Not a pretty picture

February 20,2018

Where does the Middle East and North Africa region stand today? Syria, Yemen and Iraq are but the key flashpoints that continue to shape the conflict and instability gripping the entire region....

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Where does the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region stand today? Syria, Yemen and Iraq are but the key flashpoints that continue to shape the conflict and instability gripping the entire region. Egypt, Libya and Lebanon, on the other hand, are states with tightly controlled, non-existent or fragile regimes. And then we have Palestine, struggling to survive even as its youngest are locked up for daring to challenge fully armed Israeli soldiers.

Thus, while states with varying degrees of authority and influence in the Muslim community continue their quest for power and resources, Palestine breathes on, choking slowly as Israeli settlements rapidly encroach on its soil. Not a very pretty picture, but the Middle East in particular has never been a stable region, even under tight-fisted dictatorial rule.

If there ever was a woeful rendition of ‘instability’, it would entail the war of attrition in Syria, the humanitarian crisis brought on by the bitter infighting between the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Yemeni forces, supported by the Saudi-led Gulf coalition – with the exception of Qatar – and the continued unrest in Iraq and Lebanon. The region is no stranger to instability, we all know that. But with Turkey assuming a more active role in Syria owing to the Kurdish fighters’ alleged use of bases inside Syria to launch attacks, and with Israel threatening Iran, the unrest is rapidly escalating.

The recent three-day Munich Security Conference might have served as an ideal platform for world leaders to find some solution to end any one of these crises, but all that came through were frustrated outbursts, finger-pointing and gloom. Thus, Munich witnessed a relay of the present crises gripping the international community, whether it was the Brexit transition, conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, the continued threat from non-state actors and the revival of the Cold War doctrine. The writing on the wall is a future deadlocked in simmering conflicts, unresolved issues and power wrangling.

However, amidst all this hopelessness, one thing is apparent. Whether it portends hope is debatable, but it is critical for preventing further conflagration. And there is no better time than now to revise policies pertaining to the current imbroglio in the Middle East. The apathy concerning Syria must end. The geo-political dynamics are far more complicated now, given Russia’s active involvement in the region and America’s shrinking influence. For instance, it was Vladimir Putin and not Donald Trump who cautioned Netanyahu to refrain from escalating the situation after Israel launched an attack on Syrian forces after one of its jets was downed.

The piece of the alleged Iranian spy drone shown by Netanyahu at the conference might well have been the highlight of this theatre of the absurd. There is no doubt that Iran’s influence in the region is strong, through its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen or Syria. But Israel should clearly be the last one to play an aggrieved victim. The state of Israel and its citizens are not under threat from anyone but its own policies. The US, for all its brandishing of military prowess and overt threats is now viewed as a fumbling power, incoherent, inept and lost. Is it in a position to force a solution for the war in Syria? Even as it has been arming the Kurdish fighters in Syria to fight the regime, it faces antagonism from Turkey and a loss of allies and opportunity to build bridges.

The worst is that no one is even willing to try find a solution apart from arming one group or the other as proxy groups fight each other to carve out bigger spheres of power. Wars are expensive, but power is dearer; thus, the necessity of survival hinges on power.

The lack of leadership in the US reflects in its vague policy and failure to provide a roadmap for stability in the region. Even as Trump vows to help Kabul, American efforts are futile unless it is willing to find a political solution. Washington must be cognisant of the fact that the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles have damaged US credibility to a great extent. The impression that America is not infallible has been set and tested over and over again. For the US to regain its status, war is not the answer, but finding a political solution to the conflicts in Palestine, Syria or Yemen is. Unless Washington does that, instead of defending an ally like Israel, it cannot hope to get other allies and Iran to the table.

However intractable positions might seem, they are not set in stone. But the lack of will to commit to peace – which would entail sidestepping past policies and applying pressure on allies – is the hardest. Unless a decision is taken to this effect, the way forward will be stymied.

The writer is a former deputy opinion editor at Gulf News, Dubai.


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