War Fire: The Failure of Humanity in the Middle East

Ahmad al-Rubaye AFP/Getty Images

Ahmad al-Rubaye AFP/Getty Images


Warning contains disturbing images


The latest image emerging from Syria of Omar Daqneesh, a five year old in rebel-jihadist held Qaterji neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo has gained traction across the world. Half of his face is covered in dark blood and dust, one eye is half closed and swollen, the product of a regime airstrike of Bashar al-Assad's government. He does not cry, he sits shell-shocked and with a deeply penetrating stare of fear and confusion. He looks onwards and down attempting to wipe crimson from his face and hand. 

Omar Daqneesh (The Aleppo Media Centre)

Omar Daqneesh (The Aleppo Media Centre)

Days later in al-Hasakah, at least 22 residents were liquidated by regime airstrikes against the the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and thousands of Syrian Kurds were uprooted from their home. On the ground, Iranian and Afghan foreign fighters and Shiite militias supporting the regime offensive in al-Hasakah have been accused of targeting civilians with sniper fire in their offensive against U.S trained allies the YPG, Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (PYD) and the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), the former two parties of which have been accused of conducting ethnic cleansing operations in al-Hasakeh and al-Raqqa against Sunni Arab population centres. Cruise missiles from Russian warships in the Mediterranean rain hell fire down on Aleppo. They are attempting to reverse the gains made by rebel fighters after breaking the desperate siege of the city's eastern enclaves. This offensive was spear-headed by Jabhat al-Nusra and it umbrella organisation of Salafi-jihadist insurgents supported by the Gulf States, Turkey and the United States (including Nour al-Din al-Zenki who were responsible for slicing off the head of a twelve year old Palestinian boy in an ISIS-style execution) who are locked in an intra-jihadist conflict with ISIS who have received tacit support from Turkey, the Gulf States and Assad's mukhābarāt for a variety of different objectives. 

In Mosul Iraq, eighteen ISIS fighters were killed by American airstrikes supporting the advance of Iraqi Security Forces, the backbone of which is provided for by an array of Iraqi and Iranian-sponsored militia such as the League of the Righteous and Hizbullah Brigades as well as Kurdish and Yezidi units and peshmerga. In eastern Baghdad one person was killed and several wounded by a suicide bomber while ISIS responded to military setbacks by executing fourteen "collaborators" while the government in Baghdad hung 36 men for the mass-killing of Iraqi military recruits in 2014. The success of coalition airstrikes in preventing "collateral damage" have been gravely understated according to military analysts and human rights activists who argue the death toll is far higher. The charred and shredded bodies of Syrian villagers in Manbij, supposed recipients of "liberation" from ISIS's fortress in Raqqa, and thousands of other casualties littering Iraq and Syria demonstrate the Western media's hypocrisy in criticising the horrific air-strikes of Russian bombers and regime helicopters as it covertly supports extremist ethno-nationalist militia and separatist organisations and bombs civilians who are "collateral damage" in the war against terror. This "collateral damage" is creating more enemies and grievances. 

Meanwhile in Yemen 100,000 gathered in support of Houthi rebels and ex-president Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabian aircraft bombed some of these political protesters killing and wounding several. They join thousands of men, women and children indiscriminately killed and wounded by Saudi airstrikes, cluster bombs and lethal explosive devices as the UK, USA, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain reported sales and licenses to Saudi Arabia worth more than $25 billion in 2015. Yemeni civilians are staring in the face of a catastrophic famine. In Israel, the Israeli military shelled fifty sites in the blockaded Gaza Strip after a single rocket from a militant Palestinian group hit Sderot.

With the exception of Manbij, this was one week in the Middle East. It is a contradictory nightmare woven together by one common denominator being that the innocent die in their thousands each week and each month. Maps are constantly being arranged and rearranged, journalists and war correspondents are struggling to keep track of a regional conflict's stunning violence as multiple battle-lines shift and conflict ebbs and flows with multiple narratives existing to explain the conflicts on the ground as dozens of armies, militias and cults stalk the land and refugees are caught in the cross fire. War crimes and crimes against humanity are conducted with impunity and activists, journalists, civilians and media groups are targeted with brutal consistency.  Prisoners are rarely taken as soldiers on all sides it seems are fighting for their lives in a kill or be killed war. The contemporary disintegration of the Middle East and South Asia into feuding rump states, micro-states, and mini-states across vast swathes of these regions are disturbing as it ushers in an array of nightmarish scenarios for policymakers and our children; an unending refugee crisis, civil unrest, revolution, geo-political instability, and a permanent state of war across the world. Syria is one part of a larger conflagration. 

