The years of living dangerously in the Middle East

During the first few days of 2014, I looked back on 2013 with anger. The New Year began with a bang and a few painful ironies

Hisham Melhem
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During the first few days of 2014, I looked back on 2013 with anger; after all it was the year when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and got away with it and the year mindless violence and raw cruelty became the “new norm” in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon. As a result, I am already dreading 2014 and I look towards it with angst. The New Year began with a bang and a few painful ironies: car bombings and political assassinations in Beirut, Egypt continued to tear itself apart with its major political forces insisting on dragging the country into an existential struggle no one could win, and in Syria, rebels found themselves fighting a motley crew of primitive fanatic Islamists instead of the tormentors of all Syrians; the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his assassins. In Iraq, the mother of all ironies took place: after a bloody decade during which an untold number of Iraqis and Americans perished fighting intensely to drive out al-Qaeda and its local affiliates from Fallujah and Ramadi, the monstrous children of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are back and planting their black flags on the ramparts of those cities. If “what’s past is prologue” is true, then I shudder when I think of the calamities that the Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and Lebanese will inflict upon themselves in 2014, usually with a little help from their “friends” and the “kindness” of strangers while an ambivalent world watches on impassively. When historians analyze the second decade of the 21st century, they will likely observe that these were the years during which most Arabs lived dangerously.

Conflicts in Syria and Iraq are morphing into one

Conditions could worsen in Syria and Iraq, where politically motivated sectarian, religious and ethnic conflicts, stocked by regimes wielding the swords of their sects, could continue, with varying degrees of intensity, for years. Civil wars, where the demarcation lines are religious and/ or ethnic, are usually framed as existential conflicts, and therefore could last for a long time. The notion that the international community, however defined, will not countenance massive bloodletting in the Levant, so close to Southern Europe, has proven in 2013 to be an illusion. In the last few decades many assumptions about the (important) place of the Middle East in the International Political System have proven greatly exaggerated. Very few people in September 1980 thought that Saddam Hussein’s disastrous decision to invade his large neighbor Iran could morph into the largest conventional war of the 20th century. The international community not only adjusted itself to eight long years of WWI style trench warfare - during which Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian civilian and military targets - but it also benefited from the war and contributed to it. The second Gulf war, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and later the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 prove that point.


The peace conference, even if convened, most likely will not succeed. This is because the primary combatants, the Assad regime and the Islamists, act as if the battlefield and not a conference room will decisively settle the war

Hisham Melhem

The diplomatic “breakthrough” that Russia orchestrated to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and in the process to save Assad’s regime from a limited U.S. military strike, has been touted by Secretary of State John Kerry and other world leaders as proof that diplomacy can resolve Syria’s savage war. Yet, so far this agreement – which is not being implemented on schedule- has had absolutely no impact on the grinding war. On the contrary, the Assad regime in the last few weeks has intensified its indiscriminate bombings of large sections of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians including a large number of children. The regime is also benefitting from the disarray in the rebels’ ranks and is using the dominance of extremist Islamists over the spectrum of opposition forces to project itself as a bulwark against “Islamist terrorism.”

This is so Orwellian given the regime’s brutal use of sectarianism to mobilize its Alawite base and to frighten other minorities. Assad is also promoting sectarianism in his use of paramilitary forces to “cleanse” some villages and neighborhoods of their Sunni residents.

The reluctance of the Obama Administration to exercise strong leadership in dealing with Assad’s predatory practices and its refusal to arm the rebels early on - before the emergence of the radical Islamists - have contributed to the sorry state of affairs of the non-Islamist rebel groups operating under the Supreme Military Council. A few weeks before a scheduled international conference in Switzerland, Washington finds itself in the unenviable position of seeking – without success so far - to engage the newly formed “Islamic Front,” a grouping of Islamist brigades seeking the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. Some of the groups within this Islamist alliance are known for their enmity towards the United States. The peace conference, even if convened, most likely will not succeed. This is because the primary combatants, the Assad regime and the Islamists, act as if the battlefield and not a conference room will decisively settle the war. All of these indications tell us that if 2013 was the bloodiest year in the war, claiming more than 73,000 Syrian lives, 2014 is likely to be even worse, if one could imagine that.

Bloodshed in Iraq

The harvest of blood in Iraq in 2013 has claimed almost 8,000 Iraqi lives, particularly since the government of Nouri al-Maliki intensified its repression of peaceful Sunni dissent, creating another cycle of killings, arrests, executions and attacks which has dominated political life in Iraq. This situation has also provided an opening for al-Qaeda, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to return with a vengeance to central Iraq. No sooner than the Obama Administration announced that it would provide the Maliki government with lethal weapons, including Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and reconnaissance drones to be used against al-Qaeda, the Iraqi government intensified its campaign against its Sunni critics in central Iraq.

