When things fall apart in Iraq and the Levant

Can anything meaningful be said about the unraveling world of the Arabs circa 2014 that has not been said before?

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-William Butler Yeats

I give up.

I can no longer claim that I can make sense of the world I grew up in, cared for and been trying for 35 years to explain its complexities, yearnings, dreams and phobias to a perplexed America. Now I confess that I need a guide for me as the perplexed. Rational discourse cannot explain a world rapidly melting away. A world were countries like Iraq and Syria are both imploding and exploding simultaneously, crumbling into competing regions, warring religious sects and tribes, invoking atavistic notions of self and others and fusing primitive means of ancient warfare such as siege and starvation, crucifying and decapitating prisoners, with the weapons of modern warfare such as Scud missiles, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and fighter jets.

That was the week that was

Can anything meaningful be said about the unraveling world of the Arabs circa 2014 that has not been said before? The traditional analytical tools of political science, economic paradigms, of historical forces or ideologies and even power politics seem to be stale or inapplicable when we try to understand why things are falling apart in a large swath of the brittle world the Arabs have built in modern times.

Take this slice of reality this past week which took place in one news cycle and mostly simultaneously: Israeli jets bombing Syria, Syrian jets bombing Iraq, American jets and drones flying over Iraq, Iran providing Iraq with jets, while its drones are gliding over the land of the two rivers. Syrian president Assad did not comment on the Israeli raids, but Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki welcomed the Syrian attacks, while the U.S. denounced them and pleaded with Iran not to pursue sectarian policies in Iraq. Iran of course condemned America’s miniscule military role in Iraq, while the state department was stressing that it is true that Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but surely we don’t have common “strategic interests”. To complete the circle of bad news, the Obama administration officially but implicitly declared that its intense efforts began last year to revive the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis have ended in total failure, as many as a Cassandra have predicted, when it announced that its Middle East peace envoy former ambassador Martin Indyk has decamped and returned to his familiar perch at the Brookings Institution.

Very strange bedfellows

Militarily the alignments of the warring forces is somewhere between strange and surreal. On the ground, the primitive and brutal forces of ISIS, were freely moving between Syria and Iraq, with some of them using looted U.S. made transport vehicles and other military assets looted from the newly conquered Iraqi territories, where these new Mongol hordes have imposed their brutal “Islamic” governance. It is stunning indeed to observe, the ease with which the post U.S. invasion Iraqi state collapsed in the North and the West when a relatively small force of the shock troops of ISIS, stormed Mosul and other cities and hamlets in that alienated Sunni part of the country. All of a sudden a loose and weird alliance of convenience emerged among ISIS, and a network of former Baathist military officers ostensibly led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri the so-called King of Clubs from the infamous deck of cards the U.S. has unveiled after the invasion of most-wanted Iraqis, who established something of a Sufi military order known as Naqshabandi, in addition to a number of powerful and disgruntled Sunni tribes. It is very doubtful that this grouping will last for any significant time before the frail alliance would collapse in infighting. For ISIS the Sufis are heretical, and the Sunni tribes turned against al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS in 2007 and 2008.

Surreal alignments

The forces arrayed against ISIS and its temporary allies form another batch of strange bedfellows. The U.S., has dispatched hundreds of Special Forces to Iraq (and Jordan) to help assess the needs of Iraqi forces and to collect valuable and “actionable” intelligence. At this moment in the skies of Iraq American and Iranian drones are flying to collect intelligence about the latest deployments and moves of ISIS and the other forces in the anti al Maliki regime in Baghdad. Syrian president Assad, who benefited militarily from the destructive role of ISIS in Syria, where it focused on recapturing territories from the moderate Syrian opposition forces, decided to refurbish his claims that he is waging a war against foreign terrorists, by dispatching few jets to bomb and strafe supposedly ISIS positions inside Iraq, where they ended up killing more than 50 civilians according to press reports.

Can anything meaningful be said about the unraveling world of the Arabs circa 2014 that has not been said before?

Hisham Melhem

This cynical move by Assad embarrassed the U.S. which denounced it saying that “the solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime”. The White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said “In fact, it’s the Assad regime and the terrible violence they perpetrated against their own people that allowed (ISIS) to thrive in the first place.” This was a delicious irony that went unnoticed by the spokesman, who was in a way confirming what many a critic of the Obama administration have been saying for two years that unless the U.S. arms the moderate Syrian opposition, ISIS and other radical Islamists will dominate or highjack the uprising against the Assad regime. Secretary of state John Kerry also discovered that “ISIL threatens the stability of the entire region and it is a threat also to the United States and to the West…” which prompts the question: if ISIS is a mortal threat to the U.S., then how come President Obama did not help those Syrian rebels willing to fight ISIS over the last two years?