Iraqi soldiers and militia groups celebrate liberating Fallujah

Iraqi soldiers and militia groups celebrate liberating Fallujah

A region lies shattered by decades of war in what is become the world's new Thirty Years War. 'Recent conflict in the Middle East has included fighting in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon, the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, and the two Gulf wars' across the 20th century and 21st century. The horrifying violence has entered a new sequence as civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, a series of independent struggles which are fused together by violence crossing porous borders, have been ignited by revolution and catalysed by outside meddling by regional and global powers. Wider geo-political games and revolution across the Arab world have broken regional order as war and insurgency across the Middle East since 1945 has led to the deaths of millions of combatants and civilians (over one million are estimated to have died in the Iran-Iraq war alone). The Syrian refugee crisis, a tragedy which has caught the imagination of Europe, precedes several others most notably the Iraqi refugee crisis (1990 - current), the Kurdish diaspora, and the Palestinian refugee crisis (1947-1948 and 1967 - current). History in the Middle East does not repeat itself, it rhymes and regarding current events as linked to its past is essential to understanding the contemporary suffering of the region. 


The contemporary disintegration of the Middle East and South Asia are disturbing as it ushers in an array of nightmarish scenarios for policymakers and our children; an unending refugee crisis, civil unrest, revolution, geo-political instability, and a permanent state of war across the world.

The solutions to this crisis and tragedy remain the same. Partitioning Syria and Iraq into homogenous enclaves and balkanising the region does not solve these issues. The Middle East is historically built on its social-economic, cultural and political diversity. The Middle East will not be fixed by "boots on the ground" or pouring weapons into rebel-jihadist groups, despotic regimes which utilise torture, repression, police brutality, collaborators and outright mass-violence against its civilian populations, and support the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Equally ideological convictions which stipulate that Jeffersonian democracy, a couple of election ballots and the ascension of neo-liberal capitalism and western institutions is the endgame for a stable Middle East is fool-hardy. This is a 'treacherous impasse to which fourteen years of escalating wars and bombing campaigns have brought us. The refusal to learn from their failures should have broadly suggest that "the establishment", as a secret Pentagon memo in 1967 to President Lyndon Johnson suggested, "is out of its mind"' following the devastation of Vietnam. Meanwhile Western financial and democratic institutions are changing and a surge in populist and anti-establishment politics, from Trumpism to Corbynism, have begun challenging traditional institutions while the 'Global War on Terror' is succeeding in creating societies of fear across the West. 'The ongoing economic crisis is not simply the aftermath of financial panic and an unusually severe recession but is a structural crisis of neo-liberal or free-market capitalism. Policy measures alone cannot resolve this, they require major institutional restructuring.' A Western social and economic model having a major identity crisis is hardly the solution to a collapsing Middle East.

The histories of Europe and the Middle East cannot be separated, however state-building and fashioning artificial structures for a region where the masses largely feel humiliated by Western policies (historical and contemporary) will not work as Major Bush, a American soldier wrote in a letter home as he tried to set up local governance around Falluja, Iraq in 2005 (as demonstrated by Robert Fisk):

"So what news about the new government you may ask? Well the provincial military governor was replaced by the transitional provincial governor who resigned under threat and was replaced by another transitional governor. He was then replaced by the emergency appointed governor who has just been replaced by the selected governor chosen by the elected provincial council. He never made a speech or publicised his views, he never debated the other candidate and was not present during the selection never making an acceptance speech. He was promptly kidnapped by a rival tribe, while his tribe fought another tribe on the Syrian border. The recently displaced emergency appointed governor returned in hopes of regaining his post, however the deputy governor is now serving as the acting governor, while the actual selected governor is in captivity. But there was an election, so democracy is in full bloom as I am to understand!"

