Whilst the world honours the Libyan rebels who died for democracy, many conveniently ignore the fact that many of these rebels were once upon a time in Iraq dying to prevent democracy.
After Saudi Arabia, Libya was the most common country of origin of foreign fighters who flooded Iraq to destabilise the political process in Baghdad. Cities such as Darna, Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Misrata, brought to international attention due to heavy fighting in recent months, were the very cities listed as hometowns for most of the Libyan terrorists in Iraq according to Al-Qaeda documents captured in September 2007 near the border with Syria.
Extremist Islamists may only be one small part of a wide cross-section of disenfranchised Libyans who could no longer bear the tyranny of Gadaffi, but they pose the question whether reactions to the Arab Revolutions are ever entirely innocent of double standards.
Many Arabs showed solidarity when the Transitional National Council pleaded for the international community to take action in Libya. But when the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein made similar pleas, many Arabs called them traitors. The intervention in Libya, which involved over 20,000 flight missions, paved the way for the toppling of a brutal dictator and was welcomed by the Arab street despite the outspoken condemnation that greeted the military intervention in 2003 that ended the reign of Saddam Hussein.
Of course Libya 2011 is not Iraq 2003. The Arab League was notably united in its support for strikes in Libya, whilst it was split over Iraq. NATO went in under the cover of the UN Security Council, which authorized ‘all necessary measures’ to protect Libyan civilians: but the US went to war without explicit authorisation from the UN. However, in both cases, western intervention directly led to the fall of both Tripoli and Baghdad. Despite the fact that Saddam was much more brutal than Gadaffi, the Arabs lamented the fall of Baghdad but cheered the fall of Tripoli.
The double standards of western governments have been equally striking. The EU has recently imposed sanctions on Iran's Quds Force for alleged operations in Syria to help Assad quash protests. However, when Saudi Arabia mobilised the Peninsula Shield Force to help the Bahraini government quash protests in Manama, the west did nothing besides voice concern and urge restraint. When Iran allegedly helps Syria, the west takes decisive action. When Saudi actually helps Bahrain, the west sits tight.
The reactions of Iraq and Iran to the Arab Revolutions have not been much more consistent. As in the case of the Arab and western states, positions are taken according to sectarian/political interests in the region. If this interest happens to run parallel to the causes of people hoping to topple a dictator, Iraq and Iran stand firmly with the people and espouse ideals like ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. If not, then Baghdad and Tehran back the dictator, and instead you hear about ‘stability’ and ‘sabotage’. They probably take their inspiration from the United States, which spends trillions of dollars in some countries to unseat the ruling powers whilst simultaneously propping up dictators elsewhere.
It is difficult to decide what is worse: that governments clearly show double standards in their policies or that they attempt to justify it.
When it was put to an FCO official that Britain’s stance on Bahrain was a joke, I received an angry response and was told I did not know what was happening behind the scenes. Britain - I was assured – was constantly urging the Bahraini government to respect human rights. As if mere behind the scenes talks are enough to wash away the blood of innocent people whose only crime was to protest. A crime that deserves the death penalty apparently.
The Shia and Sunnis of the Middle East are at least somewhat more honest when it comes to their assessment of these protests. They will not outright deny that double standards are being shown, but instead claim that they face an existential threat, and so taking sides ensures their very survival.
Not every country is the same – they will argue – and we need to be careful from diagnosing the situation spreading through the region as part of the same phenomenon, even if most of the symptoms are the same.
In the space of a minute, you will hear an explanation that starts with a perfectly valid argument (not every country is the same) and ends with a conspiracy that involves ‘the Shia’, ‘the Sunnis’, ‘Iran’, ‘the Wahhabis’ - of course never forgetting ‘Zionism’ and ‘Israel’.
The Saudis will swear that Iran is behind the protests in Bahrain, as they prepare to further increase their influence in the region by channeling the anger of Bahraini youth to serve their own agenda. The Iranians, so it is argued, hope to set up a base in Bahrain and would therefore pose a dangerous threat to the Arabian Peninsula.
Iran is equally convinced that Saudi, backed by the US, is behind the protest movement in Syria and aims to cut off a vital supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Terrorists, supplied and armed by the Saudi Kingdom whose very existence is based on an alliance with the Wahhabis, would not just pose a threat to the Shia of Syria but have access to an Iraqi border that runs for hundreds of miles. Not even the Americans, with their superior technology and equipment, could stop militants pouring into Iraq during the sectarian civil war. So just imagine what would happen if the Salafists were to control Syria?
The irony of the Saudi claim is that if Iran was looking for a good excuse to actually interfere in Bahrain, the Saudi invasion on March 14 would be it.
The irony of the Iranian claim is that it was Assad himself who allowed terrorists to flood into Iraq to keep the Americans busy – and slaughter the Shia whilst they were at it. Suddenly, the man once blamed by Shia politicians for sponsoring terror in Iraq, has now turned into a Shia vanguard in the region.
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