Religion as a tool of colonialist power in WWI

As leaders from all around the world gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of a war meant to end all wars, the aftermath of the bloody conflict nevertheless continue to resonate in many parts of the globe today.

Author and researcher Hanief Haider traces some of the trends and maneuvers from the pre-World War I era, such as Great Britain’s use of religious fervor to influence affairs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which persist today.

In all of this, the Palestinian issue has been slowly marginalized from mainstream discourse by Western media while it pursued its neoliberal agenda in the MENA region.

There is a belief among some that the United States was using religious fundamentalism in partnership with Saudi Arabia only from the late 1970’s to achieve its geopolitical objectives in the MENA region.

But this manipulation of the Abrahamic religions goes further back in history when the Irish revolution broke out in 1916.

Northern Ireland was predominantly Protestant but they were linked to English capital by acquiring dominance in vital industries like cotton, linen and shipbuilding towards the end of the 19th century.

Unwilling to lose this lucrative base of capital investment, the English Tories were prepared to condone and assist the open rebellion of Ulster Loyalists in order to prevent Irish independence.

Mainstream media even up till now portrays the 1919-1921 War of Independence as an anti-Protestant sectarian war, which was not the case. Protestants who found themselves in predominantly Catholic districts were not specifically targeted.

Even Protestants among the working class were in favor of independence.

In their 2013 book Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War, historians Gerry and James McGregor say that age-old religious animosities were deliberately stirred in order to coerce the Protestant majority in the north into a state of potential conflict with the predominantly Catholic South.

Both were armed by the London elite with weapons purchased in Germany.

If civil war had broken out then Germany would have been blamed using the English press as the elite’s bullhorn for propaganda.

Author and philosopher Raoul Martinez also sheds light on how the British government repealed press taxes in the latter half of the 19th century thus making the newspapers dependent on corporate advertisers.

Corporate advertisers favored papers that supported their interests as well as the foreign policy objectives of the government of the day.

It was none other than the Manchester Guardian (now Guardian) paper that opened the road for Zionist leaders like Chaim Weizmann to have access to high-ranking politicians in Britain.

These connections at the top of the British political and media hierarchy paved the way for the divisive Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Not only was the famed editor of the Guardian Charles Prestwich Scott and his staff motivated by the strategic importance of the Suez Canal but also impressed by Weizmann’s anti-Russia tirade which opposed the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, says historian Norman Rose in his 1986 biography of the Jewish nationalist leader.

Another paper that was as equally committed to the Balfour Declaration as the Guardian was the London Times. Both their editors were opposed to the 1939 White paper that addressed Arab concern over immigration and landlessness among Palestinians, adds Rose.

Colonialism at war

On the eve of World War I, dominant colonial power in the Middle East Great Britain found itself under pressure from her colonies for self-rule, as was the case with the de facto Irish colony.

To stave off German influence and military power in the region, the Arabs were lulled into believing, in exchange for military assistance against Germany, independence would be granted.

Instead of independence Britain and France came up with the Sykes-Picot agreement seen by many as the spoils of the war.

As the geo-political writer FW Engdahl puts it:

“Sykes Picot placed the most educated and most developed areas of the Arab world which were hungry for independence into the grips of the European colonial powers thus sowing a mistrust and hate towards the West that lasted until the 21st century”.

Great Britain was given Palestine (declared a homeland for foreign Jews); Iraq (oil); Kuwait (oil); Western Iran (oil); Sudan (oil); and Egypt (Suez Canal). France in turn got Lebanon and Syria.

Rule over the Arabian Peninsula before discovery of oil was given to the Arab family of Bin Saud which followed a strict puritanical form of Islam called Wahhabism that dates back to the mid-18th century, which spread forcibly in Shia regions of Oman, into Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, and much later Yemen.

Arm of influence

To ensure continued control over lucrative trade channels like the Suez Canal and valuable natural resources like crude oil, the British directly chose and installed in power corrupt and ruthless despots dependent on British financial and military backing.