The Iraq War (2003 - 2011) is frequently alluded to as a climax in the fallacy of Western policy in the Middle East. If history is analysed carefully, this is an oversimplification, while contemporary policy created by Western powers as a response to the Arab revolutions indicates lessons have not been learnt and mistakes are being repeated. As Patrick Cockburn contends 'the demonisation of Tony Blair is excessive and simple-minded and diverts attention from what really happened in Iraq...in going to war in alliance with the United States, Blair was not doing anything very different from his predecessors or successors.' Before the Iraq War, the First Gulf War and subsequent sanctions decimated Iraq once our conditional support for Saddam Hussein (declassified CIA files proved Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds with tacit U.S support during the Iran-Iraq war) had evaporated. The West has a long history of tampering with Middle Eastern politics, economics and society through suppressing local populations, propping up murderous secular despots, brutal regimes and arming extremist insurgent groups. The post-colonial Middle East as a result has never been more of a tragedy and so heavily charged by ethno-nationalist and religious war, lies, illusions and a state of denial fuelling them. 

If history is analysed carefully this is an oversimplification while contemporary policies created by Western powers as a response to the Arab revolutions indicate lessons have not been learnt and mistakes are being repeated. British policy is a good example as Britain's aerial strikes during the deposition of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the aerial bombardment of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, its part in a disastrous Western policy in the Syrian War, its bloody war in Afghanistan, and its military support (which is in direct violation of the Arms Trade Treaty) for Saudi Arabia's brutal campaign and war crimes in Yemen are indicative that Parliament has not learnt its lessons from the damning Chilcot report produced on the Iraq war. While British soldiers (with the exception of special forces) are not patrolling the streets of Damascus or Basra, we have expanded our wars since the botched invasion of Iraq through arm deals, aerial bombardment and dirty wars. These wars are largely absent major political or socio-economic solutions.


“The voices which sparked the Arab Awakening were not calling for Western democracy, they were calling for dignity and justice after decades of suppression.”

This is not unusual, in-fact the Bush Doctrine supported by Tony Blair went against the normal tenants of Western policy where covert coups in Iran and Iraq, CIA operations and arms deals with the Egyptian, Saudi, Israeli and Pakistani military dominated, repression in Algeria and biased peacekeeping missions in Lebanon prepped the region for its slide in chaos. The Bush Doctrine's ideological vision for democratising the Middle East must be understood as a radical enterprise. The process which Fawaz Gerges described as a radical social engineering project like the Sykes-Picot agreement which sought to change the map of the Middle East, was presented as a war of liberation despite the inherent contradictions that they liberated a society destroyed by Western policy in the 1990s. 

The past cannot be fixed, it should be a guide for reshaping outdated policies, blending old and new and avoiding future mistakes in foreign policy. Fixing the Middle East requires understanding and hearing the perspective of the Arab and Muslim world and their narratives, not the counter-terrorism narratives spoon-fed to us by mainstream media. It requires reevaluating stereotypes, reassessing history, evaluating the relationship between media and state-power and the core tenants and relationships which have formed the basis of our Middle Eastern policy for decades. Burying the virus which is the terrorism narrative which has become institutionalised across the world since 9/11, as Robert Fisk argues, could be a first step:

“Terrorism” is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence— our violence—which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. It has become a full stop, a punctuation mark, a phrase, a speech, a sermon, the be-all and end-all of everything that we must hate in order to ignore injustice and occupation and murder on a mass scale. Terror, terror, terror, terror. It is a sonata, a symphony, an orchestra tuned to every television and radio station and news agency report, the soap-opera of the Devil, served up on prime-time or distilled in wearyingly dull and mendacious form by the right-wing “commentators” of the American east coast or the Jerusalem Post or the intellectuals of Europe. Strike against Terror. Victory over Terror. War on Terror. Everlasting War on Terror. Rarely in history have soldiers and journalists and presidents and kings aligned themselves in such thoughtless, unquestioning ranks."

