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The Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, was fond of the phrase “one step forward, two steps back.” In the current Middle East, we have taken many more than two steps backwards—and we are repeating patterns that are more than five decades old.
In 1958, Egypt and Syria jointly launched an unprecedented political experiment in the Arab world. Pooling their sovereignty, both countries announced that they were forming the “United Arab Republic” (UAR) as a first step towards dissolving national divisions in the Arab world into a wider Arab bloc.
From the beginning, it was an unequal partnership. Aggressive nationalist leaders reigned in Cairo and Damascus, but it was the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who stood —if you’ll pardon the pun—at the top of the pyramid. Disagreements over economic policy, frustration at the collective failure to effectively confront Israel, and Nasser’s distrust of the Ba’ath Party—an organization that derived its main ideological inspiration from German National Socialism, and which ruled at various times in both Syria and Iraq—all contributed to the UAR’s disintegration in 1961.
Both Nasser and his Syrian allies were at the vanguard of the Arab revolutionary tradition that emerged from the collapse of the British and French-backed regimes after World War II. However, what divided them was far more important than what united them. For more than half a century, intra-Arab relations were dominated by intrigue and conspiracy-mongering. There was a great deal of florid, emotional rhetoric about the imperative of defeating Zionism and securing justice for the Palestinians, but such aspirations only served to highlight the failure of the pan-Arab movement—both politically and on the battlefield against the better trained, highly motivated armed forces of Israel.
Just as these Arab regimes emerged from revolution, so were they overturned by successor revolutions, in the form of the “Arab Spring”—remember that?—which descended on Arab cities from North Africa to the Gulf in 2010. As in the late 1950s, any vague hopes of Arab unity and Arab democracy thrown up by the Arab Spring were quickly dashed.
Rather than a United Arab Republic, what we are witnessing today is a cluster of disunited Arab republics, foremost among them Egypt and Syria.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, whose organization was decimated by Nasser during the 1950s after it violently objected to the country’s secular constitution, is now deploying the tanks and soldiers of the Egyptian army against his own people. In November, just days after being feted by western powers for his role in damping down the conflict between Israel and the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, Morsi embarked on a power grab that would have left even Nasser envious. Morsi’s expansive powers now include a judiciary that has been stripped of any right to challenge his decisions. Even the normally sympathetic scholars of Egypt’s famous Islamic Al Azhar academy have expressed their unease with Morsi’s actions—but when you endorse an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, whose credo rests upon jihad and “death for the sake of Allah,” you’d have to be very foolish indeed to think that a functioning, healthy democracy would be a natural consequence of its seizure of power.
In purely humanitarian terms, meanwhile, the situation in Syria is far worse. More than 40,000 people have been murdered since a popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al Assad—the president and the leader of the Syrian Ba’ath Party—erupted early in 2011. Throughout that period, western countries have mounted a series of diplomatic interventions, involving a cast of characters from the Arab League to the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which have signally failed to stop Assad’s slaughter.
Now, though, talk of military intervention in Syria is bubbling. The cause this time is the prospect that Assad may use chemical weapons in his bid to destroy Syria’s rebel factions. Such a fear is hardly far-fetched, especially when you remember that Ba’athists have a similar predilection for unleashing poison gas as did their Nazi forbears when they used Zyklon B in their gas chambers. Recall that in 1988, the late Iraqi President (and Ba’athist leader) Saddam Hussein used a combination of lethal chemical agents in an attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which more than 5,000 Kurds suffered agonizing deaths. Recall, too, that Saddam also liberally deployed chemical weapons in his war against Iran during the 1980s.
The difficulties of military intervention in Syria shouldn’t be understated. Operationally, destroying the chemical weapons centers will involve direct confrontation with the elite Syrian forces assigned to guard them, as well as penetrating sophisticated air defense systems provided to the Syrians by their Russian allies. Politically, both China and Russia can be relied on to oppose any foreign intervention in the name of defending “national sovereignty.” Already, Russia’s unctuous foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is complaining that the warnings about chemical weapons are a dishonest pretext to bring down the Assad regime.
There are no easy options in the Middle East. Western countries are in the midst of what is called “war fatigue,” stemming from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And weakening or even destroying current enemies carries the risk of empowering new ones, whether these are Salafi Islamist factions in the mold of Al Qaeda, or the increasingly belligerent Islamist Turkish government of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made confrontation with Israel the centerpiece of his appeal to the Islamic world.
Typically, European governments have attempted to mollify Arab anger by protesting Israel’s decision to build new housing in Jerusalem, its sovereign capital. The Obama Administration has also made its displeasure clear. But invoking Israel is a red herring. Too many western policymakers fail to understand that the fundamental confrontation here is not between the west, Israel and Islam, but a series of brutal civil wars within the domain of Islam itself. The proof of that lies in the fact that more Muslims die at the hands of Islamist thugs than any other group.
In the coming weeks and months, we can expect even greater disunity in the Arab republics of Egypt and Syria, which may well spread to the rest of the region. That is precisely why we need a unified western strategy that appraises the region for what it is—a vast area dominated by brutal extremists for whom human rights and human lives are meaningless —and not what we’d like it to be.