Saturday, 14 June 2014

Who's the rebel, who's the democrat, who's the bloodthirsty dictator? Middle East politics for beginners

Sit up at the back of the class there. Pay attention. Stop texting your friends or chatting to your neighbour. 

Today we’re tackling the problem of Western policy towards the Middle East, and it’s complicated, so follow carefully. There will be a test at the end.

Start by learning two principles that will help follow the rest.

First of all, democracy’s a delicate machine, and like all machines, it needs regular oiling. So anyone with oil is a friend. 
Careful, though: we’re not that fond of Russia. Don't worry. Russia’s more about gas than oil, so it’s a bit of a toss-up whether we need to like them in the first place.

Secondly, Israel’s a friend and Iran’s a demon. 

Israel’s a great democracy, like us. There may be people who don’t agree, but they’re in places you’ve barely heard of and will never go to, like Ramallah or Gaza City. The people you get to vote for all agree that Israel’s a good, peace-loving friend, and they can’t all be wrong, can they?

As for Iran, well, they’ve been beastly to the West on repeated occasions. In particular, they took a load of Western diplomats hostage in a thoroughly reprehensible way. And they may or may not be building a nuclear weapon, which makes them really worrying. We can’t have nuclear powers in the Middle East. Well, apart from israel of course, but see above.

Because Iran’s so nasty, we were keen to help Iraq under its fine leader of the time, Saddam Hussein, when it went to war against its neighbour. But then, sadly, Saddam thought he could invade Kuwait. Now that’s a country with lots of oil, and so at least as good a friend as Iraq (which also has oil). So we invaded right back, with a view to bringing ex-friend Saddam down.

But then we didn’t. The Russians didn’t like the idea, and this was one of those occasions when we thought we ought to treat that gassy lot as friends. So we left Saddam alone.

Next, though, he did something unforgivable. He didn’t stop a bunch of Saudis attacking the United States on 9/11. It’s true that he didn’t have anything to do with the terrorists, but Saudi Arabia has lots and LOTS of oil, so we couldn’t pick on them; besides, we had unfinished business with Saddam, so this seemed like a good opportunity. If you can’t follow the logic, don’t worry. Nor can anyone less.

The second war on Iraq was an unmitigated success. Where the people of Iraq used to live in fear under a bloodthirsty dictator, now they live in fear under a terrorist-riven nominal democracy. Also it has a government run by friends of Iran. Which, it seems, is just fine. Again, it may damage your health to try to follow the logic here (or, indeed, try to find any).

Next a rebellion started against another bloodthirsty dictatorship: that of President Assad in the country next door, Syria. Now Syria doesn’t have any oil, so we can safely line up against its government. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any oil, so why would we bother? Even so, the West decided the trick would be to rain a few missiles down on them, just to show that democratic values mean something.

That would have got up Russia’s nose again, because Assad is their bloodthirsty dictator, but this was another of the occasions when the West felt that we could safely dislike the Russians.

In the end the West didn’t do it, because a number of people wondered whether missiles were quite precise enough to hit only the bad guys and leave the good guys entirely unharmed (to say nothing of ordinary unaligned civilians, at least 100,000 of whom died in Iraq). And being precise is particularly key in Syria, if only because it turns out that the rebel side isn’t composed entirely of good guys. In fact rather a lot of them are part of the very movement that attacked the US on 9/11.

ISIS. Heroic champions of democracy resisting tyranny in Syria
Or do I mean vile terrorist opponents of democracy in Iraq?
Which leads to the latest act (certainly not the last act) of this exciting drama. Because one of those rebel groups is ISIS. We’re told that stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is worrying if only because it suggests that they don’t know how to spell ‘Levant’. They’ve started taking over cities in Iraq, even though there are only 7000 of them. It turns out that the armed forces and police of the shiny Western-backed democratic government have been melting away in front of them.

As a result, the US is considering taking military action in Iraq again. They might bomb ISIS. And, because they like to be consistent, they might bomb them in Syria too. So instead of bombing Assad and the Syrian regime, they might end up bombing the rebels against him. Well, some of them anyway. Assuming they can tell one lot from the others.

Meanwhile, because ISIS is fighting for Sunni Islam against the Shias in power in Iraq – well, in office in Iraq – Shiite Iran is keen on blocking them too. They’re offering help to the government.

So the US and Iran could end up on the same side.

Isn’t that fun?

OK, no more enjoying the irony. Time to take the test below.

Middle East Crisis Test

Choose the option that most closely describes the way things are.

1. The West is:

  • for Iraq and against Iran
  • for Iran and against Iraq
  • against Iraq and Iran
  • all of the above
2. The West is:

  • against Syria’s President Assad
  • against some of the rebels against President Assad
  • against Assad’s friends in Iran
  • on the same side as Assad’s friends in Iran
  • all of the above
3. The rebels fighting the Syrian government are:
  • heroes taking on a repressive sectarian regime
  • people to back because they are the enemies of Iran
  • terrorists representing the worst threat the West faces today
  • fundamentalists we ought to help Assad crush
  • all of the above
4. The rebels fighting the Iraqi government are:
  • heroes taking on a repressive sectarian regime
  • people to back because they are the enemies of Iran
  • terrorists representing the worst threat the West faces today
  • exactly the same people as in question 3
5. The Western intervention in Iraq has been
  • a glowing success
  • an unmitigated disaster
  • an incoherent blundering action with no clear goals or exit strategy
  • exactly what happens when you think military force can solve civilian problems
6. Faced with the prospect of Western intervention in Syria, your reaction is:
  • it would be a magnificent act backing democracy against dictatorship
  • it would turn out as incoherent and damaging as it was in Iraq
  • who the hell would we back?
If you chose the final option to all six questions, you have grasped Western strategy for the Middle East, in all its coherence and clarity. You might consider pursuing a career as a highly-paid policy adviser on the region.


Charles James said...

Perfectly clear! BTW I thought it was against the UN convention for members of the UN to try to bring down each other's governments?

Anonymous said...

In desertic conditions you must expect shifting sands.


David Beeson said...

Charles, I think you're right. Perhaps legality isn't absolutely top of the priority lists of the governments in question?

David Beeson said...

Indeed, San, indeed. You might also expect sandstorms and loss of perspective. So you're right: perhaps the incoherence is only what one might expect.

Anonymous said...

Now Blair's saying, 'Not my fault guv. Attack Assad and all will be sorted.'


David Beeson said...

And of course he believes his success last time means we should follow his advice today.

Anonymous said...

The last S is indeed for Levant. As you say they can't spell. But Levant in arabic, they will tell you, is SHAMS.
Could the last S not be for Syria?


David Beeson said...

San, they do keep saying Levant, though like you I thought it meant Syria. I noticed that a BBC correspondent yesterday kept referring to ISIL.

It did occur to me that Levant translated into an Arabic work starting with an S (though does Shams start with an S in Arabic? The "sh" sound only starts with an 's' in European orthographic convention - it has its own letter in Russian). But then in Arabic do the initial ISI really start I, S and I?

I assume, too, that the Shams doesn't mean "Levant" literally - the rising - because presumably to Arabs the Levant is more the West than to the East...

All very murky...