Monday, 11 March 2013

Syria's dividing and the world should worry

Last week's revelation that the US exploited violent sectarian militias during the Iraq war reminds us of imperial history.

Fighting in Iraq, 2004

Its a strange anomaly how - despite being described by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli as the 'brightest jewel in the crown' of the British Empire - India was never formally invaded. Instead, in the early 1600s, Britain's East India Company were given permission by the Mughal emperor to trade along the Indian coast. British power in the region gradually increased until India osmotically became part of the empire. Even then, until the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Mughals and other puppet rulers were allowed to continue as heads of small client states across the region and only in 1876 was Queen Victoria finally given the title 'Empress of India'.

Of course, the British were not the first to employ this system of empire. In the Biblical account of Jesus we find a tyrannical Judean king called Herod. Herod's Judea was part of the Roman Empire, but the Romans allowed local puppets to run their client states. Similarly, today the US has military bases in dozens of apparently independent countries whose rulers ensure their foreign and economic policies coincide with US interests. Often, these rulers - euphemistically called allies - are hereditary dictators (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc) who buy weapons from the US and the UK and use them to suppress the human rights of their own citizens.

The parallels between US foreign policy today and the empires of the past do not end there. It was Roman emperor Julius Caesar who first used the phrase 'divide and conquer', a policy later adopted by the British. Last week, The Guardian revealed how during the occupation of Iraq US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, appointed Colonel James Steele - a veteran of dirty wars in South America - to quell the Sunni insurgency. Part of the solution Steele came up with involved hiring violent Shia militias to kill Sunni insurgents. The resulting sectarian civil war cost cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

Hiring local religious terrorists to fight enemies abroad isn't uncommon. UK foreign secretary, William Hague, recently described Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as 'delusional' for claiming the UK is a colonial bully in the Middle East. Yet, as detestable as Assad and his regime may be, the fact remains the government Hague represents is arming Syria's 'freedom fighters' who have repeatedly been linked to terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda. The same happened with the Al Qaeda linked 'freedom fighters' who were used in Libya to topple Colonel Gaddafi.

Arming rebels tempts politicians as an effective strategy with which to enforce foreign policy interests without risking a boots on the ground invasion. However, leaders should be wary of the risks this involves. A senior Pakistani official once told me how the country's military had in the past supported terrorists in Afghanistan, but the organisations they trained have since spiralled out of control and are now carrying out atrocities in Pakistan itself. The US also armed Afghan 'freedom fighters' for war with the USSR in the 1980s . Yet by 2001, the Americans were forced to invade Afghanistan to topple the very same 'freedom fighters' who were now being given a more accurate title: terrorists. As the catastrophic cycle repeats with the civil war in Syria spilling into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, perhaps it is time for 'divide and conquer' to be consigned to history. @Taalay

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