It is about 100 years since the then-imperial powers of Britain and France first demarcated the boundaries between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Mandate Palestine. Now, it looks like those borders are unravelling in a process that began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has been accelerated by Syria’s descent into civil war.
For much of the 20th century, the rivalries between the different dictatorial regimes that emerged in one Arab state after another, as the British and French retreated, kept the boundaries in place and consolidated the Arab state system. There was a kind of regional order too because all the regimes pegged their legitimacy to the cause of Arab nationalism against Israel all thorugh the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973.
When the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat decided to make peace with Israel in the late 1970s, Egypt was ostracised by the rest of the Arabs. But the state system endured, with Syria assuming the lead on the front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and eventually Egypt was re-admitted to the Arab fold and returned to its central place in the Arab League.
However, in a portent of contemporary developments, the civil war that overtook Lebanon in 1975 and endured until 1990, threatened to tear that country apart, as different Arab regimes as well as Iran, the United States and France intervened in one way or another and the Israelis actually invaded. By the end of that war the PLO leadership, but not the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, had been removed to Tunis (by the US); Israel remained in occupation of the south of the country; Hezbollah, backed by Iran, had become Israel’s enduring enemy; and Syrian military and intelligence forces retained the upper hand in Lebanese domestic politics.
The story of Lebanon’s civil war and its outcome now look like a foretaste of the tragedy unfolding across the whole northern tier of the Middle East. A review of the events that took place between then and now will serve to demonstrate how complicated the picture has become.
When Iraq attacked Iran, following the latter’s revolution of 1979, there followed eight years of war, during which the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was aided and abetted by all the other Arab states except Syria, which began to forge an alliance with the newly emergent Islamic republic of Iran. The US, Britain and France also helped Iraq avoid defeat.
They turned against Saddam, however, when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, though on that occasion the Arabs were more deeply divided, with Yemen, the Palestinians and Jordan supporting Baghdad or standing aside, while the US–led coalition drove the Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Thereafter Iraq remained under UN sanctions while Saddam endured, Iran came under increasingly strict US sanctions, and Washington, as well as London and Paris forged more elaborate (and lucrative) defence agreements with the Arab Gulf states, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
The 1990s was the decade of unrivalled US influence in the region and for a while it looked as if a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a real possibility, as the US managed what became known as the Middle East Peace Process. Jordan concluded a treaty with Israel in 1994 and the Palestinians gained autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the occupation continued and conflict resumed with the second Intifada in September 2000.
All the while though, the Arab state system endured. Several Arab regimes were challenged by political Islam, the only serious vehicle for opponents of dictatorial rule, but basically survived through the use of oppression. And from thence sprang the most militant and fundamentalist enemies of the Arab regimes and their Western allies – al-Qaeda.
When the latter struck the US on its own soil on September 11 2001, Washington declared the “war on terror” that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It also prompted the US and the Europeans to make common cause with Arab dictators, including sharing intelligence, in the fight against militants and terrorists ranged against them all.
Far from curbing the sources of instability and violence, the invasion of Iraq unleashed a backlash of armed resistance, not only from supporters of the ousted Saddam, but also from Sunni Muslim groups, including affiliates of al-Qaeda, opposed both to the US and its allies and to the emergent Shia-majority government in Iraq that enjoyed the backing of Iran.
King Abdullah of Jordan was the first to point to the rise of an axis of Shia Muslim forces, linking the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon on the one hand, and fomenting dissent among the Shia communities in the Gulf States on the other. Tony Blair talked of an “axis of extremism” ranged against the defenders of “moderation” and stability across the region.
Arab Spring turns wintry
As the Arab uprisings erupted in 2011, Iraq was still in a parlous state, with continuing outbreaks of violence, bombings and destruction, even if the death toll had somewhat diminished, sufficient for the US forces to argue they could leave. Yet now the bombings in Iraq have escalated again, causing more than 2,500 Iraqi deaths since April this year, and reaching levels not seen since 2008.
Fighters who had once crossed from Syria into Iraq to fight on the side of the resistance, are back in Syria fighting the Assad regime, along with Iraqi and other volunteers crossing the other way. The Syrian regime is not in full control of any of the country’s borders and the big international powers on the UN Security Council are divided over how to deal with the situation and Assad himself. There are a million displaced civilians inside Syria and many hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
None of these states can handle the refugee flow without massive external aid and the populations in all three countries are feeling the strain of playing host to so many helpless and destitute families in their midst. Hezbollah has taken it upon itself to enter the fighting in Syria on the side of Assad, and in the blowback sectarian violence and bomb attacks have resumed in Lebanon.
West ponders its next move
Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Gulf states are channelling arms to the Syrian opposition and the Western powers are still hoping to bolster the position of the “moderate” members of the Syrian opposition who have been marginalised by the more militant al-Qaeda affiliated elements, who have been pronounced “terrorists” by Washington. Recently the European Union followed Washington’s lead on Hezbollah and announced that the movement’s military wing, even if not the rest of the party, constitutes a terrorist organisation.
US chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has warned that any form of military intervention by the US would constitute an act of war and could drag the Americans into another quagmire like Iraq in the event of Assad’s fall. Assad’s forces have in any case regained ground, partly thanks to Hezbollah and Iran, but also Russia’s protection.
Conceivably Washington and Moscow could find common cause and devise a compromise solution, but among the fighters on the ground there is absolutely no trust and much hatred, plus they are all backed by opposing regional patrons. The process of rebuilding a functioning state in Syria would be daunting ideed.
There is no unified Arab position any more in the region, if there ever was. And since the Arab Spring, there is more suspicion and division between peoples and governments, but also little cohesion among the people themselves.
Long gone are the days when the Arab nationalist cause could command solidarity against Israel or indeed “Western imperialism”. The Arab state system, and with it a semblance of regional order, is in flux and whether it will settle back down eventually along the old lines is very much in doubt.