In mid-March 2016 the world marked five years since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. The number of those killed in the fighting approached half a million. About 10 million Syrians, amounting to about half the population of the state, had lost their homes, and about 8 million had become refugees, fleeing abroad to neighboring Arab states, Turkey, and Europe. About three-quarters of Syria’s social and economic infrastructures—including the health, education, transportation, electricity, and water systems, oil and gas fields, and grain storage facilities—had been ruined or destroyed during the war.
Thus, nothing remains of the Syria over which Bashar al-Assad and his opponents began fighting. In the shadow of the ongoing bloodbath the Syrian state disintegrated into a series of semi-state entities: In eastern Syria and western Iraq the ISIS State (the Islamic Caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) emerged; in the west, in the remains of the original Syrian state, a kind of “Syria Minor,” the Assad dynasty remained and remains in control, enjoying Russian patronage and Iranian influence; in the east and north of the Syrian region there are autonomous Kurdish enclaves; and finally, stretching over large parts of northern Syria and in the south, there are enclaves controlled by various rebel groups—headed by the “Support Front for the People of the Syrian lands” (Al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra), an al-Qaida affiliate.
The fact that the civil war in Syria continues to rage and inflict an ever greater human tragedy on the country’s inhabitants is clear evidence of the impotence of the international community. It has not found the strength or the means to bring the bloody conflict to an end. It has shown even less capacity in the matter of punishing those responsible for the crimes committed during the fighting. For example, the international community failed to take action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.
Nevertheless, in Syria and outside of it, indeed, all over the Middle East, during the five years of fighting hopeful eyes continued to be turned mainly to the United States, leader of the “free world” and defender of its values. After all, during the preceding decades it had been customary to consider the United States the “regional policeman,” whose job it was to ensure the region’s stability and protect human rights. But the United States did not come to the aid of Syria and the Syrian people. Rather, outside intervention came from Moscow, which took sides, not so surprisingly, with the Syrian dictator, Assad, whom many view as the main cause of the country’s tragedy. While Russia’s intrusion may lead to the intensification and spread of the violence, it also put Russia on the path to becoming the region’s new policeman, or perhaps its godfather. Furthermore, the situation makes manifest the end of American hegemony in the region, the so-called Pax Americana that endured for nearly a quarter of a century.
The Arab Spring that broke out in mid-winter 2010 aroused great hopes in Washington and other Western capitals for a better future for the region’s inhabitants. It turned out, however, to herald something much different. Not only did it turn into a blazing “Islamic Summer,” thanks to the emergence of ISIS, and not only did it wreak havoc on the whole region, but it also brought the era of American influence in the region to an inglorious and bloody end.
The era of Pax Americana has now been replaced by an era of renewed Cold War, even if in a modern version, a war in which Russia competes—with no competitors—for status and influence in the Middle East. Russia is acting on its own, but at the same time it is prepared to cooperate with local godfathers—like Iran and Hezbollah—all of them enemies of the United States and its friends in the region.
In 2009 President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Announcing the prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” However, ironically, it turned out that during the Obama Administration more people have been killed in the Middle East and around the world than during the administrations of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who became the object of international obloquy for the wars he conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of terrorist attacks and the number of victims from them has also increased dramatically under Obama. This would seem to indicate that when the United States gets involved and uses its power in the world, the world becomes a more secure and stable place than it does when the United States retreats, disengages, or chooses to “lead from behind,” as it did in the spring 2011 Libyan affair.
Willy-nilly, Syria’s fate affects all the inhabitants of the region. This is due to the country’s historical and geographical centrality, which distinguish it from the other states that have recently experienced similar destructive and ruinous processes, like Libya and Yemen, or even Iraq and Somalia before them. All these states are located on the margins of the Arab world, and, unlike Syria, they never played any formative and central role in its historical and cultural development. What takes place in Syria can be seen as a kind of reflection of what is happening throughout the whole Middle East or a preview of what is likely to happen there in time. In this connection the following trends should be emphasized.
