The Arab world is going through the bloodiest period of its history. Every day the body count grows higher. Pictures of dead bodies, maimed children and burned out villages and neighborhoods flash on TV channels. Images of floating dead bodies splatter screens. This has been going on now from some time and we all wonder when it will stop. A region that once prided itself on being almost crime free has now turned into a battlefield. And although it is painful to see that transformation, there is no use in finger pointing. The blame essentially lies with us. Years of societal neglect and deprivation along with the absence of structures that could have created a civil society that respects the rights and dignity of the people planted the seeds for what is happening today. While the 1960s, 70s and 80s saw a world on the move and people turning toward technology, civil rights and better awareness, the Arab world and its media were extolling the “virtues” of the “strong leader”. Dictators thrived and on the other side, religious fervor instead of instilling spirituality in people and a quest for good deeds created extremism and a hate psychosis. The youth, who gathered around self-appointed religious leaders in the absence of role models, began to be drawn to perpetrators of hatred and violence. A failed Arab Spring, which led to a political and social vacuum, further created unrest. Many Arab leaders could not understand that the reason for this was that people wanted a life of dignity and economic equality and to have a say in their lives. But that is all history now. Today, wars are going on and Arabs are killing Arabs directly or through proxies. I see armies, militias and foreign troops traverse the land and destroy cities hunting for murderous thugs like Daesh. And I wonder why they have not been able to take out these mercenaries! Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and other areas are going through hell due to the intransigence of those in power. All these super powers are killing their own “enemies” in Syria and Iraq. The Arabs have no choice but to observe. They moan about foreign conspiracies, which to me as a political realist are as clear as the sun. But we have allowed this to happen. A failed Arab League and a total collapse of communication between leaders and Arab institutions, along with a subservient media that parrots the calls of its masters have thrown us into this bloody mess. Netanyahu has used this period of time to kill more Palestinians and start a pogrom of the inhabitants of the land. Hordes of Jewish terrorists roam the occupied lands shooting Palestinian women and children at point-blank range. And there is glee and a surge of happiness in Israel. In the words of one Israeli writer about the conflict in Syria and even the Arab world: “May it never end.” That message has not been recognized by the Arabs. For that, they will pay a heavy price! The writer is Editor-at-Large.
by Roger Hardy
Many people, understandably, are perplexed by the violence and disorder of the Middle East. They look at, say, the conflict in Syria and ask: how did it come to this? Part of the problem is that the media focus on the crowded foreground and neglect the all-important historical background – in particular, the formative period in the emergence of the modern Middle East, in the age of empire.
To understand the conflicts and crises of today′s Middle East, we need to understand how it emerged in essentially its present form, in the half-century between 1917 and 1967. When the British left Egypt, 77 percent of the population was illiterate, per capita income stood at £42 a year and the life expectancy of an Egyptian male was 36.
The region was shaped in important and fateful, ways by the First World War and its aftermath. The Ottoman Empire, which had governed the Middle East for four hundred years, had taken the side of Germany. After its defeat, Britain and France divided the Arab portions of the empire between them. The post-war settlement left a legacy of deep mistrust – and unwittingly sowed the seeds of many of the conflicts of today, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Lebanon problem and the statelessness of the Kurds.
Arabs who dreamt of independence felt betrayed when they found they had exchanged Turkish for European rule. ″The ghost of the Peace Settlement,″ wrote the historian Albert Hourani, ″has haunted Arab politics ever since.″
A bitter harvest
European domination of the Middle East and North Africa had profound consequences for the region and its relations with the West. First, colonial rule was from the start contested. Only two years after the French occupied Algeria in 1830, a charismatic young warrior and Sufi scholar, Emir Abdelkader, led a 15-year revolt. This and a subsequent rebellion in 1871, were suppressed with great ferocity. Arabs and Berbers, the country′s two main ethnic groups, were united in opposing French rule. An anonymous Berber poet wrote of the bitterness the French left in the wake of these revolts:
They have sowed hatred in the villages.
We store it under the ground where it remains,
The abundant yield of a harvested field.
The same sentiment was apparent elsewhere. Throughout the region, with relatively few exceptions, colonial rule provoked resentment and – in many cases – rebellion.
The French were taken by surprise by the Great Revolt in Syria in the 1920s, which broke out in the Druze region south of Damascus and soon spread to much of the country. In Iraq, the Shia of the south rose up against British rule in 1920 and the colonial power responded by using air power against this and subsequent unrest, whether among the Shia tribes or the Kurds of the north. In Palestine, it took the Arab Revolt, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, to knock the stuffing out of British complacency.
The most sustained violence was in Algeria. Experts continue to debate how many died in the war of independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, but it was no less than half a million.
Secondly, colonial rule challenged the basis of Middle Eastern societies. Under Ottoman rule, for all its deficiencies, the region had a certain coherence – culturally as well as politically – which it never regained. The idea of the nation-state was novel and, initially at least, alien. British and French officials drew the new borders – those infamous ″lines in the sand″ – to suit their imperial interests. In many cases, they were scarcely a natural fit. As a result, the process of state-building and nation-building was fraught with difficulty.
What′s more, even when they proclaimed a ″civilising mission″, the colonial powers did little to educate the mass of the people. Instead they educated a small collaborative elite which could provide the schoolteachers and low-level functionaries they required. When the British left Egypt, 77 percent of the population was illiterate, per capita income stood at £42 a year and the life expectancy of an Egyptian male was 36.
A pattern of intervention
Third and perhaps most crucially, colonial rule was part of a broader pattern of intervention. This went back to the era of Disraeli and Gladstone, when the European powers picked at the decaying corpse of the Ottoman Empire and extended beyond the colonial period to more recent interventions – most notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
Whatever else they were guilty of, the two authors of that invasion, George Bush and Tony Blair, displayed an astonishing ignorance of history. They seemed blissfully unaware that, for more than two hundred years, Western intervention in the Middle East had produced a nationalist response – and that prolonged occupation provoked prolonged insurgencies.
And when insurgencies are crushed, the hatred is stored:
… under the ground where it remains,
The abundant yield of a harvested field.
by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
As the US focuses on the rise of the Islamic State and search for the source of the savagery that took innocent lives in Paris and San Bernardino, it might want to look beyond the convenient explanations of religion and ideology. Instead it should examine the more complex rationales of history and oil—and how they often point the finger of blame back at US shores.
America’s unsavory record of violent interventions in Syria—little-known to the American people yet well-known to Syrians—sowed fertile ground for the violent Islamic jihadism that now complicates any effective response by our government to address the challenge of ISIL. So long as the American public and policymakers are unaware of this past, further interventions are likely only to compound the crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry this week announced a “provisional” ceasefire in Syria. But since U.S. leverage and prestige within Syria is minimal—and the ceasefire doesn’t include key combatants such as Islamic State and al Nusra–it’s bound to be a shaky truce at best. Similarly President Obama’s stepped-up military intervention in Libya—U.S. airstrikes targeted an Islamic State training camp last week—is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the radicals. As the New York Times reported in a December 8, 2015, front-page story, Islamic State political leaders and strategic planners are working to provoke an American military intervention. They know from experience this will flood their ranks with volunteer fighters, drown the voices of moderation and unify the Islamic world against America.
