WHY THE MIDDLE EAST IS FLYING APART
By Paul Merkley.
Who can doubt that the entire Middle East is getting closer every day to the brink of chaos?
The Syrian Arab Republic. .
Inevitably, some parts of the Middle East are closer to that day than others. But to get some sense of how rapidly things move from apathy to chaos in that region, we recall that when, back in December 2010, the presenters on global television news-shows discovered the arrival of the Arab Spring, all the experts to whom they turned agreed that the most secure regime in the region was that of the Bashir al-Assad in Syria. American governments going back at least to Nixon and including the current Obama government had publicly declared their confidence that the Assad regime was making a deliberate and cautious transition to democracy – very soon. Even as the first signs of “Spring” were appearing in Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement of March 27, 2011, expressed agreement with “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months [and] have said they believe he[Bashir al-Assad] is a reformer.” (“The Impending Implosion of Syria,” August 12, 2012.)
While this official notion of Assad as conscientious reformer impressed no one who knew anything about the history of Syria, it did seem hard to deny that, in the spring of 2011, the Assad regime was the one most likely to remain intact beyond the immediate crisis. The thinking here was that Syria had the most professional armed forces, including an experienced air force, and that these were bound in exceptional loyalty to their President by the fact that they were mainly recruited from a closely-bound sect called the Alawites, to which belonged (at that time) about 12 per cent of the population. Syria’s economy was likely the strongest in the region.
At that time, and for quite a few months to come, I saw no reason to dissent from this judgment about Syria’s relative stability, while I dissented fiercely from the fantasy about its leader’s intention to effect a deliberate and peace transition to democracy. (See, “Implosion: Does Syria Have A Future,” Bayview Review, February 15, 2016.) Yet today, for the time being, the attention of the news-networks is fixated on Syria, where a civil war began just a few weeks into Spring and has become more brutal every week since. Roughly 400,000 persons, about 11.5% of the population, have been killed; another 2 million have been wounded; forty-five per cent of the population have been displaced, 6.3 million internally, while more than four million have fled to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon (1.14 million), Jordan (608,000) and Turkey (815,000). All major and middle-sized population centres are now as devastated as Berlin was in April, 1945. The economy, as the Guardian puts it, “has become a black hole” (February 11, 2016.)
The Republic of Yemen.
But an argument could be made that it is Yemen that is closest of all the Arab states to becoming a complete basket case. Politically, it is a vipers’ nest. No one on earth – no government, no NGO, none of the most respected expert commentators – has managed to sort out and correctly label the multitude of forces engaged in the political struggle there. There are at least three rival governments, but there are many more armies than there are governments, and many more suicide squads than there are armies. One of these governments came into the world suddenly when a fanatically-Islamist major tribe, the Houthis, suddenly won the loyalty of most of the north of the country, and then swept southward to drive one of the country’s Presidents, Abed Rabbuh, from his palace and his seat of government in Sana’a. This movement has been struggling ever since to bring the rest under its yoke.
The two other “governments” are ruled by classic Arab kleptocrat/dictators, Abed Rabbuh and Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seem to be constantly losing, winning-back, exchanging and losing again the two major population centres, Sana’a and Aden, which had been the seats of national government in more stable times. The situation has tempted the rival regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran into a proxy war. The King of Saudi Arabia announced formation a few months ago of a coalition (which has grown to include Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan) dedicated to crushing the Houthi-led regime. To accomplish this task, the allies have been conducting airstrikes throughout Yemen, and shelling population centres from the soil of Saudi Arabia as well as from ships at sea.
About the middle of the first decade of this century, the U.S. government declared its interest in seeing the white hats win, and has done this by carrying out targeted killings, on the ground and more recently by means of drone strikes from the air, against leaders of the protean Islamist groups; some of these are ribs-out-of-the side of al –Qaeda, but others are sponsored by other militant gangs. ISIS is now well-entrenched as well.
Today, the United States is providing intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign. Nobody seems to understand why.
According to the UN, from March 2015 to March 2016 over 6,500 people have been killed in Yemen, including 3,218 civilians. In short: the crisis in Yemen has so far reached roughly the dimensions and the character of the Syrian civil War by middle of 2012 – with the difference that in the case of Yemen the major outsiders became involved at the very beginning, rather than coming in along the way, as in Syria. But the conflict has about it all the elements that it needs in order to soon begin hurtling over the cliff into chaos.
EFailing and Failed States.
But casting our glance away from these two extremely unsettled scenes (Syria and Yemen), and reviewing the state of affairs in the Arab world as a whole, we see that even where people are living more-or-less at peace (for the moment) it is easy to picture any one of the Arab States entering just as suddenly and just as irrevocably upon the same apocalyptic path as Syria is now on.
All Arab States have to be reckoned as failing, if not utterly failed, states. Every few years, the United Nations publishes a series of reports on Human Development in all parts of the developing world. An index is worked out establishing the degree of progress that nations of the developing world are making under such headings as security of life, levels of health, levels of literacy, levels of economic accomplishment, levels of freedom of the press, standards of justice, freedom of religion, relative equality between men and women. Some modest gain in general literacy has been scored over the span of the last few Reports on the Arab States. In all other categories, the Arab world is falling further behind with every Report. You might have guessed that it was the African nations, or perhaps the nations of Central or South America, that fell into this category: but no, in all other regions of the world even the poorest nations, even the most politically disturbed, record slight improvement under most of these headings. The Arab nations register steady decline. [Human development data for the Arab states, http://www.arab-hdr.org/data/indicators]
The journals of opinion are full of deep-thinking essays explaining why this is happening. Most of these essays focus on the failings of the Arab ruling elements that took over as the European empires withdrew (during the 1940s and 1950s.) There came a moment just five years or so ago, when it seemed that this state of affairs – the appalling record of governance by post-imperial regimes – was about to be redeemed by the Arab Spring. Fresh breezes of democracy were sweeping through this “medieval” world (as journalists liked to say, with the implication that some automatic law of history would draw post-imperial Arab nations “forward”, as European life had been drawn forward, out of “medievalism” towards modern life.) But the bottom line to this story is that it is hard to think of anywhere in the Arab world where people are now living under better circumstances than when Arab spring began.
In Egypt and perhaps Jordan, some degree of civility, of normal life, has been restored. It pains me, as it does every decent person, to have to say this but the way that this was accomplished was by sweeping democracy away, because democracy everywhere in the Middle East was leading swiftly to triumph of Islamist movements, and these quickly proved incapable of governing. In Egypt, for example, to restore the conditions for decent life, it proved necessary to put the democrats in cages and impose military rule. Elsewhere – throughout North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria) Islamist terrorist organizations, some derived from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, others deriving from al-Qaeda and other more recent movements – have established themselves as the governing forces within largest parts of these countries.
I am convinced that there is a much larger story of which this is only the most recent chapter. You are forgiven if you do not see the connection immediately. But bear with me. That larger story is the imminent genocide of the Christian people of the Arab world. That story can be summarized like this:
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Christians in the Middle East were 13% of the whole population. Today, they are under 1%.
I intend to move to that story in an essay to follow.