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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Syria and Middle East: The Fallacy of Missing the Forest for the Trees

Keeping the tragic transformation of ‘Arab Spring’ in historical perspective

(First published by Foreign Policy Journal on 15 Aug 2012)

As the fighting between the government forces and the rebels intensifies amid visionary planning for post-Assad Syria, it is easy to point to either the brutality of the Assad regime or the sectarian tendency of the rebellion, but disproportionate focus on the daily events on ground has served to obfuscate some crucial historical realities that are certain to shape not only the outcome of the present conflict, but also the future of the entire region. Historically, the manipulation of the rulers of the region by the West has served to make the division between the states dominated by two Islamic branches unbridgeable. Threatened by the popular upsurge against the ‘our bastards’ in the region, the rulers in the west were prompt in transforming the struggle against injustice into the ugly sectarian bloodletting by condoning the unceremonious suppression of the Bahraini uprising by Saudi forces. The same process of transformation has gone too far in Syria and it is no longer a fight between good and bad or between pro- and anti-democracy forces.

“Do you think that Mossad will now liberate Palestinians with due help of CIA, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?” This was how I retorted to one of the supporters of Syrian rebellion who had ‘Palestine’ in his Twitter username. In a short but charged conversation with two of the enthusiastic supporters of the rebellion in Syria, I alluded the instance of CIA and Saudi support for Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s and about the likelihood of same cycle of the West nurturing the extremists and waging the war against them being repeated in Syria where it is increasingly clear that Al Qaeda is one of the important beneficiaries of the dollars and weapons delivered by the gulf monarchies with due help from U.S. and Turkey.

They tried to argue for some time deriding the crimes committed by Assad, but eventually ended up alleging me of “having sniffed some hallucinating stuff” and a moment later I was blocked so that I cannot even retrieve the whole conversation now. The debate surrounding the raging war in Syria has polarized people so much that they are ready to allege those who disagree with them to be just ‘hallucinating’, and so it was during the NATO bombardment of Gaddhafi’s Libya. This was not, however, the rule from the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, when even Aljazeera’s coverage was objective enough to interest a keen watcher. This change in perception about the apparently similar uprisings has been the result of the fact that the wave of rebellion having traveled from Tunisia to Syria has morphed from a true revolt for democracy and human rights to an armed conflict dictated by vicious tussle among the vested interests of the regional and world powers.

What makes the trend of events in Middle East, the Eurocentric name of West Asia and part of North Africa, so divisive? Outsiders often engage with any region of the world with the central objective of promoting and preserving their own vested interests, and it is natural for different powers to have divergent views and policies. But what divides people and states with similar economic, social, and political constraints and predicaments forcing them to take diametrically opposite stances in so many existential issues? Answers to these questions have to be sought in light of the larger political and social realities of the region.

Historically, the Middle East has become a furnace of violence and injustice with perpetual suffering of large proportion of population while the powers outside the region keep manipulating the rulers of the region so that the endless flow of oil away from the deserts remains uninterrupted. Not long before, a swarm of dictators ironically referred as ‘our bastards’ in the west (of course with some notable exceptions) were ruling the region, often with an iron fist and utter disregard for democracy and human rights. The much touted Arab Spring was hailed for signaling the new dawn of democracy in this part of the world. But now well in the middle of the second year since the early uprisings that caught the dictators of the region off guard, the autocratic pillars of Western domination of the region appear more powerful and resilient than ever. In fact, a process of replacing ‘their bastards’ with ‘our bastards’ seems to be in full swing.

These developments have given birth to host of new paradoxes in the region already fraught with plentiful of them. One of the major paradoxes of the moment is that some of the apparently most loyal fighters of the Palestinian cause, who have been resisting the Israeli apartheid founded on support of the West led by the U.S., have ended up streamlining their priorities in Syria with exactly those of U.S. and Israel. The shift of Hamas’s headquarters out of Damascus early in the rebellion speaks volumes about this strategic realignment. While the real sufferers in Syria have little to choose between the bullets of the regime and the machine guns and bombs of the rebels, the war itself is increasingly morphing from a rebellion against a despotic regime to a brutal and ugly sectarian conflict; something even the New York Times is forced to entertain in opinion pages.

For a deeper understanding of the developments in the Middle East that have taken place since what started as ‘Arab Spring’ last year, it is necessary to know the dynamics of engagement of the wWst, which is leading the present day world militarily and politically, with this part of the world. A useful starting point could be the creation of the state of Israel in the erstwhile Palestine, administered by the then receding empire of Britain. The Arab states were then unequivocally opposed to partition of Palestine to create two states, let alone the establishment of a bully Jewish state with no formal existence of the Palestinian state. The establishment of Israel with forcible eviction of the large majority of the Arab people from the land was a perfect recipe of long-term conflict, and the subsequent Arab-Israel wars were inevitable.

Yet where do the Arabs stand today, the Arab people and the Arab states? How do they see the plight of Palestinians now? Tragically, today’s reality is that the old rivalry and acrimony of the Arab states with Israel has been buried down, almost irretrievably, thanks to the clever maneuverings of the west. The hatred to and wrath against Israel in particular and the west in general has been totally replaced by the impeccably engineered rivalry between the two sects of Islam: Sunni Gulf monarchies are morbidly paranoid about the Shiite Iranian regime and vice varsa.