To understand this dynamic, we need to look at history from the Syrians’ perspective and particularly the seeds of the current conflict. Long before our 2003 occupation of Iraq triggered the Sunni uprising that has now morphed into the Islamic State, the CIA had nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon and freighted U.S./Syrian relationships with toxic baggage.
This did not happen without controversy at home. In July 1957, following a failed coup in Syria by the CIA, Sen. John F. Kennedy infuriated the Eisenhower White House, the leaders of both political parties and our European allies with a milestone speech endorsing the right of self-governance in the Arab world and an end to America’s imperialist meddling in Arab countries. Throughout my lifetime, and particularly during my frequent travels to the Mideast, countless Arabs have fondly recalled that speech to me as the clearest statement of the idealism they expected from the U.S. Kennedy’s speech was a call for recommitting America to the high values our country had championed in the Atlantic Charter; the formal pledge that all the former European colonies would have the right to self-determination following World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt had strong-armed Winston Churchill and the other allied leaders to sign the Atlantic Charter in 1941 as a precondition for U.S. support in the European war against fascism.
But thanks in large part to Allen Dulles and the CIA, whose foreign policy intrigues were often directly at odds with the stated policies of our nation, the idealistic path outlined in the Atlantic Charter was the road not taken. In 1957, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy sat on a secret committee charged with investigating the CIA’s clandestine mischief in the Mideast. The so called “Bruce-Lovett Report,” to which he was a signatory, described CIA coup plots in Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Egypt, all common knowledge on the Arab street, but virtually unknown to the American people who believed, at face value, their government’s denials. The report blamed the CIA for the rampant anti-Americanism that was then mysteriously taking root “in the many countries in the world today.” The Bruce-Lovett Report pointed out that such interventions were antithetical to American values and had compromised America’s international leadership and moral authority without the knowledge of the American people. The report also said that the CIA never considered how we would treat such interventions if some foreign government were to engineer them in our country.
This is the bloody history that modern interventionists like George W. Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio miss when they recite their narcissistic trope that Mideast nationalists “hate us for our freedoms.” For the most part they don’t; instead they hate us for the way we betrayed those freedoms—our own ideals—within their borders.
For Americans to really understand what’s going on, it’s important to review some details about this sordid but little-remembered history. During the 1950s, President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers—CIA Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—rebuffed Soviet treaty proposals to leave the Middle East a neutral zone in the Cold War and let Arabs rule Arabia. Instead, they mounted a clandestine war against Arab nationalism—which Allen Dulles equated with communism—particularly when Arab self-rule threatened oil concessions. They pumped secret American military aid to tyrants in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon favoring puppets with conservative Jihadist ideologies that they regarded as a reliable antidote to Soviet Marxism. At a White House meeting between the CIA’s director of plans, Frank Wisner, and John Foster Dulles, in September 1957, Eisenhower advised the agency, “We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect,” according to a memo recorded by his staff secretary, Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster.
The CIA began its active meddling in Syria in 1949—barely a year after the agency’s creation. Syrian patriots had declared war on the Nazis, expelled their Vichy French colonial rulers and crafted a fragile secularist democracy based on the American model. But in March 1949, Syria’s democratically elected president, Shukri-al-Quwatli, hesitated to approve the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, an American project intended to connect the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon via Syria. In his book, Legacy of Ashes, CIA historian Tim Weiner recounts that in retaliation for Al-Quwatli’s lack of enthusiasm for the U.S. pipeline, the CIA engineered a coup replacing al-Quwatli with the CIA’s handpicked dictator, a convicted swindler named Husni al-Za’im. Al-Za’im barely had time to dissolve parliament and approve the American pipeline before his countrymen deposed him, four and a half months into his regime.
Following several counter-coups in the newly destabilized country, the Syrian people again tried democracy in 1955, re-electing al-Quwatli and his National Party. Al-Quwatli was still a Cold War neutralist, but, stung by American involvement in his ouster, he now leaned toward the Soviet camp. That posture caused CIA Director Dulles to declare that “Syria is ripe for a coup” and send his two coup wizards, Kim Roosevelt and Rocky Stone, to Damascus.
Two years earlier, Roosevelt and Stone had orchestrated a coup in Iran against the democratically elected President Mohammed Mosaddegh, after Mosaddegh tried to renegotiate the terms of Iran’s lopsided contracts with the British oil giant Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). Mosaddegh was the first elected leader in Iran’s 4,000-year history and a popular champion for democracy across the developing world. Mosaddegh expelled all British diplomats after uncovering a coup attempt by U.K. intelligence officers working in cahoots with BP. Mosaddegh, however, made the fatal mistake of resisting his advisers’ pleas to also expel the CIA, which, they correctly suspected, was complicit in the British plot. Mosaddegh idealized the U.S. as a role model for Iran’s new democracy and incapable of such perfidies. Despite Dulles’ needling, President Harry Truman had forbidden the CIA from actively joining the British caper to topple Mosaddegh. When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, he immediately unleashed Dulles. After ousting Mosaddegh in “Operation Ajax,” Stone and Roosevelt installed Shah Reza Pahlavi, who favored U.S. oil companies but whose two decades of CIA sponsored savagery toward his own people from the Peacock throne would finally ignite the 1979 Islamic revolution that has bedeviled our foreign policy for 35 years.
Flush from his Operation Ajax “success” in Iran, Stone arrived in Damascus in April 1957 with $3 million to arm and incite Islamic militants and to bribe Syrian military officers and politicians to overthrow al-Quwatli’s democratically elected secularist regime, according to Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA, by John Prados. Working with the Muslim Brotherhood and millions of dollars, Rocky Stone schemed to assassinate Syria’s chief of intelligence, the chief of its General Staff and the chief of the Communist Party, and to engineer “national conspiracies and various strong arm” provocations in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan that could be blamed on the Syrian Ba’athists. Tim Weiner describes in Legacy of Ashes how the CIA’s plan was to destabilize the Syrian government and create a pretext for an invasion by Iraq and Jordan, whose governments were already under CIA control. Kim Roosevelt forecast that the CIA’s newly installed puppet government would “rely first upon repressive measures and arbitrary exercise of power,” according to declassified CIA documents reported in The Guardian newspaper.
But all that CIA money failed to corrupt the Syrian military officers. The soldiers reported the CIA’s bribery attempts to the Ba’athist regime. In response, the Syrian army invaded the American Embassy, taking Stone prisoner. After harsh interrogation, Stone made a televised confession of his roles in the Iranian coup and the CIA’s aborted attempt to overthrow Syria’s legitimate government. The Syrians ejected Stone and two U.S. Embassy staffers—the first time any American State Department diplomat was barred from an Arab country. The Eisenhower White House hollowly dismissed Stone’s confession as “fabrications” and “slanders,” a denial swallowed whole by the American press, led by the New York Times and believed by the American people, who shared Mosaddegh’s idealistic view of their government. Syria purged all politicians sympathetic to the U.S. and executed for treason all military officers associated with the coup. In retaliation, the U.S. moved the Sixth Fleet to the Mediterranean, threatened war and goaded Turkey to invade Syria. The Turks assembled 50,000 troops on Syria’s borders and backed down only in the face of unified opposition from the Arab League whose leaders were furious at the U.S. intervention. Even after its expulsion, the CIA continued its secret efforts to topple Syria’s democratically elected Ba’athist government. The CIA plotted with Britain’s MI6 to form a “Free Syria Committee” and armed the Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate three Syrian government officials, who had helped expose “the American plot,” according to Matthew Jones in “The ‘Preferred Plan’: The Anglo-American Working Group Report on Covert Action in Syria, 1957.” The CIA’s mischief pushed Syria even further away from the U.S. and into prolonged alliances with Russia and Egypt.
