Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Waiting for a solution

The Middle East is littered with destroyed countries and the bodies of thousands. Will anyone take the lead in cleaning it up, asks Jeremy Salt

Al-Ahram Weekly

The US has just about shot its bolt in the Middle East. It is playing its own game to the detriment of the entire region. While it is ultimately responsible for creating this unholy mess, someone else is needed to take the lead in cleaning it up — but who?

The definition of the expression “to shoot your bolt” is “to achieve all that you have the power, ability or strength to do and to be unable to do more.”

That the US and its allies are ultimately responsible for the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is irrefutably true. They destroyed Iraq and Libya, and they have gone a long way towards destroying Syria. They must be held responsible for the consequences of their actions, which include the rise of IS.

Because of what they have done, IS now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, almost to the gates of Baghdad. In Libya it has taken over Derna, Benghazi and Sirte, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s model city on the shores of the Mediterranean, which NATO (the US, Britain and France) air forces bombed relentlessly for months after 2011.

From the beginning, Gaddafi warned that the destruction of his government — the destruction of his country, as it turned out — would benefit only Al-Qaeda, and so it has turned out.

The politicians behind the destruction of Iraq — Blair, Bush, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld and others — are still running around as if it had nothing do with them. George Bush plays golf and rides horses on his ranch at Crawford, and Blair collects money for himself and his Faith Foundation. Now we have the generation responsible for the destruction of Libya: Obama, Hollande, Sarkozy and the kings, sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf States.

 The International Criminal Court was quick to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic and avid in its pursuit of African dictators and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Muammar, merely for speaking against NATO’s proxies.

But it averts its eyes when it comes to European and American politicians who trample on international law and start wars which end in the death or dispossession of millions of people (naturally, the exemptions include Israel).

Syria has brought about a slight change of cast: Hollande instead of Sarkozy, Hague out of the picture, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a pivotal role in the attack on that country.

The question arising is not only who turned much of the Middle East into a rubbish dump littered with destroyed countries, shattered towns and cities and the bodies of millions of people, but who is going to take the lead in cleaning it up.

No one wants to take it on and one has to wonder why. What is the truth of government attitudes towards IS? Does its usefulness in the campaign against the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria and Hezbullah) explain their ambivalence, and does their ambivalence explain why none of them seem interested in really confronting it?

Only Italy is calling for a full-scale campaign, not against the IS as such, but against its Libyan wilayet (province), because of fears that the group is about to descend on southern Europe.

The shocking events of recent weeks — the immolation of the captured Jordanian pilot and the decapitation of 21 Coptic workers in Libya — jolted Jordan and Egypt into a bout of retaliation that has now subsided.

Neither King Abdullah nor President Al-Sisi wants to take it any further, partly because none of their Western allies want to take it any further either.

US President Barack Obama has secured open-ended congressional support to send in ground troops and Britain is talking of finding a political solution, which gives it time to do nothing while pretending do to something.

Many IS fighters have been killed in aerial attacks, but only the tiniest fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is needed to keep it up and running indefinitely. It is clear that aerial bombing is not going to do the job and that if the solution is to be military, a very large number of ground troops will be needed.

An alternative is negotiations. Could the IS be talked out of rounding up Christians, Kurds and anyone else who gets in its way and machine-gunning them to death, cutting their heads off or burning them alive?

What if the US sends Secretary of State John Kerry to Mosul to talk to the “caliph,” in much the same way as the then UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate with Hitler in the 1930s?

Would there be any chance of the “caliph” dropping his apocalyptic worldview in return for the promise of US economic aid, recognition of borders and acceptance into the world of nation states? Most probably, as much chance of an elephant turning into a goldfish.

 By the time Chamberlain sat down to talk to Hitler it was much too late. Hitler could possibly have been stopped years before, when he sent German troops into the Rhineland (just as IS probably could have been stopped had there been an immediate response when it took over Raqqa or Mosul). He probably could have been stopped had Britain and France been willing to enter into a collective security pact with the Soviet Union.

These things did not happen for the simple reason that Western leaders regarded Hitler as an asset in the struggle against communism and the growing power of the Soviet state. It was a respected Herr Hitler then and not the mad, carpet-chewing dictator of a few years later.

The flow-on effect of the war in Vietnam and direct US intervention in Cambodia gave rise to Pol Pot and his extermination of intellectuals towards the end of bringing his country to Year Zero. His rise was not intended either, but was the outcome of bungled policies. Now we have other wars and other apparently unintended or unforeseen consequences.

The “caliph” is on a roll. He has amassed territory and support from across the region and outside it. Young men are flocking from around the world to fight under his banner. He has thrust the most shocking atrocities in the faces of regional and outside governments and they have looked the other way. He has a programme and knows what he is doing, so why should he stop now?

WHAT MIGHT WORK: Let’s assume for a moment that the US and its Western and regional Middle Eastern allies really are serious about dealing with the IS but simply can’t agree on a common course of action.

For a moment, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. If force is not viable and negotiations are unpalatable in the first place, and unlikely to succeed in the second, what other approaches might work?

What about winning hearts and minds? Perhaps IS can be undermined from below, by dealing with the impoverishment, unemployment and alienation that are assumed to be driving young people into its ranks.

The ghost of the late US academic Samuel Huntington hangs over this line of thought. Huntington followed UK academic Bernard Lewis in arguing that nothing the West had done, not Palestine (the “licenced grievance,” according to Lewis) and not two centuries of invasion, occupation, death and destruction, explained Muslim anger and resentment.