The trend that began in 2013, when the Maliki government in Baghdad increased its material and logistical aid to the Syrian regime against the Sunni rebels, will intensify in 2014 intertwining the two conflicts more than ever. In fact, given Iran’s role as a combatant in the Syrian theatre through its Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah’s forces, and given the increase in the number of Shiite “volunteers” from Iraq, and since the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into Lebanon, one can say that the Syrian war is now being fought on a long front stretching from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon.

Lebanon’s nightmare

The car bombing that killed Mohammad Chatah, the former finance minister and a prominent member of the March 14 coalition, and the suicide bombing in Haret Hreik, a Hezbollah stronghold, has led leaders and commentators to issue dire warnings and predictions of gloom and doom that these bombings have opened the gates of hell or set Lebanon on the road to ruin. But it is not totally unrealistic to see the situation in Lebanon unraveling over the next few months, particularly if we are to witness new waves of Syrian refugees, and if Hezbollah broadens its military role in Syria. Clearly there is an uptick in the tempo of car bombings and assassinations, and it is possible that the terror of car bombings by Hezbollah and radical Sunni Islamists could make the streets of Beirut and Tripoli look like the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities where car bombings were a daily staple of 2013.

It was inevitable that the Syrian war would visit Lebanon. But Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria made a bad situation much worse. With each act of terror, the sectarian discourse is becoming uglier and more toxic. The deteriorating security situation will force investors to flee Lebanon and will radically undermine tourism. As it stands, the economy can barely deal with the almost one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Continuing violence will diminish trust in the armed forces and will force each community to establish its own security apparatus, and maybe revive the old militias, all in the name of self-preservation and self- defense. Every community will say Hezbollah should not have a monopoly on arms, leading the security situation into a downward spiral. Lebanon will face severe political tests in 2014; parliamentary and presidential elections. It is very unlikely that these elections will take place, which means that the thin cover of legitimacy that remains in Lebanon may be shattered. We should remember that Lebanon’s wars, which began in 1975, dragged on until 1990’s Taif Accords. I have always maintained that Lebanon’s war never ended and that the periods of tense calm we have seen in the last few decades are nothing more than relatively long periods of truces. In 2014, we welcome back Lebanon’s past.

Ill winds sweeping Egypt

The violence in the streets of Cairo on the third day of the New Year (13 people dead, 57 wounded) is a harbinger of things to come. Here also, the assumptions of Egyptians, their neighbors and the world about the cohesion, importance, stability and endurance of state and society in Egypt have proven to have been greatly exaggerated. The deep political AND cultural polarization and divisions between the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents (nationalists, secularists or supporters of the armed forces) are unprecedented. These divisions are not only political, but they include the very nature of Egypt’s identity, its place and role in the region and beyond and its very ethos. In the last three years, Egyptians experienced and meted out the kind of violence that was for decades alien to their political culture, the kind of violence they used to see in Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Lebanon. The armed forces and the police killed hundreds of civilians in the streets, car bombings took place, sustained terrorist attacks occurred, sectarian killings and intimidation not seen in centuries both befell Egypt.

Any possibility, even very remote, for political reconciliation between the military backed government and the Brotherhood collapsed completely after the decision of the government to brand the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization following the terrorist attack in Mansoura last month. The violence is expected to increase during the days leading up to the vote on the draft constitution later this month. The vote on the constitution rather than settle any political issue, will be seen by the Brotherhood as another milestone in their repression at the hands of the military. Ever since the huge demonstrations that culminated in a military coup’s removal of President Mohammad Mursi last summer, a sense of hyper-nationalism, bordering on chauvinism, accompanied by all sorts of conspiracy theories that see enemies everywhere, has swept Egypt. This hyper-nationalism took hold particularly among that large strata of society that support the military. My case in point: the recent outrageous/comical episode of Abla Fahita, a Muppet-style character being investigated because of outlandish suspicions that messages were allegedly transmitted on behalf of Islamists during a television commercial for the telecommunications company Vodafone.

This paranoia has led the government to accuse foreign journalists of conspiring with the Brotherhood. At the same time, the space for political dissent has been shrinking rapidly, not only for the Islamist critics but also the “secularists” who initially applauded the coup but are now realizing that the military will not tolerate any serious dissent. These fault lines will guarantee that violence will increase in 2014 and that the cycle of violence and repression will dominate Egypt’s political life for some time to come. Those future historians who will study the second decade of the 21st century and discuss the capacity of Arabs – like other people in similar circumstances - to endure unspeakable pain in the years of living dangerously, will likely observe that it must have been very sad in those bad times to be an Arab.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of 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 Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. 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

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