Will there ever be peace?

The factors that will shape the Middle East in the coming years

US SECRETARY of State Mike Pompeo meets with Bahrain’s foreign minister in Manama on August 25. (photo credit: BAHRAIN NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Mike Pompeo meets with Bahrain’s foreign minister in Manama on August 25.
In October 2010, leaders of Arab and African states gathered in Sirte. The beachside city is now known for bloodshed, having suffered dearly in Libya’s 10 years of civil war.
At the time it was more quiet, hot and dry. The Second Arab-Africa summit was underway. Leaders from across the Middle East and Africa were toasting to success. They spoke about the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the world. A declaration said they were committed to “respect for international law, human rights, the international humanitarian law, disarmament, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the fight against international terrorism.”
In contrast to the high-minded declaration, many of the attendees were dictators and despots. These included the host, Muammar Gaddafi, as well as Hosni Mubarak from neighboring Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, as well as Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. They met from October 6 to 11. Gaddafi, who had renamed his country in 1986 as the ‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahirya’ was dressed in his usual foppish robes, playing the role of Beduin sheikh, when in reality his kingdom was more a blend of 1970s disco and depravity. One son of Gaddafi, Mutassim, had a European model for a girlfriend; another, Saif Gaddafi, had paid his way through university degrees; and the Gaddafis hosted A-list celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Nelly Furtado and 50 Cent.
It turns out that the meeting was the last tango in Paris for this clan and the dictators around them. Within a year Mubarak and Ben Ali would be ejected from power due to street protests and Gaddafi would be beaten and murdered on October 20, 2011. Saleh would live a bit longer, gunned down near the capital of Sana’a in the midst of a civil war, his body wrapped in a rug and chucked in the back of a truck. An inglorious end.
ALL THINGS come to an end. In the Middle East, however, it seems that what we think is the end is often just the beginning of something else, often equally bad, with the shadows of the past always looming large.
Gaddafi’s death ushered in a decade of conflict in Libya. Mubarak’s ouster didn’t bring a new Egypt, what the Western media thought would happen, but instead lifted up the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious extremists to power, with the military brought back in 2013 to get rid of the Brotherhood. Yemen is still sunk in civil war, bombed by a Saudi-led alliance that is fighting an Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion. Tunisia, alone it seems, is a success story. But it is a small country of 12 million and many countries would like to get their fangs into it.
Turkey is maneuvering religious parties toward power so it can sell its drones and project power in Africa. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, don’t want Turkey inserting itself too deeply into Tunis, and will work to counter Ankara. The push-pull could weaken the governing structures.
What is interesting about that October 2010 summit is the photos that remain from it – especially the smiling leaders, basking in power and fame and security. They had no sense they would be washed away so quickly. What hasn’t been washed away are other parts of the Middle East.
There was an extraordinary session of the Arab League in Sirte the same time as the Africa summit. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon sent a message, via UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Robert Serry, to greet the great Col. Gaddafi and his minions. “I wish you well in your discussions of the many challenges facing the Arab world today,” it read. The UN noted, after the usual supplications to the dictators, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met on September 2 in Washington. They were seeking peace.
The UN was unhappy though. The message said that while it supported peace, it was concerned over “continuation and expansion of settlement building in the West Bank.” The UN secretary-general had “publicly expressed” his disappointment. He had not expressed any disappointment with the decades of dictatorship and mutilation of civilians in torture chambers run by those like Gaddafi. Instead, the language was of well wishes. The UN was no doubt displeased that Gaddafi would be removed from the stage by his own people soon after.
Be that as it may, the UN letter and the last tango in Paris summit were symbolic. One era was ending but another would continue.
Netanyahu and Abbas are still in power. There is no advancement of the “peace process” or the “road map” mentioned in the UN letter. Yet there has been relative peace. After wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has largely faded from view. The Netanyahu Doctrine of “the strong survive and make peace” or “you make peace with the strong, not the weak,” as he formulated it over the last years, has appeared to come to fruition. This past August the White House helped broker a UAE-Israel peace agreement, which was signed, alongside Bahrain, in September. The agreement was ratified in the Knesset on October 11, 2020, 10 years after the Sirte meeting.
That’s a convenient bookend. A decade ago the UN was sending felicitous notes to Gaddafi and dictators and bashing Israel, as it usually does. Today there is peace between the UAE and Israel, and the dictators are gone.
IF THAT were the only bookend anniversary, it would look like a positive development. However the Israel-UAE-Bahrain peace deal has come about more by necessity due to a need to openly work together after years of lacking normalization. Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi are natural partners as part of a much larger regional strategic shakeup. An EastMed gas forum of Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority came together in September, with the backing of France and the US. Add in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain and you get a new alliance system.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent trips to the region have highlighted this new alliance, as he traveled most recently to Cyprus and Greece on September 12 and 29 and also was in Bahrain and the UAE in late August.
