Disaster of Iraq is just one chapter of a flawed British Middle East Adventure

As we reflect on the Chilcot report, it is also worth reminding ourselves that British Foreign Policy in the Middle East has been flawed and at times disastrous for the last 100 years.  Too often it has been based on colonial ambition or narrow economic self-interest or just surrendering to powerful lobbies – often ignoring the expertise of well-informed diplomats and historians whose advice would have helped to avoid and repeat mistakes.

Until shortly before World War 1 the Levant was run by the armies of occupation of the Ottoman Empire.  While this colonial Ottoman governance was exploitative and far from benign, it must be admitted that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace and harmony, trading together, socialising and even inter-marrying.  The arrival of the French and British colonial powers was at first welcomed by most Arabs, who anticipated a less grasping and more civilised governance and some hope of eventual self-rule.  Fairly soon the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 led to a carving up of the region into French and British spheres of influence which showed little respect for natural communities and ethnic or religious difference.  Promises about self-governance were repeatedly broken or only half-implemented. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 which promised the creation of a Jewish national home within Palestine was greeted with dismay by Palestinian Arabs, so the British government pledged that the rights of Palestinians must be protected in the implementation of this plan – a promise that was totally forgotten when the time came.

In the aftermath of World War 2, and, under pressure from Zionist terrorist gangs, a virtually bankrupt British Government could not escape quickly enough; it abandoned the Palestinians to their fate when the UN approved the partition of the country.  The resulting ethnic cleansing and subsequent Israeli –Arab wars have left the festering sore of Israel as the occupying power in Palestinian majority areas in defiance of international law and UN resolutions.

Subsequent military adventures by Britain in the region have added to the problems.  First, there were the lies of the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. More recently, the 2003 Gulf War was not only predicated on false evidence, but was conducted in a way that any A level student of Middle East History could have predicted would lead to religious and ethnic strife.  The rise of ISIS is a direct result of the sectarian tensions which that war stoked, and recruitment to ISIS and other extremist groups has been aided by the continuing grievance that most Arabs feel about the oppression of the Palestinians – something in which British government policy has been complicit.

By encouraging the opposition to President Assad in recent years without offering real logistical or military support (such as the creation of safe-havens inside Syria) or without attempting to engage Russia in finding a diplomatic solution until very recently, Britain must share its responsibility for the flow of refugees to Europe and leaving a vacuum for ISIS to exploit.  At the same time the British Government, in a misguided policy of close cooperation with Saudi Arabia, has turned a blind eye to the export of the highly intolerant Wahabi interpretation of Sunni Islam to other Middle Eastern and African Countries and to Europe.  This has undoubtedly provided much of the intellectual and emotional fuel for the extremism of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* John Kelly is vice-chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine

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5 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '16 - 2:02am

    Thanks for the article. As you are known to be strongly on the Palestinian side of the debate, what do you actually want as a solution for peace in Israel and Palestine?

    The overall impression I receive from the article is that it is blaming us for too much. There’s only so much that we can be blamed for sectarian violence in the region and redrawing borders to better reflect sectarian differences might just entrench segregation and be more of a danger to minorities.

    When it comes to Iraq: yes it was a folly, but disengagement from the region isn’t a solution. You criticise Saudi Arabia, but Iran contribute towards instability too. We need to sound even handed, otherwise people will think we favour one sectarian side over the other or are simply anti-American/western.

  • Eddie – thank you for your question and comments. I am fundamentally driven by a concern for human rights and a belief that international law provides an important framework for conduct by countries that are engaged in conflict – and it should be enforced. Secondly, articles on Lib Dem Voice are, by their nature short and one can’t cover everything. The focus of the piece was intended to be the Levant and to show how our policies in this area in particular have been a disaster now for over 100 years.
    The kowtowing towards Israel and the US, as its uncritical protector, is just one example of the continuing folly of our polices in the Levant. I didn’t want this just to be an article about Palestine. But as you ask what I think the solution is to the Palestine Israel conflict, I basically advocate two states with East Jerusalem as a shared capital, following 1967 borders subject to whatever land swaps Israel can persuade the Palestinians to accept. That will leave a substantial Arab minority in Israel whose rights need to be protected in what is steadily becoming an even more racist society. Getting there is unlikely to unhappen unless Britain leads in the UN to put pressure on Israel to agree. That needs to be the focus at this stage or the two state solution will be completely dead within months.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '16 - 3:44pm

    Thanks John Kelly, your policy sounds reasonable. I know your article isn’t only about Palestine, but when it comes to the region in general it is useful to see where people stand on this.

    I was alarmed recently by Benjamin Netanyahu saying “the Golan Heights will remain forever under Israeli sovereignty”. I understand strategic concerns, but Syria won’t be the mess it is in forever, so he can’t just use ISIS as an excuse for permanent annexation. I’m in favour of a more critical approach, maybe close to Obama and John Kerry than David Cameron and George Osborne.

  • Jonathan Coulter 12th Jul '16 - 9:55am

    Thanks John Kelly, your succinct review of Britain’s relations with the Middle-East provide the basis for a bold and distinctive policy platform, much needed by Libdems seeking to define their appeal in the post-Coalition, post-Referendum and post-Chilcot world.

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