Modern history


Perhaps the greatest danger that threatens the Middle East is not wars between states but wars within states. The civil war in Lebanon is the most obvious example. The tragedies of Yugoslavia and Somalia, both on the edges of the Middle East and sharing part of its history, are others. The continuing struggles in Sudan, according to an Egyptian estimate, have already killed five times as many people as all the Arab-Israel wars combined. But the outside world, including most of Africa, seems to view it with indifference. Sudan had little oil, no Jews, no holy places; it had no active well-wishers or even ill-wishers abroad. The recent discovery of oil may change all this.

For a time, Lebanon functioned smoothly as an open democracy—indeed the only such in the entire Arab world. But that democracy did not survive the importation of other peoples' problems and the intervention, first political then military, of other regional powers. Lebanese democracy foundered in a series of bloody civil wars. As the Lebanese state broke up, in the mid-1970s, loyalty to it become meaningless, and the country disintegrated into a patchwork of tribes, regions, sects and other interest groups, in unending conflict with each other and even within themselves. This anarchic fragmentation was ended only when Syria established effective military control over most of the country and political control over its government. The Syrians all but erased the border between the two countries. After three decades of brutal Syrian rule, the Lebanese appeared to lose sovereignty over their homeland. The American war in Iraq delivered the Lebanese their chance. Syria had done its best to thwart the American effort in Iraq, and the American response came in Syria's sphere of influence, in Lebanon. There was enough American power nearby to intimidate and worry the Syrians. In a moment of panic, in the spring of 2005, the Syrians gave up their dominion in Lebanon. To be sure, they were still next door, and their intelligence operatives and local quislings were still on the ground in Lebanon. But the blatant occupation had been dismantled.

Hafiz al-Asad had defied the odds and had bequeathed power to his son, but the regime in Damascus was still the rule of a sectarian minority, the Alawis. And it still had the weakness of its origins. The Syrian state was constructed after the First World War from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Its frontiers were defined and its identity determined by agreements between the British and French governments. For Arab nationalists, this state was a construct, a fragment of the greater Arab fatherland. For Syrian patriots, it was the rump of a greater Syria which included not only Lebanon but also Transjordan and Palestine. But for some of the peoples within its frontiers, even this smaller state with its capital in Damascus was too much. The Alawis of the northwest and the Druze of the southeast mounted serious rebellions against the central government, and secessionist tendencies also appeared in other regions of the north, the center and the south. The nationalist aim has always been to merge the state into some larger, vaguer entity. A more likely outcome will be the Lebanese paradigm—to dissolve the state and fragment its territories into rival feuding fiefdoms.

Iraq, another post–First World War construct, faces the same problems and the same dangers. Assembled from three provinces of the Ottoman Empire, the vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, it is divided ethnically between Arabs and Kurds, religiously between Sunnis and Shi'a, socially between townspeople, cultivators and nomads. When Saddam's regime faltered briefly in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, all of these centrifugal tendencies came out into the open. While the victorious coalition looked on, he was able to crush these various dissident forces one by one. The American invasion in 2003, which shattered the tyranny of the Ba'ath Party and of Saddam Hussein, rewrote Iraq's history. Outside intervention by the preeminent Western power upended the Sunni ascendency and gave new power to the Shi'a in Baghdad and to the Kurds in their ancestral land in the north. Iraq's prospects are promising, but it remains to be seen if the Sunni Arabs will adjust to their loss of power and dominion.

It is not only imperialist constructs that face the danger of fragmentation. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also a creation of the interwar period, was not the result of imperial expansion and compromise. It is a creation of dynastic ambition, tribal loyalty and religious zeal. At first sight, the Saudi kingdom would appear to be relatively homogeneous. There are no ethnic minorities, since all its people—apart from guest workers—are Arab. There are no religious minorities, since Islam is the only permitted religion. Yet there are difficulties. The Arabs are divided by region and more especially by tribe, with an ancient tradition of tribal feuding. The Muslims are divided into Sunni and Shi'a, the latter a minority in the Kingdom as a whole, but massively present in the eastern, oil-bearing provinces. Even the reigning dynasty is riven by factional, sectional and personal rivalries. Economic and social changes are creating new ambitions and new grievances. The vast ramshackle Kingdom has been held together principally by religion and money. Now, religion is becoming a divisive force, as fundamentalist movements denounce what they see as the impiety of the ruling house and the ruling class. Money, once plentiful enough to solve all problems, is now becoming less readily available. The development of both the religious mood and the oil market suggest that these problems will grow worse, not better, in the coming years.

The Kingdom faces no immediate threat of external aggression, at least not in the form of open warfare. And doubtless, the United States would be sure to come to the rescue of the Saudi realm in the face of outside aggression, as it did in 1990–91. But there is a growing danger of subversion at home, some, though by no means all of it, externally inspired. The House of Saud was challenged by zealots who opened a campaign of terror on Saudi soil in 2003. It was a tenacious fight. The regime prevailed, but the struggle revealed the vulnerability of the Wahhabi order to politico-religious sedition. Against this kind of threat, the magnificent armory of high-tech weapons imported from the United States offers no protection. The Israelis learnt during the Intifada that sophisticated weaponry against stone-throwing youths can be counterproductive. The other governments in the region are not subject to the same constraints, domestic and international, as are the Israelis, but they too show signs of learning the limits of repression. Even the most advanced of missiles, even the deadliest of unconventional weapons of war can neither suppress nor deter rioters or terrorists. The latter may even find a use for them.

In one respect Saudi Arabia is better placed than Syria or Iraq; that is, in its enormous size. Most of the country consists of desert, and the centers of population are like islands in an archipelago, separated by vast expanses of emptiness. This makes it easier to contain, isolate, and eventually repress any outbreak of active opposition.

