Middle East Predictions – David Gardner

The past two years have put paid to the notion that the Arab world was secure in the hands of pliable tyrants, a lazy equation of autocracy with stability that ignored the many ways in which Arab despotism was almost a purpose-built assembly line for the manufacture of Islamists. Yet, at the start of year three in the messy unfolding of the Arab awakening, the region approaches four potentially seismic moments.

The Syrian revolution and pending fall of the blood-soaked Assad dynasty; the dangerous stand-off with Iran; the wrenching succession facing the House of Saud; and the imminent death of the two states solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will all test the nerves and ingenuity of policy makers. America may wish to pivot towards Asia and Europe may be turned inward, but the Middle East offers no respite to international or regional actors. It is equally unforgiving of the reckless and the feckless.

 

It was the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, a rash roll of the regional dice, that reignited the historic battle between Sunni and Shia Islam. Syria and, potentially, Lebanon are currently the main frontline of this corrosive contest. Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority, an esoteric offshoot of Shiism that is the backbone and nervous system of his crumbling security state, is the Shia proxy around which Iran and Hizbollah, Lebanon’s parastatal Shia Islamist movement, have grouped.

Conversely, the west’s decision to stand back from Sunni majority Syria’s attempt to break free from the Assad regime in effect leaves the provision of aid and arms to the rebels to the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Libya, the US chose to “lead from behind”. In Syria, America and its European allies have chosen to subcontract to the Sunni supremacists of the Gulf. That has consequences. It has turned Syria into a magnet for jihadi extremists and enhanced the influence of local Islamist radicals beyond what Syria’s plural mosaic society would normally engender.

Something similar happened while the west dithered over Bosnia, creating an opening for veterans of the western-backed jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The consequences then were limited. The Wahhabis, as the Bosniaks called them, moved on to Chechnya. This time the jihadis are unlikely to give up a strategic position in the Levant, especially after they squandered the opportunity given them by the US-led occupation of Iraq, where they alienated the Sunni tribes and launched a self-defeating campaign of terror against the Shia majority.

The eventual fall of the Assads will strip Iran of its main Arab ally. That may encourage Israel, under an almost inevitably re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu, to attack Iranian nuclear installations. If Barack Obama wishes to avoid being sucked into conflict with Iran, he and his allies must set realistic negotiating goals. Tehran will have to be allowed to enrich uranium to a low level, under strict international monitoring and with the clear understanding that any attempt to develop a nuclear weapon is a red line.

If Israel holds to its red line of no enrichment, war looks inevitable. That would enable Tehran to: further corral its citizens; consolidate its power bases in Iraq and Lebanon; and reassert itself in the Arab arena, where the trend has been towards mainstream political Islam rather than its violent tributaries. Nothing would please the mullahs more than to re-emerge as the vanguard of the resistance to the great and lesser Satans, and champion of the Shia against the Sunni.

Across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, self-appointed champion of the Sunni, the House of Saud confronts a succession crisis. The cautious reforms of the ageing and infirm King Abdullah, who has been predeceased by two crown princes in just over a year, have evaporated in the face of regional uprisings and Iranian assertiveness. The ruling family is brandishing carrots and sticks: vast subsidies for everything from cheap housing to debt forgiveness, alongside a crackdown on all dissent and a revitalised role for the Wahhabi clerical establishment, which is sectarian and inimical to all reform.

The al-Saud, so factionalised they revere consensus, amount to an absolute monarchy with no absolute monarch, a symbiosis of temporal and religious power that needs to skip a generation and progress gradually towards a constitutional monarchy, open to the world and under the rule of law, offering opportunity as well as expanding social and political freedoms to its increasingly educated if conservative citizens.

If Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia are facing their moment of truth, then Israel is fast approaching the point of no return in its relations with the Palestinians.

The dimension of Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem has long been clear to anyone who can read a map. But the Netanyahu government’s latest plans to expand Jewish settlements on occupied land kill the idea of a viable Palestinian state stone dead. Every rampart to enclose east Jerusalem and encircle Bethlehem, and every wall and segregated bypass road to divide the West Bank, will shortly be in place, herding the Palestinians into Bantustans with, perhaps, the eventual possibility of some sort of supra-municipal and superintended government.

That can lead only to an apartheid-style struggle by a (probably reunified) Palestinian movement, demanding equal rights in a binational state, blackening the name of Israel internationally and calling into question the legitimate right of Jews to a state in the eternally disputed Holy Land.

There can be no unerring compass in this kind of minefield. But dithering over Syria, strategic ambiguity over Iran, and the west’s almost reflexive pandering to the Saudi and Israeli governments is hardly a way through. Stability requires strategic clarity and an underpinning of universal values, even if they are not uniform.

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