Another annus horribilis in the Middle East is about to end. It is that time of year when you look back at 2015 in astonishment at the tragedies that befell the region, and ahead at 2016 with trepidation at the inevitable agonies awaiting us. After decades of trying to understand ( and occasionally trying to explain) the political, cultural and economic dynamics that have been pushing the region towards greater fragmentation, and in the process speaking like a Cassandra, anticipating mostly gloom and doom in the future, I see no reason to change now. If anything the long term trends in the region point to more implosions, including in areas that have been relatively immune so far, and more human suffering and the attendant political and social chaos.
For the Arabs specifically, I see diminishing control of their destiny, with other regional and international actors assuming greater roles in determining where the region is going. This will be felt mostly, but not exclusively, in Syria and Iraq. The other conflicts in Yemen and Libya will continue to rage in varying degrees of intensity, their resolutions becoming harder because of breakdown of state authority, regional involvement and an expanding physical space that is being filled by ISIS and al-Qaeda. The oil price slump of this year, which has impacted every economic sector, and led governments throughout the region to cut spending, will remain in 2016 and beyond and the gloom that came with it will linger on for the foreseeable future. In 2015 Syria’s war, because of its refugees and the influx of foreign fighters, became an international problem. And once again we were reminded that a handful of dedicated terrorists organized and /or inspired by ISIS could terrorize and suspend normal life in European capitals like Paris and Brussels, and deepen the politics of fears in the United States.
In 2015, we have seen historic milestones of horrors. Some estimates put the death toll in Syria’s wars over 300,000 casualties. Syrians who left or driven out of their exceed 4.5 million, and 7.6 million internally displaced. The International Organization for Migration said recently that more than a million refugees and migrants went to Europe this year, half of them were Syrians. More than 3700 of the refugees drowned in the deceptive waters of the Mediterranean that swallowed their rickety boats supplied by equally deceptive smugglers. Scores died on those long European treks crossing newly erected boundaries or suffocated in trucks in the heat of last summer.
One should say good riddance to an inheritance of woes, but the bridge we will take to 2016 is the bridge of sighs, that will very likely put us, once again on the road to perditionHisham Melhem
The world discovered ISIS, in June 2014 when its trucks and jeeps laden with hordes of Jihadists breached the defenses of Mosul, and occupied Iraq’s second largest city. But 2015 was the year of ISIS par excellence. A self-proclaimed Caliphate straddling large swath of Syria and Iraq with a fake Caliph clad in black and in hiding, has been doing battle with an international coalition led by the United States, and still retains considerable fighting prowess. The Islamic State was dealt some military setbacks in 2015, and eventually will be defeated by force of arms, but it will remain a formidable dark power in 2016 and beyond, in part because both regional and international actors either don’t consider ISIS their most dangerous enemy, or because they are unwilling to send ground troops to defeat it.
Given the sectarian and ethnic cleansing taking place in Syria and Iraq, in which both governments and their (Shiite) militias, along with ISIS and other (Sunni) jihadists have been implicated, as well as the destruction of infrastructure, cities, hospitals and schools makes it practically impossible to resurrect a Syria and an Iraq that resemble what used to be on the eve of destruction. What was built over the centuries and obliterated in the last few years – from old residential neighborhoods, ancient souks, schools, Churches and Mosques may not be restored, or ever rebuilt. And who will finance the reconstruction of Syria, estimated at $300 billion?
President Obama’s milestone in 2015, in fact his biggest milestone in the Middle East in his seven lean years there, was the nuclear deal with Iran. One could make the case that the agreement will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear device for 15 years, but the biggest flaw in the negotiations and the overall approach of the Obama administration towards Iran, was his abject failure to attempt to rollback, or at least deter and check Iran’s regional ambitions and the proxy wars it has been waging in Syria and Iraq and to a lesser extent Yemen. During the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. was holding summit meetings with Soviet leaders and signing ‘Salt’ and ‘Start’ nuclear agreements, American Presidents, Republican and Democrats kept hammering them on their human rights violations inside the Soviet Union, and rolling back their gains or deterring them in the proxy wars raging in Asia, Africa and Central America. We all knew the names of the Soviet dissidents and their particular struggles. President Obama was never forceful in defending the human rights of Iranians, particularly during the ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009, and he was very tepid in challenging Iran’s regional destructive activities.
Obama’s revisionist history
Russia’s military intervention in Syria is one of the consequences of President Obama’s dithering on Syria. The administration is hoping that the recent U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a ‘peace process’ to end Syria’s civil war, after a transitional period of 18 months, could lead to another round of negotiations in Vienna, in the context of a fragile cease-fire. Publicly, Secretary John Kerry appeared to have given Moscow a significant concession when he stated that ‘the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called ‘regime change’, as it is known in Syria. What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria..’. The eagerness of Secretary Kerry for a resolution to Syria’s wars, his willingness to compromise and his deep belief in the power of diplomacy are not enough to guarantee that his efforts on Syria will not end disastrously like his efforts to revive the other ‘peace process’ between the Palestinians and Israelis.