The first trend is the collapse of the Arab territorial nation states, for which Syria serves as an example and model. The Arab states that have collapsed have done so in the face of social and economic difficulties that their mostly dictatorial and corrupt ruling regimes were incapable of handling. The various states’ generally shaky and fragile national identities, whether Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, or Palestinian, as well as pan-Arab and territorial identities have been overwhelmed by ethnic, family, tribal, local regional, and, above all, Islamic identities. In many cases Islamic identity became the unifying glue and common ground, as proven by the Syrian case. There, groups of Islamic fighters, like the Support Front or ISIS, have managed to survive the war, while organizations working in the name of Syrian patriotism, like the Free Syrian Army, have collapsed and faded away.
The second trend is the collapse, as a direct result of the disintegration of the Arab states, of the regional system, in whose shadow the political and the social order in the region had lasted for the preceding one hundred years. The regional system based upon the Sykes-Picot agreements—which gave life, authority, and legitimacy to a number of Arab territorial states, most of which lacked historical roots and even legitimacy in the eyes of their inhabitants—has collapsed in the face of the disintegration of many of the states created, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria. The collapse finds especially clear expression in the case of Syria, which is increasingly falling apart into its basic components. Thus, there is nothing surprising in the fact that ever since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate of ISIS over the territories encompassed by Syria and Iraq, he has boasted that the establishment of this Caliphate amounts to tearing the Sykes-Picot agreements to shreds.
The third trend is that in many cases the collapse of the Arab states has led to the emergence of non-state actors, mostly terrorist organizations or violent groups having a tribal, communal, or Islamic religious identity. Examples of this are ISIS and the Support Front active in Syria and the groups of fighters operating in Libya and Somalia, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas that came on the scene even before them. In addition to the factors just named, the political vacuum that developed in the region served as an invitation to regional and international godfathers, like Iran, Turkey, and, of course, Russia, to enter the field. It is quite likely that Russia and Iran will gain dominance as they sample the muddy waters of the morass the new Middle East has become. Ironically perhaps, the determination and ability of these outsider states to use force without restraint or red lines gives some promise of enduring stability, at least in those areas of interest to them—even as it has dark implications for other areas around the world.
In the face of this gloomy situation, the absence of the United States is more conspicuous than ever. It is absent both as a major player guaranteeing regional stability and as an ally ready to help its partners and friends in the region, as the Obama Administration leans toward appeasing and reaching an agreement with the neighborhood bullies rather than confronting them and attempting to put them in their place.
The major Arab countries remaining intact are Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of the United States they have been compelled to face various adversities and challenges at home and abroad on their own, and only with great difficulty have they been able to preserve their cohesiveness and meet the economic needs of their growing populations. Because these states now have very little confidence in Washington’s readiness to assist and protect them in times of crisis, they have become more inclined to resort to force. For example, Saudi Arabia, contrary to its custom in the past, has used force directly in Yemen, and indirectly in Syria as well, mainly because it no longer trusts its American backer.
Under the circumstances, one can expect the use of force and violence to become commonplace in the region—and since, so it seems, the use of chemical weapons in the war in Syria is no longer considered taboo, one can expect greater and greater use of non-conventional weapons. It goes without saying that the effort to acquire nuclear weapons, or at least nuclear capability, will also continue to expand from Iran to other players in the region.
The obvious result of all this is that the Middle East will become a permanently unstable region, subject to frequent convulsions and pervaded with violence and terrorism. It will become a hothouse for radical Islamic ideas and groups that will attract support among the population both within and outside the region.
The shock waves from the crisis in the Middle East have not stopped at the region’s geographical boundaries. Waves of refugees, which will only increase, are knocking on Europe’s gates, while radical Islamic ideology is seeping deeply into Muslim communities all over the world, especially in Europe, and even in the United States. As state frameworks disintegrated and chaos came to prevail in the region, the tide of migration found encouragement and rose sharply, and there is no basis for assuming that it will not continue to rise in the future.
Ironically, America’s withdrawal from playing a role in the Middle East did not save it from being criticized, both within and outside the region, as the main culprit responsible for the present crisis. This stems from the fact that the United States is perceived as the clearest manifestation of the West, and the West is perceived as being guilty of the original sins of imperialism and colonialism, and is therefore seen as the source of the region’s ills. It can be assumed that as the distress and crisis in the region intensify, the resentment of the West and the United States will increase. This being so, the United States is destined to discover what Israel discovered in Lebanon and Gaza: that it is possible to disengage from the Middle East, but the Middle East will not disengage from you.
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