This Post-Everything Middle East Moment

BEIRUT - With daily car bombs, suicide bombers, assassinations, kidnappings, ethnic warfare and collapsing government control across the Middle East, we are moving into the post-everything moment of our modern history—post-colonial, post-nationalist, post-statehood, post-imperial, post-Islamist, post-revolutionary, post-developmental and post-modern.
The immediate focus of most analysts is on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Salafist-takfiri militants, some allied with Al-Qaeda, control bits of territory and clash with others to expand their footholds. Constantly changing combinations of groups work together, coexist uneasily, coalesce into greater coalitions and ‘fronts’, or actively fight each other and ruling regimes. Leading examples include the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, the Tawhid Brigade, Army of Islam, the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Free Syrian Army, the Mujahideen Army, and many others.
The chaotic situation reflects several different but simultaneous nationalist and state dynamics, as old orders fray (the Sykes-Picot frontiers, the post WWII secular and nationalist state, the post-1970 modern Arab security state) and new organizations and movements emerge that reflect older non-state identities (religion, tribe, ethnicity).
In some places, like Syria, Islamists and secular nationalists battle to overthrow the incumbent regime and establish a more pluralistic and democratic governance system, while some also fight each other. In others, like Iraq, Libya or Yemen, a combination of tribal and Islamist forces challenge the government to redress oppressive government policies or try to take over the government. In others yet, militants like ISIS aim to control territory and establish “emirates” where fundamentalist Islamic rules pertain, while also battling everyone else—Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Israelis, Kurds and any available foreigners.
As these hardline Islamist militants battle for control of towns in western Iraq and northern Syria, such as Fallujah, Aleppo and Raqqa, six major rough groups of main actors seem to dominate the scene: hardline Salafists like ISIS, others like Nusra and Ahrar esh-Sham, Arab-backed mainstream Islamists like the Islamic Front, the Free Syrian Army and its mostly non-Islamist allies, various Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, and tribal forces across the Syrian-Iraqi desert regions.
Syria and Iraq are the most extreme but not the only examples of chronic conflicts in Arab countries, as we also see in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and parts of Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. Ordinary citizens who pay the price of conflict are mostly helpless to do anything in the face of tens of thousands of armed fighters, most of whom are supported by foreign governments or financiers. The role of regional or foreign powers that have often shaped the political configuration of the modern Middle East is a hotly debated issue today.
An intriguing front page article in the New York Times last weekend (“Power vacuum in Middle East lifts militants, Jan. 4) noted that: “For all its echoes, the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.”
I was startled by this presumptuous attitude that exploding sectarian hatreds would worsen in a post-American Middle East, because my own impression from living through the last 45 years of American involvement in the region is precisely the opposite: that American foreign policies contributed deeply to the injustices and distortions that led to the destabilizing emergence of Middle Eastern sectarian tensions, religious extremism and widespread citizen discontent. These sentiments manifest themselves today in different forms, including ISIS and similar militancy, popular revolutions to overthrow dictatorial regimes, and the patient writing of new constitutions and civil codes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
The deadly combination of Washington’s decades of strong support for Arab dictators and its profound pro-Israeli biases, combined with the criminal and incompetent legacy of Arab autocrats themselves, created a situation from the 1960s to the 1990s that slowly gnawed away at the foundations and the integrity of modern Arab statehood. The Anglo-American assault on Iraq and wiping away its state structures created an environment that allowed the birth or spread of contemporary Islamist extremists like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant. (Washington is not the only miscreant, for its promotion of Islamist militants in Iraq built on the initial Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that sparked the birth of Al-Qaeda in the first place.)
Today’s mayhem and chaos in Iraq-Syria-Lebanon result from many causes, including the impact of criminal American and British policies in Iraq in 2003 and beyond; these policies persist in the form of American drone assassinations that kill some Islamist fighters and many civilians, but simultaneously prod the mobilization of many, many more militants.
It’s bad enough to have chaos, confusion and criminality in Arab political movements; we should try to avoid these things in serious journalistic analyses of the facts of history. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global