They were handpicked despots who used the most reactionary form of the Islamic religion as their legitimacy to suppress any and all dissent coming from secular, national forces and international communism.

In Palestine, the British installed the corrupt Hajj Amin al-Hussaini – an anti-Semite – to the post of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem despite his lack of knowledge on Islam.

It was rather for his role in the anti-Jewish riots that followed after the Balfour declaration of 1917, argues Robert Dreyfuss in Devil’s Game – How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

These riots were investigated by numerous British-led commissions and they concluded the reaction by the indigenous population was due to economic and political grievances against the British mandate coupled with unchecked Jewish immigration and land purchases.

Parallel to the rise of al-Hussaini was the nurturing of David Ben Gurion by the British. Although Ben Gurion rose through the ranks of Labor Zionism his ideological outlook was not far from the revisionist Zionists.

The Zionism that leaders such as Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann espoused was relatively liberal where the Jewish state would be secular and democratic and the Jews would not have special privileges.

In The Fate of the Jews – A People Torn Between Israeli Power and Jewish Ethics, historian Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht says that to the right of Herzl and Weizmann were the more conservative Revisionists that celebrated the wars and conquest of ancient Israel as well as the barbarities and inequities that went with it led by the Russian journalist Zev Jabotinsky.

The Revisionists wanted the entire ancient Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates.

End of Britain’s Mandate

The distinction between Ben Gurion and the Revisionists was not that he was a territorial minimalist while Revisionists were territorial maximalists but rather that he pursued a gradualist strategy while they adhered to an all or nothing approach, says Israeli historian Avi Shlaim.

The ‘liberal’ faction of Zionism waned slowly after World War Two. Their disappearance was hastened by Britain’s decision to reverse its decision to partition Palestine as part of the Peel Commission’s 1937 recommendations.

The 1939 White Paper also curtailed Jewish immigration which were viewed as appeasing the Arab states and Muslim world, seen as vital allies in the conflict with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy at the time.

These developments were catastrophic for both the indigenous Arabs and the British Mandate. It was catastrophic as it strengthened the Revisionists’ hand and some became radicalized to the point of attacking British institutions in Palestine.

Among these Jewish fighters, labeled terrorists by the British, were two members that would eventually lead their country – namely Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – in later years underscoring the drift of the Zionist political movement to the extreme right which exacerbate the struggle for Palestinian nationhood in later years.

Dreyfuss argues that this ‘betrayal’ by Britain – reneging on promises made to various Zionist leaders – did not stop it and France from using the new state of Israel as a stalking horse to topple the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 over his move to nationalize the Suez Canal Company after the USA and Britain withdrew financial aid for the Aswan High Dam power project.

Not only did Britain and France find an ally in a right-wing Israeli government to protect its interests but in the background the Muslim Brotherhood was nurtured. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian Hassan al-Banna in 1928 with a grant from the same Suez Canal Company Nasser nationalized later.

The message of the Muslim Brotherhood soon spread to other countries where the secular nationalist forces together with international communism became a threat to British interests and the pliant authoritarian leaders and monarchs it installed.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Nasser’s actions against British and French interests made him a hero in the eyes of oppressed people everywhere in the Middle East. It split the nascent Palestinian movement between the Islamists based in Gaza, who Nasser tried to crush in Cairo, and the nationalists who allied with Nasser’s vision of Arab nationalism.

Support for the Muslim Brotherhood started declining as the secular, nationalist and communist forces started gaining strength in numbers.
But the Muslim Brotherhood received a massive boost when Israel captured both the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War of 1967.

Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin was imprisoned by Nasser but later freed by the Israelis. Under Israel’s watchful eyes, the Muslim Brotherhood begun to lay down their infrastructure with mosques and charity organizations in the occupied territories.

