BOSTON — As the whirlwind of dozens of major and minor players that interact and battle one another across the Middle East continues unabated, the same players also criss-cross the world to explore new strategic or tactical alliances. The political dynamics of the Middle East have been totally upended. To try and discern what is going on in the region today one has to look first to Russia, Ankara, Tehran, Tel Aviv, and the Dahieh of southern Beirut, with secondary attention to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Cairo, and Doha, and only occasional fleeting glances to Washington and Brussels.
Immediate issues that once riveted our attention may lose some of their urgency or danger. It is still fascinating but perhaps less ominous than a few years ago to wonder what happens next in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, what will tens of thousands of takfiri-salafist militants across the region do in the wake of the destruction of the Islamic State, what is the fate of Yemen, Libya, and Palestine? Is the big story this week still the fate of some small towns on the Syrian-Turkish border, or who first reaches and controls the Syrian-Iraqi Lower Euphrates region? How long will the Saudis and Emirates continue their two great failed adventures of the war in Yemen and the siege of Qatar?
We cannot predict which existing or unidentified new major actors will influence events in the coming years, in view of the constantly evolving political relations among the many powers operating throughout the Middle East. This we do know, though: The single momentous dynamic that towers above all others in the Middle East comprises the unknown impact of this unprecedented, ongoing, period of non-stop, multi-year warfare in half a dozen countries, with proxy ideological battles in half a dozen others. Everywhere, it seems, local, regional, and global parties all fight each other militarily, while also exploring new political alliances, mostly with non-Arab powers in Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
All our big questions can no longer be assessed on the basis of predictable interests and expectations of sovereign states in the Middle East, as had been the case since the 1930s. Today, Turkey, Iran, and Russia coordinate their military presence inside Syria to effectively preserve the presidency of Bashar Assad — and after that they will figure out how to handle the U.S. military, the remnants of Islamic State, the dozens of smaller takfiri-salafist militants, tribal coalitions, and Kurdish aspirations.
Simultaneously, the Saudi monarch is in Russia exploring new commercial, military, or tactical political relationships — or perhaps just bluffing. Turkey, the NATO member, is buying advanced missile systems from Russia. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt work together to reconfigure the governance system in Gaza, allowing a former small-time Palestinian ruffian named Mohamad Dahlan to share power in the strip with Hamas, Fateh, and anyone else who will dance for money. Their collective survival is at stake in Palestine, and perhaps they have nobody else to turn to — or they simply do not know what to do in these existential times, other than in panic to seek a strongman, any strongman will do, to save them, with someone else’s cash.
The combined insult and imbecility of American policy on the Palestine-Israel conflict is captured by President Trump’s determination to rely on his apparently clueless son-in-law Jared Kushner, while the American ambassador to Israel keeps making statements that deny the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and sanctifying Israel’s illegal colonization of Arab lands. United Nations agencies meanwhile draw up lists of Israeli companies that exploit the colonized Arab lands, so the world can refrain from dealing with them.
These and other bizarre developments alongside our many ongoing wars indicate that the very nature of national sovereignty based on territorial control in the Arab region continues to fray at many of its edges. The less-than-a-century-long modern legacy of independent states that firmly controlled their land, economies, resources, and means of violence in their armed forces and police is gradually slipping out of modern history’s leaky fingers that never seemed to get a good grip on our area.
So we continue to ask, still with no credible answers: Who is sovereign in northern and eastern Syria this week? How will things develop in the rest of Syria and Iraq, in the Kurdish regions, throughout Yemen and Libya, or among the post-Islamic State militants who supported that short-lived extremist, violent venture? What is the future of Jerusalem?
Sovereignty, authority, legitimacy, and military power in some lands are no longer are vested in the hands of Arab central governments. This peculiarly Arab dysfunction sees us living in a region of sovereign states, semi-states, quasi-states, truncated states, states-within-states, invading foreign states, virtual states, mini-states, ethnic and sectarian states, and hollow, helplessly dependent poor states that will dance for money. They all compete against one another for land, resources, and authority, in a region that has plentiful land and resources, but many fewer credible single national authorities, as a dozen other forms of power, sovereignty, territoriality, and legitimacy continue to spring up and heighten the cacophony.
There is nothing mysterious or unexpected about any of this. Badly mismanaged countries with degraded populations and little hope of change refuse to remain in a state of permanent anguish. Some resist. Some rebel. A few try half-heartedly to reform. Many fragment, to be reborn in a thousand smaller pieces, or a handful of militias, or sub-contractors to foreign powers, or just new gangs with friendly nearby funders.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 11 October 2017
Word Count: 913
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.