The Blog

The Cold War Never Went Away in the Middle East: It Also Had a Bearing on the Invasion of Iraq in 2003

If you thought the Suez crisis of 1956 was a long way away, consider that there were joint Russia-China-Iran naval exercises this year, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 could be considered just a pause and the West versus the world's murkier and more dictatorial states is still a conflict in progress.

If you thought the Suez crisis of 1956 was a long way away, consider that there were joint Russia-China-Iran naval exercises this year, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 could be considered just a pause and the West versus the world's murkier and more dictatorial states is still a conflict in progress.

After the Korean war of 1950-53 came the Soviet-backed deposition of King Farouk in Egypt by General Nasser in 1952, the attempted military coup to topple the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan (it failed), the Suez crisis of 1956 and, on 14 July 1958, the Soviet backed deposition and murder of King Faisal of Iraq. The following day Richard Beeston, the Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Lebanon, witnessed the following from the Corniche in Beirut:

"Gradually we saw a growing number of dots on the horizon approaching the coast. Running through the beach crowded with sunbathers, we were just in time to watch as amphibious tanks eerily surfaced through the waves and stood on the shore rotating their gun turrets. They were followed by fearsome looking marines from the US sixth fleet who leapt into the surf from landing craft. They were loaded with machine guns, mortars and flame-throwers, and muttered "excuse me, ma'am" as they advanced past sunbathers in bikinis, while Lebanese beach boys tried to sell them Cokes and ice-creams."

Farcical and inept as it was, in this way in July 1958 the US temporarily invaded Lebanon. The reason: that the Iraqi revolution by a Soviet-backed military had sparked fears of the total collapse of the west's position in the Arab world, and the loss, again, of its main communications artery, the Suez Canal.

The geo-political templates that shaped the world post-second world war, now nearly 70 years old, haven't much changed. At the start of the 1950s Britain, for example, was a (semi-departing) dominant power in the Middle East - or as it preferred to see itself a Mary Poppins-type nanny to fledgling states: there were 80,000 British troops stationed at Suez to keep the canal open, the monarchies of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Libya had been installed to be especially pro-western, and Britain, with oilfields in both Iran and northern Iraq, effectively ran the Middle East's oil.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer came from the Soviet Union fairly quickly. They began allying themselves with any Arab nationalist forces and militaries that were prepared to pillory western imperialism and fan the idea of "nationalism", and they aimed straight at the colonies that had been the most treasured and strategic colonial possessions - India, Egypt, Ghana, Aden, Iraq, Libya, Uganda, Kenya - plus the ones that the French (Vietnam, Syria, Algiers) and Portuguese (Angola, Mozambique) and Belgians (Congo) had had, and in which the US now took an interest.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union, the mopping up former British Empire colonies with a classic combination of Marx and military arms, along with the west's dependence on fossil fuel energy (oil), defined international current affairs until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in October 1989.

Conflict between the west and the Soviets led to the overthrow of King Farukh of Egypt and the installation of the anti-west Nasser; it led to proxy wars in Angola, Ghana, Algiers, Aden, Zanzibar, Kenya, Vietnam. In Europe in 1961 the Berlin Wall went up; in 1962 nuclear escalation was threatened from Khrushchev via Cuba. The 1970s brought the fall of Saigon, Pol Pot in Cambodia, considerable Soviet activity in South America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and support for the Iranian revolution. After the Cuba missile crisis, the second phase of highest alert in the Cold War for the west was 1982: the year that Argentina (certainly with Soviet approval) invaded the Falkland Islands.

Moscow's prize infiltration in south Asia from the early 1960s was India where the economy remained mired for decades (five year plans, nationalisation) until it was released with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the economic collapse of the Soviet bloc also had an immediate effect in South Africa: Nelson Mandela was released.

And that, surely, was that. Well, perhaps not entirely. For anyone paying attention at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War in late November 2009, there were two key points that had familiar resonances. One was when a very senior civil servant went to say "Irbil" and it came out "Mobil" (and was swiftly corrected for the following day's transcript). But I don't think oil was the reason for the invasion of Iraq.

The second clue, like all good spy thrillers, was more significant and came right at the beginning and was intended surely to go over the heads of the press who were still sharpening their pencils. On the very first day of the Iraq Inquiry it emerged that: "The Russians had $8 billion of debt owed to them by the Iraqis, which they were hopeful of getting repaid, and they were doing quite well on - contracts were being given, even for non-military grounds, because they were being given on political grounds, so the Russians were being given lots of contracts. So the system at the time quite suited them. "

All this was classic Cold War: Putin's regime moving into Ba'aathist Iraq, while having Assad's Syrian regime nicely in their pouch and enjoying friendly relations with Tehran, to take up a Saddam Hussein who was outlawed and under sanctions from Washington throughout the 1990s.

With Libya, the west superficially had greater success: they manipulated the Russians into agreeing to a no-fly zone at the UN then brought Colonel Gaddafi in from the cold in 2007, just after Gaddafi's long-term nurse Galyna Kolotnystka, apparently one of four making administration to an increasingly strange looking and bloated Libyan leader, had got on a flight back to Moscow.

But the full pattern took so long to emerge. "So why do you always back losers - Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi?' the BBC's Tim Whewell asked Alexei Pushkov of the Russian Duma's foreign affairs committee in March 2013 (BBC, Alexei Pushkov: Arming Syrian rebels 'would never work'). "Why does the west turn jihadists against us," Pushkov snapped back, although the BBC subsequently edited this out: Russia via Iran also supported the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In essence this is the whole miserable deadly story of international current affairs.

Geopolitics seems so remote, so academic, but it has devastating effects on regions and ordinary people. Today Syria is destroyed: for the protection of their Mediterranean submarine base at Tartus and listening post at Latakia on the Syrian coast, the Russians have backed the puppet regime of the Assads since 1971. Syria's people have bombed and gassed by Russian weaponry and chemical weapons - the same mustard gas that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds, the same that Nasser used in Yemen, courtesy of the Soviets, in 1964. Four million refugees have left Syria; but millions more remain displaced internally.

Meanwhile the invasion of Iraq by the US and UK, with the encouragement of the Saudi regime, opened the gates for the barbarity of ISIS.

Catastrophe upon catastrophe for the ordinary people of the Middle East, of Afghanistan, of the Arabian peninsula, of the eastern Mediterranean. History is not going to judge this well.