Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Taking stock

Facts on the ground may be grim in Iraq, but a regional and global logic can still be discerned, writes Hassan Nafaa*

A year after the US went into Iraq, it may be useful to restate a number of facts:

Fact one: The war on Iraq was a purely American decision, a decision taken by the Bush administration against the better judgement of the international community, without consultation, and for reasons exclusively related to US global strategy. The US decision was but one stage in a crisis that is still unfolding, one that leaves the door open to various possibilities.

Fact two: The gap separating the US public and the hidden goals of its administration is big and widening.

Fact Three: Countries across the world have reacted to the US decision according to their own interests. Only a few felt comfortable with this decision and regarded it as politically, morally, or legally justifiable.

Since the start of the crisis, the countries neighbouring Iraq realised that their higher strategic interests will be greatly affected by a war -- a war they did not choose or had control over. However, the acute disparity in their positions kept them from taking a unified stand that might have stopped the war and prevented the consequent occupation. As a result, the regional balance of power has shifted, particularly between Arab countries and their non-Arab neighbours. Also, the United States has directly become a "neighbour" in the region. The crisis that led to the war and to the subsequent occupation of Iraq was essentially an Arab one. The failure of the Arabs to address the crisis caused it to worsen, in a way that exposed the impotence of the Arab regional system in an unprecedented manner.

The Arab neighbours of Iraq were divided over the crisis that led to the war and the occupation of Iraq. Their positions ranged from absolute support of the US scheme (Kuwait and Qatar) to clear opposition and rejection (Syria), to greyer shades of reaction fraught with confusion, ambiguity and contradiction between words and deeds (Egypt and Saudi Arabia). The motives on which these countries based their positions were fairly complex. Kuwait was obsessed with ending a regime that had mercilessly violated it in the past. For the Kuwaitis, anything was better than Saddam staying in power, even if the alternatives involved the destruction of Iraq, its fragmentation, or its continued occupation. Qatar used the crisis to assert its regional role at the expense of Saudi Arabia, the latter having been weakened by the 11 September events. The ambiguity and contradiction in the Saudi and Egyptian positions resulted from the desire of both to placate a public opinion opposed to US policies while maintaining the strong link between the US and the ruling elites.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq have rearranged power in the region, creating a new situation in which formerly marginalised states may play a greater role, one approved by the US, favouring its interests, to the detriment of key countries such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Several signs suggest that the US is using marginal countries to assail and debilitate key Arab states. Since the 11 September events, the Americans have based their regional policies on the premise that the Arab and Islamic world has turned into a hotbed of terror and is thus in dire need of radical modernisation and reform. The Greater Middle East initiative is a clear outcome of such conviction.

The United States has enough historical savvy to figure out that the Greater Middle East scheme can only be created over the dead body of the Arab regional system, and that the latter is not yet dead, for a simple reason. There is still a certain degree of harmony among the positions and interests of the three Arab key states: Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. This is why the US is determined to break up the cohesion of this triangle as a prelude to undermining the Arab regional system and destroying the role of the Arab League. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq constituted an important step in that direction.

Numerous signs suggest that the US has, within one year of invading and occupying Iraq, made several inroads that brought it closer to its ultimate goal. The US has succeeded in first using the Tunisians to sabotage the attempt to hold the Arab summit on time; second, weakening Kuwait's strong traditional ties with the Arab system, encouraging Kuwait to perhaps pull out completely from the Arab system by offering it the status of a non-NATO "strategic ally"; third, using small countries, such as Qatar and Bahrain, as a substitute for Saudi Arabia with a view, perhaps, to blackmailing and pressuring the latter; fourth, diminishing Cairo's role and putting pressure on Egypt from the south, through efforts to divide Sudan and renew the controversy over Nile water, and from the west, through encouraging Libya to pursue disruptive policies; and fifth, increasing pressures on Damascus through the Syria Accountability Act.

If one takes a look at the situation of the non-Arab neighbours in the region, one finds that Israel is in quite a different position from all others. Israel was one of the world's most enthusiastic countries for the US war on Iraq. It is conceivable that Israel played a pivotal role in the media disinformation campaign and took part in the fabrication of data concerning weapons of mass destruction. This is hardly surprising, for the US occupation of Iraq has fulfilled one of Israel's long-standing dreams, that of destroying the Iraqi army and dismantling the Iraqi state. Thanks to the occupation of Iraq, Israel has a tangible and permanent presence in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish north. Israeli companies are said to be very active, either in promoting Israeli goods in Iraq, and via Iraq in Gulf countries, or in obtaining lucrative contracts, or subcontracts, in the rebuilding of Iraq. It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that one of the goals of Israeli presence in Iraq is to foment ethnic and sectarian strife and move things in that country toward partition and the creation of sectarian mini-states. Everyone knows that Sharon has made cunning use of the war to assail the Palestinian resistance and abort efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state.

Concerning Turkey, the war may have inflicted material losses on that country, and perhaps worsened its economic crisis. But Turkey is not upset by the prospect of a weakened Iraqi political role in the region, or of Iraq coming under long-term or permanent US occupation. Turkey is not, however, comfortable with all US policies on Iraq, particularly the way Washington deals with the Kurdish issue, an issue of utmost relevance to Turkish national security. The delicate manner in which Turkey managed its relations with the United States during the war, and the way in which it resisted US pressures without damaging its strategic relations with Washington, speaks volumes of the discrepancy in the strategic interests of both countries in Iraq. Turkey seems in a position enabling it to play an indispensable role in support of the United States, a role that does not necessarily conflict with the interests of its neighbours, Iran and Syria. In the context of the Greater Middle East scheme, Turkey is frontrunner, from a US point of view, to play the role of a model state. Turkey is amenable to assuming other regional tasks as needed by the Americans. Yet Turkey's strategic interests coincide with those of Iran and Syria, as well as those of the Iraqis, on one crucial issue; that of rejecting the partition of Iraq and preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

As for Iran, it is clear that Tehran was fully aware that the occupation of Iraq is a direct threat to its national security and perhaps even a prelude to attacking and occupying Iran in the foreseeable future. Iran could not afford a direct confrontation with the US over Iraq. Because it had a vested interest in overthrowing Saddam, Tehran managed the crisis defensively. It assumed neutrality during the war and was exceptionally flexible afterwards vis--vis US provocations concerning Iran's nuclear programme. Iran has a few cards up its sleeve, particularly with regard to affecting Iraq's domestic scene. Because of that, Tehran has so far succeeded in keeping US pressures at bay. Iran is now in the same strategic boat as Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian resistance, and even the Iraqi resistance. The weakening of any of these forces would undermine Iran's strategic position, and vice versa.

This brief summary shows that a year following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq the regional scene is moving toward three conclusive outcomes: first, a weakening of the Arab system in favour of subsystems; second, an increase in the role of subsidiary countries at the expense of key Arab states; and third, a bolstering of the strategic role of Iraq's non-Arab neighbours at the expense of Arab ones.

* The author The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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