As if sparked by the intense summer heat, fierce fighting and other acts of extreme violence have broken out across the Middle East. The danger is that one of these nasty local conflicts will escalate into a full-scale war, setting the whole region on fire.
In retaliation for an ambush of a Turkish military convoy on August 17 by guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which killed eight soldiers and wounded another 15, the Turkish Air Force, a couple of days later, struck at 60 suspected PKK hideouts and bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Dozens of militants are said to have been killed. The flare-up will put a temporary end to Ankara’s attempts to conciliate the Kurds by granting them more rights — a policy which it had hoped would rob the revolutionaries of popular support.
Iraq, in turn, was swept in mid-August by a devastating wave of attacks in different parts of the country, which left 68 people dead and wounded more than 300. Although no group claimed responsibility, it was a further demonstration of the catastrophic damage to the Iraqi state caused by the US invasion of 2003 and the long occupation that followed.
The government is evidently still not able to provide even minimal security. The attacks are likely to have been triggered by reports that US troops plan to stay on in Iraq beyond the end of the year, the agreed deadline for their final withdrawal.
In Libya, the revolutionaries have at last captured Tripoli. At the time of writing, Muammar Gaddafi’s end seemed very close. However, rebuilding a nation after his eccentric, brutal and highly personal 42-year rule will be no easy task. There are great differences between the east and west of the country, not to mention the Berber tribes in the deserts of the south. At least, Libya will benefit from plenty of oil income with which to reconstruct the country, unlike oil-poor countries like Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and even Egypt itself, all wrestling with grave economic problems.
In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad is fighting for his political life, perhaps for life itself. Outraged by his repression of the protest movement, the United States and several European countries have called on him to step down. Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s heavyweight, and several Gulf countries have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.
But Al Assad remains defiant. From his vantage point, the revolt is a ‘conspiracy’ of Islamists and others, backed by the US and European powers and manipulated by Israel, to punish Syria for its defence of Arab nationalist causes, and bring it down. However, recognising the need for political reforms, Al Assad has announced the holding of legislative elections next February. Will he be heard? Meanwhile, the killing continues, drowning out hopes of a political settlement.
Further afield, Pakistan and Afghanistan are both suffering from conflicts of growing intensity. Pakistan seems in imminent danger of imploding, so great are its internal tensions, while in Afghanistan, nowhere is safe from Taliban assaults, not even Kabul, the heavily defended capital. In Europe and the United States, opinion is more than ever sceptical of the wisdom of continued Western implication in the war.
As usual, the most explosive conflict zone is that between Israel and its neighbours. On August 18, seven Israelis were killed and dozens injured in a series of roadside attacks on buses and cars travelling down to Eilat, through the Negev, along a road close to the Egyptian border. Israel and Egypt share a 240 km border through the desert to the Red Sea at Eilat and Taba. It was the deadliest assault on Israel in at least four years.
In hot pursuit of the attackers, Israeli troops and aircraft entered Egyptian territory and killed five Egyptian policemen, an incident which has caused outrage in Cairo. It brought to the surface latent anger and detestation of Israel. Israeli flags were set on fire and crowds demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Egyptian opinion feels nothing but shame for the way Hosni Mubarak, the former dictator, colluded with Israel, notably in the siege of the 1.5m Palestinians of Gaza. The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which removed Egypt from the Arab line-up, thus giving Israel great licence to hit its other neighbours at will, is slowly being emptied of its substance.
Egypt is demanding an apology from Israel and compensation for the killing of the five policemen, in much the same way as Turkey is demanding an apology and compensation from Israel for the nine Turks killed by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara, when the Turkish ship tried to break the Gaza blockade.
The attacks on Israeli vehicles across the Sinai-Negev border may well have been the work of a Palestinian Islamist group or of angry Bedouin, the semi-nomadic inhabitants of Sinai who have suffered from heavy-handed treatment by both Israel and Egypt. The Bedouin long for greater autonomy. Some factions among them have almost certainly been responsible for the repeated attacks on the pipeline which carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel.
Although Hamas strenuously denied having anything to do with the attacks on the Eilat road, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blamed them. In time-honoured fashion, Israeli planes bombed the defenceless Gaza Strip, killing at least 20 civilians, wounding twice that number and causing much material damage. Determined to maintain some element of deterrence, Hamas and other Palestinian factions then fired volleys of rockets into Israeli territory. The stage is thus set for a wider conflagration.
In his usual belligerent form, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak declared: “Those who operate against us will be decapitated.” Like other members of Netanyahu’s far-right government, he seems unaware that Israel’s aggressive and expansionist behaviour is piling up hate against it, undermining its future security. In mid-August, Barak himself approved the building of 277 apartments in the illegal Jewish colony of Ariel, built deep inside the occupied West Bank. In any reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ariel would have to be evacuated. Yet Israel has recently moved ahead with plans to build more than 2,500 apartments in Occupied Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital. Israeli officials say 2,700 more apartments will be approved soon.
In an eloquent column in the International Herald Tribune on August 20-21, Roger Cohen wrote: ‘... Jews cannot with their history become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be loud and clear in their insistence that continued colonisation of Palestinians in the West Bank will only increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.’ A generation ago, James Baker, a former US secretary of state, urged Israel to give up ‘the unrealisable dream of a Greater Israel.’
There is no sign that these wise counsels have yet been heard. More violence can safely be predicted.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.