It’s no longer good nor acceptable to repeat the various facets of Arab problems or study the phases of their transformation. This is because there’s simply nothing new to inform readers of, and there is also nothing which may bring hope, let alone a breakthrough.
Some frustrating cases exemplify what I mean for which I shall provide solutions, but they might appear as wishful thinking. Let’s begin with Libya. Towards the end of 2017, we were trying to be optimistic about the new approach, which the then-new international envoy Ghassan Salame had developed. The veteran politician and diplomat believed that the best option was to hold elections and draft a constitution. The French were excited about the proposition and had gathered several parties in Paris to meet in this regard. However, the controlling militias who fear elections intensified the unrest. Instead of trying to find a solution, they left Paris and headed towards Italy which had lost hope in a comprehensive solution and headed in the direction of sealing contracts with militias to prevent migration towards its shores. Italy thought France was chasing a mirage!
The year 2018 thus ends with Arab problems worsening. Solutions to these crises or even possibilities of solutions lie in the hands of the regional and international “others”Radwan al-Sayed
Salame still hopes to hold elections in April, but observers believe this is simply impossible. So what can be done? All militias must be eliminated and the UN must condemn Turkey for supplying Libya with arms. But who will assume this task? The national Libyan army supported by the Egyptians and the Algerians, and if a decision is required, the Arab League can make one. The national accord government in Tripoli can support the decision or can be silent because the matter depends on the will of the militias, just as is the case in Lebanon.
Twist in the Syrian tale
By the end of this year, developments took a turn for the worst in Syria. Regarding, the US’ decision to withdraw its troops from Syria, those who want them to stay there think that the Americans have struck some balance vis-à-vis the Russians, Iranians and Turks. I have heard a Lebanese expert say that Iranians are the biggest winners and the Israelis are the biggest losers as a result of US withdrawal. There’s no doubt that the move will benefit the Turks and harm the Kurds. However, American presence did not bother the Iranians. I personally believe that the presence of the Russians and Americans together prevented the outbreak of a major war.
Therefore, US withdrawal from Syria may bring the war between Israel and Hezbollah closer. The Turks and Israelis both find themselves in the unusual situation of helping Bashar al-Assad. The Turks want to put pressure on the Kurds and the armed opposition under its control, and the Syrian regime benefits from this. If Hezbollah and the Iranian position weakens as a result of a possible Israeli strike, even then the Syrian regime benefits! It’s not clear if these scenarios will play out, but the American withdrawal will not bring the Syrian crisis closer to a solution. Meanwhile, no party has voiced its readiness to pay the cost of ending the conflict and of bringing back the displaced because if the Russians, Iranians and Turks handle finding a solution, the West and Europeans will not get involved in bearing the burden!
The still ominous Yemen
Let’s take a look at Yemen. At first glance, it seems that the settlement regarding Hodeidah is a positive development considering that it may mark the beginning of the end of war. However, I think the Houthis will not move further on this path, not because they are strong or because they are foolish but because moving toward it is the worst option for Iran right now. The US siege is suffocating, hence the latter wants to upset others by using the cards it still holds, which include Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Therefore, the Houthis will have to revert to fighting no matter how much it may cost them. They may leave Hodeidah if they have to but it will be more difficult to end the siege on Taiz and get them out of Sanaa and some central provinces. They may have been forced to stop fighting now to catch their breath, but there’s one more month and there is little for the white thread to stand out from the black one!
Iraq, Lebanon in Iran’s orbit
The Americans and Arabs pretend to place their bets on Iraq and Lebanon. There are in fact different political parties in Iraq and their extent of loyalty to Iran varies. The core of the Iraqi malaise is not linked to this or that political party as they are mere mouthpieces and no more. The problem is that the entire Iraqi security is in Iran’s hands and its influence is not limited to the Popular Mobilization Units, but even extends to commanders of the Iraqi army, the federal police and counter-terrorism forces.
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These forces guarantee control of Iran even if all politicians oppose it, which they do not. The current conflict over the ministries of defense and interior has distracted some observers from the fact that Maliki has overnight managed to get one of his famous supporters the post of Baghdad’s governor!
Lebanon’s situation at the end of 2018 seems more difficult than Iraq’s. There hasn’t been a functioning government for seven months now. At one point, forming a cabinet is obstructed due to Hezbollah’s pressure and at another it’s obstructed due to the president’s pressure. Meanwhile, quarrels escalate on the borders with Israel, either due to the excuse of tunnels or the excuse of missiles. The occurrence of war is a matter of time and depends on when Israel decides that a war is in its interest.
The problem is that there is an armed militia in Lebanon that controls major facilities and exploits them at the financial, economic and political levels and controls decisions of war and peace bypassing the authority of army commanders, the president and the prime minister. The Americans and Arabs which categorize Hezbollah as a terrorist militia have sought to choke the party at the financial and logistical levels and they also help the army. However, the army and the international troops have done nothing to enforce UN Resolution 1701 and keep Hezbollah away from the borders! Therefore, Lebanon at the end of 2018 is entering a state of desperation particularly, when it comes to its banking sector which has managed to overcome several crises before, but it seems it cannot withstand the dire situation this time.
Israel exploiting Fatah-Hamas row
Hamas’ leader Sinwar in Gaza boasts of the great ties the group has with Iran. If it hadn’t been for shame (well anyway shame is not one of Sinwar’s traits) he would have also boasted of his good relations with Israel. Israelis know that a national solution and the issue of Jerusalem cannot be dropped, without toppling the Palestinian National Authority. Therefore, they have maintained a truce with Hamas which they view as a marginal problem for Egypt and not for themselves and focus on applying their pressure on the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Since Hamas hates Fatah more than it hates Israel, it has announced escalation of its operations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Hamas has influence on a few hundred Palestinians, whom the Jews have driven mad! This is the situation of the Palestinian cause by the end of 2018. There is no conflict with Israel but a conflict between Fatah and Hamas. When Egypt tries to satisfy one party, the other party gets upset, and vice versa. Meanwhile, there are no solutions on the horizon for the problem between Fatah and Hamas, let alone for the Palestinian cause itself!
As if the exacerbating crises in 2018 and the past five years weren’t enough, unrest now threatens two more Arab countries, Sudan and Algeria. Sudan has needed reform since the 1990s. It had lost its unity and is about to be divided again. All this is happening because the current military governance does not accept sharing power and has not succeeded in providing development to the citizenry. In Algeria, the president has been unwell for nearly a decade and the military that is still in control continues to renew and extend his term. The economic crisis is worsening in this otherwise rich country because of mismanagement and unemployment that has risen to 30% among the youth.
The year 2018 thus ends with Arab problems worsening. Solutions to these crises or even possibilities of solutions lie in the hands of the regional and international “others.”
This article is also available in Arabic.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat.