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Chapter 3: The Cold War (Introduction to Middle East Politics)

The decades after World War 2 were critical in shaping the Middle East’s political structures. After the war began, demand for oil increased – the Middle East became more valuable, as a supplier of oil, and as a strategic location.

During the war, British and French forces occupied Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria while Soviet forces occupied Southern and Northern Iran. This was the last instance of colonial strength in the region. After the end of the war, a new international system emerged, where military activities were suspended, this became known as the ‘Cold War’ between the U.S and The Soviet Union.

Instead, a war of ideologies ensued: U.S Capitalism versus Soviet Communism.

The Establishment of Israel

The British broke with the Zionists after the 1939 White Paper that contained more favourable terms for Palestine, since a good relationship with independent Arab States would become key for access to oil wealth.

Truman took a different stance, he sympathized with the Zionists. Eventually the U.S and the Soviets agreed upon the creation of the independent state of Israel, in 1948.

Violence erupted between the Palestinians and the Zionist forces, the former were disorganized while the latter were well organized through three militia groups. At the same time, a number of Arab States united (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria) invaded Israel. The combined number of Arab troops were 25,000 while the Israelis had roughly 30,000 troops. After early gains by the Arabs, it became clear that they lacked organization and leadership, as well as modern weaponry.

The Israelis were able to push back and claimed the areas allocated under the UN partition plan and Galilee in the North, as well as other areas. By 1949, all the Arab troops were repelled, and then Israel signed an armistice with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The U.S and the Soviets both saw benefits in the establishment of the state of Israel. The U.S were motivated by an ideological commitment to establishing the state as well as having a bulwark against potential Soviet expansionism. For the Soviets, Israel’s enmity with Britain and strong socialist roots of the Zionists doctrine, were positive signs for a future alliance.

It was only after the Suez Crisis and the rise of Arab nationalism that saw the Soviets take a more hostile stance towards Israel.

The Suez Crisis was when Nasser, who was partly responsible for declaring Egypt a republic rather than a monarchy, challenged the power of the Colonial powers. When Nasser took control, he championed state led economic development through the construction of the Aswan Dam. He sought funding from the US and the UK. Both countries requested that Nasser deal with Israel in return. The British remained apprehensive because Nasser replaced the pro-British monarchy. The U.S feared Soviet intervention, so they tried to entice Nasser into joining the Western Baghdad pact.

Nasser was more afraid of the British, than the Soviet threat. He saw this as an opportunity to play the US and the Russians against each other. He wanted U.S arms, but the Eisenhower administration did not approve this because of Egypt’s hostile relations with Israel.

When this became clear, Nasser negotiated an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia. When Egypt recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1956, the U.S withdrew from funding the Dam. When this occurred, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and seized the assets of the Canal company. He also closed the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Britain, France, and Israel prepared a plan for the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

This event saw the transfer of power form European states to Cold War powers as key players in the region. Britain, France, and Israel did not consult the U.S as they assumed that the latter would support them, in their war against Soviet Nasser. The invasion took place.

The U.S tried to apply sanctions to Israel, but the Democrat-controlled Congress resisted. While the Republican party had positioned itself as a close ally to Israel until the 1980’s, it was the Democrats who were most vocal in their support for Israel. This changed after the Raegan administration and the successive Lukid (right wing) Israeli governments after that point.

Nasser became a key player in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and this marked the rise of anti-colonialism and radical nationalist parties across the Middle East, including Algeria, Iraq, and Syria.

The Lebanese Civil War

The conflict that captures the opaque nature of external influence on the region, as well as internal and external dynamics, is the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990. The small state in the Levant experienced a bloodbath with a death toll nearing 150,000 and invasions from Israel and Syria.

The end of the war saw the establishment of a sub-state militia opposed to Israel and extended Syrian and Iranian influence in the region, to the detriment of the Cold War powers.

An Introduction to Middle East PoliticsChapter 3: The Cold War (Introduction to Middle East Politics) 1

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