Israel’s formal support for the Islamists occurred after 1977 when the far-right parties came to power in Israel. Menachem Begin who revolted violently against the British over the 1939 White paper became Israel’s prime minister.

Israel’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood extended to other countries like Syria. Animosities intensified after 1973 when President Hafez al-Assad proclaimed a secular constitution for Syria that described the country as democratic, popular and socialist.

Violent Islamist demonstrations soon followed.

When Lebanon’s civil war erupted in 1975- due to Israel’s maneuvers against the ethnically plural state – it drew in Syria which sent troops into Lebanon to protect Christians against predominantly Muslim Palestinians which were better armed and trained, says Patrick Seale in his 1990 book Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East.

This did not go well with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which carried out assassinations, bomb attacks and other violent actions across Syria until it was violently put down in Hama in February 1982.

The Brotherhood implodes

It is often debated that for a movement to carry out such sophisticated operations against a state known for its security apparatus, the Muslim Brotherhood must depended on support from both Jordan and Israel.

But beginning in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood began to self-destruct. It attacked countries which were once its sponsors or sympathizers by first assassinating President Anwar Sadat of Egypt – a one-time supporter.

According to Stratfor Worldview Assessment, it threatened the Saudi monarchy from within demanding popular elections and accountability after the fallout of the 1991 Gulf War.

It is worthy to mention that it was the Saudi Kingdom which used the Ikhwan as a bulwark against Nasserist pan-Arab socialist ideas decades earlier.

Lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood turned against Israel when the first Intifada broke out in 1987 through its armed wing Hamas attacking civilian targets like buses and markets with suicide bombers.

Syria: New proxy battles as Macron cuddles up to Trump

On April 7, images showing children being frantically hosed off in what was described as a suspected chemical attack in the district of Douma, Syria were beamed across the world.

The Russians and the Syrians claimed it was staged by a humanitarian organization called the White Helmets. The Russians went even further that they have proof the British government assisted this organization as it receives funding from the UK.

This was the third chemical attack which the Western governments blamed on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad since the sarin attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. His government strongly denied any involvement.

In April 2017, another chemical incident, which the Russian and Syrian authorities explained as accidental, took place in a place called Khan Sheikhdoom.

The explanation given was that one of the missiles from a Russian plane hit a rebel warehouse storing chemical poisonous gas prohibited in warfare.

As punishment, the US was the only country taking action against Syria for the Khan Sheikdoom incident.

Here the US crossed its own red line by attacking Syria directly, albeit in a limited strike without the involvement of the UK and France.

But in response to the alleged April 7 Douma incident a coalition including the UK and France joined in the US attack, despite contested versions of what really happened notwithstanding the announcement by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that they would visit the Douma site(s) where the attacks allegedly took place.

Leftist claims under the spotlight

The claim often made by the left is that countries like the UK and France act like poodles when they assist the US in bombing sovereign countries, often in contravention of clearly defined international law.

This accusation the Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May strongly denied in parliament recently and insisted instead that the UK acts in its own best interests.

These interests include becoming a major supplier of arms to many countries in the Middle East as well as to the US.

This is in addition to lucrative investments by states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia giving the British economy some respite in recent years after the 2008 economic meltdown.

And when President Emmanual Macron was seen standing next to President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Washington and threatening to renegade on the Iran nuclear deal, the same accusation of being a poodle was leveled against him.

But it was France that took the leading role in the regime-change operation in Libya by recognizing the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi where the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule had started.

As The New York Times reported on November 3, 2011 “France’s aggressive diplomatic stance is seen as a way of showing commitment to the popular uprisings and democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa after Mr (Nicholas) Sarkozy admitted that Paris was too slow to recognize the strength of the revolutionary movements in Tunisia …and Egypt”.

We later learned that the late Libyan leader Gaddafi bankrolled Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential bid illegally; the issue has now gone to trial.

Libyan opposition groups promised the French oil company Total one third of all oil production if Gaddafi is removed, a claim which the company denied.