Following the second Syrian coup attempt, anti-American riots rocked the Mideast from Lebanon to Algeria. Among the reverberations was the July 14, 1958 coup, led by the new wave of anti-American Army officers who overthrew Iraq’s pro-American monarch, Nuri al-Said. The coup leaders published secret government documents, exposing Nuri al-Said as a highly paid CIA puppet. In response to American treachery, the new Iraqi government invited Soviet diplomats and economic advisers to Iraq and turned its back on the West.
Having alienated Iraq and Syria, Kim Roosevelt fled the Mideast to work as an executive for the oil industry that he had served so well during his public service career at the CIA. Roosevelt’s replacement as CIA station chief, James Critchfield, attempted a failed assassination plot against the new Iraqi president using a toxic handkerchief, according to Weiner. Five years later, the CIA finally succeeded in deposing the Iraqi president and installing the Ba’ath Party in power in Iraq. A charismatic young murderer named Saddam Hussein was one of the distinguished leaders of the CIA’s Ba’athist team. The Ba’ath Party’s Secretary, Ali Saleh Sa’adi, who took office alongside Saddam Hussein, would later say, “We came to power on a CIA train,” according to A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, by Said Aburish, a journalist and author. Aburish recounted that the CIA supplied Saddam and his cronies a murder list of people who “had to be eliminated immediately in order to ensure success.” Tim Weiner writes that Critchfield later acknowledged that the CIA had, in essence, “created Saddam Hussein.” During the Reagan years, the CIA supplied Hussein with billions of dollars in training, Special Forces support, weapons and battlefield intelligence, knowing that he was using poisonous mustard and nerve gas and biological weapons—including anthrax obtained from the U.S. government—in his war against Iran. Reagan and his CIA director, Bill Casey, regarded Saddam as a potential friend to the U.S. oil industry and a sturdy barrier against the spread of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Their emissary, Donald Rumsfeld, presented Saddam with golden cowboy spurs and a menu of chemical/biological and conventional weapons on a 1983 trip to Baghdad. At the same time, the CIA was illegally supplying Saddam’s enemy, Iran, with thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to fight Iraq, a crime made famous during the Iran-Contra scandal. Jihadists from both sides later turned many of those CIA-supplied weapons against the American people.
Even as America contemplates yet another violent Mideast intervention, most Americans are unaware of the many ways that “blowback” from previous CIA blunders has helped craft the current crisis. The reverberations from decades of CIA shenanigans continue to echo across the Mideast today in national capitals and from mosques to madras schools over the wrecked landscape of democracy and moderate Islam that the CIA helped obliterate.
A parade of Iranian and Syrian dictators, including Bashar al-Assad and his father, have invoked the history of the CIA’s bloody coups as a pretext for their authoritarian rule, repressive tactics and their need for a strong Russian alliance. These stories are therefore well known to the people of Syria and Iran who naturally interpret talk of U.S. intervention in the context of that history.
While the compliant American press parrots the narrative that our military support for the Syrian insurgency is purely humanitarian, many Arabs see the present crisis as just another proxy war over pipelines and geopolitics. Before rushing deeper into the conflagration, it would be wise for us to consider the abundant facts supporting that perspective.
In their view, our war against Bashar Assad did not begin with the peaceful civil protests of the Arab Spring in 2011. Instead it began in 2000, when Qatar proposed to construct a $10 billion, 1,500 kilometer pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Qatar shares with Iran the South Pars/North Dome gas field, the world’s richest natural gas repository. The international trade embargo until recently prohibited Iran from selling gas abroad. Meanwhile, Qatar’s gas can reach European marketsonly if it is liquefied and shipped by sea, a route that restricts volume and dramatically raises costs. The proposed pipeline would have linked Qatar directly to European energy markets via distribution terminals in Turkey, which would pocket rich transit fees. The Qatar/Turkey pipeline would give the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world. Qatar hosts two massive American military bases and the U.S. Central Command’s Mideast headquarters.
The EU, which gets 30 percent of its gas from Russia, was equally hungry for the pipeline, which would have given its members cheap energy and relief from Vladimir Putin’s stifling economic and political leverage. Turkey, Russia’s second largest gas customer, was particularly anxious to end its reliance on its ancient rival and to position itself as the lucrative transect hub for Asian fuels to EU markets. The Qatari pipeline would have benefited Saudi Arabia’s conservative Sunni monarchy by giving it a foothold in Shia-dominated Syria. The Saudis’ geopolitical goal is to contain the economic and political power of the kingdom’s principal rival, Iran, a Shiite state, and close ally of Bashar Assad. The Saudi monarchy viewed the U.S.-sponsored Shiite takeover in Iraq (and, more recently, the termination of the Iran trade embargo) as a demotion to its regional power status and was already engaged in a proxy war against Tehran in Yemen, highlighted by the Saudi genocide against the Iranian backed Houthi tribe.
Of course, the Russians, who sell 70 percent of their gas exports to Europe, viewed the Qatar/Turkey pipeline as an existential threat. In Putin’s view, the Qatar pipeline is a NATO plot to change the status quo, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and end Russian leverage in the European energy market. In 2009, Assad announced that he would refuse to sign the agreement to allow the pipeline to run through Syria “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”
Assad further enraged the Gulf’s Sunni monarchs by endorsing a Russian-approved “Islamic pipeline” running from Iran’s side of the gas field through Syria and to the ports of Lebanon. The Islamic pipeline would make Shiite Iran, not Sunni Qatar, the principal supplier to the European energy market and dramatically increase Tehran’s influence in the Middke East and the world. Israel also was understandably determined to derail the Islamic pipeline, which would enrich Iran and Syria and presumably strengthen their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link. In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria. It is important to note that this was well before the Arab Spring-engendered uprising against Assad.
Bashar Assad’s family is Alawite, a Muslim sect widely perceived as aligned with the Shiite camp. “Bashar Assad was never supposed to be president,” journalist Seymour Hersh told me in an interview. “His father brought him back from medical school in London when his elder brother, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash.” Before the war started, according to Hersh, Assad was moving to liberalize the country. “They had internet and newspapers and ATM machines and Assad wanted to move toward the west. After 9/11, he gave thousands of invaluable files to the CIA on jihadist radicals, who he considered a mutual enemy.” Assad’s regime was deliberately secular and Syria was impressively diverse. The Syrian government and military, for example, were 80 percent Sunni. Assad maintained peace among his diverse peoples by a strong, disciplined army loyal to the Assad family, an allegiance secured by a nationally esteemed and highly paid officer corps, a coldly efficient intelligence apparatus and a penchant for brutality that, prior to the war, was rather moderate compared to those of other Mideast leaders, including our current allies. According to Hersh, “He certainly wasn’t beheading people every Wednesday like the Saudis do in Mecca.”
