Rojava: Chapter 1C

Below, I will take a brief look at the recent histories of Yemen, Lebanon, the Gulf States, and northern African states. While there are Muslim nations to the east of India, in the former Soviet Union, and outside the northernmost countries of Africa, my focus in this section is just to look at some of the key nations which are particularly relevant to the issues discussed in this book. I am not denying the importance of nations like Somalia and Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia, or Kosovo and Chechnya. To understand Islamism, we must indeed be aware of the Wahhabis of Chechnya[1], Boko Haram in northern Nigeria[2], al-Shabaab in Somalia[3], and Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia[4]. At the same time, however, I wish to focus primarily on northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the countries between Turkey and Pakistan in this book. The inclusion of other Islamic nations would indeed be appropriate, but I have chosen not to go into great detail in order to avoid overloading the reader.


Yemen, Nationalism, and a Former Workers’ State


During the Cold War, Yemen was yet another worry for the West in the Muslim World. The southern part of the country had previously been controlled by the British, while the north had found itself under Ottoman rule. When an army coup in North Yemen saw the monarchy abolished in 1962, civil war broke out, in which Nasser’s Egypt supported progressive republicans, and pro-Western conservatives in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan supported the royalists. The south, meanwhile, was promised full independence from Britain in 1968. However, two southern nationalist groups (the NLF & the FLOSY) began to fight against British control, in what became known as the Aden Emergency. These events led Britain to begin withdrawing troops in 1967, after which the People’s Republic of South Yemen (PRSY) would be formed.


After 6 years of war in the north, the republicans emerged victorious, forming the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). In the south, meanwhile, the Marxist wing of the NLF gained power in 1969, and the country became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Described by as “a military-police-bonapartist dictatorship”, it aimed to nationalise the economy ‘from above’, albeit “with the support of the overwhelming majority” of the population. It nurtured close ties with the Communist Bloc and the PLO, and received support from the USSR to build up its military. In 1972, a small border proxy conflict began, with the YAR being backed by the West, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and the PDRY being backed by the Soviet Bloc, Cuba, and Libya. The PDRY, meanwhile, funded Red rebels in YAR, but became less interventionist when a new leader gained power in 1980. By 1986, “unemployment [had] been completely eliminated” but, at the same time, the country had joined the ranks of “other deformed workers’ states” (like China, Russia, and Cuba), whose model of ‘revolution from above’ had seen ‘revolutionary’ elites “carving out privileges for themselves”.


Civil war broke out in South Yemen in 1986, with thousands dying and around 60,000 fleeing to the YAR. Two “bureaucratic factions” had begun to jostle for power after one had tried a “classical Stalinist purge” against its internal opponents. summarises the regime as having been “progressive on the one hand with the abolition of landlordism and capitalism – but reactionary in the setting up of [a one-party dictatorship] without democracy for the workers and peasants”. Led by the Soviet process of Perestroika in 1988, the PDRY finally released prisoners, allowed other parties to form, and improved its justice system. As a result of the Soviet-recommended policy of dealing with non-workers’ states, South and North Yemen would eventually unite in 1990.[5]


In 2004, Zaidi Shias, who “make up one-third of the population” of Yemen, and “ruled North Yemen… for almost 1,000 years until 1962”, rebelled against the government. Named ‘Houthis’, after the leader of their first uprising, they were seeking to “win greater autonomy” in the Saada province of Yemen. Perceiving “encroachment by Sunni Islamists”, they would lead five more rebellions “before a ceasefire was signed with the government in 2010”.


In 2012, however, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been president of the YAR (and then Yemen) since 1978, was forced to step down as the country’s leader. He had long been an authoritarian ally of the West in its war on ‘terrorism’, but had also allowed corruption, human rights abuses, and an increase in Wahhabi-influenced extremism. The Arab Spring-inspired protests of 2011 had been backed by the Houthis, who “took advantage of the power vacuum to expand their territorial control in Saada” and Amran. They then participated in negotiations which saw plans made in February 2014 “for Yemen to become a federation of six regions”.[6] Although they took control of most of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September, they were still involved in fierce battles with Al Qaeda insurgents in early 2015. “Regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran”, meanwhile, appeared to be playing “an increasingly incendiary role” in the country, “amid mounting evidence that they [were] actively supporting the opposing factions”.[7]


Lebanon, Sectarianism, and Israel


After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, French rulers in Lebanon helped Maronite Christians to gain power, mostly through the Phalange (a right-wing militant group). During the Second World War, Britain stepped in to impose Free French rule and, in 1943, Lebanon gained independence from France. A National Pact was signed which guaranteed that the President would always be a Maronite. Tensions gradually rose as a result of this pact and, in 1975, a civil war broke out – with Maronite Christian leaders clashing with reformist Muslim groups, including poor, disenfranchised Shiites.


