Opinion | Columnists

The Implosion of the Middle East

The ongoing Arab Spring is leading to a more decentralised and new Middle East, where there is freedom and accountability

  • By Abdullah Al Shayji, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 May 26, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • Civilians search for survivors under rubble after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, in Qusair town near Homs, May 21, 2013.

Even before the Arab uprisings, the Middle East was ripe for some kind of implosion. Wars, chronic instability, authoritarian regimes, dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations all united to give us fragmented and even failed states. Then with the onset of the Arab Spring, which swept the region and exacerbated the fragile situation even further, everything came to a head.

False stability provided by the authoritarian leaderships that were swept away. As Aaron David Miller in his recent piece in The National Interest titled ‘The Myth of the Arab State’, argued “For the past 50 years, America dealt with an Arab world composed of two kinds of authoritarian leaders: First, there were the adversarial, the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, Syria’s Hafez and Bashar Al Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.” It was clear that the stability that these authoritarian regimes provided was merely a veneer.

After two and a half years of the continuing Arab awakening or Arab Spring, as it is commonly known, it seems the old Middle East with its authoritarian set-up is giving way to a more decentralised and new Middle East in which there is more voice and accountability, more chaos and less order. But these are the symptoms of the chronic instability phase that comes with the change of regimes. However, the implosion of the Middle East is not only due to this natural transitional phase of the Arab awakening but also due to the forces it unleashed, which are sweeping away the glue that kept the region somehow together. What we have today in the Arab world is only the start of a new order or more accurately disorder.

Syria is breaking up before our eyes, while the Arabs and the international community keep fiddling and fumbling over how to handle this fireball, which is threatening to engulf. As I have warned in many columns in Gulf News, the whole region is in a vicious sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites with spillover effects stretching from Syria and Lebanon into Iraq, and which is unravelling through its sectarian cleavages into the Gulf. The heightened sectarian tension has now manifested itself in the breakout of fighting in Al Qusayr, the town on the Syrian-Lebanese border, pitting the Syrian armed forces supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia with Iraqi, Iranian and other Shiite fighters from as far away as Pakistan against the rebels and Free Syrian Army supported by Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon and elsewhere, including the GCC states. It is threatening to reignite thousand-year-old grievances and bring them back into the open to haunt the whole region with devastating and far-reaching consequences and fragmentation.

While Syria is beginning to splinter because of the sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansing, Iraq is also unravelling and is facing a surge of targeted bombings against Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods because of the sectarian policies of its autocratic Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and the exclusion of Sunnis from the political process. Moreover, Iraq doing Iran’s bidding in Syria by siding with the Syrian regime against the revolt has exacerbated the sectarian divide even further in Iraq. It is scary where Iraq is heading. It is chilling to compare the current dire situation in Iraq to the dangerous conditions of 2006 and 2007, at the height of the sectarian strife after the attacks on the revered Shiites shrine in Samarra in 2006.

Other regional players have been impacted by the rapid changes in the Middle East. In the new Middle East, Iran is a fading model with constrained powers. Iran seems to be at the losing end,sanctioned, bleeding and haemorrhaging, because of its allies and cronies.

As for Israel it too is facing a lot of uncertainty because of the evolving changes. Whether it is from Islamist Egypt and the stability of the Sinai Peninsula or the more urgent developments in Syria with the consequent spillover of the current mayhem, a weakened Al Assad and his more troubling chemical stockpiles. The bigger concern pertains the kind of regime that will eventually take over after Al Assad’s ouster. Israel, for the first time, has warned Al Assad not to cross its red lines and has gone ahead and bombed Damascus at least three times. It is even thinking of building a wall in the Occupied Golan Heights, which has not posed any threat to Israel for over 40 years.

On the other hand Turkey seems to be the rising star of the new Middle East. Although, Turkey’s role is still unclear, being distracted and disoriented by the Syrian crisis, but it clearly is a more successful and relevant model to be emulated by regional actors for its successful economic development, stability and democratic credentials.

While the Middle East and the Arab world face an implosion we see the US- the player that could impact and influence what is going on and lend a needed hand to help the region have a soft landing- dithering and hesitant in doing so. The US is still missing in action. President Obama seems to be more interested in looking inwards and dealing with a host of domestic challenges, including containing Republicans’ defiance besides addressing loopholes in its counter-terrorism policy and drone attacks. Ironically, on the international platform, the US seems to be less interested in lowering its footprints in the Middle East at a time when its role is badly needed and seems more in favour of pivoting towards Asia as a means to contain China. But that is not an excuse for the passivity being exhibited by Washington. It might be true as Miller argued in his aforementioned piece, “The reality is that we [US] are stuck in a region we can neither abandon nor fix ... America could never save the Arabs...” But this is no reason not to be more active in the region.

Clearly, the current Middle East is facing significant realignment and changes. Major international and regional players are seeing changes in their engagements and roles. The current Middle East system seems dysfunctional and chaotic, marred by sectarian tensions and is devolving into chaos. What adds to the drama is that no one knows how long this painstaking disorder will last and where the region is heading as it implodes. One thing for sure: uncertainty lies ahead for the region.

Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji

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