The West’s emphasis is on good intentions and the delivery of good things, three-piece suits, Packard cars and democracy, Lewis claimed. According to this reading of history, Muslim/Arab anger and hatred is totally inexplicable outside some deeply rooted collective psychosis born of the inability of Arabs/Muslims to solve their own problems. Of course, we will continue to help but, basically, the solutions lie with them and not with us.

In the Huntington/Lewis view, if Arabs/Muslims are angry it is because they have suffered defeat at the hands of a morally and materially superior civilisation, or because they are unemployed, or because they can’t adapt to modern ways of thinking.

The list of reasons for explaining their inability to cope with their problems is endless. This is a monstrous cop-out, of course, letting the collective West off the hook for the consequences of its own actions over the past two centuries.

The same semi-sociological reasoning is now being applied by some to the IS. It is true to say there is no point in simply dismissing the group as a bunch of psychopaths. Many of them clearly are, unless people who cut the heads off other people are not to be described as psychopaths, but since when has being a psychopath been a barrier to success in business or politics, so why not in business and politics of a different kind?

What the West, both governments and media, are finding it hard to get their heads around is that many young men are not fighting under the banner of the IS because they are alienated or unemployed but because they believe in its mission and because they are young and because they are idealistic.

They would hardly be the first human beings prepared to commit the most terrible crimes for what they consider to be a good reason. In the Middle East, they look around and what do they see? Corrupt governments, bribed and suborned by the West; countries invaded and destroyed time after time by Western armies; and tormented Palestine, the greatest blow to Muslim and Arab consciousness in history. What else can clean up this mess but a purging fire, destroying all in its way?

The end — a Middle East purified of all evils — justifies the means: at the hands of the West the region has experienced savagery packaged as civilisation, and only a greater level of savagery can overcome it. This is the central idea that drives IS.

There can be no compassion, no forgiveness, no redemption outside the narrow confines of IS ideology and no acceptance of anything or anyone that cannot fit within the narrowest and most punitive interpretation of Islam.

It will not work in the short run because the Shias, Kurds and Christians will fight against this new order to the last drop of blood, knowing that if they don’t their blood is going to be shed anyway. It will not work in the long run because while the Sunni mainstream can identify with the problem, it cannot identify with the solution. But the long run and the short term are abstracts: in the here and now it is working and what should be done about it?

Iran is Shia, non-Arab and would be blocked from playing such a role by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The two obvious candidates are Turkey and Egypt, both of which are directly threatened by IS.

 For years, Turkish leaders Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu have been promoting Turkey as a leader of the Middle East. At a time when regional leadership is needed more than ever, one would think their chance had come. Yet when real leadership is needed Turkey shows no enthusiasm to step forward.

It has shied away from confronting IS, refusing to commit itself to the Western-led campaign (such as it is) unless and until its Western allies commit themselves to the simultaneous destruction of the Syrian government. With the US, the UN and European governments, changing tack, now acknowledging that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must be part of the solution, Turkey will never commit itself to their campaign.

Like Turkey, Egypt has a large army but, beyond the raids it has carried out on Libya and the suppression of takfiri action in Sinai, it is showing no interest in going any further. A joint political and military command to deal with a common problem is out of the question. Erdogan still regards ousted former president Mohamed Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt and has given sanctuary and comfort to the now proscribed Muslim Brotherhood.

REGIONAL RIVALRIES: These regional rivalries are the sea in which IS is swimming. The US is talking of a plan to retake Mosul by the summer, with a combined force of 25,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers.

It won’t work because the Kurds are not committed to defending an Arab city and because a far greater force would be needed to overwhelm IS in Mosul alone. The group has dug in and is preparing to defend itself. Anyway, an army seriously bent on conquest/liberation doesn’t signal its intentions months ahead of time, so one has to ask why the US is telegraphing its punches.

A serious military response to IS would have to involve a very large number of troops moving forward simultaneously on Mosul and Raqqa in Syria, where Turkey also wants the Syrian government destroyed and where the US talks of a political solution even while preparing to train thousands of armed men beyond Syria’s borders to pour into the campaign to destroy Al-Assad and his government.

It is talking of 5,000 men, but as a far greater number will be needed to tip the balance this will have to be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. What would be the real target of US ground intervention in Syria anyway: IS or the Syrian government? The muddle here is extraordinary, and even if IS in Iraq and Syria can be neutralised that still leaves Libya and a metastasising movement across the Middle East.

Turkey’s recent evacuation of the Shah Suleyman Tomb in Syria and the removal of the relics to a new site close to the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Ayn Al-Arab/Kobane highlights the ambivalence in the Turkish attitude to IS. Turkish commentators are concluding that this operation could not have been carried out without the cooperation of the Syrian Kurds and IS.

Video showed Turkish military vehicles, including tank transporters, passing along a road under a fluttering Turkish flag. Syria was not asked for its permission, naturally, but only informed of what the Turkish government intended to do.

The legality of the 1921 Franco-Turkish Treaty, a treaty signed between the Turkish government in Ankara and an occupying power, and the right of the Turkish government to take over other territory in Syria are questions that are hardly being raised. The Turkish flag has already been planted on this new plot of land. What role it might play in the campaign to bring down the Syrian government remains to be seen.

The nationalist emphasis by opposition parties, trying to score points against the government, is on the retreat from territory regarded as belonging to Turkey. The national Turkish interest in the perpetuation of this destructive war is a question that is not even being asked. Syria has been half destroyed and Turkey seriously damaged in a number of ways.

Where is the benefit to anyone here, except Israel and the US? Is there someone who can step forward — who is prepared to step forward — and take the lead in sorting out this confusing, hopeless, immoral and sordid mess and put the interests of the Syrian people and the region at large ahead of its own?

Apparently, there is not.

The writer is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

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