US intervention in Middle East has a long, difficult historySubscriber only
Current effort to oust Assad follows many failed attempts to topple him
An unmanned aircraft in the Middle East. The history of US intervention in the region might have been avoided if in 1919 US president Woodrow Wilson had acted on recommendations of a commission he appointed to survey Arab opinion on governance following the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Photograph: Getty Images
US political and military intervention in the Middle East began 68 years ago, and has grown deeper and increasingly destructive since Washington’s 1991 and 2003 wars on Iraq.
The ongoing effort to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is the latest intervention – most have been disastrous failures.
Following the second World War, the Eisenhower administration (1953-61) enlisted regional monarchs and the Muslim Brotherhood to combat secular Arab nationalism which advocated independence, opposed colonialism and rejected Israel. Antagonism towards nationalists underlay US decision-making, resulting in repeated interventions, coup attempts and the rise of radical Muslim fundamentalism based on ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabism.
The first US-backed coup in the region took place against Shukri Kuwatli, independent Syria’s first president who was overthrown in April 1949 by army chief Hosni al-Zaim with the backing of covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Stephen Meade and CIA station chief Miles Copeland Jnr. Kuwatli opposed a US-Saudi plan to construct an oil pipeline across Syria to the Mediterranean.
Exiled to Egypt until 1955, Kuwatli returned and was re-elected. He adopted non-alignment during the cold war, and merged Syria with Egypt in 1958 in the United Arab Republic. The CIA drew up plans in 1956 and 1957 to topple Kuwatli again, but these were aborted.
Arab heroThe second successful US coup, mounted at the behest of Britain, toppled Iran’s reformist prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh, who had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Copeland and CIA colleague Kermit Roosevelt were involved. If Mossadegh had remained in power and carried out his reforms there might not have been a cleric-led coup against the western-sponsored shah.
When Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 with the intention of ousting president Gamal Abdel Nasser after he had nationalised the Suez Canal, US president Dwight Eisenhower ordered Israel out of Egypt’s Sinai, occupied during the attack, and harshly criticised Britain and France. Nasser survived and became an Arab and Third World hero, while Eisenhower was highly regarded in the region.
After the overthrow of the pro-Western Iraqi regime in July 1958, the US landed marines in Lebanon to support pro-Western president Camille Chamoun, whose attempt to secure an unconstitutional second term had sparked a revolt. He was ousted and succeeded by Arab nationalist Gen Fuad Chehab. Since Iran’s ruler Reza Pahlavi fell in 1979, the US has supported the Iranian People’s Mujahedin, which never has had the popular support or the military muscle to oust the clerical regime.
In August 1982, the US, Britain, France and Italy deployed troops to Lebanon to oversee the peaceful withdrawal of Palestinian forces following Israel’s war on that country and to ensure Bachir Gemayel’s elevation to the presidency. He was assassinated on September 14th before assuming office. His militia retaliated by massacring hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila districts of south Beirut while surrounded by Israeli troops. The foreign forces did not intervene. The US and French contingents were bombed in October 1983, with 241 US and 58 French fatalities, and withdrew in stages during 1984.
Washington waged war on Iraq in 1991 with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who remained in power until the US occupied the country in 2003. The US failed to create a viable government, fracturing the state and creating a vacuum where al-Qaeda has flourished.
After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, the US pressurised rival Fatah to exclude Hamas from power. Fatah security elements aided by the CIA staged a coup against Hamas in Gaza in mid-2007. Fatah was defeated and expelled; Hamas rules.
The US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar made plans to topple Assad soon after he took power in 2000, reportedly, due to his refusal to permit the construction of a Qatari gas pipeline across Syria to the Turkish coast. A December 13th, 2006, cable from the US ambassador in Damascus to Israeli and US officials detailed possible opportunities to destabilise the Syrian regime. President Barack Obama launched his administration’s policy on August 18th, 2011, when he stated: “For the sake of the Syrian people the time has come for [Assad] to step aside.”
After giving priority to defeating Islamic State in 2014, the US adopted the Syrian Kurdish-dominated Democratic Forces militia, a successful fighting force. Nevertheless, the US continues to back jihadi factions which menace the region and Europe. Finally, Washington is supplying Saudi Arabia and its allies with arms and logistical assistance in their brutal war on Yemeni rebels, devastating the region’s poorest country, killing more than 10,000 civilians and injuring 40,000.
ManipulationThis history of intrigue and intervention might have been avoided if in 1919 US president Woodrow Wilson had acted on recommendations of a commission he appointed to survey Arab opinion on governance following the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Commissioners Henry C King and Charles R Crane reported that the Arabs demanded an independent Arab state embracing Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq promised by Britain in exchange for mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, Germany’s first World War ally.
Wilson did nothing; the report was suppressed. Britain occupied Palestine and Iraq, France occupied Lebanon and Syria, creating small countries susceptible to intervention and manipulation.