Another veteran journalist, Bob Parry, echoes that assessment. “No one in the region has clean hands, but in the realms of torture, mass killings, [suppressing] civil liberties and supporting terrorism, Assad is much better than the Saudis.” No one believed that the regime was vulnerable to the anarchy that had riven Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. By the spring of 2011, there were small, peaceful demonstrations in Damascus against repression by Assad’s regime. These were mainly the effluvia of the Arab Spring that spread virally across the Arab League States the previous summer. However, WikiLeaks cables indicate that the CIA was already on the ground in Syria.
But the Sunni kingdoms with vast petrodollars at stake wanted a much deeper involvement from America. On September 4, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional hearing that the Sunni kingdoms had offered to foot the bill for a U.S. invasion of Syria to oust Bashar Assad. “In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing, the way we’ve done it previously in other places [Iraq], they’ll carry the cost.” Kerry reiterated the offer to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.): “With respect to Arab countries offering to bear the costs of [an American invasion] to topple Assad, the answer is profoundly yes, they have. The offer is on the table.”
Despite pressure from Republicans, Barack Obama balked at hiring out young Americans to die as mercenaries for a pipeline conglomerate. Obama wisely ignored Republican clamoring to put ground troops in Syria or to funnel more funding to “moderate insurgents.” But by late 2011, Republican pressure and our Sunni allies had pushed the American government into the fray.
In 2011, the U.S. joined France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK to form the Friends of Syria Coalition, which formally demanded the removal of Assad. The CIA provided $6 million to Barada, a British TV channel, to produce pieces entreating Assad’s ouster. Saudi intelligence documents, published by WikiLeaks, show that by 2012, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were arming, training and funding radical jihadist Sunni fighters from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to overthrow the Assad’s Shiite-allied regime. Qatar, which had the most to gain, invested $3 billion in building the insurgency and invited the Pentagon to train insurgents at U.S. bases in Qatar. According to an April 2014 article by Seymour Hersh, the CIA weapons ratlines were financed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The idea of fomenting a Sunni-Shiite civil war to weaken the Syrian and Iranian regimes in order to to maintain control of the region’s petrochemical supplies was not a novel notion in the Pentagon’s lexicon. A damning 2008 Pentagon-funded Rand report proposed a precise blueprint for what was about to happen. That report observes that control of the Persian Gulf oil and gas deposits will remain, for the U.S., “a strategic priority” that “will interact strongly with that of prosecuting the long war.” Rand recommended using “covert action, information operations, unconventional warfare” to enforce a “divide and rule” strategy. “The United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch a proxy campaign” and “U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the sustained Shia-Sunni conflict trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world … possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran.”
As predicted, Assad’s overreaction to the foreign-made crisis—dropping barrel bombs onto Sunni strongholds and killing civilians—polarized Syria’s Shiite/Sunni divide and allowed U.S. policymakers to sell Americans the idea that the pipeline struggle was a humanitarian war. When Sunni soldiers of the Syrian Army began defecting in 2013, the western coalition armed the Free Syrian Army to further destabilize Syria. The press portrait of the Free Syrian Army as cohesive battalions of Syrian moderates was delusional. The dissolved units regrouped in hundreds of independent militias most of which were commanded by, or allied with, jihadi militants who were the most committed and effective fighters. By then, the Sunni armies of Al Qaeda in Iraq were crossing the border from Iraq into Syria and joining forces with the squadrons of deserters from the Free Syrian Army, many of them trained and armed by the U.S.
Despite the prevailing media portrait of a moderate Arab uprising against the tyrant Assad, U.S. intelligence planners knew from the outset that their pipeline proxies were radical jihadists who would probably carve themselves a brand new Islamic caliphate from the Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq. Two years before ISIL throat cutters stepped on the world stage, a seven-page August 12, 2012, study by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, obtained by the right-wing group Judicial Watch, warned that thanks to the ongoing support by U.S./Sunni Coalition for radical Sunni Jihadists, “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI (now ISIS), are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” Using U.S. and Gulf state funding, these groups had turned the peaceful protests against Bashar Assad toward “a clear sectarian (Shiite vs. Sunni) direction.” The paper notes that the conflict had become a sectarian civil war supported by Sunni “religious and political powers.” The report paints the Syrian conflict as a global war for control of the region’s resources with “the west, Gulf countries and Turkey supporting [Assad’s] opposition, while Russia, China and Iran support the regime.” The Pentagon authors of the seven-page report appear to endorse the predicted advent of the ISIS caliphate: “If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want in order to isolate the Syrian regime.” The Pentagon report warns that this new principality could move across the Iraqi border to Mosul and Ramadi and “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
Of course, this is precisely what has happened. Not coincidentally, the regions of Syria occupied by the Islamic State exactly encompass the proposed route of the Qatari pipeline.
But then, in 2014, our Sunni proxies horrified the American people by severing heads and driving a million refugees toward Europe. “Strategies based upon the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend can be kind of blinding,” says Tim Clemente, who chaired the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force from 2004 to 2008 and served as liaison in Iraq between the FBI, the Iraqi National Police and the U.S. military. “We made the same mistake when we trained the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The moment the Russians left, our supposed friends started smashing antiquities, enslaving women, severing body parts and shooting at us,” Clemente told me in an interview.
When the Islamic State’s “Jihadi John” began murdering prisoners on TV, the White House pivoted, talking less about deposing Assad and more about regional stability. The Obama dministration began putting daylight between itself and the insurgency we had funded. The White House pointed accusing fingers at our allies. On October 3, 2014, Vice President Joe Biden told students at the John F. Kennedy Jr. forum at the Institute of Politics at Harvard that “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria.” He explained that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were “so determined to take down Assad” that they had launched a “proxy Sunni-Shia war” funneling “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda”—the two groups that merged in 2014 to form the Islamic State. Biden seemed angered that our trusted “friends” could not be trusted to follow the American agenda.
Across the Mideast, Arab leaders routinely accuse the U.S. of having created the Islamic State. To most Americans, such accusations seem insane. However, to many Arabs, the evidence of U.S. involvement is so abundant that they conclude that our role in fostering the Islamic State must have been deliberate.
In fact, many of the Islamic State fighters and their commanders are ideological and organizational successors to the jihadists that the CIA has been nurturing for more than 30 years from Syria and Egypt to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Prior to the American invasion, there was no Al Qaeda in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. President George W. Bush destroyed Saddam’s secularist government, and his viceroy, Paul Bremer, in a monumental act of mismanagement, effectively created the Sunni Army, now named the Islamic State. Bremer elevated the Shiites to power and banned Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party, laying off some 700,000 mostly Sunni, government and party officials from ministers to schoolteachers. He then disbanded the 380,000-man army, which was 80 percent Sunni. Bremer’s actions stripped a million of Iraq’s Sunnis of rank, property, wealth and power; leaving a desperate underclass of angry, educated, capable, trained and heavily armed Sunnis with little left to lose. The Sunni insurgency named itself Al Qaeda in Iraq. Beginning in 2011, our allies funded the invasion by AQI fighters into Syria. In April 2013, having entered Syria, AQI changed its name to ISIL. According to Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals. … Many are members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath Party who converted to radical Islam in American prisons.” The $500 million in U.S. military aid that Obama did send to Syria almost certainly ended up benefiting these militant jihadists. Tim Clemente, the former chairman of the FBI’s joint task force, told me that the difference between the Iraq and Syria conflicts is the millions of military-aged men who are fleeing the battlefield for Europe rather than staying to fight for their communities. The obvious explanation is that the nation’s moderates are fleeing a war that is not their war. They simply want to escape being crushed between the anvil of Assad’s Russian-backed tyranny and the vicious jihadist Sunni hammer that we had a hand in wielding in a global battle over competing pipelines. You can’t blame the Syrian people for not widely embracing a blueprint for their nation minted in either Washington or Moscow. The superpowers have left no options for an idealistic future that moderate Syrians might consider fighting for. And no one wants to die for a pipeline.