Others still saw this supposedly humanitarian intervention in Libya as a way for Sarkozy to boost his election chances as he was trailing other candidates in the race to be re- elected president in 2012.

The Arab Spring spreads to Syria

Protests in Syria started to intensify as soon as the US, UK, and France received the green light to create a no-fly zone in Libya, which turned into a regime change operation violating the letter and spirit of UN Security Council resolution 1973.

The fall of Gaddafi, which was portrayed as a success story in Western media kowtowing to their respective governments’ own self-serving narrative, was a huge boost to those in Syria who always wanted to overthrow the Assad dynasty.

This included groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that also saw their fortunes rising in Egypt with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

What is often omitted in commentary on Syria is that there was a pause between the time the first air strikes hit Libya in March 2011 and the first arms shipment to the rebels in Syria soon after Gaddafi’s lynching in October 2011.

This window of opportunity was used by countries like Turkey and Qatar which were closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to persuade President Bashar Al Assad to leave power peacefully.

A similar call came also from President Obama in August 2011 but this was a miscalculation (apart from setting a red line for the use of chemical weapons) as it disincentivized the combatants from coming to the peace table, as we shall see later.

A question of pipelines

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met on April 4 to preserve Syrian sovereignty, but could there also be a question of pipeline access to Europe? [PPIO]

President Assad’s removal had been predicated on his opposition to a gas pipeline running from Qatar via Syria to the Mediterranean Sea to supply gas to European markets.

This pipeline had the backing of Qatar, Turkey, the US, UK and France but not Syria, Iraq and Iran which had already signed up to build another gas pipeline running from Iran via Syria through to the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The Obama administration saw the Qatar pipeline as a direct challenge to Russia’s own gas supply to Europe, and welcomed it.

Given Qatar’s geographical position, the gas-rich state can only supply gas via sea routes to Europe at the moment which is a more expensive option than through pipelines.

Its Far East markets are also coming under threat from Russian competition and customers like China have plans to develop their own shale gas fields, as the US has done in the past decade.

The Europeans due to environmental considerations have no plans to explore shale gas in the distant future.

Arms flow

Seymour Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books in January 2016 that the intelligence arm of the Pentagon became concerned early on in the Syria conflict that most of the arms that were flowing from the CIA through Turkey as well as from Qatar ended up in the hands of extremist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Obama chose to ignore this data which triggered military-to-military intelligence exchanges between the Pentagon and counterparts in countries like Israel, Russia and Germany bypassing the White House.

The Pentagon claimed that this vital exchange saved Syria from collapsing into the same chaos we had seen in Libya and Iraq.

The same intelligence personnel at the Pentagon, such as Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, who saved Syria from falling into the hands of extremist Islamic groups went on to shape presidential candidate Donald Trump’s policy in the Middle East.

As the Syria conflict dragged on and hit a stalemate, Qatar was quietly being nudged aside by Saudi Arabia as the primary source of providing arms to the rebels notwithstanding they were Al Qaeda-affiliated, the Financial Times said on May 18, 2013.

What brought this about was President Obama’s second term win and the quest to find a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the region – to develop nuclear power since the times of the Western-backed Shah in the mid-seventies.

Saudi Arabia and Israel strongly opposed this policy shift.

To undermine the thawing of relations between the State Department now headed by John Kerry and Tehran there is ample evidence to suggest Saudi Arabia was trying to force President Obama’s hand in Syria by instigating incidents of chemical warfare in view of his red line ultimatum to Assad in August 2012.

Attacking Syria at that point would have seriously jeopardized negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.

David Usborne wrote in the Independent on August 26, 2013 that the Saudis had accused Assad of using chemical weapons as early as February 2013.

It was none other than Prince Bandar bin Sultan – who directed military operations in Syria and was an implacable foe of Iran and staunch ally of the Bush family dynasty in the US – who pointed the finger at Assad.

