Regional powers are making a mess of the Middle East
Move over, imperialists — there’s a local game in town
August 10, 2015
If you think European colonialism, Russian imperialism, Zionism and American militarism have made a mess of the Middle East over the past century, be prepared for worse. We have entered a wild new era in which actors within the region are driving new ideological tensions, civil conflicts and regional wars.
Now when Saudis, Iranians, Turks and Egyptians fight, they do so to pursue their own goals rather than be proxy responders to superpowers’ wishes. This is a paradigm shift, and we should expect much greater destruction, longer wars, a trail of shattered lands and ungoverned terrain, with terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking root.
At least a dozen regional players — both states and nonstate actors — routinely stir the pot in the area, starting with local powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran (and its allied Shia militias in Iraq) and Hezbollah. Add Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, a resurgent Egypt and assorted Kurdish groups to the mix; aggravate tensions by introducing ISIL and the Ansarullah group (Houthis) in Yemen; and you are left with a veritable mess of powers vying for regional influence. And that’s without even counting the hundreds of local militias and political and tribal groups that operate in and across many countries.
The complex, multifaceted nature of these conflicts means that there’s no going back to when Middle East conflicts were shaped mainly by Arab-Israeli wars and occasional proxy local battles on behalf of world powers. Some of these actors fight to maintain their place in the local or national power structure; others seek to generate regional strategic alliances. Others still fight back to prevent regional the big powerhouses from dominating the region.
The foundation for local powers taking over the driver’s seat of regional developments was laid at the end of the Cold War 25 years ago, but only Iran then was strong enough to develop a coherent regional political strategy at the time through alliances with Syria and Hezbollah. The U.S. military remained active regionally through its wars in Iraq, but these started to wind down around in early 2011.
Around that time, the Arab uprisings began, and the two superpowers’ lower military profile in the region opened the door to power-hungry local armies: Saudi and other Gulf air forces bombed government and Islamist forces in Libya, moved troops into Bahrain to protect the monarchy and assisted rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government. Their reasons for the assaults included supporting their allies in Libya, blocking a popular challenge to the Bahrain monarchy and overthrowing the Syrian regime in hopes of weakening its Iranian allies. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah followed suit to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, and Turkey and Qatar assisted Islamist rebels in Syria.
These actions have given rise to three important new trends across the region.
First, the ideological struggles and civil wars in countries such as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt are fueled mainly by direct military and economic support from regional patrons. Traditional powers like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have initiated military assaults on their own, with minimal and often just last-minute coordination with their big-power allies. Examples include the Saudi-led war in Yemen that Riyadh initiated and the U.S. subsequently supported from afar, Turkey’s attacks against Kurdish and ISIL targets in northern Syria and the Iranian military support of the Syrian regime.
The second is a maze of interlocking and often contradictory alliances of convenience across the region. For example, while Saudi Arabia supports and arms Islamist militants fighting to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, it fights Islamists in other Arab countries whom Saudi leaders see as a threat to their leadership of the Sunni Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has promoted hard-line Salafist movements that they see as weakening Iran and Shia groups, though some of their offshoots — notably, ISIL — now carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia and represent a serious threat in places to neighboring states such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
In northern Syria the U.S. supports Turkey in creating an ISIL-free zone while Turkey attacks Kurdish resistance forces that the U.S. supports and counts on in the battle against ISIL. The incoherence of this patchwork of foreign interventions in the region becomes more glaring by the day, and it will only metastasize as local wars are increasingly initiated by regional rather than global powers.
Third, this creates opportunities for world powers to support their allies and weaken their adversaries, mostly by injecting massive amounts of weaponry into the region or supporting military campaigns spearheaded by local parties, such as in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq. This usually creates more chaos and destruction and leaves behind shattered societies, which are fertile ground for the emergence of extremist groups.
An important new twist is the emerging alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two countries signed an agreement in Cairo last week to boost military and economic ties and to cooperate on launching a multinational Arab military force to fight terrorism and other unnamed security threats. Riyadh has backed Cairo since the 2013 overthrow of the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; Egypt in turn sent warships to support the Saudi war in Yemen and has offered ground troops if needed.
A declaration issued after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Cairo last week said “the two sides stressed the need to exert all efforts to boost security and stability in the region and to work together to protect Arab national security.” This reflects Saudi-Egyptian cooperation for creating a joint Arab military force to fight terrorism in the region — never mind that Egypt has been unable to protect even its own troops in Sinai or its senior officials in Cairo, who have been killed by Egyptian militants allied with ISIL.
Ironically, Saudi-Wahhabi support for Salafists across the region has provided a huge pool of manpower that groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda draw from, and Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups has blocked peaceful political development and pushed some discontented Egyptians to join ISIL’s violent ways. In the bizarre and violent new world of regional powers at war, in some cases like these, they unite to wage war against a criminal foe they inadvertently helped to create through their own misguided policies.