What is the answer? If our objective is long-term peace in the Mideast, self-government by the Arab nations and national security at home, we must undertake any new intervention in the region with an eye on history and an intense desire to learn its lessons. Only when we Americans understand the historical and political context of this conflict will we apply appropriate scrutiny to the decisions of our leaders. Using the same imagery and language that supported our 2003 war against Saddam Hussein, our political leaders led Americans to believe that our Syrian intervention is an idealistic war against tyranny, terrorism and religious fanaticism. We tend to dismiss as mere cynicism the views of those Arabs who see the current crisis as a rerun of the same old plots about pipelines and geopolitics. But, if we are to have an effective foreign policy, we must recognize the Syrian conflict is a war over control of resources indistinguishable from the myriad clandestine and undeclared oil wars we have been fighting in the Mideast for 65 years. And only when we see this conflict as a proxy war over a pipeline do events become comprehensible. It’s the only paradigm that explains why the GOP on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration are still fixated on regime change rather than regional stability, why the Obama administration can find no Syrian moderates to fight the war, why ISIL blew up a Russian passenger plane, why the Saudis just executed a powerful Shiite cleric only to have their embassy burned in Tehran, why Russia is bombing non-ISIL fighters and why Turkey went out of its way to shoot down a Russian jet. The million refugees now flooding into Europe are refugees of a pipeline war and CIA blundering.
Once we strip this conflict of its humanitarian patina and recognize the Syrian conflict as an oil war, our foreign policy strategy becomes clear. Like the Syrians fleeing for Europe, no American wants to send their child to die for a pipeline. Instead, our first priority should be the one no one ever mentions—we need to kick our Mideast oil jones, an increasingly feasible objective, as the U.S. becomes more energy independent. Next, we need to dramatically reduce our military profile in the Middle East and let the Arabs run Arabia. Other than humanitarian assistance and guaranteeing the security of Israel’s borders, the U.S. has no legitimate role in this conflict. While the facts prove that we played a role in creating the crisis, history shows that we have little power to resolve it.
As we contemplate history, it’s breathtaking to consider the astonishing consistency with which virtually every violent intervention in the Middle East since World War II by our country has resulted in miserable failure and horrendously costly blowback. A 1997 U.S. Department of Defense report found that “the data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement abroad and an increase in terrorist attacks against the U.S.” Let’s face it; what we call the “war on terror” is really just another oil war. We’ve squandered $6 trillion on three wars abroad and on constructing a national security warfare state at home since oilman Dick Cheney declared the “Long War” in 2001. The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool. We have compromised our values, butchered our own youth, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, subverted our idealism and squandered our national treasures in fruitless and costly adventures abroad. In the process, we have helped our worst enemies and turned America, once the world’s beacon of freedom, into a national security surveillance state and an international moral pariah.
America’s founding fathers warned Americans against standing armies, foreign entanglements and, in John Quincy Adams’ words, “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Those wise men understood that imperialism abroad is incompatible with democracy and civil rights at home. The Atlantic Charter echoed their seminal American ideal that each nation should have the right to self-determination. Over the past seven decades, the Dulles brothers, the Cheney gang, the neocons and their ilk have hijacked that fundamental principle of American idealism and deployed our military and intelligence apparatus to serve the mercantile interests of large corporations and particularly, the petroleum companies and military contractors that have literally made a killing from these conflicts.
It’s time for Americans to turn America away from this new imperialism and back to the path of idealism and democracy. We should let the Arabs govern Arabia and turn our energies to the great endeavor of nation building at home. We need to begin this process, not by invading Syria, but by ending the ruinous addiction to oil that has warped U.S. foreign policy for half a century.
Middle East Peace 2016
By Massoud Aref
Any attempt to redraw boundaries in the Middle East will exacerbate and amplify the existing conflicts in the area (Iraqi Kurds’ leader says redraw boundaries, 23 January). Further integration, rather than dis-integration, may be the cure. In a narrow sense, the “caliphate”, in its attempt to unify, may be considered to be more forward-looking than all the nationalist groups in the area that are still engaged in battles and wars of previous centuries.
If we try to imagine a peaceful and prosperous future for the area, we would possibly see a confederation of states closely engaged in trade and cooperating in management of their resources on the European model.
As a start, present day Syria and Iraq combined would have a more balanced composition of ethnic and confessional groups. These groups would feel safer in their compatible plurality, and unity under a secular umbrella. The urge for land-grab and ethnic cleansing would be removed. A unified Kurdish state within the confederation would strengthen the idea of unity within diversity and would not be deemed as a big threat by Turkey and Iran.
This more integrated model could provide a more stable basis for political and economic development. It would reduce conflicts of interest and provide a hopeful vision for the younger generation that sees its salvation in the European approach.
Five years after a wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. But its people understand their predicament better
“I AM the free and fearless. I am secrets that never die. I am the voice of those who will not bow…” The voice in question, raised in song amid the crowds packing Avenue Bourguiba, a promenade in Tunis, at the beginning of 2011, was that of Emel Mathlouthi. For a moment of calm in a month of clamour, she gave voice to the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of her compatriots.
On January 14th those protesters forced Zein al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for the previous quarter-century, from office. What followed was not easy. Terrorism hindered both economic progress and deeper political reform. But in 2015 the country became the first Arab state ever to be judged fully “free” by Freedom House, an American monitor of civil liberties, and it moved up a record 32 places among countries vetted by the Vienna-based Democracy Ranking Association. In December Ms Mathlouthi sang before another spellbound audience—this time in Oslo, as part of celebrations surrounding the award of the Nobel peace prize to four civil-society groups that shepherded in the new constitution of 2014.
Sadly, that outcome remains a stark anomaly. There were six Arab countries in which massive peaceful protests called for hated rulers to go in the spring of 2011. None of the other uprisings came to a happy end. Libya and Yemen have imploded, their central states replaced in whole or part by warring militias, some backed by foreign powers, some flying the flags of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. Egypt and the island kingdom of Bahrain are now yet more autocratic, in some ways, than when the protests began. And Syria has descended into an abyss. Half its cities lie in ruins, much of its fertile land has been abandoned; millions have been displaced within the country, millions more have fled beyond it; hundreds of thousands have died; there is no end in sight.
With the exception of its far east and west—the oil-rich Gulf and quietly prospering Morocco, aloof behind a border with Algeria that has been sealed for 21 years—the rest of the Arab world does not look much better. Iraq’s Shia south and Kurdish north and north-east are, in effect, separate countries, while in the war zone of its Sunni-dominated west the fearsomely brutal rule of the so-called Islamic State has taken root. The Algerians and Sudanese have emerged from civil wars to find themselves still beholden to opaque and predatory army-backed cliques. Palestinians, divided into rival cantons, are weaker and more isolated than ever. Jordan remains an island of calm preserved through fear: both the kingdom’s own people and the donor countries that prop it up are too spooked by the chaos buffeting its borders and flooding it with refugees to talk much of political reform.
