What the future holds for the Middle East

Sunday 15/01/2017

Is an unconditional surrender in the Middle East ever possible? Unlike the clear-cut outcome of the second world war in which the Allied powers demanded — and obtained — unconditional surren­der from Nazi Germany and Japan, in the Middle East the indecisive haze of war never completely dissipates.

In most recent Middle Eastern wars, there have not been true winners nor true losers.

And therein lies the conundrum. In a conflict, you cannot have both sides believing they are victorious. When that occurs, as it often does in the Middle East, it means the conflict remains unresolved and they tend to resurface with greater vigour.

This brings us to the events playing out in the region and the big push on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, by a US-backed coalition to oust the Islamic State (ISIS). Shortly thereafter a push by Russian-backed forces is expected to target the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital. Are we looking the beginning of the end of the ISIS? In either cities, Mosul or Raqqa, do not expect an official surrender to take place.

When Paul Bremer, the former US administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, made the moronic decision to ban the Ba’ath Party and dissolve the country’s armed forces prior to having an alternative infrastructure in place he must have been thinking of actions undertaken by the United States and its allies at the close of the second world war.

As far as contingency planning in wartime goes, Bremer was no Dwight Eisenhower, and Iraq is certainly not Germany.

In post-war Germany, the Nazi Party was dissolved and banned and the German military had to accept surrendering unconditionally. A gentler, kinder German Army was reinvented and it worked out for the best. Germany joined NATO and the European Union and became one of the principal bastions of democracy in Europe, championing human rights and trying to assist Germans who got caught on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Were there clusters of diehard Nazis who, much like ISIS in Iraq today, wanted to see the revival of the former regime? Yes, there were but from their safe havens in South America, other than organise periodic nostalgic gatherings and hailing their dead fuhrer, there was little for them to do but try to stay a step ahead of the Nazi hunters.

In Germany at the end of war, there was a clear winner and a clear loser. There were no grey areas.

In Iraq, there was never an official surrender nor an acceptance for cessation of hostilities. Nor is either likely to happen with ISIS.

A few months ago, there was talk of redrawing international borders in the Middle East and of the possibility of relegating the 1916 Sykes-Picot accords — in which Britain and France agreed to divide Ottoman lands between them — to the dustbin of history. There were fears of ISIS getting a permanent foothold in Syria and Iraq and repeating the exercise in Jordan and Lebanon. How quickly things change.

The threats emanating from ISIS, though quite serious, did not materialise to the point many had imagined or feared. Two of the smaller Arab countries, Jordan and Lebanon, have held off any Islamic takeover. Today with ISIS in retreat quite naturally without any expectation of a surrender, this is one more conflict that will never officially end. Rather, large numbers of ISIS fighters and cadres will simply vanish into their surroundings and await an opportunity to strike back.

In analysing political and military trends in the region after every war since 1948, there seems to be one rather worrisome common thread that surfaces at the end of every conflict. In between one war and the next, the political situation becomes more complex, while on the military front newer weapons are introduced and new groups emerge. The trend has been that those new groups were consistently more radical, more fanatical and more dangerous.

What can we expect in the follow-up to the madness, violence and ferocity carried out by ISIS? One can only imagine.

Adding to the general uncertainty is the Donald Trump factor. What exactly the Trump factor is is not clear. No one in Washington seems to have a clear image of what the US president-elect’s policy towards the Middle East is likely to be. It is possible not even Trump himself knows.

Unless sectarianism stops being the determining factor, governance rises to modern standards and peacemaking becomes the norm, the region is bound to experience more violence.