A Middle Eastern ‘Perfect Storm’

Perfect storm: ‘A detrimental or calamitous situation or event arising from the powerful combined effect of a unique set of circumstances.’

Hisham Melhem
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In July, the world will commemorate the centennial of World War I, also known as,” The war to end all wars.” In addition to its horrendous human cost of 37 million casualties, the war led to the demise of the old European political order with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman empires, and the birth of new states and a precarious new political order. Before the war’s end, the British and the French decided to divide their Middle Eastern inheritance from the retreating and dying Ottoman Empire.

The resulting secret scheme known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916, named after the two diplomats who negotiated its terms, along with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 named after the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour of British support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews, led to the creation of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, with border modifications after the two victorious countries established, with the blessing of the League of Nations their ‘ Mandate System’ on these societies ostensibly to prepare them for self-government.


A Perfect Storm

Almost a century after the establishment of this artificial colonial construct, which endured conventional and civil wars, rebellions, military coups, political repression and fleeting experimentations with political reform and democratic governance ,it is currently facing its most serious existential threat. The Sykes–Picot inheritance is unraveling along sectarian, religious and ethnic fault lines.

For the first time since their formal independence, a number of countries undergoing social and political upheavals, in a state of civil war, or confronting more assertive terrorist groups, find their national authority being challenged by forces operating freely in relatively large autonomous spaces

Hisham Melhem

Most nations from North Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean, all the way to the Gulf (and South Asia) are plagued by political turmoil or civil strife, beset by sectarian and ethnic tensions, the growing threats of transnational terrorism, bereft of good accountable leadership and responsible governance, stressed by economic stagnation and dislocation, strained by a youthful population demanding political empowerment and meaningful job opportunities. A combination of some of these underlying currents, or in some cases such as in Syria and Iraq (you can add also Yemen and Somalia) all of them, are contributing to the unprecedented levels of bloodletting, chaos, terror and upheaval that are tearing these societies asunder.

For the first time since their formal independence, a number of countries undergoing social and political upheavals, in a state of civil war, or confronting more assertive terrorist groups, find their national authority being challenged by forces operating freely in relatively large autonomous spaces.

This is true of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and even in Egypt’s Sinai. All of these elements combined to create the Perfect Storm that is devastating the region; a storm that is likely to last for years to come. It took decades to bring the region to its nadir, and it will take years and probably decades to chart a way out of this tragic predicament.

Uploading hope and downloading tragedy

The incredible expansion of media technology (Satellite channels, the internet and social media) has had a paradoxical effect on the region. While empowering those who sought political, social and economic reforms within their national borders, who communicated through twitter and uploaded the first videos of the uprisings, it has also emboldened and helped the entrenched regimes as well as extremist religious groups and terrorists organizations such as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates that are operating throughout the region, and other new, even more lethal groups if that is imaginable, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which is tormenting today the peoples of Syria and Iraq and which is trying to establish bases in Yemen.

In this new not-so-brave world, every massacre, chemical weapon attack, beheading, car bombing, and assassination is being documented, filmed and downloaded for millions of mostly passive viewers in the region and all over the world, to impress them, frighten them or recruit them.

Not only regional institutions are rendered useless like the League of Arab States, or are fracturing like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but also national institutions, like the armed forces, the police are fracturing along sectarian, religious, regional and ethnic lines as we see in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The grim statistics in some countries are difficult to absorb. More than 9 million Syrians out of a population of 22 million are displaced, including 3 millions who sought refuge in neighboring countries. According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, Yemen is among the world's most water-scarce nations; Yemen could conceivably and shortly become the first country in the world to run out of water.

Many ‘firsts’

Entrenched Arab despots, like Assad in Syria, Qaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen fought their peoples ferociously, even when they were demonstrating peacefully and asking for simple reforms. Assad’s war on his people included many ‘firsts’ in the annals of political rebellions and civil wars. First use of Scud tactical ballistic missiles against civilian neighborhoods, barrel bombs against schools and hospitals, medieval-style siege and starvation, the most use of foreign armies, militias and ‘volunteers’ since the Spanish Civil War.

For the first time in modern history, three majority Arab countries, Egypt, Iraq and Syria are simultaneously facing historic challenges that are threatening their viability and integrity as nation states and their very identity. It is a question of time before the Kurds in Iraq will go their separate way.

I don’t know of any good argument against Kurdish self-determination. Even if the war in Syria ends soon, it will be very difficult, given the sectarian killings and cleansings of large neighborhoods and villages to restore a semblance of unitary state. At minimum, ethnic and religious communities would insist on governing themselves and maintaining their own armed groups in the name of self-preservation.

It is clear from the pattern of the fighting, that the Assad regime is trying to maintain control over the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs and a corridor linking the capital to the coastal Alawite region. The regime believes that it could remain in power for a long time if it maintains its grip over this part of Syria.

Looking at Syria and Iraq unraveling under the weight of their sectarian-ethno enmities, one cannot but wonder, that despite the ugly legacy of European colonialism, and the arbitrary way in which the borders of the region were determined, it was assumed by the colonialists that Arabs and Kurds, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites could live together in their new states.

Generation of patriots

A century later, the grand children of that generation of patriots, Arabs, Kurds and other groups, Muslims and Christian who fought and sacrificed for self-determination after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and grudgingly accepted the Sykes–Picot order, have succeeded in squandering their imperfect inheritance. The colonialists probably could not have imagined the parochialism and petty sectarian-ethno allegiances of today’s rulers.

