(Originally published 22 June, 2014)
The Arab Spring, now dubbed by many the Arabian winter, has consumed the Middle East and Northern Africa like a wildfire, uncontrollable and almost beyond taming from the outside. What looked like a series of short-term crises have molded into a long-term regional conflict. Revolution and reform has festered into civil war, counter-revolution, coups, civil strife, insurgency, authoritarianism, terrorism and various humanitarian crises. Global refugee figures now stand at 51.2 million the highest since World War II and it only looks set to increase as annually violence intensifies and many borders that we see on maps are now the merest of illusions. As Anton Guterres (UN High Commission for Refugees) remarks the ‘quantum numbers’ parallel the ‘quantum’ leap in the stakes of this regional crisis.
The Iraq crisis has served to exacerbate the severity of the regional collapse with the focus shifting from the Ukrainian borderlands back to the Middle East. Finger pointing has commenced in America as it struggles to come to terms with its new Vietnam, Obama in a potentially unattainable situation in regards to Iraq.
Naturally the focus has been on the Bush administration, the West’s legacy in Iraq and the denial and bitterness of key politicianswho orchestrated and oversaw the Iraq invasion and occupation (2003-2011). The focus should undoubtedly remain on them and inquiries must be conducted in the UK and United States to explain all the controversy surrounding coalitions action regarding war crimes and the illegitimacy of the grounds for invasion.
However at the same time solutions for the now and the long-term have to be considered to resolving the crisis, lest men radicalized by conflict return or emerge on our shores and other regions of the world to promote extremism and violence. This could quite easily spill over into unstable Greece and Turkey, the former of whom is starting to support the more fascist elements within the political spectrum such as Golden Dawn. Turkey is likewise suffering from civil unrest, economic instability and the repression of many civil liberties (we saw the shut down of Twitter to quell political dissent online a tactic regularly used now by activists, insurgents and jihadists).
Containing the threat is as important as solving it and whilst the international community would like to see the bloodshed cease, most notably in Syria, the crisis in Middle East is starting to look beyond the direct control of the super-powers (such as the Russian Federation and the United States). This is largely due to the splintering of rebel factions into a variety of insurgents, hard-line jihadists with varying goals and objectives, freedom fighters, and those fighting for a secular government all of whom tend tooverlap with one another.
Local powers hold the key to this crisis as the Western powers have either bungled their support for the pro-Western/democratic entities or have tainted their reputations with regard to conduct and policies in regards to Middle Eastern affairs. Nevertheless history and the continued Global War on Terror dictates that the West will remain key to the Middle East’s future.
The success or failure of the Iran nuclear deal could be an important factor in containing the Middle Eastern conflicts not to mention our relationship with Putin and the Kremlin over the Ukrainian civil war and the Syrian civil war. How the Iraqi government, its armed forces and political parties deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) in the coming weeks is also pivotal.
Using drones and air-strikes as Obama does in Pakistan as stated in a previous article is unlikely to deter the opposition who are well armed and from videos that have been seen on the ground it is an urban war in the towns and cities of Iraq. Airstrikes would only incur heavy casualties both civilian and military and leave many embittered against the Obama administration, a useful propaganda tool for jihadist and insurgency organisations.
More crucially those who are pro-Western in Iraq would or could be a target of retribution and being pro-Western can be manipulated into anything from western affiliation to political and religious beliefs or ethnicity. This is in-part already happening but bombings would only accelerate the crimes against humanity not ease them.
The United States must also stop supplying weapons to hard-line jihadist and Islamic extremists in Syria, via their allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, (who have supported hard-line extremists) such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. According to Juan Cole of Truthdig neither thus far have openly criticized ISIS for their crimes. On October 20, 2010, U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Specific individuals are a key source of funding according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables in 2009 according to Hilary Clinton:
“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”
Both ISIS and Al-Nusra ideologies’ are predominantly Sunni, so whilst the Iraq invasion may have destroyed the fundamental military, police and security structures (an incompetent strategy employed by Rumsfeld then Secretary of Defence) the Obama administration has hardly curbed the rise of violent Islamism in Syria and Iraq. So technically many of us are inadvertently funding terrorism not just assisting refugees in the crises. This is a product of of deliberate and poor long term and short-term U.S/Western strategy in regards to the Middle East, seen most obviously in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front have flourished and grown more powerful than than their affiliates Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda thanks to financial and logistical support from the West’s Middle Eastern allies and seized depots of Assad’s Syrian Army. The violence of both ISIS and Al-Nusra as seen by pictures and Youtube videos (warning contains very graphic content) posted by both organisations are horrific and easily found. Our allies often funded by government’s in Western Europe and America fund the very men we claim to fight, such as those who commited atrocities on 9/11, 7/7, Woolwich, in Madrid and Mumbai since 2001.
Interestingly ISIS’s social media propaganda campaign trends the most in Saudi Arabia’s region in the Middle East under the hash tag #itwillremain and #ISIS at 35.1% whilst Qatar and Iraq stands at 7.5%, the U.S.A at 9.1%. This is an attempt to recruit more foreign fighters and wealthy donors of which there are plenty in Saudi Arabia and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, the latter of which was no secret as far back as 2008 according to Wikileaks.
“U.S. officials have described Qatar’s counter-terrorism cooperation since 9/11 as significant; however, some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family.”
