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Time for Self-Criticism Amid All the Arab Confusion

15 August 2015

By Eyad Abu Shakra

Let us stop, even just once, our stubborn denial and talk openly about why we seem addicted to reactions and self-assurances, while others are achieving political advances which even their foes acknowledge.

I contend that if we were to pose a direct question along these lines, we would not like the answer.

There is no doubt that the Iran nuclear deal has been a significant landmark that has uncovered where we as Arabs are failing. Another significant development has been the late-coming American "understanding" of Turkey's sensitivities towards Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Then, of course, there is the age-old Palestinian issue which has served for decades as living proof of our failure to comprehend the true relationship between the West and Israel—as a concept and entity, and in terms of political culture. Finally, we need to admit our mismanagement of the issue of coexistence in our countries. We behave either as if we know nothing about the plurality of our constituent communities, or we believe obliterating plurality is the only way to protect our "national unity" against "foreign conspiracies."

The truth is, however, that we have been committing mistakes for a long time now. The difference this time around is that the existential challenges do not allow for more fatal "comfort zones." Indeed, I believe the period we are going through is comparable only with the one which led to the countdown to the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel—including Anwar Sadat's breaking all the old Arab political taboos regarding recognizing Israel and speaking in the Knesset. Actually, I believe this may be an even more dangerous time, and more decisive for the region's future.

Well, let's begin with the Israel–Palestine issue. Washington is now moving at full speed in order to win over Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal, and from our long experience with Washington's attempts to cajole Israel, we know that the weaker party—the Palestinian side—always pays the heaviest price for these efforts. And if we recall that the solid base on which Netanyahu relies includes the extremist settlers, then the murderers who committed the heinous crime against the Dawabsha family—whose 18-month-old baby Ali was burned alive in an attack by Jewish settlers—will go unpunished, while settlements will continue to expand and any chances for Palestinian statehood will recede. And with them disappear the last vestiges of Palestinian moderation that make a political solution possible.

Moving from Israel–Palestine to Iran, we find ourselves dealing with more than the occupation of one Arab entity called Palestine to several de facto occupations plus other attempts to dominate and occupy even more Arab countries. Moreover, we are witnessing a "sectarian Muslim–Muslim civil war" instead of Israel's Jewish "isolationism" that fears peace and demographic assimilation.

Alas, as we have failed dismally in understanding the relationship between the West and Zionism even before the founding of the State of Israel. And we now look stunned by the apparent success of Iran's "lobby" in building effective interest-based networks with the Right and Left in almost all Western countries, including the US—although some may still recall the role played by the Shah of Iran in the former Central Treaty Organization, (CENTO), originally known as the Baghdad Pact.

To be more direct, John Kerry is now visiting the Middle East in order to promote the new American strategic vision of the region, not to clarify some sudden "misunderstanding" arising between Washington and Arab countries. In fact, the priorities of the Obama Administration's vision are very clear—at least to Arab observers based in Washington who know their way around its lobbies and corridors of power. These observers are well aware of what is being whispered and leaked, and what is being "advised" by various think-tank experts. The overall picture they are getting is not comforting.

The war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and similar organizations is now certainly the excuse to ignore all other events in the Middle East, including the ever-expanding Iranian hegemony and emboldened Kurdish secessionist ambitions throughout the Arab Mashreq.

Consequently, shooting down the ideas of safe havens in northern and southern Syria is not only the declared policy of the Obama Administration and its team of advisers, but is also being defended and endorsed by some in Europe who do not see the end of Assad's dictatorship as the first step towards a solution for Syria and the region, and even argue that safe havens would become refuges for "anti-Western ISIS-style extremists."

Here it may be worthwhile to examine Turkey's position. Many today are eager to accuse Turkey of being ISIS's principal backer and attach all sorts of conspiracies and evils to the country's leadership. This attitude is led by some Arabs who have grown accustomed to seeing politics in "black and white" and in terms of "either-or." Hence, they do not seem—in good faith—to differentiate between a tactical cooperation and a strategic alliance. As a result, the anger felt against the "Islamist" policies of Turkey's government are making this group not only underestimate the threat of Iranian expansionism, but some of them are also talking openly of siding with Iran against Turkey. As such they are willing to forget what crimes Tehran has perpetrated against the Syrian people via the Assad regime, against the Yemenis via the Houthis, and what it has in store for the Gulf states, particularly Bahrain.

They do not seem to realize that the issue is far too important to be subject to mere spitefulness and matters of temperament. The threat is too real and too dangerous to allow for misconceptions and miscalculations.

Arab countries have already paid heavily for such misconceptions and miscalculations since Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, and have been too late in appreciating the detrimental repercussions of a sectarian regime emerging from the ruins of Saddam's. The Arabs of the region have lost much as a mistake has been "corrected" by a worse mistake, and a sectarian hegemony replaced by an opposite sectarian hegemony.

Iraq's tragedy needs no proof; and what Lebanon has been going through since the Rafik Hariri assassination in 2005, and the subsequent handover by Assad of "Syrian-dominated Lebanon" to Hezbollah, is another chapter in that sorry saga. And since 2011 the bloody execution of Iran's regional domination has been extended to Syria itself with total disregard to the delicate religious, sectarian, and ethnic balance in the fine-tuned Syrian social mosaic. Thus, with a combination of conspiracy here, and ignorance there, the issue of "protecting minorities" in the Mashreq is now becoming a Damocles sword hanging ominously above the region.

The Mashreq is certainly losing badly as extremist "Political Shi'ism" abandons Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb's ideals—especially his humane sense of justice—and extremist "Political Sunnism" is losing even more as it rushes to mass political suicide and global confrontation after turning its back on the traditional moderation and pragmatism of the Sunni ruling establishment throughout history. 

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

 

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