The new alliance system, replacing that meeting in Sirte 10 years ago, represents a new Middle East in some ways. It is not the “new” Middle East of the Arab Spring, which kicked off almost a decade ago in December 2010. That tragic episode led not to liberal democracy, as those with roots in the 1990s thought it would, but to instability and extremism.
Fighting “instability” is now the name of the game from Jerusalem to Abu Dhabi. On October 10 the UAE slammed Turkey for “destabilizing” the Gulf by sending troops to Qatar. In actuality those troops have been there since 2017, when the other Gulf states broke relations with Doha and Doha ran increasingly into the arms of Iran and Turkey – regimes that all share a political-Islamic worldview. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on October 4 that Turkey is opposed to regional stability.
While the Israel-UAE entente supports stability, its critics claim it is a reactionary authoritarian axis. It’s hard to square that accusation with the fact that those who make it tend to support either Tehran, an authoritarian state, or Turkey, the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Yet the accusation is part of a growing consensus that the Middle East now has fault lines that seem to encapsulate one agenda pushed by Turkey, another pushed by Iran and a third pushed by the Gulf, Israel and EastMed Greek-speaking powers.
(FROM LEFT) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif alZayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed sign the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington on September 15. (Tom Brenner/Reuters) (FROM LEFT) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif alZayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed sign the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington on September 15. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
How did we get here? It is convenient that 2020 is a year of anniversaries. It was in September 1980 that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman, launched an invasion of Iran. He thought he could crush the nascent Islamic Revolution in its cradle. Backed by the Arab states and Gulf oil powers, he fought for eight years. Along the way he used poison gas and genocidal activity against the Kurds. And he didn’t defeat Iran.
Instead, Iran’s revolution survived and spread throughout the region. It fueled Hezbollah in Lebanon, eventually fighting Israel to a standstill until Israel left Lebanon in 2000. Six years later it fought and appeared to humiliate Israel again. Israel’s modern hi-tech army today is largely a result of the crucible of the failure to rapidly defeat Hezbollah in 2006.
So, is Saddam Hussein responsible for that? In a way, yes. The four-decade anniversary today finds Israel with the most powerful army in the region, with its two squadrons of F-35, drones, missiles, submarines and precision weapons, satellites and artificial intelligence computers guiding the country’s war effort. More than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian facilities in Syria represent the power of Israel and, like the failure of Saddam to defeat Iran in the 1980s, the result has been Iran’s spread across Syria and Lebanon, Yemen and even into the Gaza Strip.
We are also looking back this year at the 30-year anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. That was what led to the US decision to eject the Iraqis using the latest “American Revolution in Military Affairs.” We know that the defeat of Iraq’s massive, Soviet-equipped conventional army illustrated how obsolete large, flabby conventional armies had become. A new era was ushered in during the 1990s, the “new world order” of US hegemony. Very quickly that was challenged by insurgents and terrorists in places like Somalia. America’s failure in the Battle of Mogdishu, the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, foreshadowed US failure in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump has vowed to leave Afghanistan. The Obama administration removed US forces from Iraq. They only returned temporarily in 2014, but evidence shows they will leave again and Iraq will become partly a colony of Iran. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait helped create the process that led to this situation, albeit several decades later.
Israel also looks back this year at two decades since the start of the Second Intifada. It was this intifada that dashed most Israelis’ belief in two states and has led to the current impasse. The willingness of Israeli leaders to take risks for a mythical peace was ruined by bus bombings and what looked almost like a civil war between 2000 and the Disengagement from Gaza in September 2005. Not a civil war between Jews in Israel, but a civil conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The result is the security barrier and fences around Gaza and what looks like the end of the concept envisioned in the Oslo Accords of 1993.
The Intifada was a kind of insurgency, one Israel has learned from. Politically it means that those naïve hopes of the 1990s are gone. It is symbolic of the overall shift in the world from liberal internationalism to new authoritarianism and strong state identities. From chaos to control.
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to the media after attending Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul on August 7. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to the media after attending Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul on August 7. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
WHERE ELSE do we see this example? Most pronounced is in the shape of things to come from Ankara and a more militant Turkey. The November 3, 2002 election when Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party first came to power, never to leave, should be seen as the end of Turkish democracy.
Today the country has purged 150,000 civil servants, removed almost all critical media and academics, imprisoned thousands of dissidents for critical social media posts or just critiquing the president, jailed the most journalists in the world, deposed 60 of the 65 mayors of the opposition HDP party and imprisoned opposition politicians, labeling them terrorists.
Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism has been compared to Russia’s, but in fact it more closely resembles Iran. The difference is that unlike Iran, Turkey is a member of NATO and once hoped to join the EU. Never in NATO’s history did that organization arm and support a country with such widespread suppression of basic freedoms.
This new Turkey is a blend of influences. Once a country that sought to bring political Islam to the forefront and appeared to be more open to Kurdish aspirations and peace with its neighbors, the leadership has embarked on invasions of Syria, Iraq and Libya, and issued threats to Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Armenia. Turkey’s leader vows to “liberate” Jerusalem, which Ankara says is “ours,” meaning Turkey lays claim to it as the Ottoman Empire once did.
But Turkey is not just a “neo-Ottoman” state. It combines support for Islamist jihadist groups in Syria, the most mercenary and criminal elements behind what was once the Syrian rebels, with Turkish nationalism and praise for historic Ottoman battles against Christian Europe. This is a toxic mix, more like the mix of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s than of neo-Ottoman agendas.
The Ottoman Empire was capable of cruel wars, but it was also diverse, whereas Ankara’s invasions of Syria led to ethnic-cleansing of Kurds and minorities. Syrian rebels, recruited by Ankara and sent to fight Armenia in late September and early October, have been filmed celebrating the killing of Armenians, calling them “pigs” and comparing them to Jews and other minorities they see as sub-human. This talk is akin to how the Nazis described Slavs and Jews and others. Ankara has empowered these groups as shocktroops to be used in Syria and Libya.
The arc of history for Ankara thus may harken back to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the humiliating Treaty of Sevres, which carved up Turkey, but today’s Turkey is only partially trying to revive that pre-1920 era. Ankara’s nostalgia for the past is like Hitler’s nostalgia for ancient Germany. Ancient German tribes didn’t build gas chambers. Nazism refashioned Germany into something else. Turkey is being refashioned into something else.
What, precisely, is unclear. Turkey has become obsessed with hatred of Israel like other countries that have risen and fallen in the region. The Iranian regime also thrives on claims it is “resisting” Israel and Zionism. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the young officer who remodeled modern Egypt, also led through opposition to Israel. Nasser was a revolutionary, inspiring revolts across the region from Iraq to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, also sending Egypt’s army to fight in Yemen and opposing the Saudi monarchy. Erdogan is an inheritor in some way of both Nasser and Iran’s revolutionary cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Like all revolutionary powers in the Middle East, the desire to distract locals by focusing their anger on Israel is central to Ankara’s agenda.
WE HAVE discussed the decline of the Middle East ossifying dictatorial regimes since 2010 and the defeat of insurgencies and rise of Turkey, as well as Israel’s lessons from past wars. What is missing in this discussion?
First we need to acknowledge that with the new generation of leaders, such as the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) in the UAE, there is a new era. The era of jihad, embodied by Osama bin Laden, is largely over. Even the Hamas leaders who now meet with Turkey’s Erdogan are not the Islamic rabble-rousers of the 1980s.
It may be that the Islamist extremism which grew out of the region and led to ISIS is being reduced. It is being replaced by Turkey’s sponsorship of extremism, but this state sponsorship is quite different than the 1980s when Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and later the Taliban were dabbling in extremism. It is no longer as chaotic. The unstable areas of the Middle East, stretching from the Sahel to Somalia, Yemen and Iraq, may be more stable today.
Iran has largely entered the vacuum where there was chaos. That means the old jihadist lines that led via the Euphrates River Valley to Iraq are now being digested by an Iranian octopus with bases of Shi’ite militias where jihadists once roamed. Iran has its fingers in Yemen too. This means that much like the Soviets took over former Nazi properties in eastern Europe, Iran has taken over the property of Sunni insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere. Iraq is now Iran’s “near abroad,” as Ukraine and Poland were for imperial Russia.
THE ICONIC Freedom Square in Tehran, Iran, March 26. (WANA/Ali Khara via Reuters)THE ICONIC Freedom Square in Tehran, Iran, March 26. (WANA/Ali Khara via Reuters)
This era of changing leadership in the Middle East is festooned with younger men trying to fill the shoes of fathers and grandfathers. Bashar Assad in Syria, Saad Hariri in Lebanon. The Emir of Qatar. The King of Jordan. Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani, as well as Qubad and Bafel Talibani in the Kurdistan region. The new leaders of Kuwait and Oman are similar, as is the King of Morocco. This is a region still rooted in monarchy, family, tribe. That has been challenged by revolution, whether Nasser’s Arab nationalism or Ba’athism, or the Islamic Revolution and Muslim Brotherhood. But not everything changes in the region.
What does change is the US administration. The American election in November could bring Joe Biden to the White House. Countries in the region are concerned about what that change could mean. Tehran hopes Trump will be removed. The Taliban, oddly, reportedly prefer Trump, as does Erdogan in Turkey and the Gulf allies of Israel. That’s a group of strange bedfellows, but it is brought about by the transactional nature of the Trump administration and its doctrine of combining pro-Israel support with the desire to end the US role in Syria and Afghanistan, and overturning the Iran Deal.
It’s unclear what a new US administration will bring. Most countries in the region assume the US is drawing down its role. This means larger regional and global powers such as Russia, China, Iran and Turkey will play a leading role in the Middle East. The West’s role is declining.
If we look back at that Sirte meeting 10 years ago, it represented the end of an era of powerful Arab leaders. Today the region is more about Erdogan and Iran, alongside an emerging Israel-Gulf-Greece alliance system.