President Obama’s stated objectives in Syria; a post-Assad and a more inclusive regime in Damascus, and defeating ISIS are clear, but the means to implement such objectives are still limited, tentative and incoherent. As recently as last June the President admitted that ‘we don’t yet have a complete strategy’ to defeat ISIS. In recent weeks and in major speeches and interviews the President has been insisting that his revamped strategy – intensifying the air campaign, greater coordination with Kurdish and Syrian Arab armed groups, and the insertion of dozens of American special forces- is working, and urging strategic patience. But a Syria/Iraq strategy that does not include the willingness to deploy relatively significant American ground forces to clean up the Euphrates valley in Syria of ISIS strongholds, then turning these liberated areas to Syrian opposition groups, means that ISIS and the Assad regime will continue their depredations against the Syrian people, long after Obama has vacated the White House and began writing revisionist Syrian history in his memoires.
Arabs in the shadows of their neighbors
One is hard pressed to point out positive developments in the region in 2015. From Libya in the west to Yemen in the East, you see a long trail of blood and tears, where Arabs continue to kill Arabs with abandon, with little help from their regional and international friends, and with no end in sight. My essays in this space throughout the year reflected these tragic realities, occasionally asking questions such as what is the matter with Egypt? And how could the political and intellectual classes in majority Arab states allow their societies to disintegrate into warring sects and tribes? A theocratic regime in Tehran is shaping the future course of countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, by influencing and manipulating the Shiite communities in those states to serve its regional ambitions. An increasingly Islamist (Sunni) government in Turkey is competing with Iran for political and strategic interests in Iraq and Syria. In January 2012 when I published an article in Foreign Policy, titled ‘Arabs in the shadows of their neighbors’ things were not as disquieting as they are now.
Egypt has all but dropped its old mantle of regional leadership. It is barely capable of influencing tiny Gaza, let alone the Levant and beyond. Its large and sluggish armed forces are pre-occupied in fighting a low intensity and nasty Islamist insurgency in Sinai that occasionally visits Egypt’s large cities inflicting military and civilian casualties. The government’s crackdown on all forms of political dissent has deepened the sense of gloom in the country. Before the civil war in Yemen, devolved into a regional conflict involving the two powerful countries in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, the country was slowly becoming a failed state. This ancient land with its distinct cultural heritage which was once known as "Arabia felix" could face disintegration if the war does not end soon with a political arrangement that is acceptable to its main constituents and its immediate neighbors.
Of Palestinian knife men…
The Israeli government, in the face of a hapless Palestinian Authority, continues to incorporate more and more Palestinian lands in the West Bank and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state all but impossible. The absence of a promising framework for a peaceful resolution is dragging the occupied and the occupier to another inconclusive, ugly and nihilistic round of bloodletting. In recent months a wave of ‘face to face’ violence swept the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, in which hundreds of mostly civilian Palestinians and Israelis including babies were killed. In October and November 94 Palestinians have been killed in shootings and clashes with Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers (a notorious firebombing of a Palestinian home by settlers burned a married couple and their 18 year-old baby). Rights groups including Amnesty International have accused Israel of using excessive force, and that the killing of some Palestinians amounted to ‘extrajudicial execution.’ Palestinians killed16 Israelis in random knife stabbings, gun attacks or were rammed by vehicles driven by Palestinians. An ugly unforgiven mood hovered over Palestinians and Israelis. There were the usual accusations that both sides trade in such nasty times; the wages of occupation, the sins of incitements and the overall demonization of the other. The fact remains that the occupied/occupier dichotomy will not be broken by Palestinians knifing Israelis at random, nor will Israel’s overwhelming military preponderance and expropriation of Palestinian lands extinguish the Palestinian’s yearning for independence. The perpetuation of the current impasse, will further undermine the diminishing constituencies of peace among Palestinians and Israelis, and continue to dehumanize both the occupier and the occupied.
… And Jewish dagger men
Both Arabs and Jews have long collective memories. The Palestinian knife men, should remind Israelis of the ‘Sicarii Jews’ who along with the Jewish Zealots fought to expel the Romans in the years preceding the destruction of Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian who opposed the Jewish rebellion used the term ‘Sicarii Jews’ in a pejorative way, and labeling them as extremist religious minority that wanted to drag the Jews to a nihilistic rebellion against what they termed as ‘the Kingdom of arrogance’. The word Sicarii is Latin and was given to these young Jews because of the small dagger (sicae) they concealed under their garments. These Jewish Zealots waged a campaign of terror, in the first century AD, mostly in broad daylight and during festivals, stabbing not only their Roman enemies, but also fellow Jews who were deemed collaborators with the occupiers. According to Josephus, these Jewish dagger men would mingle with the crowds before they pull their daggers to stab their victims to death before they flee the scene of the murder. They were so brazen that they assassinated the high priest Jonathan, and murdered an imperial servant, ‘an act which resulted in lamentable consequences’.
(These tactics were perfected in the 11th and 12 centuries, but this time by Muslim dagger men in Northern Persia and Western Syria by the cult of the ‘assassins’, from the Arabic الحشاشون Hashashoon but properly known as the Nizari Ismailis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
These ‘assassins’ dispatched their enemies in suicide attacks against their prominent Sunni enemies in Persia (they expected to be hacked to death) and their Sunni and Crusaders enemies in Syria. They were so brazen that they tried twice to assassinate the famed Muslim leader Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub known in the West as Saladin).
Looking back at 2015, one should say good riddance to an inheritance of woes, but the bridge we will take to 2016 is the bridge of sighs, that will very likely put us, once again on the road to perdition.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem