Animals, when wounded and cornered, are most unpredictable and ferocious. So are states. Within the space of a few months, the Middle East has become a jungle where the major players feel exceptionally vulnerable and acutely threatened by sudden shifts in geopolitical dynamics. The result is a vicious struggle for survival and hegemony, centred on Syria and playing out along highly fragile sectarian divides. With tensions nearing boiling point, rational decision making is becoming a scarce commodity. Unless common sense is urgently restored in international politics, the prospects for the region, and beyond, look ominous.
Let us start with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The sudden outbreak of the Arab revolts has presented daunting ideological and geopolitical challenges to both countries. The toppling of one Arab strongman after another deeply unnerved the Saudi monarchy; the region’s preeminent dictatorship. At the same time, the Shi’a uprising in neighbouring Bahrain threatened the Sunni kingdom’s domestic stability and peninsular hegemony vis-à-vis Iran. For Israel, the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, coinciding with a sharp downturn in relations with Turkey, meant the loss of two strategic allies and increasing regional isolation at a time when sympathy for the Palestinian cause seemed on a global surge.
While the Israelis remained mired in indecision, the Saudis dealt with their crisis with ruthless efficacy: swiftly crushing the Bahraini uprising as the west looked away, the Saudi monarchy also poured billions of oil money into buying loyalties at home and expanding influence in places like revolutionary Egypt. Still, the picture looked depressing for both countries, until the Syrian uprising came along.
The Syrian uprising presented a golden opportunity to turn the tide decisively in the Saudi and Israeli favour. If the Assad regime were to go, preferably replaced by a western-friendly Sunni government, Iran would be deprived of its key strategic ally and gateway to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’a movement. The idea, explicitly worded or not, struck a tone in Washington and London, and also in Turkey, whose increasingly hubristic neo-Islamist government seem convinced that the whole region wants to adopt some sort of a Turkish model.
So even as it became apparent that protests would not suffice to bring down Assad, who had his security apparatus largely intact and support of the urban population and religious minorities behind him, it was declared that he had reached ‘a dead end’. The Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, suspended Syria’s membership. Abandoning its much touted ‘zero problems’ policy, Ankara imposed sanctions on Damascus and allowed political, and allegedly armed, opposition groups to mobilise in Turkey. British and American officials commended Turkey’s steadfast attitude and called for tougher measures if, paradoxically, violence ensued in Syria. Meanwhile, fresh talks emerged of an imminent Israeli strike on Iran, due to the latter’s nuclear programme.
Wounded and cornered, Syria’s murderous regime turned ever more violent, with growing evidence that the popular uprising was morphing into sectarian strife. As for Iran, having failed to frame the Arab revolts as an ‘Islamic Awakening’ inspired by its 1979 revolution, the picture hardly looked brighter: exceptionally paranoid and isolated since brutally supressing the mass uprising of 2009, and paralysed in an internal leadership crisis, the prospect of losing Syria and facing a military strike has turned the Iranian regime increasingly belligerent, evidenced by the recent storming of the British embassy in Tehran.
So now, we have Israel and the US threatening to attack Iran, Iran and its proxies threatening Israel, Iran (and lately, Russia) threatening Turkey for hosting NATO’s radars close to its eastern border, Turkey threatening Syria, and Syria threatening everyone but Iran. Everyone feels wounded and cornered, and everyone is arming to the teeth, manoeuvring forces and bracing for a potential showdown. It almost feels like Cold War redux, except there are too many independent actors today, making the calculus much more complicated and the risks that much higher.
To be sure, any armed conflict between these actors would quickly spill beyond the borders of the main belligerents. With their fragile political systems and sensitive sectarian divides, the first to get sucked in would be Lebanon (where Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made his first public appearance in years to defy the enemies of Damascus) and Iraq (where the Iraqi al-Qaeda recently declared its support for the Syrian ‘jihad’). Judging by the latest sectarian attacks, Afghanistan might follow. In the long term, a regional war would have profound socio-political and human consequences beyond the region, especially in the west, not least in the shape of mass immigration, refugees and terrorism.
Thus, this is an appeal to the global citizenry to wake up to the dire situation unfolding before our eyes and to raise our voice. It is time to put concerted pressure on our respective governments, who are complicit in this cynical spectacle, and urge them to act responsibly for the benefit of all nations. Let us make no mistake: this is not a struggle between freedom and tyranny. The Arab spring of pro-democracy protestors and authoritarian rulers is effectively over. That popular outcry for a better, fairer and more honourable human living is being stifled in a ruthless struggle for geopolitical hegemony and survival, played out along increasingly explosive sectarian lines. And as the elephants trample, once again the grass suffers.