Maronite militias attacked Palestinian refugee camps, where the PLO had been operating since leaving Jordan in 1971. The PLO was drawn into the conflict, which would last 15 years, see hundreds of thousands of people killed, and 30,000 Syrian troops enter Lebanon to protect Christian militias. In 1982, Israel invaded in the hope of driving out the PLO. It killed hundreds of people, while its allies in the Phalangist militias massacred hundreds more in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila as Israel stood by. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign in 1983 for his failure to act against this massacre (though he would continue to serve in Israel’s government almost uninterrupted until 2006).


Muslim militias, uniting under the name Hezbollah, called for armed resistance to Israeli occupation, and many Shiites in the south heeded their call. By giving social and economic services to the poor, the organisation would soon turn into a powerful organisation, and a major instrument of opposition to Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. In 1983, radical Islamists unrelated to Hezbollah bombed the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon after suspected US interference in the Civil War. US troops withdrew a year later as a result.


In 1990, as a result of Syrian bombing of the Presidential Palace, the war finally ended. Nonetheless, Israel invaded once again in 1996 in order to bomb Hezbollah bases, only being forced to withdraw its unsuccessful forces in the year 2000. Syrian forces, meanwhile, would withdraw five years later. In 2006, Israel launched a renewed offensive against Hezbollah, though it again failed to achieve anything apart from destruction and civilian deaths. In 2013, Hezbollah began to fight against anti-Assad Islamists who were encroaching on Lebanese territory, and tensions began to rise between Hezbollah and Sunni Islamist groups in Lebanon as a consequence. By 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had “surpassed one million”, and Wahhabi extremists from groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra threatened to spread their jihad into Lebanese territory.[8] [More on Hezbollah and the different types of Islamism in the Middle East will be examined in greater depth between Chapters Five and Eight of this book.]


The West’s Allies in the Gulf States and Jordan


In 1923, Britain installed a monarchy in Jordan, which would only gain its independence from the colonial power in 1946. King Abdullah, caught up in the Arab opposition to the creation of Israel, joined other nations in the attack on the newly-formed state in 1948. Though defeated in battle, he occupied of the West Bank, which would be officially annexed by Jordan in 1950. A year later, he was killed in Jerusalem by Palestinians opposed to the annexation of the West Bank. His grandson, Hussein, became king at 16 years of age, and soon had to deal with border skirmishes with Zionist forces. In 1957, he decided to declare martial law.


Ten years later, Israel seized control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. In the aftermath of the conflict, the king took a different stance towards the ‘Palestinian Question’, ordering attacks on the PLO in Jordanian refugee camps in 1970. Thousands of Palestinians were killed in what soon became known as ‘Black September’, and Jordan subsequently became a target of aggression for radical Palestinians seeking retribution. Hussein, meanwhile, was gradually becoming an important ally of the West in the Middle East, and Jordanian relations with Israel soon became more neutral. The king eventually signed a peace treaty in 1994, before dying five years later. He was succeeded by King Abdullah, who continued to be a strong Western ally in the region.


Like Jordan, the Gulf States were largely under the control of Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, and most only saw British troops withdraw from their territory in 1971. Afterwards, they continued to be repressive pro-Western dictatorships, and took advantage of the oil resources available to them to control their populations with religion or force.


Kuwait, for example, had asked for British protection from Ottoman rule in 1899, and London began to control its foreign affairs as a result. In 1937, large oil reserves were discovered by the US-British Kuwait Oil Company and, in 1951, a major public-works programme began. Ten years later, Kuwait became independent under a monarch, who would intervene in the country’s National Assembly on numerous occasions over the next few decades. When Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing its oil in 1990, it attracted Western attention. Its invaded a month later, meanwhile, forced the monarch to flee and saw a US-led (and UN-backed) aerial bombing campaign begin early in 1991. Towards the end of the 1990s, Islamists began to gain power in the country, and this was facilitated by the chaos caused by the Kuwaiti-backed Invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2012, the monarch stepped in to stop Islamists running the parliament, but private citizens were already heavily involved in fuelling Wahhabi groups in both Syria and Iraq. Like in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s monarchy was playing a balancing act between ensuring authoritarian ‘progress’ and stopping Islamists from gaining too much power.[9]


In Qatar, meanwhile, democratic elections came for the first time since independence in 1999, and the country supported the USA with its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Four years later, the country’s natural resource deals with the West allowed it and its neighbour Dubai to “become the two biggest shareholders of the London Stock Exchange”. In both Libya and Syria, Qatar would be a key Western ally in funding the Islamist opposition to the Gaddafi and Assad regimes.[10] As the “only other country [apart from Saudi Arabia] whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed”, Qatar began to seek greater independence from Saudi protection. Consequently, it developed “an activist foreign policy promoting Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North Africa”.