Horn of a dilemma

The U.S. is on the horn of a dilemma in Iraq where it finds itself in the same camp of Iran and now Syria and the Shiite militias, trying to save a rotten sectarian order in Baghdad. Already voices in Washington from different positions in what is erroneously called the political spectrum are hinting or even calling publicly for a “realist” alliance of convenience with Iran and even Assad to defeat the hordes of ISIS. These voices want the U.S. to work with Iran and maybe Syria to check ISIS, while neglecting the fact that this is the same Iran, through its own revolutionary guards units and Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias from Iraq have saved the Syrian regime last year. The same Iran and Syria’s Assad that armed and trained both al Qaeda and Shiite elements to kill American soldiers and Marines in Iraq at the height of the military conflict in that country.

“Farmers and dentists…”

Ten days ago, President Obama once again displayed his disingenuous self in relations to the Syrian opposition. He repeated his mantra that the rise of the radical Islamists was inevitable regardless of anything that the U.S. might have done. His cynicism was palpable. He told CBS "I think this notion that somehow there was this ready-made moderate Syrian force that was able to defeat [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is simply not true, and, you know, we have spent a lot of time trying to work with a moderate opposition in Syria".

The president, who does not want to admit that his dithering on Syria and his wobbly performance last summer when he backed down on his threat to hit the Syrian regime after Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, has contributed to the immense tragedy unfolding in that country, went even further in his distortion of the nature of the Syrian opposition. "When you get farmers dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad," Mr. Obama continued, "the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.

And I think it's very important for the American people - but maybe more importantly, Washington and the press corps - to understand that." The glaring distortion here is that the first phase of the armed rebellion was dominated by officers and soldiers who defected from the Syrian armed forces to establish the Free Syrian Army, and yes along with farmers, teachers and dentists. President Obama, from the beginning did not want to get involve in Syria’s war refusing to understand that even if the U.S. did not have strategic or economic interests in Syria, should not allow Syria to burn, because the flames will consume Syria’s neighbors and the wider region where the U.S. has real economic and strategic interests.

From “fantasy” to reality?

A few days ago, Obama made the first serious and potentially positive decision on Syria, when he asked Congress to authorize $500 million in direct military training and equipment for the moderate Syrian opposition forces, the same force of former Syrian soldiers and farmers and dentists… A statement from the National Security Council said that “ this request marks another step towards helping the Syrian people defend themselves against (Assad) regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists…who find safe haven in the chaos…” While the Obama administration was hinting at increasing aid to the Syrian opposition in the last few weeks, it is clear that the dramatic successes of ISIS in Iraq has forced the administration to focus its attention on the new brutal reality unfolding now in both Syria and Iraq. It was clear that the Obama administration wants the Syrian opposition to take on immediately the forces of ISIS and the other extremist Islamists.

Nauseating scenes

Some of the most nauseating scenes on American television networks in the last two weeks were the faces of some of the architects of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of the biggest blunders in American history, arrogantly lecturing the Obama administration on how it should deal with the unraveling in Iraq. You did not feel not even a hint of irony in their mendacity, or a whiff of embarrassment that these former officials were responsible for a historic and bloody disaster, and that the fact they were not held accountable amount to a national shame. In the blame game that is being played now in Washington, the supporters of the Obama administration lay all the blame for Iraq’s disintegration on former President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. That is mostly true. However, it is also true that President Obama owns part of the responsibility for Iraq’s predicament. It is clear now that he did not push very hard for a residual force in Iraq, and more importantly he ignored Iraq and subcontracted it to vice president Joe Biden and did not try to put pressure on al Maliki when his horrendous policies were pushing Iraq to the abyss. Yes, Obama’s policies in Iraq were also disastrous.

Things fall apart

What we can say with some degree of certitude is that the unraveling in Iraq and the Levant will continue for a relatively long time. To recall Antonio Gramsci’s excellent observation about the nature of transition; the old order is dying and the new cannot be born, and “in the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. When observing these morbid symptoms in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and when everything around you is falling apart, it is very hard to fully comprehend what is happening and harder still to think of solutions and road maps out of the purgatory.

In this tormented world even the best have been cowed and stripped of their convictions, while the worst, be they the rulers of Damascus and Baghdad or the hordes of ISIS and like-minded groups are full of passionate intensity, absolute certainty and brutality.

Punditry on the Middle East is in full gear. There are perceptive commentators in the region and the West whose diagnosis of the ailments of the region are excellent , but no one seem to be able to tell us how and when the morbid symptoms and the diseases will be cured. After the Arab uprisings scholars tried to explain, how come most of them did not see the gathering perfect storm? And so far there is very little that is revealing or compelling by way of analysis and solutions. That is one reason some of us find ourselves writing lamentations for a dying generation in the form of commentaries and editorials. Some are writing obituaries of the Sykes-Picot agreement that gave birth to most of the boundaries of Iraq and the Levant; others participate in requiems for the old political order in the Arab world and for all the ideologies that ravaged the region in the last century. Some of us are most eager to unceremonially bury the pathology of extremist Islam, but unfortunately we know it has more than nine lives.


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

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