In his first few months in office, President Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize. During the same period, President Obama announced that the US would be accelerating the timetable for pullout from Iraq and then Afghanistan. He followed through on his promise when the US left Iraq very quickly against even, the recriminations of the Iraqi people. But then the Arab Spring arrived starting with Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya. In the subscript (based on the lack of response from the US), we also had Bahrain. Now Syria is the crucible and action in that country hangs in the balance as an international conference convened by Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League Envoy, is being arranged this weekend on Saturday 30 June, 2012 in Geneva. As we speak Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting her counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. The solid impression I have is that the post-conference outcome is being decided between the two of them now in Moscow, and that what will happen at the conference is more a public facing of the already agreed outcomes. After all, some face-saving measures have to be deployed to get the remaining allies, Arab countries and permanent Security Council members on board on the agree way-forward.
Be that as it may, this seems like the best time to review and to some extent study the success of the Obama’s Middle East Strategy – has it worked or has it further destabilized a very tumultuous region, sowing the seeds for longer-term destabilization? In approaching this project, I want to look at the main Arab countries involved and also comment or raise awareness of the interlinkages of issues, regional actors and knock-on effects. I could write a PHD about this so there are shortcuts in the analysis!
Iraq: Desert Storm 2 destroyed a lot of essential infrastructure and killed Iraqis indiscriminately. This heralded a period of mayhem, marked by increasing civic violence. In this setting, one of the first acts of the US supported coalition was to summarily dismiss the whole Iraqi army, letting loose well-trained militarily capable elements in their thousands into a quagmire society in transition with no status, no money and a lot of shame, with a majority originating from a religious group whose influence was on the decline: the Sunnis. Al Qaeda, already active in the opposition to the US, recruited a lot of these soldiers giving them money, food and some sense of security when the US was perceived as the enemy that took all those things way. At the same time, an ideological warfare was unleashed against the incoming Shiite government and political actors in Iraq that significantly supported Al Qaeda in their expansion of violence and anti-coalition terrorism. Important to note that a significant number of Sunni Iraqi officers and their families escaped to Jordan and Syria; in Syria, they were supported by the military structure by being helped to get jobs, housing, food and medicine. Since then these officers have been rehabilitated and returned to Iraq as the job situation and income from oil and aid created more jobs. Fast forward to the Obama administration, that accelerated the withdrawal of the US military from Iraq, leaving the country in a tricky security situation that since then, they have been able to control with moderate success. In 2011-2012, Iranian oil sanctioned by the US has significantly reduced the export of Iranian crude oil. This was the most positive development for Iraq that, having miraculously rebuilt its oil processing facilities amidst bombing, raids and lack of infrastructure, could increase its crude oil production to meet demand, while using the money to fund its national civil rehabilitation. Iraq needs to rebuild its economy, multiplying jobs and infrastructure for its private and public sector.
After Desert Storm 2, the US was viewed as a predatory nation and an occupier by Iraq and its people; today the gap created by the US financial and trade sanctions again Iran have allowed an independent Iraq to regain some financial sovereignty, paving the way for economic and financial reforms and reconstruction. Iraq has a capable and educated population that I think has benefitted from the US withdrawal, and in a very direct way, Iraq might be one of the only winners of the Obama Middle East Strategy. Yet Iraq remains reticent on Syria and this could be a reason to worry. It must be remembered that current Iraqi leadership has benefitted and is friendly with Iran (pragmatism always rules) and Syria sharing their Shiite faith. This could be a decisive factor in the future.
Libya: What happened happened. The questions that arise concern the genesis of the revolt against a long-entrenched dictator – a question of convenient timing for some – and about the legitimacy of the liberation struggle, and the role of the US government agencies in fermenting a revolution of convenience. I believe that Gaddafi had to be overthrown to allow the people of Libya to enjoy democracy, development and progress. This said, I firmly believe that the process leading to this change had to enjoy a broad-based support in the country amongst a majority of its tribes and peoples. When we look at what happened in Tunisia where a long-time dictator was overthrown and in Egypt where millions of people apparently led by a Facebook revolution ousted a mammoth dictator and a favorite son of the US. It seems incredulous that a small group of Libyan anti-Gaddafi elements sitting in foreign capitals like Washington and London started to create the illusion that somehow, a majority of Libyans supported their power-lust and were ready for a full battle. This is a country where everything was controlled and managed by a small group of people; governance and technical capacity was focused in this group. Common Libyans were not ready for the huge task of taking over and that shows in the aftermath in a country that is struggling to avoid all out civil chaos on a daily basis. One Libyan ex-collegue told be that it as like a shadow passed over their heads and suddenly there was violence and destruction everywhere and then nothing worked. According to him, a majority of the middle class is shocked and never aimed at the almost total destruction of the country as has happened. Now we have a small UN mission in place with about 200 civilians trying to help Libya to organize elections and also put in place some semblance of government and governance. Aid money is not going to help because governance capacity is not something you buy, it is something that requires time to cultivate across the board, so while the country remains united, It’s certain that Libya will face extreme challenges.
The case of Libya however, alerted most of us to the orchestration of liberation struggles in the Middle East – was Libya real? Was it something in the line of “Wag the Dog”? After Libya, we know that the US and perhaps UK and France have some secret activities in the area, aimed at destabilization, developing quick emerging sectarian violence scenarios that more rapidly escalate into life and death choices for the international community – case in point: Syria. We see photos of dead (Syrian) people on international media with no effort by the media to verify the circumstances of the deaths and killing (see the Truth about Syria Blog). To me, the credibility of the U-Tube and media reports is questionable as there is little evidence presented to back up assertions made; a bullet is a bullet no matter who shot it. While the Syrian people have a legitimate right to seek democratization and political pluralism, would they have chosen the current path to seek these changes? The tragedy is that like in Iraq or Libya, the people of Syria are paying for other country’s (US) games with their lives! The aim should be to stop the violence by any means. Finally, Libya was also very important in confirming the mainstay of the State Department’s Mid-East strategy, which now is directed at Syria: regime change, even forced and coerced!
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar: Saudi Arabia is a surrogate state-run wholly by the US and its policy diktats. Saudi has been subject to US exemptions on all counts where they are implicated in international and transnational crime: international terrorism, Al-Qaeda, repression/corruption and nepotism at home. A majority of the bombers involved in the 9/11 were Saudis as was Osama bin Laden. Over 4 decades, Saudi Arabia flooded Pakistan with money to finance “madrassas” or religious schools in rural and urban areas fermenting religious fundamentalism that laid the basis for the talibanisation of the country and coupled with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, gave rise to extreme religious militancy – groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Similarly, in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia supported the ruling minority Sunni royal family with political and security assistance. Thousands of Saudi troops were deployed to Bahrain to suppress the legitimate expression of desires of the people of Bahrain for increased representation, more democracy and more balanced economic, social and political opportunities between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. Bahrain is not only a genuine “Arab Spring” movement, it also exposes another key facet of US State Department Mid-East Strategy: anything Shiite even legitimate struggle is axis of evil stuff and bad!
Further, the Obama government is so convinced in their own analysis and lies that this week we heard that Washington had resumed arms supplies to Bahrain – so that those corrupt and inept Bahrain Sheiks could turn US supplied US weapons against innocent civilians – no wait – they are just Shiites – who cares? Qatar is even more controlled and subservient to the US then Saudi Arabia, and not only funded most of the war on Libya, for the past two and half years it joined Saudi Arabia in financing seeds of discontent amongst the Sunni majority populations in Syria with a green light from the US. Discontent can be good for democratization but in the way this was orchestrated, young frustrated youth in Syria were plummeted by money and trips to Qatar to shop in exchange for “creating” the image of a rebellion a la Arab Spring. Somehow what was fun videos on U-tube and a little shooting off in the air quickly converted into a huge civil conflict. I was told by some UN staff working in the country that in the beginning, a lot of the initial free Syria people were over run in numbers and actions by activists leading the movement they did not know, and that did not “sound” like they were Syrians. Who were they? Who started the violence that is eating away at Syria’s people? So here we see that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are lackeys of the US and act essentially as an extended arm of US Foreign Policy in the region. That is probably why they have so much impunity from investigation and prosecution, just like Israel (not written about in this post). I would like to conduct a financial investigation on Saudi money transfers to key troble-spots around the globe; From Mali to Syria you would find evidence of a financial trail.