These two Arab powers, together leading others militarily across the region, may well be a cause for concern for the damage they might do — especially given that the U.S. this week expressed its military support for them both. This is perhaps the most dramatic and troubling example of the major new trend that now defines the Middle East: Regional powers decide to go to war, the superpowers support them, and third-party Arab countries are smashed to smithereens in the name of security for all.
Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.*******
Who is responsible for the catastrophes in the Middle East?
Bill Van Auken
30 June 2014
“The United States of America is not responsible for what happened in Libya, nor is it responsible for what is happening in Iraq today,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared at a Cairo news conference held in the midst of his recent crisis tour of the Middle East.As Kerry spoke, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a growing Sunni insurgency were consolidating their grip over the north and west of Iraq, including the country’s borders with Syria and Jordan. Upwards of a million Iraqis had been displaced by the fighting, and thousands had been killed in the mounting sectarian slaughter.
Libya is in a state of complete collapse, with continuous fighting between rival militias, a government that exists in name only, oil production down by at least 80 percent, and over a million people forced to flee the country’s violence. Many thousands are incarcerated in a network of prisons run by armed groups that practice systematic torture.
Kerry’s statement merely made official the steady drumbeat from the political establishment and the media since the situation in Iraq turned into a complete debacle: “The US bears no responsibility.”
Typical was the commentary by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a “human rights” imperialist who was a vocal proponent of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He wrote: “The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault… overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.”
Maliki, the stooge put in power and kept there by the US occupation, is made the fall guy.
Thomas Friedman, the Times’ foreign affairs columnist, wrote Sunday that Maliki is an “arsonist,” who, “the minute America left Iraq,” deliberately unleashed mayhem. This is the same Friedman who in 2003 declared that the US invaded Iraq “because we could,” spoke proudly of US troops going house-to-house and ordering Iraqis to “suck on this,” and declared that he had “no problem with a war for oil.”
Listening to the chorus of statements insisting that the US has no responsibility for the deepening tragedy inflicted upon the people of Iraq and Libya, one is reminded of nothing so much as the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, from Hermann Göring on down, rising one-by-one in the dock to declare themselves “not guilty.”
What are the crimes for which Kerry and so many others in the ruling establishment insist Washington bears no responsibility?
The description that they used for their own actions at the time was “shock and awe,” the unleashing of colossal destructive force upon a society already shattered by a decade of sadistic US sanctions. Killing hundreds of thousands of people and turning millions into refugees, the US war and occupation destroyed every institution of Iraqi society, while Washington deliberately fomented sectarian divisions as a means of overcoming Iraqi nationalism. The country’s deposed ruler, Saddam Hussein, was tried by a drumhead court and unceremoniously executed.
All of this was justified with warnings about the imminent threat from “weapons of mass destruction” and ties between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. As the whole world now knows, it was all lies.
There were no WMDs and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until US imperialism overthrew the country’s government and tore its social fabric to pieces. In fact, there was no Al Qaeda at all before Washington set about inciting a bloody war by right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In Libya and now in Syria, the Obama administration abandoned the “war on terrorism” pretext for an equally cynical and fraudulent justification for regime-change: “human rights.” In Libya, the US and NATO heavily bombed the country while organizing and arming Islamist-led militias in a sectarian war that destroyed all of the existing governmental and social structures. As in Iraq, it ended its war with the brutal murder of the country’s secular leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Washington is carrying out a similar war for regime-change in Syria, backing Sunni Islamist and sectarian militias that are led by ISIS, the same force that has overrun much of Iraq. The US hopes to end this war with the assassination of a third secular Arab head of state, Bashar al-Assad.
Just last week, Obama proposed to funnel $500 million in arms to the Syrian “rebels”—weapons that everyone knows will end up in the hands of ISIS, which the US is supposedly committed to defeating in Iraq.
As the contradictions and deceptions of Washington’s policy become ever more glaring, US officials simply act as though the American people won’t notice, or will believe anything. Or, for that matter, they won’t see that $500 million can be conjured up instantly to pay for a criminal war, while working people are being told “there is no money” for health care, education, housing or jobs.
The destruction that the US oligarchs have wrought in the Middle East, with all of its terrible human consequences, is the external manifestation of their destructive role within the US itself—smashing up the country’s manufacturing base, turning its economy into a gambling casino for financial parasites, destroying the jobs and living standards of millions of people. With no answers to the growing crisis at home, they turn to violence abroad, only compounding the catastrophes they have created overseas.
The “not responsibles” and “not guilties” from Kerry, Kristof, Friedman and the other advocates and apologists for American military aggression won’t wash. US imperialism is responsible for terrible crimes against humanity.
Yet no one has been held accountable. Not those in Washington—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, et al.—who conspired to wage a war of aggression; not those in the current administration, from Obama on down, who conspired to shield their predecessors and continue the same predatory policies; not the military brass who carried out the war; not the private contractors who enriched themselves off of it; not the lying media that helped foist the war onto the American public; not the cowardly and conformist academics who justified and went along with it.
Together, they are responsible for the catastrophes that have been inflicted upon the peoples of Iraq, Libya and Syria.