The morbid reality of Arab civil war

Hisham Melhem

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In the last few weeks and months I have engaged in a daily morning morbid ritual; reviewing the harvest of blood by compiling the number of victims of the Arab civil war raging in Syria and Iraq with its occasional visits to Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The statistics are frightening: more than 5000 people a month are being killed in Syria. More than 450 people were killed this month in Iraq. In Egypt more than 150 people were killed in the political violence that followed the June 30 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. In Lebanon more than 50 people were killed last month.

In Iraq, Syria and Egypt a virulent, atavistic strain of terrorists in the mold of Al-Qaeda are waging a savage war on everything modern, civil and moderate.

The new Arab civil war has pushed the Arabs on the trail of a long journey into the night, where there is no dawn in sight.

Hisham Melhem

In Syria state institutions are fraying, society is fragmenting and the continuation of the fighting means that Syria could reach a state of ‘soft partition’ where its sectarian and ethnic components will continue their existential struggle for a long time. In Iraq the security situation has relapsed to the previous hell of 2006 and 2007 and the country is slouching on the road to sectarian and ethnic partition. In Egypt large swaths of Sinai are not under the control of the government and the political and religious polarizations have reached unprecedented levels; with each group demonizing their opponents with astonishing zeal.

Arab cold war turns hot

In 1965 the distinguished academic Malcolm Kerr (born, raised and assassinated in Beirut) published a short classic study titled The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and his rivals where he analyzed the state of inter-Arab relations in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s , particularly the interplay of political/ideological rivalries for the leadership of the Arab world between the camp of ’progressive’ Arab nationalists led by Egypt and the camp of conservative Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and the personalities dominating that period, particularly that of president Nasser of Egypt. In subsequent editions Kerr carried the saga until Nasser’s death in 1970. This Arab cold war was a subtext of the wider cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In this Arab cold war the competition was among states and it was waged on the political/ideological plain and was not based on sectarian or religious basis. Yet, there was a military dimension to this war where the competitors opted to fight each other by proxy in the limited hot conflicts that occurred in Lebanon, Jordan and particularly Yemen. The role of the major non-Arab regional players; Iran, Turkey and Israel in the Arab cold war was very limited. In the current bloody Arab civil war we see a more assertive Turkey and Iran competing vociferously to shape the future of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even Egypt. There is a harsh geo-political reality that drives many Arabs into a state of denial: Eastern Arabs live in the shadow of their non-Arab neighbors.

In the various theaters of the Arab civil war of today, we see some Arab states in addition to Iran, Turkey (and occasionally Israel), along with radical Islamists, providing arms, material and men, and playing an active role in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts which have morphed recently into one civil war fought on a wider front including Lebanon. What makes this civil war especially dangerous and likely to rage for a long time, is the fact that it began in the wake of the Arab uprisings and after a tremendous and popular mobilization that did not exist before. In this new environment, populism, which is always worrisome, became more deadly when it was infected with the raw and primitive strain of sectarianism that almost demolished the political boundaries of the supposed sovereign states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The new Arab civil war has pushed the Arabs on the trail of a long journey into the night, where there is no dawn in sight. Some see this as the inevitable birth pangs of a new political order characteristics of transitional periods. There is no doubt that the best description of the complexities and pains of transitional periods was the one given by the brilliant Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Morbid indeed.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on July 25, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem’s writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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