Change it had to come
In short, Arabs have rarely lived in bleaker times. The hopes raised by the Arab spring—for more inclusive politics and more responsive government, for more jobs and fewer presidential cronies carving up the economy—have been dashed. The wells of despair are overflowing.
The wealthy Gulf states have seen their incomes slashed by collapsing oil prices. The tighter immigration rules they have set up to replace expatriate labour from other Arab states with natives, or Asians, have hit the remittance flows through which they subsidised their poorer brethren. Demographic pressures are unyielding. Some 60% of the region’s population is under 25. Figures from the International Labour Organisation show that youth unemployment in the Middle East and north Africa, already a terrible 25% in 2011, has risen to nearly 30%, more than double the average around the world. Rent-seeking remains rampant, and standards in both public education and the administration of justice are still dismal. Economic growth is slow or stagnant; the hand of the security forces weighs heavier than ever, more or less everywhere. Sectarian divisions and class rivalries have deepened, providing fertile ground for radicals who posit their own brutal vision of Islamic Utopia as the only solution.
The Arab spring seems therefore to have brought nothing but woe. It has become fashionable in some circles to ape Russia and Iran in blaming this failure on supposedly “naive” Western policymakers. Had Western powers not abandoned old allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; had they not intervened in support of Libyan rebels; had they not presumed that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was just another domino waiting to topple; had they not turned a blind eye to the danger of Islamist fanatics: then all would be well.
This is tosh. To frame the uprisings of 2011 as a sequence of isolated events, each of which had a unique and optimal policy response, is to deny the historical reality of what happened. Such hindsight belies the actual experience of seeing an entire region—and the world’s most politically torpid region, at that—whirl into sudden, synchronised motion. It also denies agency to the actors themselves: to the crowds whose cries of “Enough!” reached critical mass; to the paranoid rulers whose responses exacerbated the protests.
This is not to say that the events of 2011 had no precursors. Algeria’s Islamist uprising in 1991, two intifadas in Palestine, the “Independence revolution” that ousted Lebanon’s government in 2005, even the short-lived “Green revolution” in non-Arab but nearby Iran, all signalled the region’s desire for change. But the world’s democracies were, by and large, correct in judging that what they were seeing in 2011 was something broader, more potent and more difficult to steer than a set of national crises that happened to coincide. Nor were they naive to think that an empowered “Arab street” would seek to move its countries closer to global norms of good governance. That was the demand the demonstrators made in protest after protest, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
In judgment of all wrong
The West’s naivety, which was shared—and paid for—by those hopeful demonstrators, lay in underestimating two things. One was the fragility of many Arab states, too weak in their institutions to withstand such ructions in the way that, say, South Africa did when apartheid fell. The other was the vicious determination with which established regimes would seek to retain or recapture control. Who could believe that a soft-spoken leader such as Mr Assad would prefer to destroy his country rather than leave his palace? Those were the truths that brought hope to the ground.
Just as the spring itself was more than just a set of national events, so the current period of counter-revolution is an international matter. Conservatives across the region have received powerful backing from the Gulf. One early and stark example of this was Bahrain, where the ruling family called on fellow Sunni monarchs to help it crush a pro-democracy movement championed by its Shia majority. Last year’s intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-sponsored coalition can be seen in the same light. The Saudis are seeking not only to thwart Houthi rebels, whose Iranian backing they revile. They are trying to force a return to the status quo.
The most internationalised conflict is the bitter civil war in Syria, where powers from the region and beyond contend through proxies. The war has long since metastasised into a monumental free-for-all involving dozens of belligerents. But it remains at its core a fight between aggrieved citizens and a narrowly based—and in Syria’s case largely sectarian—elite intent on keeping its hold on power.
In Egypt, a nation-state of longer standing and greater stability, the ancien régime’s fight has—again with help from the Gulf—been won, for now. Egypt has long been seen as the region’s bellwether, and for good reason. Over the past five years it has provided the Arab spring’s most revealing story of failure; today it highlights the degree to which the tensions persist that brought about the uprisings.
The world looks just the same
In 2010, six months before the protests in Tahrir Square turned into the uprising (even Egyptian enthusiasts are now shy of calling it a revolution) that ousted Mr Mubarak, this newspaper warned of looming change in Egypt and suggested that there were three ways in which it might play out. The country might, like Iran in 1979, experience a popular revolution which would then be hijacked by Islamists. Like Turkey in the 2000s, it might become a genuine, if shaky and flawed, democracy, one with the power needed to tame the military-backed “deep state”. Or, like Russia, it might suffer a Putinist putsch, with the deep state reasserting control under a new strongman.
We were too parsimonious. Egypt has, in a jumbled fashion, experienced not just one but all three of these outcomes. Its revolutionaries did overcome, if briefly, the security forces that underpinned Mr Mubarak’s rule. Egyptians then voted in a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood—a government which, rather than shrinking the deep state, tried instead to insert party loyalists into its depths. (As it happens, this is also what Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government has been doing since 2011, with rather more success.) Popular anger against the Islamists, stoked and nurtured by the deep state, then brought Egypt to the Russian option in a soft coup that saw Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general and the minister of defence, installed as president in June 2013.
Two and a half years later, Mr Sisi’s counter-revolution appears all but complete. Mr Mubarak and his cronies, not to mention the police responsible for killing and maiming hundreds in the clashes of 2011, are out of jail. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers, along with hundreds of secular revolutionaries, are imprisoned, in exile, or dead. Nearly 1,000 Islamists were killed when anti-coup protests were crushed in 2013. The police have killed scores more since then; others have died from torture or neglect in prison.
Mr Sisi’s men have taken particular care to harass the technically adept young people whose social-media skills made the revolutionary experiment possible. And the state has made an unprecedented effort to control the courts, universities and media. A tailor-made constitution that grants sweeping powers to the president and the army, and electoral rules designed to produce a fragmented parliament, furnish it with the trappings of democracy. But it is a sham. The Mukhabarat (secret police) intervened in 2015’s elections to ensure supine legislative loyalty to the president. Not surprisingly, turnout was dismal, particularly among the young. Their disdain proved further justified when the government abruptly cancelled the results of December’s student-council elections in the country’s universities. Pro-revolution candidates had won across the board.
Many Egyptians praise Mr Sisi for delivering the country from both Islamists and revolutionary hotheads. Many more now shun politics altogether, which from the autocrats’ point of view is almost as happy a result. The Muslim Brotherhood remains in shattered abeyance and more radical Islamists, who have mounted terror attacks and grabbed a chunk of territory in north-east Sinai, have not made broader inroads among the general public. Another uprising on the scale of 2011 is unlikely in the near future.
