North Africa, West Asia

The Middle East - who cares?

Or at least, who cares enough to try to start thinking anew? The region is burning. Apart from the parties to the conflicts who want to win, nobody seems to have any idea of what to do.

Dan Smith
11 July 2014

Right now


- Israel is again bombing Gaza and Hamas is firing missiles at Israel, including at the nuclear reactors at Dimona.

- An irregular militia has constructed a new state in parts of Iraq and Syria and appears to exert power through pure terror. It has got control of Syria’s largest oil field and occupied Mosul in Iraq, taking over US$400 million from its central bank and large amounts of US military equipment.

- In Syria itself a multi-front, multi-sided civil war continues. The retiring UN special envoy describes the country as a failed state run by warlords. Russia is a major arms supplier for the government, aligning with Iran in giving unequivocal support to Assad. Saudi Arabia supplies the insurgents with arms, as does the US, if with less fanfare.

- As the Islamic State piles the pressure on the Iraqi military, that country faces political meltdown along with escalating sectarian violence. One slice of territory has been lost – perhaps just temporarily, perhaps for longer – to the Islamic State and Kurdish leaders have re-emphasised their intention to establish Kurdistan.

- Iran remains deeply engaged both directly and indirectly in both Iraq and Syria. The Iranian supreme leader says his country must enrich more uranium to meet energy needs; this will renew fears about it having weaponising ambitions and slow down progress to international agreement on its national nuclear development.

- Egypt is going through its most politically repressive period since independence.

- Libya is a patchwork of areas where 1,700 militias hold sway in shifting coalitions; try googling ‘Libyan quagmire’ and see how widely the trope is used.

- A coalition of militias has formed a politico-military campaign led by Gen Khalifa Haftar, Chief of Staff of the military under Gaddafi for a time and a rebel leader in 2011, in what may be an attempt to bring order out of chaos, or may turn out to be one more milestone on chaos road.

- In Yemen the truce has collapsed and this week rebels have taken a major town 70 kilometres north of the capital.

Oh –

- And next door in Afghanistan, the results of a presidential election are contested. The declared loser is threatening to set up a parallel administration.

The stakes are immense, outside powers are embroiled, the roar of contention and suffering is deafening. And equally deafening in a different way is the silence if you try to listen out for somebody articulating a viable way forward.

Before right now

The trouble is that you can unpick the headlines and dig deeper beneath them and see how in each case, there are added layers of complexity and intransigence that only increase each conflict’s degree of intractability.

- In Israel and Palestine, the almost complete lack of empathy for each people’s murdered teenagers and their grieving families; and in Israel the rising tide of anti-Arab racism, the grisly counterpart of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial among Arabs.

- In Egypt, the increasingly frequent, seemingly systematic and officially authorised use of sexual harassment and violence including rape as a way of punishing and policing women who oppose the clampdown on freedoms – or have ever done anything that implies they might oppose it.

- In Saudi Arabia, the self-hamstrung response of the politico-religious establishment to the jihadi challenge it did so much to nurture and rear.

- The parallels with Algeria in the 1990s, drawn by The Economist among others, when a popular movement for change was frustrated by the military, leading to a civil war of extraordinary brutality, and bequeathing to North Africa a salafist organisation that is now al-Qaeda in the Magreb.

None of this makes pleasant reading. Perhaps even worse, this summary from The Economist:

- “The Arab spring has led to something depressingly like a region-wide rerun of the Algerian experience.”

Or as I heard in a briefing last year: “It’s not spring; it’s the start of 15-20 years of instability, insecurity and worse.”

The situation is, in a word, bad. Yet, apart from those who know they want to win, not many people seem to have much of an idea of what to do. Worse, not many people seem bothered enough to try to have an idea. Indeed, so pervasive is the lack of ideas that you start to wonder if anybody is paying the right kind of attention to the problem.