Possessing “long-standing, deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt, Qatar experienced souring relations with its Wahhabi neighbour Saudi Arabia in 2013 when it became clear that the Saudis were committed to toppling Morsi’s Brotherhood government there. The Saudis had also tried to curtail “Qatari influence within the rebel movement” in Syria. Unlike Qatar, meanwhile, the Saudi regime was seen by James Dorsey at Middle East Online as having “less control of [its] empowered clergy”. He speaks of how “Qatari rulers do not derive their legitimacy from a clerical class”, and do not “have a religious force that polices public morality”, in contrast with Saudi leaders, who do.[11] As a result of these differences, Qatar officially sought to back “the moderate Syrian opposition, which was derived from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood”, while Saudi Arabia “allegedly installed radical Salafi-Wahhabi groups”.[12] Nonetheless, Qatar was still accused by its US allies of having created “a permissive environment for financing terrorist groups”.[13]


In 1971, The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed when seven states joined together (though Abu Dhabi and Dubai have since become the two best known of the states). The UAE is “governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the prime minister and the cabinet”. Although “one of the most liberal countries in the Gulf”, it “remains authoritarian”, and didn’t have “elected bodies until 2006”.[14] In 2012, it outlawed “online mockery of its own government or attempts to organise public protests through social media”, detaining over “60 activists without charge”.[15] In August 2014, UAE forces “flying out of Egyptian airbases” targeted Wahhabi-backed Islamist fighters in Libya in what The Guardian called “a watershed moment”, suggesting “that a block of Middle Eastern countries led by the UAE [were] seeking to step up their opposition to the Islamist movements that [had] sought to undermine the region’s old order since the start of the Arab spring” three years previously.[16]


In the past, the state of Oman had been different from other Gulf States in the sense that it “had its own empire, which at its peak in the 19th century… vied with Portugal and Britain for influence” in the Middle East.[17] As a “pivotal point of the trade of the Middle and Far East”, it had built an empire “spanning both the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean… between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries”. Seeking greater influence in the country, Britain effectively “undermined and destroyed the Omani economy” in the nineteenth century.[18] Between 1932 and 1970, society in Oman was “run along feudal lines” and suffered both “international isolation” and “internal rebellion”.[19] However, it avoided Westernisation, along with the Islamic reactionism that such a policy often generated in the region.


Economic and welfare reforms only began to occur in Oman after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Being predominantly Ibadi (“a distinct sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shi‘i”, but in a “thoroughly natural and non-politicized way”),[20] the country was largely “spared the militant Islamist violence that [had] plagued some of its neighbours”. Though a peaceful and “quietly influential” power,[21] however, it became another authoritarian Western ally from the 1970s onwards, and has since been useful to the West because of its “steady relations with Iran”.[22] Its “unique status of having close ties to both Iran and the United States” have long made it “a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in the region”, according to The New York Times. Whilst “concerned about Iran’s exporting its Islamic revolutionary ideology”, many Omani citizens apparently see “the ultraconservative Saudi Arabian approach… as more of a danger to Omani interests, and stability, than Iranian activities in the region”.[23] At the same time, however, Oman seeks to maintain an “ambivalent fraternal friendship with the House of Saud”, principally because of its “vulnerability, and need for strategic depth in the context of the Shia-Sunni rift” rather than “any wish to share a common political destiny [with other] Sunni Arab monarchies” in the Arabian Peninsula.[24]


The oil-rich island nation of Bahrain, meanwhile, “forged close links with the United States” after its independence from Britain in 1971, establishing a Sunni monarchy in a Shia majority country. Protests by the country’s Shia population would often break out as a result of sectarian inequality and, though the country became a constitutional monarchy in 2001, little improved. When demonstrators took to the streets in 2011, for example, the government “called in the Saudi military to crush protests”.[25] A number of people were killed as a result, while 2,300 people[26] were injured and many political activists were imprisoned. [More on Bahrain’s role in the Arab Spring will be seen in Chapter Six.]