While the integrity of the Egyptian state is not in jeopardy, nonetheless, the political polarization between the secularists and nationalists on one hand, and the banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB) on the other, and the deepening enmity between the MB and other violent Islamist groups and the large Coptic community, will make governing Egypt, a country that cannot survive without foreign aid, almost a mission impossible.

The continuing violence against the Egyptian state, which is no longer confined to Sinai and the resistance to serious structural and painful economic reform, from powerful special interest groups, including the armed forces will keep Egypt mired in its problems and unable to restore its economic health or exercise any meaningful regional role.

As a result of this situation, the countries of the Arab East, more than any time since independence find themselves living in the shadows of their non-Arab neighbors, Iran, Turkey and Israel.

The sectarian-ethno divide

The divide between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, is almost as old as Islam itself, and yet today, this ancient schism seems to be increasingly shaping the fate of a number of countries in the region, while dragging Sunni and Shiite volunteers from the Muslim world and beyond to fight and die against fellow Muslims in the lands that witnessed the first Muslim Civil War, that led to the schism. While both sides use sectarian narratives and religious arguments to demonize each other, their conflict is essentially political and revolves around power and authority.

Modern Muslim history never witnessed such Sunni-Shiite conflagration like the one we see today being fought on one continuum front stretching from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon, with other fronts raging occasionally in Bahrain, Yemen and all the way to Pakistan.

Just as terrorists are demolishing national borders, the sectarian epidemic is oblivious to the whole concept of nation-state, or the idea of national identity. Sunnis and Shiites are coalescing around their sectarian identity, and showing solidarity with each other regardless of national origin, linguistic differences and ethnic background.

The War in Syria has become the new rallying cry for Sunni and Shiite hardliners, who are recruiting volunteers from all over the world to shape the future of a country many of them never been to before the war. Iran has sent special units of Revolutionary Guards and military advisors to shore up the Assad regime, the Lebanese Hezbollah, on behest of its sponsor Iran sent units that fought well in some crucial battles, and thousands of Iraqi Shiites volunteered to fight against the Sunni dominated rebellion against the Assad regime. Shiite volunteers came from parts of Central Asia, and recently the Wall Street Journal reported that “Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering $500 a month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime..”

Sunni volunteers from the Arab world and beyond, including from Western countries have descended on Syria to join the new “Jihad”. A significant number of the ranks of some of the most violent “opposition” groups, such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, are foreign volunteers.

Other fault lines

There are other fault lines beside the sectarian one, like the Arab-Kurdish fault lines in Iraq and Syria, where the Kurds of Syria are demanding for the first time their full political and cultural rights, ( many of them don’t even have Syrian citizenship, even though they were born and raised in Syria) and are willing to fight for them. The Kurds of Syria will not accept willingly to live under any conditions similar to those they endured under the old order. In Egypt, the religious fault lines between the Copts and radical Islamists and the MB have been deepened, following the worst acts of violence against Egyptian Copts, their churches and institutions since medieval times.

The Christian communities in the Arab states, the descendants of the First Christians, have been subjected recently to unprecedented physical violence in modern times. According to press reports and leaders of their Churches, half a million Iraqi Christians have been forced to leave the country since the American invasion in 2003. Radical Islamists burned their churches and killed their bishops.

This tragedy was compounded by the fact that the campaign of intimidating the Christians was taking place when the U.S. had a large military presence in Iraq. If these tensions, particularly the Sunni-Shiite one, are not checked any time soon, they will intensify further, and no country in the region or close to it, and that would include Europe, will be able to develop an immune system against such epidemic.

A dearth of Western Leadership

The outside world is tired and bewildered by the senseless violence, but apparently not horrified enough, by the unspeakable agony of Syria for instance to intervene in a meaningful way. In fact some powerful states like Russia and China are accomplices in Assad’s crimes and continue to provide him with diplomatic shelter and material support. Western powers that used to play major roles in the region, not always positive admittedly are unwilling or unable to do more than provide humanitarian aid, logistical support or limited military aid. Recently the U.S. began, after long hesitation, deliveries of limited quantities of TOW anti-tank missiles.

However, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was emphatic that the U.S. will not alter the balance of power to allow for a rebel victory. “We are not on a path currently to provide that”. Remarkably, the General said in the same breath that he realizes that the conflict is no longer about Syria only, but a regional one when he added “it’s Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad”.

‘If you are going to cock the pistol, be ready to fire it’

The leaders of most Arab states ,with the social, political and intellectual classes that support them are in the main responsible for the sorry state of affairs in their countries. However the failure of the Obama administration in exercising effective and strong leadership, has contributed to this destructive Middle Eastern Perfect Storm.

The man with the soaring rhetoric, who went to Cairo in 2009 to begin a new era that would transform fundamentally the relationship between the United States and the countries of the Muslim World, who promised to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict in his first term, who asked Assad to step down, and threatened him with iron and fire if he used chemical weapons against his own people, this man has shrunk so much in stature that he is almost invisible to the people of the region. President Obama may be haunted by the ghosts of Syria, but he is not moved sufficiently by the horrors of that country to do something to check it.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said last week that with President Obama repeatedly talking about “coming home, of nation building at home” he has created the perception around the world that in fact the U.S. is pulling back from its international responsibilities. According to Gates that is why Russia and China among others see that void and are moving to exploit it, “they see our unwillingness to make tough decisions as in Syria, our failure to carry out our threat with the red line in Syria… They see opportunities to pursue their own nationalist ambitions…”

Gates believes that the failure of President Obama to deliver on his threat to use military force against Assad last year was “a real low point in foreign policy for the administration.

One piece of advice I always tried to give the President is: if you are going to cock the pistol, be ready to fire it.” Compelling words of wisdom, for a president who cocked a pistol with an empty magazine.

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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