Naturally the U.S.A may desire to support the moderates fighting Assad yet an ocean of oil lies beneath the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and producer. Americans hunger to consume cheap oil and economics may influence political and moral decisions. Destabalizing Iraq’s oil supplies through civil war and disintegration will increase demand for Saudi Arabian oil exports.This is a recurring theme in past Middle Eastern history; blood oil and petro-politics.
Supporting extremists is unlikely to fill the void of Assad’s government with a pro-Western affiliate nor will the ending of Assad’s regime guarantee a peaceful power transfer. In-fact a second civil war would likely occur if Assad was removed from power between the extremists, moderates, and insurgents and encourage the continuation of sectarian violence; essentially a repeat of Iraq. This is something we are seeing unfold in Libya since Gaddafi’s execution October 20th 2011 and NATO’s airstrikes against pro-Gaddafi forces.
The dilemma between authoritarianism and anarchy in the Middle East is particularly difficult and contentious issue that we must address. In Egypt Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has rapidly and brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, however there a belief amongst many that a civil war would have began had the military not taken control in wake of the 2nd coup and ousting of democratically elected but incompetent and ineffective Mohammed Morsi.
Yet the death penalty for dissidents, and legitimate protesters as well as the detainment of thousands more is no peace, just martial law, a reversal of the gains made since Mubarak was removed by the protesters in a largely bloodless coup in 2011. The west is in a moral quandary not supporting elected Morsi while silently condoning the army coup.The Egyptian military is again in part funded by the United States and it is the same old story much like that of Saddam Hussein who was installed by the C.I.A none other than President John F. Kennedy, conducted its own regime change in Baghdad, carried out in collaboration with Saddam.
Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, December 20th 1983. Rumsfeld would later lead the U.S campaign in 2003 to topple Saddam. This was after the summer of 1983 when Iran had been reporting Iraqi use of using chemical weapons for some time.http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/
As long as the government is pro-Western rather than democratic, these are the people we tend to back whether it be Saddam who used chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds but he is a deterrent to communist influence and secures Western oil interests, Saudi Arabians funding terrorists but being the world top exporters of oil or the Israeli pro-Western buffer state who have ethnically cleansed the Palestinians and bomb the Gaza Strip since 1948 and are increasingly right-wing and fascist under Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu.
This is not about democracy and the Arab Spring’s eventual decline into a series of regional proxy wars highlights this. Iran and the Russian Federation aren’t innocent either. They back their ally Assad who uses napalm, barrel bombs, and other ruthless tactics including torture to fight both moderate and radical secular/religious factions. Both sides have been accused of using official and home-made nerve gas and sarin chemical weapons against each other. With extremists on both sides not just Assad’s that would not and should not surprise us. It is either authoritarian rule or the proxy-conflicts and brutal caliphates/Islamic states of hard-line militants.
Will we see more troops on the ground under a future president of the United States and NATO? After all this is a long-term crisis that will most likely past Obama’s term in office which has spread to parts of Africa (asides North Africa) most notoriously Mali, Kenya and Nigeria while Somalia has been plagued by violent Islamism in the form of Al-Shabaab since the 1990s.
The frustration and isolation of Russian Muslims in the politics of the Kremlin as well as those in satellite states such as Chechnya and Dagestan only increase the problems. Conflict has torn apart the provinces creating power vacuums filled by warlords and fundamental groups determined to be independent Islamic states (radical or not).
The violence is beyond Western control unless stark military deployment is contemplated a route that many in the Western public is unlikely to support in the wake of the calamitous Iraq war nor will the Russians, Iranians, Assad, or China permit such a radical solution. The choices are difficult, imperfect peace or the pursuing of, whether subtlety or not, the continuation of violence.
Yet neither of these are the solution to the long-term problems as authoritarian regimes are susceptible to future protests, revolutions and acts of terror (whether or not they are done under just or unjust motives) whilst encouraging and supplying perpetrators (applied to all super-powers involved) of violence only makes the Middle East a hot-bed for radicalism, jihadi extremism, and human rights abuses. Ending the Syrian civil war and new Iraqi conflict is part of the solution to restoring a semblance of ‘order’ to the region, establishing dialogue with sides willing to engage and compromise and alienate support and further supplies to violent groups.
Easier said than done when you contemplate not only the divisions and rivalries but sheer number of sides involved. The procedure of the Geneva II Conference on Syria and the inability for several sides to come to a decisive political solution with little if no help from Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry indicates this issue.
Yes it is most certainly an Arabian winter in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands are dead, thousands more starve, millions dwell in refugee camps and violence and torture tower over human rights in this political earthquake that has only gained momentum rather than being stopped. This is our generation’s concern and those of the future not just those who lived through the dialogue and ideologies of the Cold War.
The answers to solving the challenges between the West and Middle East cannot be presented in two-thousand words. The issue stretches out over most human debates conceivable be they social, economic, political, geographical, historical, religious, ideological concepts and more within both Europe and the Middle East.
These gaps have to narrowed on both sides of the spectrum if attitudes are to shift and radical elements are to be understood. Military power is the riskiest and least helpful way of solving the problem as summarised perfectly by author Jason Burke: ‘Language of high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication. The latter may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never, treat the disease’ (Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam).
The past as well as the present holds the key to the crisis and the whys are as important as how in any local, regional or global conflict. Western Europe, eastern Europe, and the Middle East areentwined in mutual history and experience and seeing the opposing sides as alien entities is the pathway to unending conflict. Failure is the passageway to success. We can do better lest the Arabian end game is defined by madness rather than hope, development, education, peace and mutual existence.