Middle East meltdown and the age of reform
Beirut - Three elements lie behind the political and ethnic upheaval convulsing the Middle East and contributed in large part to the collapse of borders that were largely drawn by 19th-century colonial powers, principally Britain and France.
These are the emergence of Salafist jihadism and the challenge to Sunni regimes and monarchies, the United States’ decision to relinquish its security shield from its long-time Arab allies and Iran’s exploitation of the power vacuum, its drive to expand revolutionary Shia power.
Much of this is a direct consequence of US imperial overreach in the region, particularly by George W. Bush and his Machiavellian neocon allies, particularly when the Americans conveniently removed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who, whatever else, may have been the Arabs’ bulwark against the expansion of their old enemy, Persia.
Indeed, Iran increasingly appears to be one of the main winners amid the maelstrom of misery across the region as state authority has effectively collapsed. Tehran’s long-planned and skilfully executed bid for regional hegemony means that it now controls four Arab capitals — Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana’a — and in Lebanon actually runs a parallel state structure operated by Hezbollah.
Iranian control of Yemen, with its 1,500km border with Saudi Arabia, would leave the Sunni kingdom dangerously exposed, a situation that, unless defused soon, suggests that a gruelling conflict lies ahead, the result in large measure of the US decision to abandon its role as the guarantor of the region’s security.
In many ways, the border between Syria and Lebanon ceased to exist when Damascus sent troops into Lebanon, purportedly to prevent the Maronites from being overwhelmed by a leftist-Muslim alliance that included the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
When the Lebanese war ended in 1990, when Hafez Assad was given the green light by the United States to intervene in return for boosting the politically important Arab component of George H.W. Bush’s coalition to liberate Kuwait from the clutches of Saddam, the Syrians, who had long claimed its tiny neighbour was historically part of Greater Syria, stayed on as quasi-occupiers.
They finally pulled out their troops, but not their power, in 2005 under international pressure triggered by the assassination of Lebanon’s leading statesman, Rafik Hariri.
That killing, one of a long chain of political murders going back decades, galvanised many Lebanese to throw off the Syrian yoke — a dramatic and ground-breaking step that would echo resoundingly in early 2011.
Amid the sectarian and ethnic differences within states across the Arab region, it was in the end economic and societal failures that brought about the “Arab spring”. Deeply ingrained official corruption, high youth unemployment amid burgeoning populations and growing anger at increasingly isolated uncaring political elites were the true causes of the regional upheaval against regime rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
“The borders have vanished because of the collapse of regional states, something that started in 1975 with the Lebanese civil war,” observed analyst Vicken Cheterian.
For many, the final straw was the move towards dynastic rule in the Arab republics, a move successfully achieved in Syria when Bashar Assad took over following the death of his father Hafez — “the Lion of Damascus” — in June 2000, and which Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen sought to emulate, ultimately to their cost.
“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community whose sect is divided between Lebanon, Syria and Israel under the artificial borders drawn up by the British and French after the first world war.
“Officially, they’re still there, but will they be there a few years from now? If there’s more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”
“The current map of the Middle East is misleading since the neat borders for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Turkey etc no longer represent reality,” said Cheterian. “The border between Iraq and Syria ceased to exist in 2012…
“The forces now fighting each other are fighting over heritage … No one is fighting for Lebanon or Iraq or Syria. The current forces represent local, tribal and sectarian interests and use violence that destroys all without the potential to replace it.
“When the chaos ends, the political map of the Middle East will be very different but we have no idea what it will look like.”
Most Arab thinkers agree that with despotic, militaristic regimes being cast aside, the time has finally come for real political, social and economic reform. “The monopoly of power has ended,” former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, a veteran refomist, told a regional affairs conference at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut on April 29th.
“Reform is a long-term process … We (Arabs) need time … It could take 40 years … But it’s about time we started working on laying the foundations of a new society.”