So, today we take on the Middle East. I’m not going to lie, it is a bit presumptuous for anyone to think that they can ever fully, truly understand the region. But trying to paint a clearer picture could go a long way.
When we think of the Middle East, we think of conflict; an endless series of wars that have merged into one. This has resulted in the most searched question about every Middle East country being, ‘Is it safe to travel to-?’ Since the perception and, to a great extent, the reality of the region is linked with the conflict, it seems relevant to begin with conflict itself.
As of this day, there are four major conflicts taking place in the Middle East.
The Saudi Arabia-Iran Proxy Conflict
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two big brothers of the region and the conflict between them is often termed as the ‘cold war of the Middle East’. They are in constant competition and seek to establish their domination over each other but only do so with the use of proxies.
To understand this better, we may have to backtrack a bit. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 and in 1938 massive oil reserves were discovered. Before anyone could blink, the country was one of the richest in the world and the USA was its ally.
Iran also had massive oil reserves, but foreign interventions made things chaotic. Mohammad Mosaddegh, popularly elected as Prime Minister in 1951, was set to implement oil nationalisation in Iran with full public support. This scared many foreign powers as Iran was an easy source of oil. Mosaddegh was overthrown in 1953 by a US-led coup, strengthening the monarchical rule of the pliant Shah of Iran.
The Shah had a reformist attitude, which didn’t receive public approval, and was immensely corrupt. He didn’t have the same support as the Saudi monarchy and, in 1979, clergyman Ayatollah Khomeini led the Islamic revolution, and overthrew the Shah and established an Islamic Shia government.
The potential influence of the revolution on its people terrified Saudi Arabia. It also threatened Saudi leadership of the Muslim world. It is often believed that Saudi Arabia being a majority Sunni-populated country and Iran being mainly Shia-populated is a reason for the conflict between the two powers. However, it is just a point of difference that became increasingly important and has come to govern most alliances in the region today.
As Saudi Arabia feared, Iran began ‘exporting the revolution’. According to a CIA report, Iran was backing Shia groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan to rise against the government. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia bolstered it’s US alliance and formed the Gulf Cooperation Council with other Gulf countries except Iraq.
Neighbouring states also became wary of Iran’s growing influence and power. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. Iraq wanted to replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state and was worried that Iran would incite Iraq’s Shia majority to bring about a revolution. Saudi Arabia sent reinforcements to Iraq which allowed the war to persist until the 1988 UN-brokered ceasefire.
In 2003, the US led coalition invaded Iraq through Saudi Arabia under the guise of disarmament. After removing Saddam Hussein from power, the US had no further plans or strategy, and this created a security vacuum.
Armed militias took over, and Shia and Sunni groups started becoming proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran’s cold war. This civil war carried into the Arab Spring of 2011. Proxy wars between Shia and Sunni groups, or sometimes between the government and militia were funded and propagated in countries like Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon and Morocco. Now that ISIS has been territorially quashed, both Shia and Sunni groups are vying for the land ISIS left behind.
Iran and Saudi have never faced off in explicit war. Recently, an incident on September 14, 2019 where two Saudi oil facilities were attacked has been blamed on Iran by both the victim and Donald Trump. For this reason, severe sanctions have been placed on Iran.
This rivalry is the reason for many minor conflicts in the Middle East. In the race to be king, these countries have ruined countless lives both within and beyond their own boundaries.
The Yemeni Civil War
The Yemeni civil war is another consequence of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but is important and devastating enough to be talked about independently. The conflict has two factions: the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi-led Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement. Both claim to constitute the official government of Yemen. This will need some backtracking again.
Since the early 2000’s, rebels belonging to the Houthi movement (officially called Ansar Allah) have conflicted with the government of Yemen. Their goals include establishing a non-sectarian, non-corrupt, democratic government to combat economic underdevelopment and political marginalisation in Yemen while seeking greater autonomy for Houthi-majority regions of the country.
Saudi Arabia, however, is against any popular movement as it wants to maintain the status quo. So, when the Houthi rebels almost seized power in 2015, the Saudi military (supported by the US) came to the rescue and propped up the Yemeni government. Another reason for their intervention is Iranian support of the Houthi rebels.
The Saudi-Iran rivalry is a driving force for the continuation of this war. Saudi bombings in civilian areas have killed thousands of people. Yemen faces the world’s worst famine in a century and 13 million people are starving. Ironically enough, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, wrote a check for $930 million to the UN for humanitarian aid to Yemen.
Another actor in this war is the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist organisation in Yemen. Before unification in 1990, Yemen was divided into North and South Yemen. STC was established in 2007 with the help of UAE funds and aimed at establishing South Yemen again. The aim of the UAE is officially to counter terrorist outfits like ISIS in Yemen as well as extremist Islamic political parties like Al-Islah. It is also aligned with Saudi Arabia, since although the STC is opposed to the Yemeni government, they find a common enemy in the Houthi rebellion.
