Middle East extremism will defy military solutions
by Amin Saikal
There is a widespread view among political leaders and policymakers in the West that if somehow they could succeed in rolling back the self-declared Islamic State and in securing a political settlement of the Syrian crisis, the Middle East would become more stable and less volatile as a source of serious concern in world politics. This view could not be more misplaced, and is shortsighted to say the least.
The current Western approach is shaped by a fairly naive understanding of the complexities of the situation on the ground and by self-serving objectives. However, this is not something new. It goes back to the Western colonial orchestration of the Middle East following World War I and the United States’ subsequent efforts to influence the region according to its ideological and global interests in the aftermath of World War II.
The US and many of its allies have often focused on how to secure their interests by either covert or overt operations or a combination of the two. In the post-colonial period, on average, the US has intervened every seven years in the Middle East to achieve regional dominance. It has done so by seeking either to change leaders, as in the case of Iran in 1953, or overthrow regimes, as in the case of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or prop up and back various autocratic rulers, such as those in many Arab countries.
Although it has been vocal in its rhetoric about the value of democracy and freedom, it has rarely been serious in assuming the higher moral and political ground to work with democratic forces to empower the people of the Muslim Middle East to determine their own destinies. The Western policy mindset has often been guided by self-interest rather than peoples’ empowerment as the basis for building durable institutions of stability and security at national and regional levels. It has preferred alliances with compliant leaders over the forces of reform and self-determination.
Whenever the Western powers have been challenged by those “out of the box”, whether in the form of an Islamic outcome of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, or the Arab popular uprisings (the so-called Arab Spring), or such extremist groups as “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda, they have failed to conjure up a viable political strategy to deal with such developments. Their immediate response has been underpinned by self-interest, double standards and military action.
In the process, they have assumed that by imposing sanctions on a regime like that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or decapitating a network such as al-Qaeda, or backing down from supporting popular citizen demands in favour of friendly dictatorial leaderships in the Arab world, or seeking to impose solutions through military means, they can achieve their self-serving objectives. The point is that this has never worked.
The former British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden was certain in the mid-1950s that if the Arab nationalist president of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser, whom he branded as the “Hitler of the Arab world” in the wake of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, was removed from power, the Arab world would take a more stable direction. Nasser died in mid-1970, yet the region became no more stable or less volatile.
The same motto was deployed by the administration of president George W. Bush in getting rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom Washington had courted as an Arab bulwark against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime in Iran in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, a similar attitude has come to dominate the current approach by the US and its allies to confronting IS and resolving the Syrian crisis.
In this, little or no attention seems to have been paid to the Syrian and Iraqi crises and the catapulting of IS being the symptoms of much deeper problems in the Middle East.
They range from a prevalence of widespread authoritarianism and social and economic injustices to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands, including the third holy site of Islam, East Jerusalem, to constant foreign intervention and a sense of disempowerment on the part of most Muslims in the region and beyond.
The conditions that these variables have generated have enormously aided the rise of anti-Western extremism in the region. As long as these conditions continue to exist, the defeat of IS and a political resolution of the Syrian and Iraqi crises are unlikely to result in a more stable and secure Middle East.
The chances for another extremist force to replace IS and for an anti-Western backlash to continue will still be there. At this stage, the US and its allies, angered further by the recent tragic terrorist attacks in Paris and at the same time constrained by Russian intervention in support of the dreaded Assad regime in Syria, have no strategy for dealing with the fundamental conditions of Middle Eastern instability.
They can rely on their military prowess for as long as possible, but the use of brute force can only work up to a point. Beyond this, there must be a comprehensive political strategy to deal with those root causes of violent extremism that defy military solutions. Otherwise, their military action can only result in more human tragedies and blow back within a vicious cycle of action and retaliation.