This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.
A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.
Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.
The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.
The sectarian horror has taken the wind out of Iraqi resistance. Those who fought the Americans in the past and who choose not to collaborate now have gone quiet. Moqtada Sadr, for instance, having lost control of the more thuggish elements of his Jaish al-Mahdi and therefore much of his mass popularity, has disappeared into the Qom seminaries. He will emerge at some point with Ayatullah status. What he does then will depend on what comes next, which is not at all clear.
Will the monthly round of bomb attacks reignite civil war? Will resistance mount again as Iraqis move against the permanent US megabases on their land? Will there be a further American withdrawal? And if so, what happens then? Might Saudi Arabia be committed to preventing a Shia-majority government from functioning, at any price? Would it fund and arm an anti-Shia militia more fully than it has done in the past? Its attempts to defeat the Iraqi Shia would fail, but they could spark a new war in which the Saudis face Iran by proxy or even, by a chain of mismanagement, directly. This could satisfy perverse American and Israeli strategists as much as the Iraq-Iran conflict did in the 80s.
The Saudis and Iranians may already be fighting by proxy in Yemen. Saudi military involvement in its southern neighbour is a public fact (the kingdom is heroically bombarding poverty-stricken villagers with its expensive American bombs). Its enemy is the rebellious Houthi tribe, Shias. The president of collapsing Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, preposterously tells us that the Houthis are armed by both Iran and al-Qa’ida. Saudi media describes the enemy as ‘Shia’. Iranian media describes ‘Wahhabi’ massacres. Meanwhile, Iranian pilgrims have stopped visiting Mecca until such time as the Saudi authorities guarantee their protection from intolerable Wahhabi mistreatment.
In Palestine nothing is resolved and nothing is in sight of resolution. With the cleavage between Gaza and the West Bank successfully engineered, with Gaza walled, starved and bombed, with the West Bank warned that it will suffer Gaza’s fate if it removes its collaborator government, the Palestinian liberation project is in desperate straits. For now the West Bank enjoys a somewhat improved economy and freedom of movement, quietly realises the two state dream is over, and waits. For now Gaza does its best to survive, and waits. For now.
The Gaza model applies to Lebanon too. The general message is that a future Israel-Hizbullah conflict will be ‘a hundred times worse’ in its effects on Lebanese civilians than the atrocious 2006 assault. Hizbullah is careful and quiet, but by most accounts even better dug in than it was four years ago. Lebanon, meanwhile, is more stable than it has been since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. After Hizbullah called the bluff of Hariri junior and his Saudi-US-backed militia, and with the mediation of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US have retreated to their traditional positions of influence in Lebanon. Saad Hariri has visited Damascus.
Syria has regained its strength. The Obama administration will continue to back Zionist expansion, has kept Bush-era anti-Syrian sanctions in place, and only yesterday appointed an ambassador to Damascus, but ‘regime change’ is no longer an American fantasy and, as noted above, a natural, non-militarised Syrian influence in Lebanon has been accepted. Syria’s position is again what it was under the late president Hafez al-Asad: Syria can not change the region on its own, but nobody can change the region without it.
The good news, and perhaps the what-comes-next, is Turkey.
When I lived in Turkey in the early nineties the country was surrounded by enemies. Now all of its neighbours are friends. Internal relations between Turks and Kurds are also much better than they were a few years ago. Both developments stem from a long-overdue dilution of Kemalist national chauvinism brought about by new social forces. These are the upwardly mobile Anatolian Islamic-democrats represented by Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. They aim to build an inclusive post-Ottoman society, and their economy is flourishing.
An intellectual associated with the Justice and Development Party told a friend of mine that the best things to happen to Middle Eastern Muslims in the 20th century had been Ataturk and Wahhabism, because both challenges – the militantly secularist and the sectarian literalist – had forced (and are forcing) Muslims to rethink their core values. Turkey’s Sufi-based Sunnism is an attractive model which could sap the appeal of Salafism in the ex-Ottoman Arab world. But the Turkish-led alliance that is emerging inludes the Shia world too. Turkey has defended Iran’s right to nuclear energy and, against American orders, is investing enthusiastically in the Iranian economy.
