“The event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in siaze and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border.
Just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world.
I traveled a lot in the Middle East during the nineties when I was a working man. I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation. While Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya set a record for longevity in the Middle East with his 42-year dictatorship, it was not that different elsewhere; by 2011, any Egyptian younger than 41 — and that was roughly 75 percent of the population — had only ever known two heads of state, while a Syrian of the same age had lived his or her entire life under the control of the father-and-son Assad dynasty. Along with political stasis, in many Arab nations most levers of economic power lay in the hands of small oligarchies or aristocratic families; for everyone else, about the only path to financial security was to wrangle a job within fantastically bloated public-sector bureaucracies, government agencies that were often themselves monuments to nepotism and corruption.
I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t seem to work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.
Then it all went horribly wrong. By the summer of 2012, two of the “freed” nations — Libya and Yemen — were sliding into anarchy and factionalism, while the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria had descended into vicious civil war. In Egypt the following summer, the nation’s first democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, a coup cheered on by many of the same young activists who took to the streets to demand democracy two years earlier.
While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions.
The process of creating these artificial states began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds. To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of “greater Syria” into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump state of Syria — essentially the nation that exists today — and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Transjordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the three ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912 to form the fascist colony of Libya.
To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.
Not nearly so apparent to the West was that the strongmen of Iraq, Syria and Libya they ousted or are trying to oust actually exerted considerable energy to bind up their nations, and in their absence the ancient forces of tribalism and sectarianism would begin to exert their own centrifugal pull. Even less apparent was how these forces would damage the power and prestige of the United States in the region to an extent from which it might never recover.”
We have been at war in the region for fifteen years and I for one have Middle East fatigue not to mention that I no longer gives a rat’s ass about the future of Afghanistan. I never expected that any of these nations would become enlightened parliamentary democracies nor did I expect us to be greeted as liberators as we tore down Saddam’s statue and I remain astounded that our “leaders” were so ignorant that they actually believed that it would be so. Our stupidity was on par with our belief in our own exceptionalism.
The Arab tribes and sects, militias and fanatics have known all along what Ho Chi Minh knew all along. Eventually we will go home. There is no “winning” for us. There never was.
In the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” Auda Abu Tayi (played by Anthony Quinn) is seeking something “honorable” to take as booty before he goes home and leaves the ragtag Arab militia. He is chided by the British officers for his intention to go home and “shirk” his duty. Auda replies to them “When you have what you want you will go home!”
Life imitating art.
Iraq, Syria and Libya were “nations” in name only, created by Western colonialists almost a century ago. They were cobbled together for the ultimate benefit of Britain, France and Italy with no regard for the peoples living within them. A Hashemite Sunni was set up by the British as “King of Iraq” while the Alawites, a derivative of Shia Islam, comprising perhaps 12% of the population controlled Syria, allied with the Christians. Libya got the British supported King Idris after WWII and British bureaucrats to run a country which had no colleges.
The Iraqi royal family was gunned down in the courtyard of the palace by the Baathists and Idris was overthrown by Qaddafi while he was seeking medical attention abroad. Assad and his henchman still hold on in a most vicious “civil war.”
What will we get in Syria if Assad is deposed? Probably much like we see in Libya and Iraq. Even in “Kurdistan” which appears on the surface to be a model of peaceful rule and stability there are two distinct sides – the Barzani and the Talabani, two warring and feuding families dominating the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“When the current danger subsides, if history is a guide, the Barzani-Talabani schism will worsen and may even lead to another civil war, for part of the hidden history of that place is the series of internecine battles the tribes have waged ever since they first came into contact, a legacy of mutual bloodletting dating back at least half a century and extending to as recently as the mid-1990s.
Because of its two feuding tribes, the K.R.G. — a statelet the size of West Virginia — now has essentially two of everything: two leaders, two governments, two armies. For the moment this schism has been masked by the threat from ISIS and the desire to present a unified front to the outside world. But it remains an undercurrent to everything. It also goes a long way toward explaining the sad fate of the Yazidis who, unfortunately were allied to neither side and therefore were left to fend for themselves.”
In the absence of “nation building” in some fashion the balkanization of these nations, along with bloodletting and ethnic cleansing will continue. And the flight of refugees and the powerless from the region to the west will continue.
I for one do not want to see my soon to be grandson standing in Afghanistan 20 years from now. perceived by the local populace as an intruding westerner, trying to protect the rights of some little girls to go to school when no one in the country wants them to go.
We began this journey when we destroyed Iraq leaving in our wake millions of impoverished young men with no futures and no hope save the idea of ISIS. Do not doubt that the idea of ISIS will outlast even the destruction of the Islamic State.
Partial excerpts from “Fractured Land”