Overall, the authoritarian Gulf States count on the West’s greed for oil to survive, and thus value their alliance with Western nations. However, their repression of dissent has led to the growing internal popularity of Islamist groups, and their vast wealth (concentrated in the hands of a privileged few) has often found its way into the hands of such organisations. In short, the fact that these repressive, exploitative elites are key Western allies shows that Western governments’ statements about democracy, freedom, and anti-terrorism are simply examples of their frequent, deceitful, and self-interested rhetoric.


Islamism in North Africa


In Algeria, Muslim Arab nationalism began to grow in 1931 with the creation of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama. Under the French colonialists, however, there was vicious suppression of massive independence demonstrations, with one in 1945 seeing 54,000 people killed. Nine years later, the National Liberation Front (or FLN), which exhibited a mixture of nationalist and socialist progressivism, began its war of independence against French forces. Between 1954 and 1962, around 1.5 million Algerians were killed, and the country was left devastated, though the conflict had proved to be a watershed in the anti-colonial struggle of African nations.


Progressive nationalist Ahmed Ben Bella served as the country’s president from 1963 to 1965, and he immediately sought to implement populist reforms. He focussed primarily on rural Algeria, experimenting with socialist cooperative businesses (referred to as ‘self-management’), whilst also seeking to purge the FLN of those who opposed his policies. Nonetheless, the country became a “haven for all the anti-imperialists of the world” during his time in power.[27] In 1965, he was overthrown by Defence Minister Houari Boumédiène in a bloodless coup, and placed under house arrest until Boumédiène’s death. The new leader subsequently led a systematic programme of state-led industrialisation, undertaking agrarian reforms and nationalising the hydrocarbons industry in six years later. In 1978, he died and was replaced by Chadli Bendjedid, who strengthened authoritarian rule and engaged in liberal economic reforms aimed at undoing the progressive measures implemented under Boumédiène and Ben Bella.


In 1980, the Berber Spring began, and a massive protest march was brutally suppressed. Eight years later, youngsters rioted in response to the poverty and lack of freedom in Algeria, only to be harshly repressed like those who had demonstrated years before. Hundreds died, and Benjedid was forced to allow freedom of association and expression and to implement a multi-party system in the country. In 1990, the FIS (a coalition of Islamists (including Wahhabis)) won the majority in the first local multiparty elections. They were repressed, and called for strikes and huge demonstrations in 1991. Thousands were arrested, and the army would push Benjedid from power definitively the following year when a landslide victory for the FIS looked probable. The coalition was banned, and its members were arrested. An all-out war ensued as a response and, over the following decade, around 200,000 people were killed.


In 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika became president, though he had run unchallenged. He implemented an amnesty for thousands of rebels who had surrendered. Other Islamist groups (mostly Wahhabis), however, continued to fight. According to a 2013 New Internationalist article, there was apparently collusion between Algeria’s secret police (the DRS) and certain Islamist groups in the country. The “majority of ‘terrorist’ incidents in the country” since 2003, the magazine’s Jeremy Keenan said, had “involved some degree of collusion between the DRS and the terrorists” – the purpose of which had been to spark situations in which the army could suppress Islamists and “convince the West” that it was “the best guarantor of Western interests in the region”.[28]


In Tunisia, meanwhile, independence from France came in 1956, with progressive bourgeois nationalist Habib Bourguiba becoming the country’s first president. He secularised the country, and allowed the PLO to resettle in Tunis after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Three years later, however, the Israeli air force bombed Tunis in retaliation for Tunisia’s hospitality. In 1987, Bourguiba was ousted for his alleged mental incompetence, with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali taking over and ruling with an iron fist, whilst liberalising the economy.


In December 2010, mass protests began, demanding free and democratic elections. The subsequent unrest was the starting point of the Arab Spring, which would spread across the region. In January 2011, Ben Ali fled into exile. As a result of subsequent violence led by radical Islamists, thousands of Tunisians fled “to the Italian island of Lampedusa”. Meanwhile, Islamists won elections, and Wahhabi violence began to spread. The following year, however, thousands protested when the government attempted to “reduce women’s rights” and, after mass protests in 2013, the government finally resigned.[29]


Morocco, which had been a French Protectorate since 1912, would gain independence in 1956. Between 1921 and 1926, France had repressed a rebellion, along with Spanish troops, and the 1930s saw the colonialists attempt to divide Berbers from Arabs. When Sultan Muhammad V was overthrown in 1953, however, pro-independence sentiment grew much stronger, and the sultan became a hero in exile. Two years later, he returned to the country and was made king again in 1957. Six years later, the sultan’s successor Hassan II invaded revolutionary Algeria, killing 300 Algerians but failing to make the territorial gains he sought.