Turkey and the Arabs are ending a century of mutual alienation. The late Ottoman state degenerated from a multicultural Muslim dominion into an empire on the European model in which nationalist Turks oppressed the Arab territories into stagnation. Arab nationalism flared in response. In what was a historical mistake – but perhaps a necessary one – in 1917 the Arabs accepted the help of the British to rid themselves of Turkish rule. The British promised an independent Arab state; what the Arabs got was the Sykes-Picot dismemberment of their homeland and the resulting irrevocably corrupt states system. Palestine was lost.
Ataturk defended the Turkish homeland from dismemberment and constructed a functioning European-style nation-state, but one run by the army. The governing ideology was fervently ethno-nationalist, precluding cooperation with non-Turks. Greeks fled to Greece while Greek Turks fled to Turkey. The Armenians had already been cleansed. Ataturk considered Turkey’s Arab and Persian neighbours to be degenerate oriental races. Official mythology taught that Turks had invented language and civilisation, that the ancient Sumerians were Turks, and that Turks had colonised India when the Indians lived in trees. Across the border in Syria, Baathist myths repeated these ideas in an Arab mirror.
The practical contention between the two countries was over Wilayat Iskenderoon, or Hatay in Turkish, which the French Mandate (mandated to guard Syria’s territorial unity) gave to Turkey in 1938 in return for a promise not to join Germany in a future war. Arab nationalists in Syria and elsewhere were outraged by the loss of ancient Antioch, of Iskenderoon, Syria’s major port, and of the green lands and markets around these cities. Syrian maps still show Wilayat Iskenderoon as part of Syria, although Syrians don’t resent the Turks like they resent the Israelis occupying the Golan. The Turks are old neighbours and they do not seek to drive out the Arabs. Now that the border is wide open, now that Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians can enter Turkey without a visa, now that Turkish-Syrian trade is burgeoning, Iskenderoon does not even feel so lost any more.
Syria gave up the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, greatly reducing Turkish hostility. Syrian president Bashaar al-Asad and his wife Asma al-Akhras are popular figures in Turkey, and Turkish prime minister Erdogan is wildly popular in the Arab world, particularly after his public rebukes of Israel during the Gaza massacre.
The friendship with Syria shows that Turkey is engaging not only with Arabs but with Arab and Muslim interests too. Its hardening position in support of the Palestinians allows a voice of Muslim conscience to be heard in the international arena. This marks a change. The regional US-client regimes seem suddenly much less relevant, and the age of the ‘moderate camp’ versus ‘resistance front’ duality, which reigned a couple of years ago, has already passed.
Turkey has democratic stability on its side. Another military coup is highly unlikely, firstly because the miltary itself contains representatives of the new Turkish mood, and secondly because the army’s secularist hard-core would dash its hopes of moving further into the European Union’s embrace if it were to seize power. But it is Turkey’s slow realisation that the EU will never allow it to be a full member that has encouraged it to claim its place in Asia, where it belongs. In Asia it is admirably placed as the conduit of Iraqi, Iranian and Caspian Sea oil, as the bridge to Europe and Europe’s Muslims, and as a potential shield for the region against American attacks.
The Turkish-led alliance could prevent a fresh outbreak of war in Iraq. Turkey would make a sounder sponsor of Iraqi Sunni interests than Saudi Arabia, and could moderate Iranian influence in the country. An alliance is also essential for cross-border cooperation over water and fuel distribution as climate change and resource shortages loom across the region.
I have great hopes for the development of this alliance despite the potential weakness of Iran in the short to medium term (it is to be hoped that the Islamic Republic shows enough flexibility to adapt to some of the demands of its alienated portion), and despite the differences in the ruling ideologies – democratic-Islamist, theocratic, and Arabist – of its member states. In fact these differences are a good thing. They will discourage hasty leaps at union of the unthought type that Syria tried with Egypt in 1958.
What is necessary for the alliance’s growth is the long term stability of the relationship and an ongoing interchange of ideas along with people and goods. The alliance will represent Turks, Aryans and Arabs, and may eventually erase the imported nationalism which has so cursed us. It could be the first serious regional axis of the modern period, the first axis not organised by an imperial sponsor. Russia and China would be natural partners. A confident and informed power to ensure Middle Eastern rights and responsibilities would of course be in Europe’s interest too. Is it too much to hope that the emerging alliance will mark the end of Western dominance in the region? Could the alliance begin to fill the gaping hole left by the disappearance of the Caliphate?