What lies at the heart of this strategic realignment of the ruling powers in Middle East? Why is the West so capable of dealing with the Muslim world in an unequal arrangement in which the latter gets perpetual violence and economic hardship while the former gets the bounty of endless oil and gas flow? How has the West manipulated the game so as to make the Sunni-Shiite divide unbridgeable? To put it even more simply, why can’t the Muslims in Middle East just unite in peace to safeguard their own interests vis-a-vis the west?
In his highly revealing book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”, John Perkins gives the perfect answer to these questions. On a chapter titled “The Saudi Arabia Money-laundering Affair” or SAMA, he gives a detailed sketch of how the events in the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo reshaped the world particularly through the intimate engagement of rulers of Saudi Arabia and US:

“…In retrospect, I sometimes find it difficult to understand how Saudi Arabia could have accepted this condition. Certainly, most of the rest of the Arab world, OPEC and other Islamic countries were appalled when they discovered the terms of the deal and the manner in which the royal house capitulated to Washington’s demands.

The condition was that Saudi Arabia would use its petrodollars to purchase US government securities; in turn, the interest earned by these securities would be spent by the US department of Treasury in ways that enabled Saudi Arabia to emerge from a medieval society into the modern, industrialized world…”[1]

Perkins gives the stark summary of those developments that the Saudi Royals literally bartered the national interests, the regional interests and the interests of the oil-producing countries for one thing: the U.S. support for the autocratic regime in the pretext of transforming the Arabian deserts into plush western-style cities. In chapters that follow, Perkins insinuates into the Saudi behavior in the aftermath of the win-win arrangement with the U.S. when it tried to compensate for the loss of moral and religious values in the kingdom brought about by the western commercialism by exporting the Wahabbi ideological fundamentalism to other countries.

To utter dismay of the U.S. and the West, the similar arrangement with the Iranian king was obliterated by the Islamic revolution in 1979. A major conflict with Iran was thus inevitable, and an all out war on the pretext of the Iranian nuclear program still looms large. When similar plans failed to convince the idiosyncratic Saddam Hussein to emulate the Saudi monarchy, that eventually led to the invasion of Iraq, even though in a paradoxical turn of events, the Shiite majority in Iraq is now lurching closer to Iran more perceptibly than ever. The ouster last year of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was another major setback for the West, even though the time-tested policy of bribing the military for strategic gains is likely to avert any dreadful possibility of Israel being surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Yet the emerging reality is that the U.S. and the West are now forced to depend on and cooperate with the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, the synonyms of an authoritarian blend of religious fundamentalism and dynastic rule, more than ever. Although the bizarre outbursts of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan against Israel in the aftermath of deadly Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara caused pretty discomfort in the western capitals, he is likely to keep serving as a very loyal surrogate of the nexus of the west and the Gulf monarchies in handling the Syrian situation.

To summarize, do the street battles razing in Syria represent the whole picture of the process of change the Syrian landscape is undergoing? Many would like us to believe that, as well as the assertion that the brutality of the Assad regime has mandated the kind of overt support to the armed rebellion Turkey and other U.S. allies are providing. Some have gone as far as alleging the Obama administration of being ‘absent without leave‘ in the Syrian crisis, despite the incontrovertible evidence of the latter’s collaboration with regional foes of Syrian regime to unseat Assad.

All in all, the developments in the Middle East boil down to one conclusion: the tragic transformation of genuine revolts against oppressive politics and economic mismanagement into the ugly show down between the regional and world powers that end up fortifying the centuries long dominance of the region by the west by making the Shiite-Sunni divide further unbridgeable. The largest regional beneficiaries in the whole shoddy business are likely to be the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the time tested friends of the West; the ruling dynasty of Qatar, the new emblem of Middle East democracy that comes by carpet bombing; and Erdogan of Turkey, the most fashionable supporter of the Palestinian cause who can simultaneously support the dual and diametrically opposite causes of ‘liberating Palestine’ and serving the NATO and Israeli interests. The losers in the game are likely to be the regional rivals of the above trio and most importantly, the people in region who had hoped for genuine democratic transformation of the region.

Definitely, I am not hallucinating while saying all this, and if historically valid conclusions are to be drawn, it is always necessary to keep such trendsetting developments in proper historical perspectives before judging them, rather than fixating into the daily details of a particular conflict. Counting the number of murders committed by either the Assad regime or the rebels in Syria is akin to inspecting the trees while the whole forest represented by the shoddy deals between the western powers and their Gulf allies over the past many decades is conveniently ignored. Neither the tree-watcher nor the forest-watcher is hallucinating, but the tree-watcher is more likely to miss the larger and more relevant picture of the conflict, drawing misguided conclusions that are valid for a very short historical span.

This is exactly the vision of the West for every ruler in the region; one who can be satisfied by tending a tree at the expense of the whole forest. Any tree that digresses from that path can then be uprooted and replaced by another that is more loyal, insecure, paranoid and manipulable. It is the extreme tragedy that even the young and intellectuals from the region have been following suit behind their sclerotic rulers under careful manipulation by what goes in the name of mainstream media, owned either by the giant corporations in West or by the royal houses in Saudi Arabia and Qatar themselves. In the long run, this may prove even more detrimental to the interests of the people in the region than ‘hallucinating’ because, for the west, it is always far more convenient to gratify a ruler (often a despot) than to ensure the political freedom and economic well being of millions of people. So long as the core of vested interests can be kept intact, the fanciful robes of democracy and human rights can always be worn or castigated as required in particular situation. Add to that the lucrative prospects of ‘fighting terrorism’ in the region, and the history of cyclical violence is sure to be repeated with endless harvest of oil and strategic gains for the West while the people in West Asia and North Africa are perennially forced into misery and violence.

[1] John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (London: Ebury Press, 2006) pp 81-92

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