On August 29, 2013, the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne reported a sarin gas attack five months earlier in the town of Khan Al Assal outside Aleppo.

The attack killed 16 government soldiers and 10 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN chief prosecutor on Syria Carla Del Ponte in an interim report concluded that the rebels and not Assad may have been responsible for the attack.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry website and in regards to the missile type that was used in the Khan Al Assal attack, the warheads were only put into production in February 2013 – the same time Saudi Arabia was making accusations through Prince Bandar that Assad was using chemical weapons indiscriminately.

A few days earlier, UN experts were due to arrive to fully investigate this incident when the much larger Ghouta attack happened in August 2013.

As Oborne pointed out, it would have been high unlikely the government would have used poisonous gas when UN inspectors were due to investigate an incident which had all the hallmarks that it was perpetrated by the rebels.

France changes course

After President Obama and President Putin decided that the best course of action for Syria would be to destroy its chemical arsenal under the supervision of the OPCW, France was furious that it was not consulted.

It was the only country that was standing with the US in its bid to attack Syria after blaming it for the East Ghouta chemical attack while the UK parliament voted against military intervention in 2013.

It was at this point that France saw a similar opportunity which had existed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that both the US and UK were losing their influence in the Middle East.

A declassified CIA report compiled in 1970 but released in 2011 showed how French influence gathered pace from the late 1960s – its focus shifting from the Maghreb region in North Africa to oil-producing Arab countries like Iraq.

France, like the UK in 1974, had to reconsider its pro-Israel stance in order to win allies in the region.

Similarly during the start of the Obama presidency, numerous reports surfaced of the US pivoting to the Far East as evidenced in an article authored by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the authoritative Foreign Affairs magazine in 2009.

France saw this pivot as an opportunity to play a greater role in the Middle East.

Ostensibly, this role gained more impetus after France was not consulted on Syria’s chemical weapons destruction.

Unlike the UK that always allowed the US to take the lead role in the Middle East since the humiliation over the Suez affair in 1956, France always carved for itself an independent role to the consternation of its traditional allies as was the case when it opposed the illegal Iraq invasion in 2003.

Such independence was shown again when it sided with Saudi Arabia opposing an interim Iran nuclear deal in late 2013. But this time it also had support among neoconservatives in Washington and London who otherwise had been France’s main critics leading up to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Raphael Ahren in the Times of Israel (10/11/2013) noted that Saudi Arabia is the region’s foremost buyer of French arms:

“In light of the current economic situation in France, which really does not look so bright, these weapons deals are very important to the country.”

The Saudis were also investing heavily in French agricultural and food sectors hit hard by subsequent Russian retaliatory sanctions over Ukraine .The agricultural lobby has always been important in France for any government in power.

The Trump embrace

It is in this context one has to see the current French president warming up to President Trump like no other Western leader. President Trump brought Saudi Arabia back from the cold after Obama had marginalized Riyadh to some extent during his presidency.

Toward the final years of the Obama administration, the price of crude oil fell precipitously adding a further blow to the Saudis but since Trump came into the White House markets have seen the price go up steadily giving the Saudis additional economic clout that Western powers like France can benefit from.

During his press conference with Macron on April 24, Trump made it clear that Iran will not have access to the Mediterranean Sea. This helps explain why the US has stationed troops in northern Syria and wants Saudi Arabia and Gulf states now to foot the bill by deploying their own troops.

These are policy positions which Trump had expressed during his election campaign.

Trump says the US has since 2001 spent $7 trillion fighting wars in the Middle East yet has shown nothing for all this expenditure that could otherwise have been spent on building infrastructure at home. This is a sentiment often expressed by his nationalist support base.

In light of this, Syria has become a proxy play among major Western powers like France and the UK vying for influence and deal-making in the region, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries (after the rise of energy prices in 2004).

Meanwhile, the country’s suffering continues with no end in sight.