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Beware miscalculating conflict-strewn countries

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

Upon observing the unfortunate events taking place all across our region, we are pained by the number of ailing, conflict-afflicted countries seeking support and assistance from foreign powers oversees. Contrary to common belief, foreign intervention can only dismantle a country if it is unstable and run down from within. Overcoming a crisis means changing, and true change comes about through all the people working together in a unified manner to take the necessary action. This collective will for recovery is fundamental for reaching a lasting solution. For this reason, foreign intervention often targets national unity, and all efforts are dedicated towards highlighting conflict triggers through dredging up old rivalries and hostilities that are bound to tear people apart by making them focus on what separates them, rather than what brings them together.

In our volatile, crisis-stricken region, we have witnessed a plethora of similar examples and unexpected events. For instance, we have seen Iraqi forces penetrate the Iranian borders during the rule of Saddam Hussein, yet years later, we witnessed Baghdad unable to form a government without obtaining Tehran's blessing. Meanwhile, Syria had previously been the puppet master in the Lebanese crisis, seamlessly pulling strings to serve its own interests. However, we have later witnessed Lebanese militias crossing the borders to defend the Syrian regime. We have seen many countries fall from grace and lose their standing. Afflicted by division, terrorism, and instability, these countries desperately sought the protection of powerful allies who have stripped them of their autonomy and ability to take charge of their own fate.

There has been much talk about the awaited antidote that is set to magically resolve all regional conflicts; the infamous American-Iranian deal. However, it is evident that the issue is much more complicated than many people seem to believe. For decades, Iran has made enormous efforts and launched various attacks to limit US influence, which was believed to safeguard the stability and continuity of a number of countries in the region. In the past few years, the US has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign and imposed a myriad of crippling sanctions against Iran to eradicate Iranian influence, which has taken over the decision-making process in a number of countries and quickly ran them to the ground. The Biden administration has a long and perilous journey ahead of it in the Middle East, and it is highly critical for this administration to closely assess the current situation and consider all the changes and variables that have come into play without echoing old policies that are incapable of resolving conflicts in these ailing countries and could instead result in creating more conflict.

A Turkish police armored vehicle patrols the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP)
A Turkish police armored vehicle patrols the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP)

Stability has well-known obelisks in the Middle East, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of them. No one can deny that the Kingdom is fundamental to the stability and security of the region. For this reason, the Biden administration should objectively look at the significant progress Saudi Arabia has achieved in terms of battling extremism and igniting the spark of hope within young generations by transforming their extremist mindsets and protecting them from falling prey to the influence of terrorist organizations. Relying on reports and assessments that lack real conclusive evidence with the aim of cultivating a climate of distrust with the allies will certainly negatively affect the stability of the region and the ability of the current administration to play a constructive role in it.

An ailing, conflict-afflicted Syria has no positive role to play in the region or the world. Neither the people of Syria, nor neighboring countries, can escape the devastation caused by the Syrian crisis. This state of unrest is certainly not helping anyone. On the contrary, it is hindering the process of bringing peace, stability, and prosperity to the Middle East, the world's most volatile and conflict-ridden region. What I mean by an ‘ailing’ Syria in this context is a Syria that is still run down by bloody wars and vicious battles. I mean a country with millions of its citizens displaced and living in refugee camps near their borders, yet they either would not dare or are not allowed to return to their homes. A country whose official institutions do not control all of its territories, and instead these territories are divided and fall under the rule of several opposing groups. A country with both allies and enemies pulling its strings and participating in its decision-making process, even though not too long ago, it boasted about its autonomy and self-sufficiency. This was not a baseless claim, Hafez al-Assad allowed neither Washington nor Moscow to dictate his policies. Bashar al-Assad continued on this same path before Syria’s role receded due to its withdrawal from Lebanon and with the outbreak of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ with all its repercussions and horrors.

An ailing Syria is of no use to anyone, and it certainly does not have the means to support Lebanon. Lebanon and Syria are bound by ties that cannot be severed, and these ties go beyond the illegal smuggling channels that could not be abolished under President Michel Aoun’s “strong era,” which proved to be utterly inadequate. In truth, an ailing Syria, which is unable to restore its stability and welcome its own people back to their homes, poses a permanent destabilizing threat to Lebanon and constantly adds fuel to an already blazing fire.

Furthermore, there is no need to be reminded of the ties that connect Syria and Iraq whether in terms of geography or history. In fact, these ties were particularly highlighted with the spread of “ISIS” over large parts of the territories of the two countries.

Since an ailing Syria presents a fertile ground for terrorism, one could also safely presume that it also presents the ideal battleground for grueling wars that can expand beyond its borders. The current reality on the ground reveals that an Israeli war is being waged against Iranian targets in Syria. Tehran has so far chosen not to respond in a way that could lead to a full-scale confrontation, one that Russia would not allow even though it did not oppose Israeli strikes against “Iranian positioning” in Syria.

A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020. (Reuters)
A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020. (Reuters)

Similarly, an ailing and conflict-afflicted Iraq has no means of serving its people nor contribute to the stability of the region, which is undergoing increasing disintegration, poverty, and despair. What we have been witnessing for a while now is perplexingly strange, and it is on the verge of becoming the norm. Turkish warplanes launch raids on Kurdish targets inside Iraq while the Turkish army establishes permanent bases inside Iraqi territories. On the other hand, Iran is tightening its grip on Baghdad’s administration, either from within or through factions that operate under direct orders from Tehran.

Anyone following the events taking place in Iraq would agree that it would not be an exaggeration to say that Iraq is currently facing one of its toughest battles to rebuild its institutions, regain full sovereignty, serve its own interests, and ensure its stability. Baghdad’s current situation with Tehran is reminiscent of Beirut’s past relations with Damascus; relations built on flashy slogans, insincere sentiments, exaggerated arrogance, and one-sided terrorization and arm-twisting.

The same can be said about Lebanon. An ailing, conflict-afflicted Lebanon can neither serve its people nor its neighbors. Indeed, the same applies to Yemen.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that the most dangerous thing that can happen in this regard is for past experiences and mistakes to be repeated. Middle Eastern countries should be given the chance to take charge of their own fate and be part of the decision-making process. This fate cannot be left in the hands of other powers who tip the scales however they please in the absence of representatives from the countries in question, who are more capable of voicing the demands, aspirations, and true interests of their own people.

It would be extremely dangerous to give capitals in the Middle East the right to manage and control other countries, no matter how justified this step may seem. This step would lead the people to resistance, violence, despair, extremism, and terrorism. It is important to note that succumbing to emerging powers and altering a historical balance that has been long-established in the region is awfully perilous and could result in unforeseen repercussions.

At this point, the Biden administration should meticulously assess the current situation in the region and carefully uncover the monoliths that are fundamental to ensuring stability and moderation. Any impartial observer would realize that the main issue in the region lies in these ailing, conflict-afflicted countries, and any miscalculation or mishandling of the situation could escalate the matter even further.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.