But the effort to build a bigger, stronger “wall of fear” has further alienated Egypt’s people from a state that is not just cruel, arbitrary and unaccountable, but also both too incompetent and too broke to buy their acquiescence. Investors are put off by erratic policymaking, the overweening power of the army and Mukhabarat, and unpredictable, often vindictive courts. Egypt’s government debt remains colossal. The budget deficit has topped 10% every year since 2011; in mid-2015 Egypt’s combined domestic and foreign liabilities pushed past 100% of GDP. The currency is in decline—and so is tourism. Incidents such as the killing of a group of Mexican tourists mistaken for terrorists by the air force, or the government’s farcical handling of what appears to have been the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner on Egyptian territory in October, show the state to be inept. Mr Sisi’s benefactors in the Gulf, who have propped up his regime with perhaps $30 billion in cheap loans, central-bank deposits and fuel, are reputedly running out of patience and risk running out of money. Repeatedly bailed out in the past, Egypt has no more saviours-in-waiting.
Tip my hat to the new constitution
A recent tweet—“Has anyone tried switching Egypt off and turning it on again?”—sums up the despairing mood of this broken country’s people. For lack of an alternative, or an on-off switch, most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, praying that Mr Sisi will lighten his grip or hoping for a palace coup to install a less military-minded ruler. “The cheapest option is internal change inside the regime,” says Abdel Moneim Abul Fotoh, a former Muslim Brother whose centrist platform captured 4m votes in the 2012 presidential election. “Revolutions are cumulative, and it will take time for pressure to accumulate.”
But if the uprising changed little in the way things work, it changed much in how they are perceived. Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian commentator, likens memories of Tahrir Square to King Hamlet’s ghost, a presence that may be intangible yet remains the driving force of the drama, and which mutely insists that something is rotten in the state of Egypt.
What underlies the rot, in Egypt and elsewhere, is the failure of generations of Arab elites to create accountable and effective models of governance, and to promote education. After some 60 years of essentially fascistic rule—the forced rallying behind a bemedalled patriarch, pomp and parades and propaganda disguising the reality that the people have no voice—it was perhaps not surprising that the backlash, when it came, was inarticulate and lacked direction. The Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programmes for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are.
Before it came to brief and inglorious power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted believers with the simple but vague slogan “Islam is the solution”. Experience now prompts many more Arabs to ask, which Islam? If it is the arm-twisting, head-lopping version proclaimed by Islamic State (IS), which dismisses all Muslims but its own ardent followers as shirkers and sinners, there are few takers. If it means giving political power to more mainstream religious figures who cannot agree on points of doctrine, this does not look appetising either. Nor do the Muslim Brothers, who revealed themselves to be conservatives bent on capturing rather than reforming the state, hold much more of an appeal.
For decades Arab opinion-makers have ascribed a host of regional ills to Western—and particularly American—meddling, even as its leaders turned habitually to the West for aid or military protection. And the West is hardly innocent; the biggest regional debacle until recent years was America’s spectacularly inept occupation of Iraq. But the morass left by that unforced error, along with the West’s ineffectual response to the Arab spring, have convinced all but a conspiracy-addled fringe that there is not much substance to talk of Western omnipotence, American hegemony or even a Zionist conspiracy. The West’s capacities have been revealed as limited and seldom effectively exercised. It is the region’s own weakness, rather than malign Western intent, that keeps sucking in outside powers.
At the same time many Arabs have also seen, not for the first time but perhaps now more clearly than ever, how weak the links between Arab states actually are, despite decades of slogans proclaiming Arab unity. And they have seen how weak the states themselves are, and more sadly how weak many of their own societies are. Iraqis and Syrians are fond of saying that before the American invasion or the 2011 uprising there were no tensions between Sunnis and Shias. If this is true, though, such solidarity was very easily shattered.
History ain’t changed
If states’ weaknesses stand exposed, so do their workings. In Egypt and Tunisia, and even more so in Mr Assad’s Syria, no one used to know who in which of the many competing security agencies really controlled what, or how. They could not put their finger on the way that, say, a compliant judiciary fitted in to the overall shape of things. Now they can. In Egypt the current crop of thoughtful young revolutionaries shuns the street in favour of drawing up quiet plans for overhauling the police or reforming the judiciary. If another uprising starts, its demands will go beyond the removal of a figurehead and the election of a legislature kept well away from the levers of real power.
And what else may be on the agenda for change? One place to look is to IS—which, in ghastly irony, is the only truly new model of government that the wave of revolutions has thrown up. The group is monstrous. Its “state” is in many ways a far nastier reproduction of previous autocratic regimes, overlaid with a brutal “Islamic” veneer that most Muslims find repulsive. Yet the fact that this ugly experiment survives at all, despite the world’s semi-united efforts to abort it, holds lessons for the region.
Although IS’s laws are grotesque, other Arab states should take note that its emphasis on quick and firm justice appeals not only to Syrians and Iraqis desperate for order amid chaos. It responds to a burning public need to right decades of perceived wrongs. So does IS’s intolerance of corruption within its own ranks and its focus, even with limited means, on providing services such as health, education and social welfare. Unlike other Arab states, which tend to be hyper-centralised, IS grants broad powers to local administrators. These officials seek to regulate and tax commerce rather than to control it. Instead of assuming ownership of the oil industry, as nearly all other Arab states do, it sells the crude oil in its territory at the wellhead, subsequently exacting taxes from the people who go on to refine and transport it.
The missing ingredients in this formula are obvious: a basic respect for human rights and for diversity, systems of accountability, a method of lawmaking that pays heed to the will and interest of the public and not simply religious texts or the whims of a so-called caliph. Such essential components of good governance are often lazily bundled together as part of a grab-bag labelled democracy. The Arab spring showed that it may be these constituent elements, more than such theatrics as toppling tyrants or holding noisy elections, that are the key to success.
In the tense calm that has settled over countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, in the brittle peace that will no doubt eventually prevail across Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and during the continuing, ever-expectant pause endured by other Arabs as they wait for change, it is these kinds of institutional building blocks that need attending to. Arabs may take heart from the fact that in Europe, the supposedly revolutionary years of 1848 and 1968 produced little forward motion; indeed their immediate effect was to prompt a conservative backlash. A.J.P. Taylor, a historian, described 1848, a year of continent-wide insurrection against autocracy, as a moment when “history reached a turning point but failed to turn.”
But in both cases revolutionary change did come, in protracted form, in the next generation. It was brought about less by street action than by quiet evolutions in culture, society and the economy, and by the building of new and stronger institutions. It is not as intoxicating as mass action in Tahrir Square. But if some future season of rebirth is to lead to a lasting summer, there needs to be some thoroughgoing climate change first.
Lebanon recognises 18 religious communities across the country and all are represented in the complex politicial system.
The three highest offices in government are reserved for Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian politicians.
The ties that bind the disparate factions have led to the development of distinct majority and opposition blocs.
Al Jazeera profiles some of the major players in Lebanese politics.
Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, leads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian political organisation which advocates a secular character for Lebanon.
|General Michel Aoun [EPA]|
A former commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army, Aoun was also prime minister and acting president of the predominantly Christian military government in east Beirut in the last two years of Lebanon’s civil war.
His rule ended when he was forced from the presidential palace at Baabda by Syrian troops.
Aoun fiercely criticised Syrian influence in Lebanon after he went into exile in 1991. He founded the Free Patriotic Movement while in Paris.
He returned to Lebanon in May 2005, shortly before the FPM agreed “a memorandum of understanding” with Hezbollah, a Shia political party and resistance movement.
The FPM is part of the Hezbollah-led opposition to the majority March 14 Forces parliamentary bloc.
Nabih Berri holds the position of house speaker in Lebanon’s national assembly, and is leader of Amal, a Shia Muslim party.
|Nabih Berri [EPA]|
Berri took full control of Amal in 1980 and led the organisation for the remainder of Lebanon’s civil war.
Amal was particularly involved in battles for control of Muslim west Beirut.
At the height of the war, Amal fought Hezbollah, a rival Shia movement.
Berri’s group currently has cordial relations with Hezbollah, and supported it in its July-August 2006 war with Israel.
Berri currently dismisses the rump Lebanese cabinet as unconstitutional and unrepresentative.
His criticism comes after ministers opposed to the March 14 parliamentary majority pulled out of the Lebanese cabinet in November 2006, in protest at the failure to form a unity cabinet.
Saad al-Hariri is leader of the Future Movement (al-Mustaqbal), a Sunni Muslim party.
|Saad al-Hariri [AFP]|
The Future Movement is the largest party within the March 14 Forces, Lebanon’s majority bloc in parliament.
Al-Hariri became Future’s leader in 2005 after his father, Rafiq, was assassinated.
The Future Movement later formed allegiances with other parties, including the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Christian Lebanese Forces.
The new March 14 Forces alliance ran on an anti-Syria platform in 2005’s parliamentary elections, calling on Damascus to end its alleged interference in Lebanese affairs.
Saad al-Hariri was tipped to become Lebanon’s prime minister following the March 14 Forces’ victory in the 2005 elections.
He declined the post, recommending the selection of Fouad Siniora, an economist and finance minister during the prime ministerial terms of Rafiq al-Hariri.
Al-Hariri is in favour of disarming Hezbollah’s Islamic Resistance wing.
Fouad Siniora is the Lebanese prime minister and a member of Saad Hariri’s Future party (al-Mustaqbal).
|Fouad Siniora [EPA]|
He has served twice as Lebanon’s finance minister, on both occasions for the late Rafiq al-Hariri, a close political ally and friend.
Siniora became prime minister in 2005, when the March 14 Forces took a parliamentary majority.
Several months after the war between Hezbollah and Israel, supporters of a Hezbollah-Amal-Free Patriotic Movement alliance called for Siniora to leave office.
The opposition has argued that Siniora has failed to deliver assistance to areas of Lebanon worst affected by Israel’s bombing campaign.
Siniora’s cabinet has been effectively impotent since the Hezbollah-led opposition pulled its members from the cabinet in November 2006.
Siniora still receives strong support from Paris and Washington.
Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, has been the president of Lebanon since 1998.
|Emile Lahoud [EPA]|
During the Lebanese civil war, Lahoud served in the Lebanese army under General Michel Aoun.
After the Taif Accord ended the war in 1990, Lahoud took several senior postings in the national army, eventually becoming the army’s commander-in-chief.
Lahoud became president with the backing of Syria.
He was set to retire in 2004 after serving a single six-year term but, under pressure from Syria, Lebanon’s parliament voted to extend his term for an additional three years.
The majority March 14 Forces bloc in the Lebanese national assembly, of which Siniora is a member, has long sought to peacefully remove Lahoud from office.
Walid Jumblatt, a Druze Muslim, leads the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), part of the majority March 14 Forces bloc.
|Walid Jumblatt [EPA]|
In 1982 and 1983, as Lebanon’s civil war raged, Jumblatt led a Druze group against Maronite Christian fighters in retaliation for atrocities committed against the Druze earlier in the war.
After his fighters defeated the Maronites, Jumblatt solidified his position as de facto leader of the Druze community.
He is famous for shifting his political allegiances in order to protect the long-term interests of the Druze.
Jumblatt supported Syria’s military and security presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990, but vociferously campaigned for an end to Syrian influence after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister.
He has maintained good relations with international politicians and commands significant respect across Lebanon’s sects.
Hassan Nasrallah is secretary-general of Hezbollah, a Shia political party and resistance movement.
|Hassan Nasrallah [EPA]|
Nasrallah joined Hezbollah in 1982 after spending several years as a member of Amal. He became Hezbollah’s secretary-general in 1992.
He guided the organisation through a concerted period of political accommodation with other parties in Lebanon, establishing a bona fide political party alongside its resistance operations.
Under his leadership, Hezbollah also increased its attacks against Israeli occupying forces. Israel and its proxies were forced from Lebanon in 2000.
Israel’s failure to wipe out Hezbollah in last year’s war in Lebanon further boosted Nasrallah’s image as a hero across the Arab world.
After the war, Nasrallah led calls for a Lebanese national unity government to be formed. He has criticised what he calls Western interference in Lebanese affairs.
Hezbollah has consistently maintained its links to Iran and Syria and has criticised the UN’s formation of an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
Interim UN investigations have implicated Syria in the killing.
Samir Geagea is head of the Lebanese Force, a predominantly Maronite Christian political party and former militia group.
|Samir Geagea [EPA]|
Geagea became an active member of the right-wing Phalangist Party, which became the main Christian fighting force upon the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.
In the early 1980s, he was appointed as the head of the Lebanese Forces militia northern front.
He led the group in fighting against the Syrian army, Walid Jumblatt’s PSP and Palestinian fighters.
Geagea spoke out against Syrian influence in Lebanon after the civil war ended and refused to join the cabinet.
He was jailed for life in 1994 in connection to assassinations carried out during the civil war but after the 2005 elections an amnesty bill was passed and Geagea was freed.
Geagea says he was a political prisoner and was convicted because of his opposition to Syria
Hope is never a safe bet in the Middle East. One week into the new year, and here is what we have: relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran had escalated into a full-blown diplomatic crisis after Riyadh executed a Shia cleric who was a strident critic of the ruling family.
Forget a president for Lebanon. Forget peace in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is at war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels; the ceasefire was called off a few days ago.
There will be little traction in the talks on Syria, where Iran fights alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has funded and armed rebel groups. The odds on finding a resolution to the five-year civil war in Syria through US and Russian-sponsored negotiations were never good. Now they are virtually non-existent.
The international fight against Isis in Iraq and Syria will be pursued, probably with more vigour, in 2016. Isis will be degraded; it will certainly lose more territory. But without political solutions sectarianism will thrive in Iraq as in Syria. Neither Muslim majorities nor the scattered minorities will be spared.
Riyadh’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was designed to achieve short-term political gains at home but at the expense of a dangerous fallout in the region.
The killing of the Shia cleric was part of a wave of executions that included dozens of jailed Sunni extremists from al-Qaeda, the Isis rival. His death carried a message of appeasement to radical Sunni sympathisers at risk of being swayed by Isis: that despite the executions, Saudi Arabia remains the protector of the Sunni at a time of intense rivalry with Shia Iran.
Predictably, Shia communities in the region were enraged. Hardliners in Tehran ransacked and torched the Saudi embassy. These actions were also driven by domestic considerations: Iranian hardliners are determined to undermine the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections and destroy his drive to rehabilitate the Islamic Republic.
Instead of a thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations, this year looks set for greater polarisation. The Saudi-Iranian clash will not spark a direct military confrontation but by inflaming religious passions it may produce as menacing an outcome.
Middle East is facing more ruin this year and the next few years to come.