There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the USA today as Iraqi militants (who, if they were on our side, we would call freedom fighters) attempt to wrest control of the nation from a government set up and supported by the US and numerous other western nations.
No matter what any of us do, they’ll win. Eventually. The good news is, though, that it’s not our fault. Really. Well, mostly not our fault. (That statement is not meant to denigrate the sacrifices of over 4,000 American lives in the attempt to bring peace to that region.)
What we call the Middle East is a mixture of African and Asian territory populated by a Muslim (religion) and Arabic (ethnicity) majority. Most of it is hot, difficult territory to live in, but they have a shitload of oil under their deserts, so it is, in fact, a very important place in the disposition of the entire world.
The Middle East is also the cradle of civilization – it’s where populations first developed the key characteristics of what we call civilization – and people have been fighting over it ever since the first walls went up around the first cities there.
The Middle East claims a lot of firsts – the cultivation of wheat, domestication of goats and cows, Catal Hyuk (1st major human “city”), invention of pottery, irrigation and agriculture, the wheel, writing, and much, much more. After the Romans conquered the region, though, it’s pretty much a slide right into the strife of the modern era.
The Persians conquered the region in the 500s BC. Alexander the Great (Macedonian/Greek) conquered Persia (and thus the Middle East) in the late 300s BC. The Romans took over the region gradually, starting with the defeat and destruction of the Carthaginian Empire in the mid-100s BC. The Roman emperor Hadrian named in Syria Palestina, and Emperor Diocletian turned the region into a more-or-less self-governing territory (under his control, of course), when he split the Empire into four pieces. Diocletian gave over control of Italy, Spain and most of North Africa to Maximilian, France and Britain to Constantine, and Greece and Southeastern Europe to Galerius. He kept for himself Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, and what we now call Turkey (they called part of it Asiana and the other part Pontica).
Christianity was growing when Diocletian partitioned the Empire, and that new religion helped destroy the Romans. Note that I say “helped” and not “caused,” simply because there were many reasons the Roman Empire went into decline and Christianity was but one aspect of the trouble facing the collapsing Romans.
Islam came along in the 7th century AD, changing everything in the region. The previously polytheistic Arabs rallied behind Muhammad and created a new Arabic/Islamic Empire that conquered all of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Spain. The only things that kept the Muslims out of Europe were the Pyrenees Mountains (separating Spain and France) and the presence of massive, aggressive Asian tribes north of Turkey.
Real trouble between (Middle) East and West began in 1095 AD, when the Roman Catholic Pope Urban II decided that, after 450+ years of the Muslims controlling Jerusalem, it was time for the Christians of Europe to “reclaim” the “holy land.” The Europeans won that first war, conquering Jerusalem in 1099, but the Arab Empire retaliated, leading to another eight “sanctioned” Crusades and about another eight “unofficial” Crusades, many of which were launched by the Catholic Church against other Europeans. You probably never heard of any of them, except maybe for the Albigensian Crusade, which wiped out the last remnants (in France) of the Christian sect called Catharism.
Mostly, though, the Crusades were about the Catholic armies of Europe trying to wrest control of the Middle East from the Muslim armies of the Arabic Empire. Over 400 years of warfare, the result of which was that the Arabs continued to control the Middle East.
Let’s see how that panned out, then: 1095: Arabs in control of the Middle East. MANY YEARS OF WARFARE. 1456: Arabs in control of the Middle East. I wonder how many people died to accomplish that goal.
Note that nobody knew anything about the copious stores of oil at that time.
Islam underwent many changes in its formative years, especially the years after Muhammad died. There was a big fight over who would be the caliph, the leader of Islam, and that fight led to a schism (a split in a religion) that left us with Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. It wasn’t terribly unlike the schism in the Catholic Church we call the Reformation, the one that gave us Catholicism vs. Protestantism, in the 16th century.
Anyway, the Seljuk Turks dominated the region for a time. They subjugated the Arabs and controlled most of (then later just parts of) the Middle East into the 1300s. The Ottoman Turks started their rise to power at the end of the 1200s and dominated the region until the end of World War I in 1918.
After WWI is when, as they say, that shit got real.