UAE has established what is essentially a parallel state which is not accountable to the Yemeni government. Human rights organisations have revealed the existence of a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE where rivals, Al-Islah members and even critics of the UAE-Saudi alliance are tortured. Many refer to the Emirates as an ‘occupation force’.
The civil war is no longer a single war, it has fragmented into multiple conflicts and local skirmishes which makes peace building that much more difficult.
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is a major crisis which affects not only the Middle East, but also the entire world. The humanitarian crisis in Syria has led to millions of refugees trying to cross the borders of safer countries.
The war began in 2011, after a crackdown on Arab Spring protests by the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad. Syrian army defectors along with the disgruntled public formed the Free Syrian Army which transformed the conflict into a civil war. Sunni extremists from around the world came to Syria to join them. Assad used this to give the uprising an extremist tinge so that foreign states would refrain from involvement, going as far as to release extremist prisoners.
Adding to the chaos, the terror outfit, Al-Qaeda, formed a Syrian wing called Jabhat-al Nusra. Kurdish groups in the North also declared secession from Assad’s Syria.
In this time of need, Iran provided military support to Assad. In return, Gulf states began sending money to rebels to counter Iran’s influence. In mid-2012, Hezbollah (Lebanese militant group backed by Iran) invaded Syria to support Assad. By 2013, generally, Sunni countries were supporting the rebels and Shia countries were supporting Assad.
Not long after, in a historically devastating moment for humanity, Assad used chemical weapons against his own civilians. The US ordered a military strike; however, Russia intervened and brokered a deal between Syria and the USA. They convinced Assad (in theory) to give up his chemical weapons. Russia’s support of Assad stemmed from their strategic port Tartus in Syria and because Syria was its only ally in the Middle East. The civil war then became a great powers dispute. CIA training and arms began to reach rebels.
In February 2014, an Al-Qaeda affiliate group based in Iraq broke away and formed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Their aim was and remains the formation of an Islamic caliphate. They fought against the rebels and Kurds and not Assad. This not only divided the attention of Assad’s enemies but also shifted global attention from his atrocities to the terror threat that ISIS poses.
In September 2014, USA began to bomb ISIS. The Pentagon launched a training program for rebels, but only for those who will fight ISIS, not Assad. They struggled to find a like-minded Syrian proxy but finally established the Syrian Democratic Forces (constituted mostly by Kurdish fighters from YPG-a Kurdish militia). Alliances were confusing because the USA’s priority was ISIS, but Saudi Arabia’s priority was Assad.
Currently, ISIS has been driven out by rebel forces, Assad as well as the USA. However, Assad has had a clear victory. For years his troops painted the walls with ‘Assad or we burn the country’. Well guess what, you got Assad, but at the cost of your country. Divided, displaced and distraught: Syria is a broken image that barely resembles a state.
Without the support of Arab states, the existence of Palestine as a state would be in more doubt than it is today. All, except the Arab states, officially recognise Israel. However, global public opinion at present is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There is increasing support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led campaign which demands Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, among other things.
Middle Eastern states are always at odds, but the one thing where they all unite (even Saudi Arabia and Iran) is their hatred for Israel. They provide support to the Palestinian authorities, fund groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that constantly attack Israeli authorities and bear the brunt of Palestinian refugees at their borders (although not always amiably).
Settlements are an important part of the discourse. These are communities of Jews that move into Palestinian territory. By encroaching into already occupied land, they delay the process of peace. Palestinian communities are split apart and their connection to the land weakened and it constrains the boundaries of any future Palestinian state. Most international lawyers believe settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of population into occupied territories. Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian protestors is another stain on its record.
Even Palestinians do not remain undivided. Tensions between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas (Sunni-Islamist fundamentalist militant organization) eventually escalated to outright war between the two factions, which ended up with Hamas governing Gaza independently from the West Bank, meaning that there is no unified Palestinian authority, complicating peace talks significantly.
Two possible solutions emerge- the ‘one-state solution’ which would merge everyone into one big country. It comes in two versions. Either Arab Muslims would outnumber Jews, thus ending Israel as a Jewish state, or the Israelis will annex Palestine. The ‘two-state solution’ will lead to an independent state of Palestine separate from Israel. A US alliance gives Israel an upper-hand over peace discussions, but currently no long-lasting peace is in the books.
These four conflicts provide a basic image of the events and alliances in the Middle East. Several smaller struggles continue such as that of the stateless Kurds, the war against ISIS, the protests across the region akin to Arab Spring and many more. Another thing to remember is that the West still plays a disproportionate part in Middle East politics and bears little of the consequences. Still, any development needs to be viewed through the lens of external actors as well. After all, the Middle East lies to the east of only a few countries. And what happens in that region both drives and is driven by world politics. So, while the conflicts may be affecting the region most negatively, restricting oneself to only the region in finding solutions to the conflicts is bound to fail.
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