With the growth of radical Islamism in the early 1970s, there were two coup attempts launched against the king and, when the leader of Islamist group Adl wa Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence) criticised the king in 1974, he was imprisoned. A year later, the king called for a “Green March” on Western Sahara, which had just been decolonised by Spain. The Islamic socialists of the Polisario Front, however, resisted the occupation with Algerian support, declaring the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in early 1976. Although the UN recognised the front as the legitimate representative of the people of Western Sahara in 1979, a ceasefire would only be signed with Morocco in 1991. This armistice, however, would only come after the completion of “the Berm”, which is considered to be “one of the most secure defensive barriers ever”, consisting of “10-foot-high walls, barbed wire, electric fences and, every seven miles, human sentries”. It also lies “amid the world’s longest continuous minefield”.[30] While Morocco controlled the western side of the wall, Polisario controlled the territory to the east. The African Union, meanwhile, recognised the SADR and removed Morocco from the organisation (making it the only African nation not to be a member).


In the rest of Morocco, meanwhile, reforms began to take place, with Berber dialects being allowed to broadcast on TV in 1994 and a ‘socialist’ being allowed to control the government for the first time in 1998. In 1999, King Hassan died, and his successor Mohammed VI tried to deal with poverty and illiteracy in the country. He ruled in a less authoritarian manner, freeing prisoners and allowing dissidents to return from exile. In 2003, over 40 people were killed “when suicide bombers [attacked] several sites in Casablanca”, but a free trade agreement was nonetheless signed with the USA the following year, with the USA designating Morocco “as a major non-Nato ally”.


More terrorist attacks would take place in 2007, and political unrest exploded in 2011 when thousands of protesters called for political reforms, forcing King Mohammed to change the constitution several months later. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack would kill 17 people in Marrakech, just months before the “moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD)” won parliamentary elections. Between 2012 and 2013, however, further mass protests would lead to the governing coalition’s downfall.[31] In mid-2014, however, The New York Times would speak about how “pro-democracy activists and journalists” had been facing “increasing repression”, and about how little was changing in the country.[32]


Finally, I believe it is worth mentioning the role of Sudan in northern Africa. Connected to Egypt at the start of the twentieth century, Sudan remained a British colony after its neighbour gained independence, and only in 1956 did it become an self-governing republic. Two years later, the Sudanese military led a coup against the recently-elected civilian government, and civil war would break out in the south in 1962. Two years on, an “Islamist-led government was established”, though another coup, led by Jaafar Numeiri, would take place in 1969. Three years later, southern Sudan became “a self-governing region”, though a civil war would start up again in 1983, five years after the discovery of oil in the south. While the South resisted the North’s monopoly over state resources, Sharia Islamic law was officially established in Sudan.


In 1985, Numeiri was deposed in a coup “after widespread popular unrest” and, four years later, another coup took place, eventually leading Omar Bashir to power in 1993. Five years on, the USA launched a “missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, alleging that it was making materials for chemical weapons”, and Bashir would soon declare a state of emergency (just as the country began to export oil). In 2003, people in Darfur rose up against the government, claiming it was “being neglected by Khartoum”. The following year, the rebellion was repressed, and “hundreds of thousands of refugees” fled to Chad, with the UN saying that “pro-government Arab… militias [had been] carrying out systematic killings of non-Arab villagers in Darfur”. In 2008, the International Criminal Court (ICC) called “for the arrest of President Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur”, in what would be the “first ever request… for the arrest of a sitting head of state”. In 2011, South Sudan gained independence, though it would soon be blighted by further civil conflict. The North, meanwhile, would be left fighting a conflict with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) over the oil-rich region of Abyei.


In summary, North African Arab nations have been split since their independence from colonialists between dictatorial regimes of either nationalist or conservative Islamic varieties. Their repression of Islamist groups, far from destroying them, has contributed to their further radicalisation, as has their continued suppression of basic human rights. Their authoritarian domination, meanwhile, has prevented autonomous, secular democratic experiments from arising. Recent democratic reforms, particularly since the Arab Spring, have only seen different elites take power, while a resurgent Islamism has gained the support of many people opposed to the corrupt regimes in power and their imposition ‘from above’ of neoliberal economic policies.









[9] Most information here summarised from, and

























About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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