(FOR MORE AND AWESOME INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC – I.E. THE MIDDLE EAST IN WWI, READ “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by Scott Anderson. FANTASTIC BOOK!)
See, the Ottomans were on the losing side in the Great War, and along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they got smacked down in the peace. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the Allies. By “Allies,” I mean England and France, because the US packed their shit up and went home when the fighting was over, leaving President Woodrow Wilson with his dick in his hand at the peace talks in 1919.
In 1917, the British gave permission to the Zionist “nation” (i.e. Jews all over the world) to rebuild a homeland in Palestine, which had been controlled by the Ottomans and was now under the control of England (more or less). England and France occupied the territory in 1918, and France started stirring shit up immediately, going to war with the locals in Syria in 1919. The next four years saw a near-constant state of warfare in the region as Turkey tried to establish hegemony, upsetting many British and French plans.
(Obviously, by now, everybody was talking about oil.)
The thing is, France had put no effort at all into the Middle East during WWI, they had just suffered so much in Europe that they felt they were entitled to some spoils – that is, the Ottomans lost, so France deserved territory. They didn’t give a shit about the people already living there, the effort the British (who had their own agenda anyway) put into keeping the Arabs and Turks fighting each other to keep the Ottoman Empire as much on the margins of the war as possible.
France took over Syria and Lebanon; Britain took over Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) and Palestine and exerted a lot of influence, if not outright control, over Persia (later renamed Iran). Saudi Arabia emerged in 1932 when Arabs living in Hejaz and Nejd, pissed at the Allies and the Turks, decided they’d had enough of being pushed around and treated poorly and forcefully established their own nation. The other parts of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East became Yemen and the various Arab states of the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar & UAE).
It was in the wake of this partition that the modern concept of the Middle East emerged. As the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Islam, these new nations were also steeped in their own local history and majority Muslim as well, with pockets of Christians and a (very) few Jews. The problem (among many) was that these regions had been ruled by a distant, disinterested empire for so long that they had no tradition of self-government. As they struggled to learn how to govern themselves, they had France, England, Germany, and later the USA pushing and prodding them this way and that – manipulations both subtle and overt. They never really had a chance to get themselves peacefully established.
PLUS, when England and France marched in and drew the lines in the sand that became these international boundaries, they did so WITH ABSOLUTELY NO CONSIDERATION OF RELIGIOUS OR ETHNIC DIVISIONS in the local population. They brought their Western arrogance along with their cartographers and geologists and divided up the region according to their own selfish agendas. The fledgling League of Nations – a precursor to the nearly useless United Nations – was complicit in this partition, squandering the opportunity to create a truly beneficial international institution and doing what the more powerful (or at least more influential) nations of the world wanted. The needs and desires of the less powerful nations of the world were completely ignored and France was at the forefront of this bullying behavior.
The British weren’t much better about it, but at least the Brits had skin in the fight. France kept crying about how bad they had it during WWI, completely ignoring the FACT that they had NO military forces in the region and REFUSED to support the Arab effort against the Turkish armies in the sand. Between the end of WWI (1918) and the beginning of WWII (1939), there were seven major rebellions or uprisings against the colonial rule of England and France.
Italy and then Germany invaded the region in the late 1930s, which led to England and the USA re-invading and re-conquering the region as part of World War II.
After WWII ended, the Cold War started, and – while we haven’t talked at all about religion up to this point – that’s when the USA and USSR started heavily meddling in Middle Eastern affairs in order to exert some control over the world’s oil supply. Between the USA and the USSR vying for influence (and oil) in the Middle East, governments were propped up and undermined so many times that just trying to keep it all straight will make you dizzy. The new nation of Israel – created by taking land away from the Arab population in Palestine – fought several wars to defend and expand its borders. The Persian Gulf states gained their independence gradually, with the last of them doing so in the early 1970s.
Now, the desire of these people to rule themselves notwithstanding, a multitude of European nations have been meddling in the affairs of the Middle Eastern people since the fucking 11th century – a THOUSAND years, people. A THOUSAND YEARS. The machinations of the United States and Russia are merely the latest drops in the bucket.