What is true of Saudi Arabia applies to a greater or lesser extent to the other oil states of the Persian Gulf. In some respects they are better situated than the Saudis; in others they are more dangerously exposed, in the immediate neighborhood of two more powerful neighbors, Iraq and Iran, and in desperate need of American protection.

The collapse and disintegration of any one of these states would create a dangerous situation in the region, especially for its neighbors—a threat to the fragile, a temptation to the strong. Here again the civil war in Lebanon and the involvement of its near and even its distant neighbors could serve as a paradigm for the region.

Not all Arab states face the danger of fragmentation. Some are sustained by long experience of stability and continuity and memories of at least local or regional autonomy. These have combined to produce a common identity, a sense of nationhood that is likely to survive the internal and external problems they may confront in the years to come. An obvious example is Egypt, a nation by any definition. In the future as in the past, it will remain distinctively Egyptian, whatever changes of regime or even of culture it may undergo. Another example is Morocco, which, like Egypt, was created by geography and history. Other countries whose past gives some hope for continuing nationhood and statehood are Tunisia, Yemen, and perhaps a reconstituted democratic Lebanon.

Though Arab states are the most endangered, they are not the only ones in peril. The trend towards fragmentation will be encouraged by the growth of ethnicity and sectarianism. The seductive idea of self-determination has spread to a number of ethnic minorities no longer satisfied with their previous status.

By far the most important of these are the Kurds, numbering many millions and speaking a language, or rather a group of interrelated dialects, of the same linguistic family as Persian. The Kurds are a very ancient people, but they never achieved separate statehood, and their homeland is divided among the modern states of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, in all of which they have played an important part. Smaller groups are also found in Syria and in the Transcaucasian republics.

Paradoxically, it was in Iraq that the Kurds were to achieve a great measure of autonomy over their own affairs. Foreign (read American) protection secured for the Kurds a zone of self-rule in northern Iraq. A binational Iraq, part Kurdish and part Arab, emerged out of the American war of 2003. The Kurds developed the military ability and political skills to guard the measure of federalism enshrined in Iraq's new constitution. Inevitably, this upsurge of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq was to be felt, most intensely, in Turkey.

The struggle in Turkey has been very bitter—armed insurrection and terror on the one side, harsh repression on the other. But there are signs of improvement. There have never been any obstacles to the advancement of Kurds in Turkey, even to the highest offices in the land, but always on condition of a total acceptance of Turkish identity and the renunciation of any Kurdish identity. Even the Kurdish language was proscribed.

This is no longer true. Kurdish is freely and widely used, and Kurdish books are on sale in the bookshops even of Ankara and Istanbul. There is also a change on the Kurdish side. Turkey's Kurds show realism in their ambitions and an ability to play the political game by the norms and ways of democracy. One may hope, during the coming years, to see the beginnings of a compromise between Turks and Kurds. This would not involve a Kurdish state, against which all three powers would be adamantly opposed. It could, however, include a significant measure of cultural and perhaps some regional autonomy, making it possible for Kurds to cherish and develop their Kurdish cultural identity while being loyal and productive citizens of the Turkish Republic. Some kind of arrangement along the lines of the coexistence of English, Scots and Welsh in the United Kingdom could provide the answer. It may be noted in passing that a Turkish statesman asked to comment on this suggestion replied: "The Kurds aren't Scotch; they're Irish. "

The future of the Kurdish minority in Iran offers much less hope at the present time and is clearly bound up with the very problematic future course of events in that country. Iran is threatened by centrifugal forces: the Persians properly so called form a bare majority of the total population. The rest belong to other ethnic groups and speak other languages. A potentially dangerous feature is that, on many of the frontiers of Iran, the inhabitants share a language and an identity with the people on the other side. In the northwest, the Iranian province of Azerbaijan adjoins the independent former Soviet republic of the same name. In the southwest, the province of Khuzistan is inhabited by Arabic speakers very similar to those of Iraq. In the southeast, the people of Iranian Baluchistan share a common identity with the Baluchis of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along the eastern and northeastern frontiers, speakers of various Turkic and Iranic languages share a cultural and—perhaps more dangerous—religious, Sunni identity with their neighbors in Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Hitherto they have been held together by Iranian patriotism—by a shared sense of historic identity. But it is easy to imagine a situation in which the central government in Tehran becomes too weak or too oppressive—either could lead to the other—to retain the loyalty of the frontier provinces. And in such a case, Iran, too, could follow the Lebanese paradigm.

The danger in Iran, however, is not as great as in Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Unlike these, Iran is not a new state, nor is it of Western manufacture. It is an old state with centuries, indeed millennia, of sovereign existence and a strong sense of cultural identity which in the past has usually served to counterbalance and, in the last analysis, to outweigh the centrifugal forces of regionalism and factionalism. This happened in 1926 when a determined and ambitious young officer, seeing his country falling apart under an incompetent ruler, saved the unity of the nation by seizing power and establishing a new dynasty. It could happen again. For now, the mullahs have the upper hand, but, as the upheaval in the summer of 2009—three decades after the triumph of the theocracy—was to show, the struggle over Iran's identity and future is far from settled. On the borders of Iran, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, American military intervention gave rise to new regimes. At the time of the American invasion of Iraq, an Iranian complained: "You should have tackled your problems in alphabetical order." An Iranian joke current during the campaign in Afghanistan related that many Iranians put signs on top of their houses, in English, with the text: "This way please!" The American military push into the region bypassed Iran, and its rulers—or people—were left free to make their own history and to navigate their own course.

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