The Middle East is plagued by death, destruction and population displacements. A dozen different conflicts are raging. The whole region has rarely been in such torment.
In Syria, a bitter fratricidal war, largely fuelled by outsiders, threatens to reduce the country to a smouldering ruin, while consigning tens of thousands to the grave. Its neighbours are suffering from the spill-over. Turkey is struggling with a flood of Syrian refugees and a revival of Kurdish militancy. Lebanon and Jordan have been dangerously destabilised, and fear the worst.
Iraq, once a powerful Arab state, was destroyed and dismembered by America’s invasion and brutal 10-year occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed or wounded and millions displaced. Material damage was enormous. The once united country was transformed into a far weaker federal state by the creation of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in the north. Although Iraq’s oil industry is now recovering, its society and its politics remain highly unstable.
Just as America’s invasion in 2003 was launched on the fraudulent claim that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, so the US and its allies are now waging an undeclared war against Iran — a war of crippling sanctions, cyber-subversion and assassinations. The alleged aim is to force Iran to give up its development of nuclear weapons — although there is no credible evidence that Iran is doing any such thing. The real aim would seem to be ‘regime change’ in Tehran. A military attack on Iran in the New Year cannot be excluded.
After 11 years of war in Afghanistan, the US and its allies have failed to stabilise the country, let alone devise a credible exit strategy. Their planned departure in 2014 seems likely to turn into a humiliating scuttle, while plunging the country into an even more murderous civil war. Meanwhile, Egypt and Tunisia struggle to tame their Salafists, while armed gangs in Libya vie for supremacy.
In Mali, a war is in preparation to expel militant Islamic groups which have captured the northern part of the country and threaten the stability of the whole Sahel. In Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and soon possibly in Mali as well, US ‘targeted killings’ of alleged Islamic terrorists by means of pilotless drones also kill civilians and terrorise peaceful communities, driving relations between the US and the Muslim world to new depths of misunderstanding and hostility. Meanwhile, unchecked by either the Arab states or the western powers, Israel continues its relentless seizure of Palestinian territory, finally burying any hope of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and condemning itself to generations of future conflict with the Arab and Muslim world.
How has all this come about? What false moves and foolhardy decisions have brought the region to this lamentable state? In my personal opinion, the following are some of the main reasons.
As everyone knows, America’s invasion of Iraq triggered a civil war between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority, inflaming antagonisms between these two Muslim communities right across the region. The war transformed Iraq’s regional role. Instead of acting as a counterweight to Iran — which had long been Iraq’s traditional role — Iraq under Shiite leadership has become Iran’s ally.
This has overturned the balance of power in the Gulf region to the alarm of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Fear that Iran has ambitions to dominate the Gulf region has shaped the thinking and the regional policy of Saudi Arabia and some of its GCC partners. The fear may not be wholly justified, but it is real nevertheless.
By removing Egypt, the most powerful Arab country, from the Arab military line-up, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 eliminated any possibility of a balance of power between Israel and its Arab neighbours. It gave Israel the freedom to attack its neighbours with impunity and fuelled its ambition for regional dominance. One need only recall Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in1981 and its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Many more aggressions were to follow. In Israel itself, the rise of right-wing and ultra-religious forces hardened the country’s determination to expand its land area and prevent any expression of Palestinian statehood, while maintaining Israel’s military supremacy over the entire Greater Middle East.
Israel’s belligerent and expansionist policy has largely been made possible by the considerable influence of American Jews on American politics. The US Congress seems to have succumbed to Aipac, the main Jewish lobby. At the same time, Aipac’s sister organisation, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, managed to place its members in key posts in successive American administrations and generally shape American policy towards the region. Pro-Israeli neo-conservatives pushed the US into war against Iraq — because Saddam Hussain was seen as a potential threat to Israel — and are now echoing the call of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for war against Iran. Against this background, it is not altogether surprising that the US has been unable to halt Israel’s land-grab of Palestinian territory, let alone persuade it to make peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
Yet another factor which helps explain the present disastrous situation is the collapse of Arab nationalism and its replacement by the rise of militant Islam. Arab leaders failed to coordinate their efforts in support of joint policies. Equally, they failed in their dealings with western powers to use their considerable financial and oil and gas resources in support of Arab causes. The Arab League, a victim of inter-Arab quarrels, remains something of a broken reed.
What needs to be done? What are the key challenges facing the leading Arab states as well as the new American Administration? A great deal will hang on the way the United States adapts to its changing position in the world. Once the world’s dominant power, it must now come to terms with a new multipolar international system. America’s relative decline (largely brought about by its catastrophic wars and the misbehaviour of its deregulated financial institutions) has been matched by the rapid rise of China and a resurgent Russia.
The challenges are daunting. First, an urgent effort needs to be made to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict and bring to birth a Palestinian state. Nothing could better stabilise the region. Secondly, Arab leaders should work for a Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, which must also require an entente with Iran. Iran should be the Arabs’ partner, not its enemy. The US, in turn, should seek to negotiate a ‘win-win’ deal with Tehran — a perfectly feasible outcome which would at a stroke remove a major source of dangerous tension. Finally, the US, the Arab states and the rest of the world should unite in finding a solution to the rise of Islamic violence. This must surely be done by negotiation and re-education — and by a change of state policies — rather than by force.
Is there even the slightest hope that any of this will be accomplished?
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.