Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Syria and Iran - Some background


Syria and Iran
(Some background)

     Throughout the First World War, assuming the eventual defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the allies planned the carving up of the Middle East. France was planning to claim control over Syria (a claim they dated back to the crusades), leaving 'Palestine' and 'Mesopotamia' (now Iraq) to the British. At the post-war peace conference at Versailles, the Syrian Arabs were given (at the urging or TE Lawrence and others) some autonomy as a reward for their military involvement; by popular acclaim they chose their war hero Faisal I to be their king. However, within months, Faisal's regime ran into money troubles, the French declared they would rule Syria. King Faisal was expelled and went to live in England. The following year (1921), the British decided to foist King Faisal on their mandate in Mesopotamia, creating the kingdom of Iraq with Faisal as king. Faisal (supple, enlightened, and popular) ruled quite successfully until 1933, though his dependence on Britain placed an intolerable burden on him, for his people strongly resented Western interference. He died of a heart attack (or poison) in 1933. His son Ghazi, and his grandson Faisal II, both fared worse. Ghazi was killed in a car 'accident' in 1939, while Faisal II was shot with all his family in 1958, victims of the rising tide of Arab nationalism. Since then Iraq has been a republic. In Syria, the French mandate ended in 1946. Syria became a parliamentary republic but subject to incessant coups d'état until the Ba'ath party took control of the country in 1966. In 1970 the Assad family took control of the Ba'ath party, on behalf of the 'military'. 
     The Ba'ath party was founded in Syria in 1947 jointly by two teachers, an orthodox Christian (Aflaq) and a Suni Muslim (al-Bitar), both Arab, both educated in Paris in the late nineteen twenties where they absorbed ideas on nationalism and Marxism. Its motto became "Unity, Liberty, Socialism", the unity referring to Pan-Arabism. Under this influence, Syria fused with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958, a union which lasted till 1961. Party branches existed in most Arab countries from the Maghreb to the Gulf, but Iraq was the only country besides Syria and Egypt where the Ba'ath were in power. In each national branch there was a political wing and a military wing. Though initially the Iraqi branch contained a majority of Shia Muslims, Pan-Arabism is more a Suni concept and the branch became predominantly Suni. In February 1962 the Iraq branch staged a coup d'état, but in November of the same year were driven underground by a reactionary coup. During their hidden period (1963 – 68) the Iraqi Ba'athists purged Nasserite and socialist concepts, and developed a secret security apparatus (answering to Saddam Hussein) to counter the power of the military wing.
     The story of oil exploitation is a strange mixture of commerce and Realpolitik, of respect for commercial contract law, and the blatant flouting of it. USA found oil in Texas in 1901. The British found oil in Iran in 1908 and created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) to exploit it. In 1913, just before the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill switched the British Navy from coal to oil so the British war effort was totally dependent on oil. The British government acquired a controlling share in APOC, and this enormous injection of capital allowed it to acquire rights and access to outlets all over the world. BP (British Petroleum) started life as a exporting branch of a German company operating in Britain. Their assets were acquired by Britain during the war. Exploitation of Iraqi oil began in 1912 with APOC capital and the drive of an Armenian Turk called Gulbenkian, born in Constantinople but who fled with his family after the Armenian massacres of 1896, eventually becoming as a British citizen. The Iraqi oil deposits turned out (October 1926) to be large and a composite company was formed by a number of major European and American oil companies, registered in London and designed to make no profit (and pay no tax!), but to sell its oil at cost price to the component companies. Iraq received royalties. The British suggested that the Iraqi government be allowed to buy shares, but other parties seem to have successfully prevented that. After the Second World War, nationalist movements in Iran and Iraq were pressing for ownership of their own oil. British oil interests in Iraq were nationalized by the Ba'athist Iraqi government in June 1972. 
     (The assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company were nationalized in 1951. Britain appealed to the International court for restoration, but the case was dismissed, whereupon MI6 with CIA help engineered a putsch that ousted the nationalist prime minister (Mossadeq) and strengthened the westward-leaning Shah, who survived until the revolution of 1979.  From 1953 till 1979 BP extracted and marketed the oil on behalf of the National Iranian Oil Company sharing 50% of the profit, but did not let Iran see the accounts! In 1979 all foreign oil assets in Iran were confiscated by the revolutionary government.)
     The Ottomans were not popular 'overlords' in the middle east because no one likes to be a subject people. But at least they were Islamic. And in fact they were peculiarly successful at governing countries of mixed ethnicity and religion; Jews, Muslims (Shia, Suni), Christians (Orthodox, Roman, Nestorian), lived together in peaceful co-existence equally in Turkey,  Arabia, and the Balkans, Constantinople, Damascus, and Sarajevo.) The history of British, French and American intervention has not proved so successful.   

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