The region and the rest of us

By rights, everybody should be listening and trying. Despite my provocative headline, people care very much about the Middle East. Most of the key events make headlines everywhere. What happens there hits first and foremost the people who live there and they have the greatest stake in finding peaceful solutions. But the range of effects goes much wider, sometimes with lethal consequences – as can be attested in London, Madrid, New York, Bali, Mombassa, Nairobi…

Beyond the killing, what happens in the Middle East affects us all, and not just materially because of oil, the wealth of the region, and the movement of people into and out of it. It affects in the sense of touching us because the region is part of the sacred geography of all societies that have been influenced by any or all of the three world religions that began there – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And with that, it touches even the most secular among us.

Scanning the media, both mainstream and blogosphere, and considering the voluminous expert and scholarly production of research and analysis, it is evident that the region, its culture, history and current conflicts get a huge amount of attention. So it seems many people care very much.

Beyond caring, thinking

There is plenty of real caring. Great effort is going into trying to get humanitarian aid to Syria where millions are in desperate need. And plenty went into clearing Syria of chemical weapons – an outstanding achievement, almost complete against all the odds.

These things are profoundly important and I am not knocking them at all when I say that nonetheless there is a problem. Ask people about the region and what to do and from within it and outwith, in government and outside, among experts and punters, the response is not only helpless but close to clueless.

The humanitarian response and the emphasis on chemical disarmament are of paramount importance but they do not address the underlying problem because they avoid the politics of it.

The reason why violent conflict is so widespread in the region is because of the systems of power in the Middle East. There are essentially two dimensions of this – national and regional – and both are so structured that the inability to handle inevitable conflicts except through violence is an inevitable result in most of the region.

While the national specifics cannot be forgotten or else there will be no peaceful resolution, it is also purblind to ignore that what is going on is region-wide. It is as a regional political process that events unfolded and brought hope as people sought change. And it was still a regional process when things seemed less hopeful as the various power-holders blocked change in most countries. It continued to be a regional process when it seemed like disaster loomed as some countries became the playground for international interests and gatherings of the disaffected and disempowered of the region. And it remains a regional issue now that disaster has arrived.

Consequently, both national and regional efforts are necessary to create a peaceful future. The Middle East is a region of great diversity in which everything is connected and whatever it is you seek to achieve politically, you ignore that connectivity at your peril. To get that effort going, we need a period of discussion to develop ideas to drive the effort.

Beyond thinking, thinking differently

The current disaster and the way it has unfolded shows that the default politico-diplomatic-military response of finding who to support and doing so by supplying or using arms is not going to work.

If you look at Syria and are sometimes ambushed by the thought that, well, maybe, we should have intervened (whoever the “we” inside your head is), then look at Libya today, three years after armed external intervention. It is the one-word description of the perils of intervening with the force of arms.

Of course there are people and groups in Syria whom supporters of democracy, decency and human rights could back. But doing so with the force of arms does not have a good track record. It does not always go wrong (ref Sierra Leone) but it does not often go right – at least, not all the way through.

So the ideas we need now are, by definition, new: since everything that has been tried hasn’t worked, we need something that has not been tried before.

Beyond thinking, imagining

The risk when you say ‘politics’ is that what happens is a partisan process of fixing the blame. Actually, one good way of analysing the region’s systemic problems is to listen to all the blaming. Then, rather than trying to decide who’s right and wrong, what’s justified and not, simply add it all together and go on from there to think about the social realities that lie behind the actors. US influence, Israel, the other side of the sectarian divide, oil, despots, religious fanatics and religious hypocrites, European colonialism (and before that the Ottoman empire, which is, surprisingly to my mind, usually allowed off the charge sheet) – all of these things are part of the picture. Many of the blame-gamers are not wrong as such – except for pure fantasists, to be found on most sides – they are merely incomplete.

But even a better understanding of what is happening will not help much if we are unable to apply our imagination – to be ready to think different thoughts, to think anew.

And who is that “we”? Obviously, the people of the region are first; without them driving forward a search for new approaches, nothing is possible. But I think the rest of us have a legitimate interest too, because where I live has been affected by the violence, albeit much less than the region itself has, and also because of that shared sacred geography. So it is a pretty large “we” and a quite complex discussion that we need.

I am not saying it is easy – I understand the reasons for turning away into passivity, anger or focusing on just bits and pieces of the overall problem. I am not saying that anyone I know has the answer. I’m simply saying it’s urgent.


This piece was originally published on Dan’s blog on 11 July, 2014. 

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