Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The changing Middle East

Prof. Uzi Rabi, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, spoke at Netanya AACI.  This is my brief summary of his talk.  His initial message was that the Middle East is not what it used to be.  Those who thought that there might be a peaceful era in the 2000s have been very disappointed, including Pres. Obama, who went to Cairo in 2005 to deliver his message of peaceful coexistence.  The whole group of military dictatorships that had controlled the Arab World and had maintained the State status quo, namely Libya under Qaddafi, Egypt under Mubarak, Syria under Assad, Yemen, Tunisia and so forth have all been swept away. The outcome of the so-called "Arab Spring" has not been a fluourishing of democracy as the more optimistic thought, rather the reverse.  The contested regimes that have emerged from the chaos are anything but democratic, they range from a mild authoritarian regime in Tunisia, through a reversion to military control in Egypt (even though Gen. al Sisi was elected President) to the totalitarian Islamic State, that massacres and beheads opponents.
Perhaps we should have expected something like the Sunni Islamic State, since politics abhors a vacuum, and the abdication of the US role in the Middle East by the Obama Administration, by their withdrawal from Iraq and reduction of forces in Afghanistan left the field to the disgruntled Sunnis.  By supporting the pro-Shia regime of Pres. al-Maliki in Iraq and failing to take any direct action against the Assad regime in Syria, the US left the power vacuum that former al Qaeda supporters like al-Baghdad, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the IS, have filled.  The eastern Anbar province of Iraq was easy pickings for a Sunni Islamist military organization from Syria.  They now control the area from Aleppo in the east to Mosul in the west and have ca. 10 million people under their control.  They are a state in the making.  The States of Syria and Iraq, which were originally the invention of the French and British imperialists respectively, according to their Sykes-Picot Treaty during WWI, no longer really exist as we knew them.
We all must change our perspective, what we thought we knew before must be jettisoned, we must adapt to a new set of criteria in the Middle East.  For example, when he was a graduate student doing research on the Middle East in London Prof. Rabi came across an exchange of corespondence between Winston Churchill, then the Colonial Secretary, and the Deputy High Commissioner in Baghdad Col. Arnold Wilson.  In it Churchill questions whether the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia could be expected to coexist together in the new State of Iraq, Wilson assured him confidently that they can and there would be no problem on that score.  Fast forward 100 years and we can see how wrong that prediction was. Actually the only thing that united them was opposition to the British.  We must learn that what matters in the Middle East is allegiance to sect (Sunni or Shia), ethnic group (Kurd or Arab) and religion (Christian, Muslim).  Democracy, human rights and elections are concerns of the west, not of the east.   


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