Fisk is correct. "Terrorism" is a poisoned term which plagues the media and which is tossed around with a negligence which has produced  a 'loosely defined global war against an elusive enemy' (Shlaim, The Iron Wall, 727). Its definition is entirely subjective depending on who are enemies are. ISIS, as Nino Orto, correctly coins is a militia group, an ultra-violent cult, it is a deadly movement, a warped voice for the humiliated, it is voice of rage and promotes anti-establishment violence as it systematically wipes out minorities, it is a weapon of the Gulf States in its war with Iran. It is a horrifically violent organisation, however labelling it "terrorist" whitewashes all the explanations required to assess why men, women and children, some within our own societies not just the Middle East, decide to pledge themselves to this cult and where ISIS came from. 

Labelling any matter of security as a "terrorist" problem is too easy. It disregards local, national and regional context as well as history. In the case of ISIS, "terrorism" dismisses poverty, education, class warfare, the policies of West and Saddam Hussein and other factors in shaping the conflict in modern Iraq including the invasion of Iraq, the Gulf War and the Surge. ISIS fights with an overtly sectarian narrative and with harsh ignorance of piety which promotes the slaughter of Shiites and Western civilians alike, however this does necessarily mean Iraq is an explicitly sectarian or religious issue. The Arab revolutions and Middle Eastern wars are dismantling the old Middle East. The voices which sparked the Arab Awakening were not calling for Western democracy, they were calling for dignity and justice after decades of living in the shadow of corrupt presidencies, occupation, cronyism and despots across the region propped up by outside powers from Tunisia to Iraq in 2010. This anger was on display in Lebanon during its elongated civil war. This anger was on display during the Iranian revolution in 1979 when students seized American hostages and Pakistani students ransacked the U.S embassy in Islamabad that same year. This anger and conviction was on display in Afghanistan as Osama Bin Laden planned his horrifying attack on the World Trade Centre. Understanding this anger and humiliation is fundamental to solving the Middle East. The United States and Europe do not solve it, they react to it as did the Russians in Syria, Chechnya and Afghanistan. In reacting, policymakers and future politicians will intensify this cycle of despair and destruction. 

Ramadi, 2016: 'liberated' from ISIS in 2016 Maya Alleruzzo / Associated Press

Ramadi, 2016: 'liberated' from ISIS in 2016 Maya Alleruzzo / Associated Press

The future is uncertain. In the age of new age and mass information, how do we distinguish truth and fact from propaganda and disinformation? In the unprecedented era of information and mass-media, debate has become increasingly polarised by tribalist politics, disinformation and twisted truths. The dramatic changes in how we obtain information has also galvanised damaging narratives, ideologies and stereotypes while suffocating and distorting clear political, social and economic discussions. Such a world which is tightly woven together by technology, social media and the Internet is not just a hallmark of human advancement, but of the disorder which frequently follows dramatic changes in our political and economic systems. 

Authenticity, rigorous self-criticism, history, logic and reason, and combining old and new ideas carries greater significance than ever in facing the conflicts of our generation, many of planetary significance and consequence. It is an opportunity to forge new narratives, stories and perspectives. Some of the conflicts are unprecedented such as globalisation, environmental change, mass-technological revolution and warfare, cyber warfare, food and water scarcity, the exhaustion of natural resources, mass migration, hyper-terrorism (depending on how you define "terror"), mass-security and vast inequalities surrounding income and wealth in the age of instant expectations. 

The question is have we gone too far? Is the process of reversing the damaging costs of the Cold War and the "Global War on Terror" beyond us? Is the Middle East becoming a microcosm of the disordered world which is gradually coming into existence, a world threatening to re-open and exacerbate man's darker conventions and impulses such as xenophobia, discrimination, racism, ethnic and genocidal violence, the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, political upheaval, miseducation, destabilising regional conflicts, and a surge in arms races across unstable regions? Is our civilisation destined to become ungovernable, areas completely uninhabitable, mass civil unrest and where islets of hyper-security stand in relative order as refugees, migrants and civilians splash up against the shores desperately scrambling to escape the horrors of a planet sliding away from civility, humanity and co-existence? It is not difficult to envisage such a dystopian future where politics of fear reigns when one considers the current predicament of the Middle East and the paralysis of Europe, nor is it impossible to consider that human civilisation is staggering on such an unsustainable trajectory. Addressing the moral and human failures which have defined generations across the Middle East and sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians to their deaths, destroyed social and economic stability, and torn the political fabric of the Arab World asunder will be a key part of defining this new path and what kind of world we wish to live in. 

Matthew Williams