Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New Arabism

However difficult it may be to realise, the Arabs need a new collective security order

No inter-Arab issue or dispute, however grave or deep, can outweigh, strategically, the types of issues or challenges that the Arabs encounter from their surrounding regional and international environment. To aggravate this equation, the Arab countries have been buffeted by three simultaneous storms that added internal challenges to the external ones. The first was the so-called Arab Spring and its consequences, whether in the form of collapsed states or the considerable toll paid by the countries that managed to weather this storm. The second is the cyclone of radical terrorist groups that have spread their corruption politically and militarily in the Arab region. The phenomenon may be at its most flagrant in the so-called “caliphate” that straddles Syria and Iraq, but the other forms that have infested other Arab countries wreaked no less attrition on resources and capacities. The third is the storm of plummeting oil prices depriving many Arab countries of important resources and capacities they could otherwise have mustered against the two other storms. The three storms combined lent added impetus to regional challenges and opened previously unavailable opportunities to various countries outside the Arab region. Iran, for example, began to up its pressures on a number of Arab countries and Israel seized the opportunity to perpetuate its occupation of Palestinian territories that was further facilitated by the fact that the Palestinians are weaker and more divided than ever.

The 16 March 2017 edition of Forward featured an article by Yossi Alpher (who worked for Mossad, served as director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies and authored numerous works on the Arab-Israeli conflict) with the title, “Israel’s Next Big War” which suggested that the complications of the situation in Syria at present could lead to an Israeli-Iranian confrontation. Developments on the ground in the Syrian civil war combined with the mounting influence of Hizbullah in Lebanon, which is now officially in control of the south instead of the army, might generate a situation that could draw Israel into war, he wrote. The day after this article appeared, it looked like the scenario could actually unfold. Israeli planes bombed Hizbullah military bases in Syria and on their return they were pursued by Syrian missiles. According to the Syrian account, the missiles succeeded in downing an Israeli jet. Israel denies this and countered that it had managed to intercept the missiles using its Arrow anti-missile system. Which of these narratives is true is not the issue; rather, what concerns us is the explosiveness of the Syrian situation and the repercussions of a conflagration there not just on Syria, Iraq and Lebanon but also on neighbouring Arab countries.

It is important to note that various parties in the Syrian crisis have created weapons and political bridges with Russia that was the primary cause for the shift in the balances in the civil war. On 9 March, Netanyahu made his fourth trip to Moscow in eight months. Perhaps the only visible portion of that interaction was the need to coordinate over the activities of Russian and Israeli aircraft in Syrian airspace. The hidden portion of the iceberg remains open to conjecture. Russia also has its own channels for coordinating with Iran and, by extension, Hizbullah and all the other Shia groups coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. This, in turn, led to a form of Russian-Turkish co-management of the Syrian crisis. Now add to the foregoing the ambiguity in the American position. The US is moving toward a greater military presence on the ground preparatory to the battle to liberate Raqqa while its Defense and State Departments regard Russia as an adversary in Syria and President Donald Trump, himself, has said that he could not agree with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, personally, on many issues ranging across the world’s continents, including the Syrian question.

Such interwoven positions and situations are not new in the history of the major conflicts that erupted in the Middle East and the Arab region on the heels of the abovementioned storms. They have combined to pit the Arabs against a very lethal regional reality that, in turn, compels them to face the fact that no Arab country can contend with this threat on its own and that whatever problems Arab countries may have with one another dwindle in comparison to that grim reality. More importantly, the stronger inter-Arab relations are, the greater is each individual country’s capacities to manage its international alliances effectively and to interact wisely with the major powers that assess any country they deal with, not just in terms of that particular country’s capacities but also in terms of the extent of its regional influence. In this context, we should consider two important developments in the Arab region. The first is that Egyptian-Saudi relations have turned upward. The shift began with symbolic gestures and culminated in positive actions that ultimately work to enhance Arab strengths and capacities. The second is the approaching Arab Summit that offers an additional opportunity to promote smoother inter-Arab relations at many levels as well as to devise a common path that the major Arab powers can take in order to contend with the complex and volatile reality described above.

True, Arab summits in the past have not always been forums that inspired optimism. However, the summit this year is taking place under circumstances that are extremely strenuous for all Arab countries and these have acquired a sufficient degree of realism to enable them to create a new mode for Arab cooperation. Perhaps “the new pan-Arabism” is the best term for this new mode that is based on the convergence of the pressing strategic interests of all Arab parties, none of which have the resources to promote these interests on their own. The “new pan-Arabism” will be markedly different to the “conventional pan-Arabism” that swept the region in the 1950s and 1960s. That concept was founded on the notion of an “Arab nation with an eternal mission” that sought to unify its component countries into an Arab federation stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Decades later, the lesson was driven home that the divergent circumstances of Arab countries formed insurmountable impediments to the realisation of such a concept that ultimately proved to be more of an avenue to division than an avenue to unity.

The “new Arabism” involves no more and no less the establishment of a regional security order to safeguard the peace and security for the Arab states that managed to withstand the abovementioned storms. At the same time, it will work to gradually revive the cohesion of Arab countries that were infected by the viruses of radicalism, violence, civil war and disintegration due to sectarian strife. Creating such a system will not be easy in a region that is so complex and where the difficulties arising from this complexity give strategic advantages to outside powers that are seeking to attain hegemonic aims. But regardless of how great the obstacles to the establishment of such an order are, we need to bear in mind that if the current situation persists it will wreak a disastrous toll on us whether international powers agree to manage the conflicts here or whether regional powers fight over the distribution of the spoils there. The details of all this are innumerable. Although it is said that the devil lurks in the detail, wisdom and foresight can bring forward angels that can testify to a reality that is no longer sustainable.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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