FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The New Political Map of the Middle East

by PATRICK COCKBURN

President Obama is lucky in his opponents, particularly when it comes to explaining why America’s influence is waning in the Middle East. The issue was hardly mentioned in the election, aside from a botched attempt by Mitt Romney to blame the administration for the death of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and for the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi.

Romney soon steered away from his initial posture of attacking Obama for “apologising for America” and failing to assert US power. He recognised that the one thing the US electorate does not want is another war in the Middle East. By beating the patriotic drum too hard, Romney risked voters remembering that it was the Republicans who, not so long ago, led them into failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a more prosaic level, Romney may have sensed he would be vulnerable on topics he knew nothing about.

This near immunity from effective criticism during the campaign does not mean that Obama is not facing dangers across the region with which he has previously failed to grapple successfully.

Afghanistan is a good example. The “surge”, which preoccupied the White House when Obama first took office in 2009, led to an extra 33,000 soldiers being sent to Afghanistan, where they wholly failed to eliminate the Taliban. The remaining 112,000 Nato troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014, bringing to an end one of the more disastrously unproductive wars in American history. The US and its allies are supposedly training up Afghan security forces to take their place, but so many American and British soldiers have been killed by Afghan soldiers and police that the transition is turning into a debacle.

If the US was ever going to achieve anything like military success over the Taliban, it needed to shut the open border with Pakistan that enabled the insurgents to have a secure rear base. Washington recognised the problem, but failed to do anything effective about it. The regime of Hamid Karzai will have difficulty surviving past 2014, when the Taliban or other players move in to fill the void left behind as the Americans and British move out.

Given what has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it is strange that there are siren voices in the US suggesting it should increase its involvement in the Syrian civil war to tip the balance against Bashar al-Assad. Many critics have given reasons why this is a bad idea, but two important points are seldom made. One is about the nature of anti-government militias: militiamen, be they in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya or Chechnya, may start off as heroic fighters for freedom and democracy. But these unpaid irregulars, unless restrained by the tightest discipline, tend to become local warlords or criminal gangs and batten on the population. I remember how, in Chechnya in 1999-2001, local people came to hate the insurgent bands, whom they once would have died for, even more than the Russians. The same happened in Baghdad in 2006-07 and in Libya over the past year.

In Syria, people are beginning to say, echoing what was said in similar conflicts, that “the fighters say they are dying for the people, but it is the people who are dying for the fighters”. Jihadi or Islamic fundamentalists make fanatical and effective soldiers, but their unrestrained violence alienates the people they claim to be protecting. This is what led to the Sunni tribal revolt in alliance with US troops against al-Qa’ida in Iraq.

These developments are bad news for greater US military support for the “moderate” Syrian militia that will supposedly be strengthened by an increased flow of US arms and equipment.

There is a second point that is seldom considered. Suppose the Assad government does fall, this is meant to be a damaging blow for Iran, deprived of its one Arab ally. It is meant also to weaken Hezbollah, the Shia guerrilla movement in Lebanon. Both these things might happen. But keep in mind that the Assad regime is most likely to be succeeded by general anarchy in Syria, or at best a weak government. Going by the experience of Iraq and Lebanon, the Iranians and Hezbollah are better than the US at fishing in troubled waters. Complicated situations are ideal for exploitation by the Iranians, with their taste for devious political games.

Could Israel bamboozle the US into joining it in an attack on Iran? I have always thought it likely that the Israelis are bluffing. Forever being on the verge of attacking Iran suits them nicely, giving them much leverage in a world that wants to prevent such a war. Israeli threats have provoked devastating economic sanctions against Iran and marginalised the Palestinians as an issue. But an actual military attack is unlikely to achieve much and would probably provoke Iran into building a nuclear device. Tales of how it was only the Israeli chief of staff and the head of Mossad who have prevented such a war being launched in the past serves Benjamin Netanyahu’s purposes well, by making his threat of imminent Israeli air strikes more credible.

For the moment, the Middle East and west Asia is probably a good place for the US and other foreign powers to keep out of. Libya is a recent example of what can go wrong. Up to a few months ago, Washington thought its behind-the-scenes role in Gaddafi’s overthrow was a model of foreign intervention. It forgot that the war effort by the rebel militia brigades was something of a propaganda sham, the real war being fought by Nato air power. But, come the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September this year, the local CIA detachment was reportedly pleading in vain to local militiamen to come to their aid.

The new political map of the Middle East has more snakes than ladders for the US, but it is not that there are no ladders at all. Obama was swift to abandon Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia during the first days of the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the ruling AKP in Turkey do not want a confrontation with the US while they seek to Islamise their societies. They need to deprive their domestic opponents of any prospect of US backing. With so many conflicts cross-infecting each other, we may be entering an era of conflicts in the region exceeding anything seen since the 1960s.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail