Inevitable arc of instability

By: Mahir Ali

Iraq is up for grabs, Syria has irretrievably been damaged, the West Bank sits on a powder keg. And that’s just the region where some of the worst-case scenarios have come to pass.

On the borders of the Middle East, Afghanistan’s fate remains indeterminate, while the initial repercussions of Pakistan’s long-delayed military offensive in North Waziristan are reflected in the rapid multiplication of internally displaced persons, amid reports that the intended targets had fled into Afghanistan well before the first airstrikes were launched.

The latter arena of conflict was dubbed Afpak by the Americans some years ago, and the somewhat Orwellian terminology attracted plenty of flak, given that there are a vast number of distinctions between these two “stans,” notwithstanding some overlap.

Over the decades, though, it is by no means just the militants who have derided the colonial-era Durand Line that separates the two nations. On the other hand, the challenge to the post-World War I border between Syria and Iraq has come fundamentally from radical warriors.

It is perhaps unlikely that the latter region will be designated as Syriraq, if only because that would seem to endorse the propaganda of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself caliph in an area that straddles parts of Syria and almost a third of Iraq, with the force hitherto known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) now rebranded simply as the Islamic State.

To a large extent, the fate of the ersatz caliphate will be determined by what happens in Iraq during the month of Ramadan. A few days ago, Baghdad announced the recapture of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, but the claim turned out to have been an exaggeration, with battles still raging in the zone as of Monday.

One of the explanations for the rout of the Iraqi Army revolves around the nepotism and corruption that determined its nature amid the sectarian milieu that the US left behind under the aegis of Nuri Al-Maliki, who has lately rejected hints from both Washington and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani that he should make place for a less divisive prime minister or at least attempt to form a government of national unity.

Shiite militias, the most formidable among them apparently controlled by Iran, have entered the fray, while Al-Maliki, after failing to immediately invite US airstrikes against ISIL and its Sunni collaborators, has reportedly spent half a billion dollars on purchasing superannuated Sukhoi aircraft from Russia, which are supposed to turn the tide.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, has solicited exactly that amount of money from the US Congress in the interests of arming “moderate” Syrian militias supposedly challenging the depleted supremacy of Bashar Assad. But, as veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has lately pointed out, moderates are thin on the ground, and those who exist cannot be relied upon not to sell their hardware to the highest bidder.

And that often turns out to be ostensibly their worst enemies. The Obama administration has lately been accused of training ISIL foot soldiers in Jordan. And Assad is said to have not just freed large numbers of Salafi prisoners from Syrian jails in 2011-12, but to have actively promoted ISIL as a means of countering the Al-Qaeda-approved Jabhat Al-Nusra as well as his more secular adversaries.

There may be some truth in both accusations. It is, after all, hardly unknown for governments to sponsor dubious forces in the interests of protecting or advancing their interests. The US was a vigorous proponent of jihad when the mujahideen were combating Soviet forces and their proxies in Afghanistan. And there was a time when Israel encouraged Islamists to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Now Israel’s determination to destroy Hamas has been reinforced by the unconscionable murder of three teenage yeshiva students from the occupied territories whom the Islamist organization is accused of having kidnapped. Whoever committed this egregious atrocity in the vicinity of Hebron clearly intended it as a provocation — not only against Israel, from where a predictably rash reaction could be guaranteed, but against the unity government lately inducted in Ramallah, a supposedly technocratic outfit that includes no Hamas members but receives its backing.

Israel made hundreds of arrests and killed at least eight Palestinians during the hunt for the teenagers, and there will no doubt be much worse to follow. The precise consequences may be unpredictable, but they are likely to involve a great deal of further bloodshed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has meanwhile done the cause of the Kurds no favors by explicitly endorsing a Kurdish state — an idea that is apparently not anathema to Ankara either, provided it does not involve any Turkish territory.

Iraq’s neighbors would do well to remember that the border with Syria is not the only one that ISIL is determined to obliterate. A reasonable case could probably be made for redrawing some of the Middle East’s colonial-era boundaries.

Iraq is currently a focus of broadly mutual interests between the US, Russia, Iran and Syria. But the situation is much too convoluted to draw any hopeful conclusions from this unlikely alliance.

It is not inconceivable that the region would sooner or later have experienced an eruption of revolts against a pattern of tyranny, but there can be little question that the unprovoked western aggression against Iraq in 2003 liberated not the Iraqi people but a maliferous genie. In the dire but no longer unlikely event of sectarian strife engulfing not just Iraq and Syria but their (not entirely blameless) environs, precious little credit will accrue to those who continue to argue, in the face of all available evidence, that a prolonged occupation of Iraq or western military intervention in Syria would have produced an altogether more desirable outcome in the medium term. But even those of us who derided the absurd project from the outset are left dangling with a question that has become progressively harder to answer: What next?

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