Rami El-Amine takes stock of the Arab revolutions three years on, arguing that counter-revolution has rolled back most of the gains made and created a level of instability and sectarianism that threatens all-out regional war. At the same time, in one of the bitterest ironies of this humanitarian catastrophe, this very instability may improve prospects for a nuclear agreement with Iran that could start a new dynamic toward peace in the region.
Polarization and instability characterize much of the globe as 2013 comes to a close. Massive, sustained protests nearly brought down the governments in Thailand and Ukraine; sectarian conflicts and attempted coups claimed the lives of over a thousand people in both the Central African Republic and South Sudan and displaced hundreds of thousands in the neighboring countries. Tributes to justice and peace marked the passing of that great freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, but in few places are the noble words at his funeral matched by deeds. And the Middle East – especially the many-sided war in Syria – continues to pose a threat to global stability and expose the contradictions and hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy.
COUNTER-REVOLUTION IN FULL SWING
On this third anniversary of the Tunisian revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, the state of the Arab revolutions is nothing short of disastrous. The main cause is the counter-revolutionary wave spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and backed by the U.S. and the European Union.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt where a coup by the military in July brought things back full circle to the darkest days of the Mubarak regime. The military introduced a law that essentially bans protests and then, in mid-December, designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The military has already killed hundreds of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in the streets; now they can arrest them, try them, and, if they are found guilty, sentence them to death.
After initially suspending some aid to the military, the U.S. has swung solidly behind it, praising the transitional government’s roadmap to democracy and criticizing Morsi and the Brotherhood.
The situation in Libya, where so much was made of the successful NATO intervention, is even worse. There isn’t even a functioning government to organize a coup against. Patrick Cockburn describes Libya as being in a state of “lawlessness and ruin.”
In Yemen, the derailment of the revolution by a Saudi-backed agreement has been compounded by Washington's drone war, which has killed at least 400 people. A Yemeni friend and activist Rooj Alwazir summarized it this way: “The Drone program has been legitimized and expanded by a president who is supposed to be bringing ‘change’ and ‘justice’ to the country. Killing civilians and not acknowledging their deaths are enabling communities to sympathize with Al Qaeda or similar militant groups who are providing support networks and addressing people’s economic needs.”
In Bahrain, where the Saudi military intervened directly to crush the revolution, the current situation is best described as a low-level intifada. The regime continues to use harsh repression to prevent another mass uprising.
Tunisia, which was the one ray of hope, dimmed with a series of assassinations of secular leaders this summer, which eventually forced Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates the government, to agree to form a more technocratic government. After a long deadlock, Ennahda was able to get the other parties in the ruling coalition to agree that their candidate, Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa, would head a new government responsible for drafting a new constitution.
SECTARIAN SPILLOVER FROM SYRIA THREATENS REGION
Then there’s Syria, where what began as an emancipator revolution has been squeezed to death by the Assad regime on one side and the Saudi and Qatari-led counter- revolution on the other. The result is over 120,000 Syrians killed (roughly equal numbers of government forces, rebels, and civilians) and more than 2.5 million refugees. Of course it is neighboring poorer countries like Lebanon and Jordan who have had to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis. Wealthier countries in the Gulf, the EU, and the U.S. have in contrast contributed to the humanitarian crisis by pouring arms into Syria, and they have been criticized by human rights organizations for not even taking in the small number of the refugees they committed to resettling.
The problem is especially dire in Lebanon. This small country of four million people has taken in over one million Syrians who have fled their homeland. The state is so weak that it can’t provide basic services like electricity and clean water for its own citizens let alone deal with the possible spread of polio, which has broken out in parts of Syria.
But it is the spread of sectarian warfare that poses the greatest threat to Lebanon and the region as a whole. More than 7,000 people, mostly Shi’a civilians, were killed in attacks this year in Iraq. A string of similar attacks involving car bombs and suicide bombers killed more than 150 people, again mostly Shi’a, and injured hundreds in Lebanon in just the last six months of 2013.
The carnage hit a new danger point December 27 when a car bomb targeted and killed former Finance Minister and Sunni leader Mohamad Chatah and five others. The Future Movement, the dominant Sunni party in Lebanon to which Chatah belonged, immediately blamed Hizbullah for the attack even after initial findings seemed to suggest otherwise. But facts are irrelevant. The point is to heighten anti-Shi’a sentiment to mobilize their Sunni base not just against Hizbullah but against the Syrian regime as well.
Although smaller than the other bombings in terms of casualties, family and friends in Lebanon fear that this could be the last straw and are staying indoors. The Shi’a have been restrained so far, mainly because of the discipline of Hizbullah and the group's refusal on principle to employ anti-Sunni rhetoric or encourage sectarian sentiments. But another indiscriminate attack in a Shi’a area could set people off.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of another attack is very high. An offensive by the regime assisted by Hizbullah has secured the strategic Damascus-Homs highway, cutting off the rebels – who are now dominated by sectarian groupings - from important supply routes from Lebanon. The more ground these Sunni jihadists or, more accurately, takfiris, lose to government forces (and they’re losing a lot) the more they and their Gulf benefactors rely on whipping up anti-Shi'a sectarianism to keep up the fight, including targeting civilians in Lebanon and Iraq. This is of course made easier by the brutality the Syrian regime has resorted to in places like Aleppo where its aerial bombardment has killed 500 people, including 150 children, in the past couple of weeks.
