All Hell Breaks Loose

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All Hell Breaks Loose in the Middle East

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

US President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers had pledged that after ousting Saddam Hussein they would succeed in transforming "liberated" Iraq into a prosperous democracy that would serve as a model of political and economic freedom for the Middle East.

Remember the Domino Effect that Westernized and secular Mesopotamia would have had on the rest of the authoritarian governments in the region?

The withdrawal of Syria’s troops from Lebanon and the so-called Cedar Revolution in that country was supposed to help eradicate the sectarian splits and, in particular, to make it possible to disarm and co-opt the Shiite-led Hezbollah into the political system. That would be followed by the collapse of the Ba’ath regime in Damascus and perhaps lead even to the downfall of the Ayatollahs in Teheran.

And finally, as the Bushies envisioned it: "The road from Baghdad would lead to Jerusalem." That is, the dramatic explosion of freedom in the Arab World would make it more likely that the Palestinians would move ahead to establish their own independent state and to conclude a peace accord with Israel. In the first stage in that process, the Palestinians would hold a free election that would bring to power a moderate and peace-oriented leadership.

More than three years after the inauguration of President Bush’s project to remake the Middle East, it’s becoming clear that the New Iraq did become, indeed, a model for the entire Middle East, a model of sectarian violence, religious extremism and growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiments.

Power shift

If anything, as the recent developments in the region are demonstrating, Bush’s policies have made the Middle East more safe — not for democracy, but for ethnic and religious strife. His policies have helped to shift the balance of power in the region in the direction of Iran and Shiite and Sunni radicals. What Iraq seems to be exporting to the Middle East is war and instability, a lot of war and instability.

Just this week in Iraq, Arab-Shiites and Arab-Sunnis were massacring each other in several parts of the country which is in the process of degenerating into a civil war that could split it into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish mini-states. In Baghdad, the secular regime of Saddam has been replaced through an open election by a coalition of Shiite religious parties with links to the ruling Shiites in Iran and who have taken steps to limit the rights of women and religious minorities.

The main beneficiary of these developments has been Iran and its religious Shiite rulers who have strengthened their influence in Iraq and are encouraging radical Shiite groups in the so-called Shiite Triangle stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Levant — including Hezbollah in Lebanon — to reassert their power and to challenge the ruling (pro-American) Arab-Sunni governments there.

And in Iran itself, instead of the Democratic Spring that the neocons had predicted, the Ayatollahs have actually strengthened their hold over power and a virulent anti-American (and anti-Israeli) figure was elected as president through a mostly democratic process.

In Lebanon, US pressure forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that were invited by the Arab League to bring stability into that country in the aftermath of the civil war and the Israeli occupation in early 1982 (that also helped give birth to the Hezbollah). Then the Americans celebrated the sectarian-based parliamentary election that took place in Lebanon and that helped to increase the political power of Hezbollah and brought it into the government.

Hence Hezbollah gained more power and representation while a weak central government didn’t have the power to disarm its militias that continue to dominate southern Lebanon and the border with Israel.

And the road from Baghdad didn’t lead to Jerusalem. The Bush Administration has failed to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and increased US backing for Israel. At the same time, the Americans, resisting advice from Israelis and moderate Palestinians, insisted on holding free elections in the West Bank that led to the victory of Hamas, an anti-Israeli and anti-American radical Arab-Sunni group that is opposed to holding peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas is also an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood which aims at replacing the current regimes in Egypt and Jordan with anti-American religious parties. Israel and the United States refused to talk with the new Hamas government and took steps to strangle the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Revolutionary process

So on one level, on the "democratic" side of the Democratic Empire in the Middle East, the Bush Administration launched a revolutionary process that has brought to power and played into the hands of the more radical and anti-American players in the region: Iran and its alliance of Shiite groups in Iraq and Lebanon as well as the Hamas (Moslem Brotherhood) in Palestine, and by extension, in the Arab-Sunni world.

On another level, on the "imperial" side of the Democratic Empire in the Middle East, the Americans moved aggressively to strengthen their hegemony in the region directly (Iraq), indirectly (Lebanon) and through proxies (Palestine). They attempted to build up an international coalition to contain and isolate Iran and force it to give up its ambition to develop nuclear capability and adopted a similar punitive approach against Damascus while tying to oust Hamas from power.

Was it surprising therefore that these mishmash of idealistic democracy-promotion crusades in the Middle East and a unipolar approach aimed at establishing US hegemony in the region ended up producing an ad-hoc and informal coalition of anti-American players, who were emboldened thanks to Washington’s policies and who were trying now to challenge US power?

An Iran, whose leaders sense that it is gradually becoming a regional power and an isolated and angry Syrian regime, decided to utilize their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas to deliver an indirect blow to American power by taking aggressive moves against an American proxy, Israel.

Indeed, it is in that geopolitical and regional context that one should focus on the killing and kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers on Israel’s borders with Gaza and Lebanon. The goal of this action was to demonstrate that against the backdrop of the US quagmire in Iraq and the increasing influence of Iran, Washington would find it difficult to maintain the status-quo in the region.

If the Americans decide to get involved in the current fighting in the Holy Land and Lebanon, they would be drawn into another military front in the Middle East, where like in Iraq, they would be embroiled in more bloody ethnic and religious clashes, helping to accentuate the claim that a US-Israel axis wants to control the region and are at war with Islam.

Or if the Americans refuse to intervene, the continuing fighting and TV images of Muslims being killed by the US and Israel in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Afghanistan would play into the hands of the emerging radical forces and erode the foundation of US hegemony in the region.

In any case, as Teheran and Damascus see it, the Americans will have no choice but to deal with Iran and Syria directly — or indirectly through the United Nations — in order to achieve an end to the hostilities. These governments and the non-government entities that are allied with them will now be in an improved bargaining power vis-à-vis Washington and be able to extract concessions from it on various issues — Syria in Lebanon and Iran over the nuclear issues.

The Bush Administration is hoping that Israeli military power will succeed in defeating Hezbollah and Hamas and as a result, the Americans will be in a position to counterbalance Iran’s growing power.

But it’s not clear how the Israelis could actually defeat Hamas and Hezbollah, short of re-invading southern Lebanon and Gaza and finding themselves once again engaged in a never-ending and bloody warfare with guerilla forces, not unlike what is happening now to the Americans in Iraq.

As a result, radical Shiite and Sunni forces will be in a better position to stir up the Arab masses against the pro-American old regimes in the region. That explains why the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudis seem to be backing Washington’s efforts to disarm Hezbollah.

But here is the catch: The Shiites constitute today at least 40 per cent of the population of Lebanon and any attempt to destroy the military infrastructure of Hezbollah could ignite a civil war in Lebanon.

Perhaps then the Americans would have no choice but to invite the Ba’athists in Syria to impose order in Lebanon. Indeed, they might use that occasion to ask Saddam Hussein to do the same in Iraq.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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