All demographic, economic and political trends pointed in the direction of a period of instability and civil unrest across the region, and especially in Egypt. The combination of growing and youthful populations, rising unemployment, corruption and unrepresentative government made some kind of mass manifestation of frustration a virtual certainty – as was recognised by a far-reaching speech by MI6-turned-BP operative Mark Allen in February 2009. In August 2010, Barack Obama issued Presidential Study Directive Number 11, which noted "evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region's regimes" and warned that "the region is entering a critical period of transition." Four months later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, sparking off the unrest that led to the downfall of President Ben-Ali.
For the world’s imperial powers, wracked by their own economic crises – Britain, France and the US– it was clear that this unrest would present both a danger and an opportunity. Whilst it threatened to disrupt the Gulf monarchies imposed by Britain during the colonial period (Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait et al), it could also create the ideal cover for the launching of long-planned proxy wars against old enemies.
Both Libya and Syria have long been considered thorns in the side of Western world domination. It is not only their policies –from Gaddafi’s consistent opposition to US and British military bases in Africa to Assad’s support for Palestinian liberation groups – which riles Western policy makers, but the mere fact that they have independent governments which are able to formulate and implement such policies. In the eyes of the world’s unelected and undeclared ruling elites, for a government of the global South to be either strong or independent might be just about tolerable - but not both.
Secret Anglo-American plans for the overthrow of the Syrian government - using proxy forces directed by Western intelligence, and carried out under the cover of‘internal disturbances’ - have been in place since at least 1957. More recently, the US has embarked on a policy of funding sectarian Salafi militias to wage war against the region’s Shi’ites in order to undermine Iran, destroy the Syrian state and cut off Hezbollah’s supply lines. This policy was a direct response to the two major setbacks of the previous year – the massive wave of attacks on Western forces by Sunni militants in Iraq and Israel’s defeat in its war with Hezbollah. In a prophetic piece in 2007, Seymour Hersh shows how the US, Israel and the Saudis hatched a plan to‘redirect’ Sunni militias away from their fight against the US and towards Syria. As one US government consultant put it, “it’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
The coming of the ‘Arab spring’ provided the perfect cover for the throwing of these bombs – and for the British and US government plans to be put into effect. They acted quickly; armed attacks began in both countries within days of the ‘protest movement’ erupting, carried out by insurgents with longstanding links to British intelligence and increasingly trained and directed by the SAS and MI6.
Acting under the cover of the Arab spring also proved a winning formula for Western governments to mobilise support for ‘humanitarian intervention’ – the twenty-first century white man’s burden. Bush and Blair had given Western warmongering in the Middle East a bad name, but by implementing proxy wars –and aerial blitzkrieg - under the guise of ‘support for popular uprisings’, it was possible to ensure that liberals and ‘socialists’ by and large fell in line (albeit with some tactical differences on occasion). Frustrated Western radicals, desperate to vicariously experience the ‘revolution’ they know they would never – and let’s face it, would never want to – actually be involved in, lapped up the imagery of the‘people versus the dictator’. These ‘useful idiots’ all helpfully provided a veneer of credibility to the new wars that was clearly lacking in the case of Iraq.
The method of ‘proxy war’ – using militias recruited from the local population to fight for imperial interests – has long been the favoured policy of British policy planners – in contrast to the more ‘gung-ho’ boots on the ground methods of the US.
The war against Libya gave the ‘Arabists’ who dominate the British Foreign Office (the FCO) a chance to show the Americans how it is done. They have always preferred to cultivate local allies on the ground to do the fighting and dying – it’s cheaper, less unpopular at home, and so much more subtle than the blunt, blundering and cretinous approach of the Bushblair posse. Indeed, the FCO opposed the Iraq warfor precisely this reason – there was no moral, nor even strategic, disagreement – but a tactical one. The perceived failure and cost (in both blood and treasure) of Iraq thus allowed the ‘Arabists’ to gain the upper hand for the next round of colonial war that is now unfolding.
Meanwhile, client regimes – those monarchies established by Britain in the dying days of Ottoman control of the region – were given all the help they needed to drown their own uprisings in blood. Britain sold Saudi Arabia no less than £1.75 billion worth of arms last year – arms that are now being used against protesters in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Saudis invaded last autumn to crush the growing democratic revolt, as well as to arm the militias fighting in Syria. Qatar under the absolute rule of the Al-Thani family – chosen by Britain to run the country in the mid-nineteenth century – has also been crucial in fomenting the new imperial wars. The Al- Jazeera TV channel, which plays such an important role in the colonisers’ propaganda war – is run from Qatar and essentially took over the role of the BBC Arabic service when it closed operations in 1996. Qatar has also been at the forefront of the co-ordination, training and arming of the paramilitary proxy forces in Libya and Syria.
To ascertain the British government’s attitude towards an uprising in a state in the Middle East, one simply has to ask: is this a state created by Britain, or one built on an independent support base? Countries in the latter category get attacked, whilst those in the former are aided in consolidating their power and crushing the opposition.
Egypt, however, does not fit so neatly into either category. Egypt under Mubarak was neither a total stooge regime nor fully independent; neither a Libya nor a Qatar. Although the country had freed itself from its’ British-imposed king in 1952, since the Israeli peace accord of 1979, it had been widely viewed as a client state of the US and a key ally of Israel. Mubarak’s standing in the Arab world reached a nadir during the Israeli onslaught against Gaza in 2008-9, which even became known as the ‘Mubarak massacre’ for his refusal to open the border to fleeing Palestinians. Nevertheless, imposing regime change on Libya was going to be difficult for the West with Mubarak in charge next door. He had developed a friendly relationshipwith Gaddafi over the years, and seemed to be moving closer to Iran. A UN report in 2006even accused him of training the Islamic Courts Union – the Somali government which the US were working so hard to destroy – and he, along with Gaddafi, had opposed the expansion of AFRICOM – the US military’s ‘Africa Command’ – on the continent. A client who thinks he can conduct his own foreign policy is clearly missing the point. Removing Mubarak whilst keeping intact rule of his country by a military in hoc to the US may have come to be seen as the preferred option in London and Washington –especially if this option were to divide the revolutionary movement and take the wind out of its sails. Recent events in Egypt – such as the Egyptian airforce strike on‘Islamic militants’ in the Sinai, and the closure of the tunnels to Gaza – a lifeline for Palestinians to which Mubarak had to some extent turned a blind eye – suggest that the new government in Egypt is more than happy to do the bidding of the neo-colonisers.
This article first appeared in Countercurrents