Egypt: I already talked about Egypt in my previous blog posts which I urge those interested to go read. The US supported Sadat in signing the Camp David Accords and then Mubarak to establish a hegemonic dictatorship over Egypt. During the 3 decades of his rule, the US flooded his government with aid money and military support which continues to this day. What happened with all this money can only be guessed at as very little trickled down to the Egyptian people. No accountability was necessary though and the US does not appear to have forced Mubarak to consider democratization and political pluralism as a fundamental condition for the continuation of this lifeline of assistance. In short by doing nothing about devolution of the political situation, the US paid for the dictatorship of Mubarak. In a way, we return to the importance of guaranteeing the sanctity of the Suez Canal for global trade and commerce, and of the Sinai Agreement for the stability and security that became so critical to Israel. Mubarak and the Egyptian Armed Forces together guaranteed the status quo on implementation of the Sinai Agreements as well as the Suez canal and therefore, for Israel’s security. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood is not good news and perhaps it is the importance of the status quo in the Suez and the Sinai why the Armed Forces had taken preemptive measures to guard the core of power and decision-making with them. In a way I agree with them given that I think Israel would be totally destabilized if the Sinai accords collapsed, but on the other hand, Egypt right now looks a lot like Pakistan’s on-and-off love affair with military dictators – there too, the US wanted to maintain “trusted leadership”. Is this the case behind the Egyptian Armed Forces preemptive actions? How is the US continuing to feed billions of dollars of military assistance into a military technically led by the Muslim Brotherhood? Facebook revolution – really?
Turkey and Lebanon: Turkey is becoming an increasingly important regional player and a very pivotal NATO member with the control of the Straits of Bosporus and its frontline location between Europe and the Middle East. The importance of Turkey was accentuated during the Iraq wars as a key border state but today, Turkey is important as a border state to Syria. Riddled with internal challenges on a range of issues from transitioning national identity (decreasing secularism) to historic and current human rights violations against the Kurds and Armenian peoples, their access to the EU has been barred by Greece till now but with the shifting sands of time, this obstacle has converted to a strength for Turkey. Economically thriving, Turkey has carved a very critical role at the cusp of Europe and the Middle East; Syria and the situation in that country are going to crown the entry of Turkey into the EU. I therefore, wonder if the shenanigans orchestrated recently were just part of a calculated chess game to arrive at the leadership of Europe, or a genuine accident from a well-meaning neighbor? Turkey will increase in importance in both Europe and the Middle East in the decade to come. US does/will treat Turkey like a very valuable ally. Another neighboring country, Lebanon is both a casualty and a causality of conflict in the region. Any external intervention in Syria will immeasurably hurt Lebanon and return that country to violent conflict. However, Lebanon will not play a deciding role in the Middle East. They are a servile country bowed down by decades of destructive and soul retching conflict and cannot hold power. Their role will be as a back post for logistical support to the war in Syria, if Turkey does not provide all the logistics.
Oil: The underlying motivation of all US foreign policy and particularly, the US Strategy in the Middle East is access to cheap and unlimited crude oil. This was the motivation for almost all US policy global policy during the last 4 decades, together with an unmitigated commitment to the welfare of Israel. Work out the math for Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and of course Libya!
Nothing has changed over the last 10 years in terms of US Strategy and policy on the Middle East. In fact Obama’s election or not, has not changed the policy of the State Department in this regard. Who is then determining this policy apart from oil and Israel? My assessment is that the US strategy is successful in serving US interests in the Middle East – it gets what the US aims to get – BUT the vision of the strategy is so short-term that it is bound to come back to bite the US within the near future. The US is steadfastly alienating large swaths of people – the general public – in the Middle East who do not benefit from the nepotism and corruption that US support has traditionally spawned in all countries the world over but especially in Middle East by perpetuating generational dictatorships in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Sheikdoms. Secondly, the duplicity of the Sunni versus Shiite discrimination will also rebound and collapse the very actors the US is trying to propagate like Sunni minority leaders who are autocratic and cruel (if interested read my 2 blog posts called the “Islamic Mosaic etc.”) like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Thirdly, wars will multiply in the Middle East. Syria will turn into a full civil war and spill over infecting and destabilizing Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Israel, over the next decade. Therefore finally, the US Mid-East Strategy is fatally flawed in not understanding its longer-term implications and outcomes.