By S Nihal Singh
America’s Receding Ability to Bring Peace
“The major power in the region, the United States, is increasingly compromised by its total support of Israel, largely due to domestic factors, and its desire to reduce its footprint in the region. In hindsight as, many at that time suggested, the US was foolish to invade Iraq under false pretences. And on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is on the wrong side of history”, says the author.
That the Middle East (West Asia of our description) is in a state of flux is crystal clear. We have a three-yearold civil war in Syria, an Iraq wracked by tribal and Shia-Sunni strife, Libya still fighting the post-Gaddafi dispensation and Israelis launching a disproportionate war on Palestinians, not for the first time. The common thread in these crises is the role of outside powers, both in creating crises in the first instance and in muddying the waters and the inability of local actors to make peace.
In Syria, a minority Alwaite regime is seeking to retain its throne in a Sunni-majority country, with opponents of a bewildering variety of moderates and militants ranged on the other side. In Iraq, after all American troops left, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, belonging to the majority Shia, has been interpreting his role primarily in terms of advancing the interests of his community.
The Kurds are asserting their rights while the Sunni, dethroned from their ruling perch, have combined with Islamic militants to challenge the state. Both in Syria and Iraq the Islamists of the extreme variety, first under the rubric of the ISIS and later under the name of the Islamic State, have carved out an area in Syria and Iraq they rule, with President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and the Iraqi authorities unable to dislodge them. Superimposed on these dramatic events is the old Israel-Palestinian conflict, essentially caused by Israeli actions in occupying and colonising vast Palestinian lands and East Jerusalem on the strength of total American support extending to unprecedented military supplies and a generous annual financial subsidy.
These actions nullify attempts at finding a twostate solution and the prospect is of one state with a growing Palestinian population living as second-class citizens. Regional powers belonging to the Sunni and Shia faiths have taken up positions determined in the first category by supporting the anti-Assad forces in Syria, more of them supporting the cause of the newly disenfranchised Sunni of Iraq. On the other side is Iran, the minority Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah movement of Lebanon.
After the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia have moderated their somewhat indiscriminate financial and military support for the Islamic militants fighting the Assad regime. Iran has been consistent in its support of President Assad and the Hezbollah. Turkey’s position has evolved over time, initially the leader of the regime change lobby for Syria, together with neighbours hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees.
It is taking time to reconsider its options while deeply disappointed with US inaction in Syria while supporting the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. One big change in the regional picture is the anti-Morsi coup that has eventually brought the Army under the guise of a civilian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. The Brotherhood is classed as a terrorist organisation, its leaders and hundreds of its followers are in prison. The new regime has closed the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip, a lifeline for besieged Palestinians and shut down most of their tunnels.
Speculation is rife in this churning process, with extravagant scenarios of the break-up of Syria and Iraq and other countries essentially carved out by France and Britain out of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Two trends seem clear. The first is a sharpening Shia-Sunni conflict which is taking many forms. Second, the spreading cancer of 21st century Israeli colonization which lies at the heart of the historic Middle East conflict. There are no easy solutions to either of these problems. Any Shia-Sunni reconciliation assumes a measure of tolerance on the two sides. There are many actors inflaming passions, not least of all Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.
On the other side, proponents of the Islamic Caliphate are keeping the fires of intolerance burning. The major power in the region, the United States, is increasingly compromised by its total support of Israel, largely due to domestic factors, and its desire to reduce its footprint in the region. In hindsight as, many at that time suggested, the US was foolish to invade Iraq under false pretences.
And on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is on the wrong side of history. What then can we expect from the devil’s brew, which is the Middle East in the coming days and months? There will no doubt be a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians even as Israel’s isolation in the world increases because of the scale of the carnage it has been inflicting on Palestinians, highlighted by the Human Rights Convention. But the problem will continue to fester because domestic factors compel US administrations to remain captive to the urges of Israeli colonialism.
The other regional crises will run their course, with little prospect of millions of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the internally displaced able to return home soon. In many instances, there is no home to go to. In Iraq, the virtual partition of the state into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions will take firmer shape. The new Egyptian regime, in terms of the Palestinian cause, is a tacit ally of Israel and will pose problems for Gazans.
In this tangled mess, one crisis feeds on the other and the resulting picture is far from following a common pattern. The tragedy is that the sole mediator remains the United States and it is hamstrung by its own compulsions. In immediate terms, the future remains bleak. For the present, there is no countervailing force to take matters in hand.
The East-West conflict represented by the growing antagonisms between Russia and the United States over Ukraine make a complementary Moscow initiative impossible. The only bright spot is that since things cannot get worse, they will take a turn for the better.
Devil’s Brew in Middle East
By S Nihal Singh