By Rami G. Khouri
January 08, 2014
With daily car bombs, suicide bombers, assassinations, kidnappings, ethnic warfare and collapsing government control across the Middle East, we are moving into the post-everything moment of our modern history: post-colonial, post-nationalist, post-statehood, post-imperial, post-Islamist, post-revolutionary, post-developmental and post-modern. The immediate focus of most analysts is on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Salafist-Takfiri militants, some allied with Al-Qaeda, control bits of territory and have clashed with others to expand their footholds. Constantly changing combinations of groups work together, coexist uneasily, coalesce into greater coalitions and “fronts,” or actively fight each other and ruling regimes. Leading examples include the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, the Tawhid Brigade, the Army of Islam, the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Free Syrian Army, the Mujahedeen Army and many others.
The chaotic situation reflects several different but simultaneous nationalist and state dynamics, as old orders fray (the Sykes-Picot frontiers, post-World War II secular and nationalist states, the post-1970 modern Arab security state) and new organizations and movements emerge that reflect older non-state identities (religion, tribe, ethnicity).
In some places, such as Syria, Islamists and secular nationalists battle to overthrow the incumbent regime and establish a more pluralistic and democratic governance system, while some also fight each other. In others, such as Iraq, Libya or Yemen, tribal and Islamist forces challenge the government to redress oppressive government policies or try to take over the government. In yet others, militants such as ISIS aim to control territory and establish “emirates” where fundamentalist Islamist rules rule, while also battling everyone else – Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Israelis, Kurds and any available foreigners.
As these hard-line Islamist militants battle for control of towns in western Iraq and northern Syria, such as Fallujah, Aleppo and Raqqa, six major groups of main actors seem to dominate the scene: hard-line Salafists such as ISIS, others such as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, Arab-backed mainstream Islamists such as the Islamic Front, the Free Syrian Army and its mostly non-Islamist allies, various Kurdish groups in north-eastern Syria, and tribal forces across the Syrian-Iraqi desert regions.
Syria and Iraq are the most extreme but not the only examples of chronic conflicts in Arab countries, as we can also see in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and parts of Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. The ordinary citizens who pay the price of conflict are mostly helpless to do anything in the face of tens of thousands of armed fighters, most of whom are supported by foreign governments or financiers. The role of regional or foreign powers that have often shaped the political configuration of the modern Middle East is a hotly debated issue today.
An intriguing front page article in the New York Times on Jan. 4, titled “Power Vacuum in Middle East Lifts Militants,” noted: “For all its echoes, the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.”
I was startled by this presumptuous attitude that exploding sectarian hatreds would worsen in a post-American Middle East, because my own impression from living through the last 45 years of American involvement in the region is precisely the opposite: that American foreign policies contributed deeply to the injustices and distortions that led to the destabilizing emergence of regional sectarian tensions, religious extremism and widespread citizen discontent. These sentiments manifest themselves today in different forms, including ISIS and similar militancy, popular revolutions to overthrow dictatorial regimes, and the patient writing of new constitutions and civil codes in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.
The deadly combination of Washington’s decades of strong support for Arab dictators and its profound pro-Israeli bias combined with the criminal and incompetent legacy of Arab autocrats to create a situation from the 1960s to the 1990s that gnawed away at the foundations and integrity of modern Arab statehood. The Anglo-American assault on Iraq and the wiping away of its state structures created an environment that allowed the birth or spread of contemporary Islamist extremists such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS. However, Washington is not the only miscreant; for instance Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 helped spark the birth of Al-Qaeda in the first place.
Today’s mayhem and chaos in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon result from many causes, including the impact of criminal American and British policies in Iraq in 2003 and beyond. These policies have persisted in the form of American drone assassinations that have killed Islamist fighters and many civilians, but have simultaneously led to the mobilization of many, many more militants.
It’s bad enough to have chaos, confusion and criminality in Arab political movements. We should try to avoid these things in serious journalistic analyses of the facts of history.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.