SAUDI ARABIA RAISES A TAKFIRI FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
Much of the failure of the initially promising Syrian uprising to consolidate as a non-sectarian and progressive alternative to Assad is due to Saudi meddling. A particular culprit is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. for 30 years who is leading the kingdom’s efforts to overthrow the Assad regime. After working to push out rival Qatar’s candidate to head the U.S. and Western-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and installing their own candidate to lead it, the Saudis under Bandar have now abandoned the SNC and its military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) altogether. They have put their money behind the Islamic Front.
Part of the reason for this lies in the FSA’s losses on the battlefield. But it is also a way for the Saudis to thumb their nose at the Obama administration for failing to directly intervene in Syria and for holding nuclear talks with Iran. A big driver of this is also the race to gain as much ground as possible against the regime before the Geneva II peace talks which have been set for January 22, 2014.
The Islamic Front is a coalition of seven Islamist opposition groups formed under Saudi auspices in November. It includes Jaysh al Islam (Army of Islam), one of the strongest rebel forces which Saudi Arabia also had a hand in creating in September. Even though the Front is meant to be a counterweight to the Al Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria (the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-ISIS), it shares their aim of establishing an Islamic (Sunni) state. Its member groups and their fighters overlap with and regularly coordinate attacks with the Al Qaeda groups, including attacks on the FSA. One of the member groups, Ahrar al Sham, has been implicated, along with the Al Qaeda groups, by Human Rights Watch in the sectarian massacre of 190 civilians in Latakia province in August. So instead of marginalizing the Al Qaeda groups the Islamic Front will actually strengthen them by further weakening the more secular SNC/FSA and by providing recruits, weapons, and funding that the Al Qaeda groups will benefit from.
The situation in Syria is beginning to resemble Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979, where the US-Saudi-Pakistan backed Mujahadeen gave birth to Al Qaeda. Reporters and analysts have finally begun to make this connection and warn that the convergence of takfiris from around the world now poses more of a threat than the Assad regime. It is no coincidence that they began seeing this right after the massive groundswell against the U.S. and the European Union intervening in Syria in the fall.
It’s taken a while but there are now some prominent officials who are beginning to see this. U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker, who’s been an Ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, recently said, "As bad as [Assad] is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence."
SYRIA DYNAMIC MAKES IRAN AGREEMENT MORE LIKELY?
The Obama administration’s decision to get serious about a nuclear agreement with Iran is due to many factors, including an over-stretched empire's reluctance to get bogged down in another Middle East war and desire to shift resources to Asia. But the way the Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions have unfolded - the explosive situation in Syria especially - may be adding further incentive for a settlement. The editors at MERIP point out: “More and more, it sank in to U.S. strategists’ minds that the counter-revolution cannot restore the status quo ante. To the contrary, either the counter-revolution has provoked recurrent intifada, as in Egypt, and to some degree, Bahrain, or it threatens social collapse, as in Syria. The agony of Syria is particularly worrisome, from a geopolitical vantage, because it could end in the redrawing of post-World War I borders or permanent population transfer that would shake the foundations of US-allied regimes in Jordan and Iraq.”
Conflicts Forum echoes this assessment: “It is plain enough too that America’s regional allies have not been able to deliver on U.S. interests: they can neither contain Iran, nor stabilize Syria or the region (but rather are actively destabilizing it); and more importantly, they certainly cannot deal with spawning jihadist cells… The U.S. is disinvesting militarily from the region in order to invest militarily in Asia. America might wish to keep all its balls in play, but it is overstretched militarily and financially – and must prioritise. Obama was explicit… this means that the U.S. will rigorously reduce the priorities on which it will spend political and military commitment … And the American public mood is no longer prepared for the U.S. to be sucked either by Israel or Saudi Arabia into another Middle Eastern war, for their own distinct purposes.”
These factors combine with pressure from Russia, China and some in the EU to come to an agreement. But Israel, AIPAC, Saudi Arabia, and the Neocons are dead set against it. The biggest recipients of campaign funding from AIPAC - Senators Robert Menendez, Mark Kirk, and Chuck Schumer - have introduced a bill with strong bipartisan support that will increase sanctions on Iran even further in the hopes of torpedoing the agreement. In the hopes of heading off this bill, Obama is trying to pacify Israel by imposing other restrictions on Iran and Saudi Arabia by backing a defense agreement “that would effectively establish the kingdom as the region’s military superpower”.
The stakes for an agreement with Iran couldn’t be higher. An agreement would defuse two potential triggers of a regional war. The first is an Israeli attack on Iran and the second, more indirect, is from the conflict in Syria. Iran could play a critical role in pressuring the Syrian regime to agree to some compromise with the opposition, including getting Assad to agree to not run in the 2014 Syrian elections. It’s critical that the grassroots opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria this past fall be remobilized around securing an agreement with Iran.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
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