A Year of Foreboding: What next for the Arab Spring?

Middle EastUS Politics
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Ongoing protests in Syria are just one question facing the region in 2012
(Photo: AP/Muzaffar Salman)

An old BBC colleague who was a distinguished Africa expert used to say, “When the mainstream media focus on one half of the story in a continent full of brutal and corrupt dictators who have been bought by foreign powers, it becomes the duty of a journalist to tell the other half of that story.” His advice was worth heeding.

The year gone by has been one of civil protests, upheaval and violence in many parts of the world. Old wars continued, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peaceful awakening movements that sprang out with much hope in Algeria and Tunisia turned violent as they spread east from North Africa to the Gulf region. A brief and bloody war in Libya, with an overt display of NATO’s military power on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces, resulted in his overthrow and brutal killing. For NATO, the Libya war was over, but not for Libyans. A fledgling government now competes with warlords for territorial control and legitimacy in a fragmented country.

External intervention in Syria is more vocal internationally, but shrouded in secrecy on the ground. Accounts of the conflict are based on claims and counterclaims and not much independent evidence to corroborate. If detractors are to be believed, the Ba’athist regime of President Basher al-Assad is on the brink of collapse. The outcome of the Syrian conflict will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, in particular for Syria’s ally Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Palestine.

Human aspirations for liberty and freedom from oppression defined the year 2011. Paradoxically, great powers who played a role in sustaining oppressive systems, and still do where it suites them, declared themselves on the side of liberty in other places. The result is confusion, division, conflict and a more insecure world. Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were America’s “bleeding wounds,” a term first coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. With both Iraq and Afghanistan far from stable, there is an unwelcome prospect of Libya and Syria also extracting a high price in terms of security threats and energy costs in the current decade.

Past events cannot be reversed, nor are their consequences easy to contain. So I have in mind events which I believe the world in 2012 would be better off without. In the United States, from President Obama and administration hawks to his Republican opponents have been talking about punitive action against Iran and others in this election year. Powerful voices in the ruling circles of Israel, France and Britain are egging the American president on. The gap between rhetoric and posturing can lead to something far more serious. How civil movements can be manipulated by external forces for their own interests has been demonstrated during the current upheaval in the Arab world.

The overthrow and killing of Gaddafi may have resolved the conflict in Libya in the West’s view. Now the prospect of real power remaining with the militias, and an ineffective Western-supported government, reminds of Afghanistan following the 1992 collapse of the last Communist leader Najibullah. Libya, with its porous borders, surrounded by Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, is vulnerable itself and threatens others. The year 2012 could be decisive, not only for Libya, but for the region and beyond.

The situation in Syria is very dangerous. Unlike Libya, Syrian state institutions are more robust. The regime’s friends are not many, but Russia and China are taking a much tougher line with the West. Iran, its ruling allies in Iraq, and Lebanese and Palestinian groups have huge stakes in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by the West, are determined to see the end of the current Syrian regime.

Turkey, a NATO member, has moved from its previous “independent” position to a stance much more in tune with the Western interests in the Middle East. Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey hosts the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and allows the group to train its fighters and orchestrate attacks inside Syria. The Turkish military guards the Syrian rebel base, and a refugee camp, just across the Syrian border.

For Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which professed to seek close relations with its neighbors, this is a complete about face. Two factors appear to be at work here. The Sunni support base of the party is one. The prospect of joining the European Union, an idea that France and Germany in particular oppose, may be the other.

How far Turkey’s moderate Islamic government will go is difficult to predict. It has its own Kurdish insurgency to contend with, so the strategy is risky. Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria reminds of the 1980s when, from a small beginning, Pakistan, in the midst of ethnic insurgencies, became a base for anti-Communist Afghan forces. The consequences were disastrous.

The conflict in Syria continues to simmer. The sanctions on Iran are steadily being tightened. The talk of military action is persistent and the risk of a weak U.S. president facing reelection being pushed into a war against Iran is haunting. Sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise. The country faces a new political crisis after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, prompting the mainly Sunni party al-Arabiya to boycott parliament. And the Syrian conflict threatens further instability in Lebanon and the wider region.

In these circumstances, a war against Iran will be long and catastrophic. From Libya in North Africa to Pakistan on the edge of South Asia, the region has seldom been so explosive. The year ahead is going to be one of foreboding developments.

About Deepak Tripathi

Deepak Tripathi spent 23 years as a BBC correspondent and editor (1977-2000), set up the BBC bureau in Kabul in the early 1990s, was resident correspondent in Afghanistan and reported from Pakistan, Syria, Sri Lanka and India. Tripathi is the author of “Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism” (Potomac Books, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2011) and “Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Potomac, 2010). His other works include “Dialectics of the Afghanistan Conflict” (Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, 2008) and “Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Dilemmas” (Chatham House, London, 1989). His articles have appeared in publications such as The Economist and the Daily Telegraph of London and he is a regular contributor to a broad range of publications, among them Al-Ahram, CounterPunch, Foreign Policy Journal, History News Network (George Mason University), Palestine Chronicle and ZNet. He blogs at deepaktripathi.wordpress.com.

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2 Responses

  1. dumvitaestspesest
    January 9, 2012, 2:51 pm

    “In these circumstances, a war against Iran will be long and catastrophic.”

    This war will turn very quickly into a global, worldly war. Russia fully supports current Syrian government, and is strongly against USA/ISRA /NATO starting a war with Iran.
    Russian Orthdox Church representative issued his support and blessing of Russian Army engagement in a possible war in the Middle East.
    “We should not be afraid of a war”, he says.

  2. Taxi
    January 10, 2012, 11:28 am

    Good grief! Why so gloomy?! Could be worse!

    No one knows what will happen, can predict what can happen, cuz the major chess pieces on the triple-tier board are still in motion – nothing’s landed yet – NOTHING’s in focus yet. There’s as much chance of NO WAR too, you know.

    But will there be a big war in the mideast? Yes. Will it be in 2012? I say probably not, not during a USA election year. Could we be forced into it? Will israel unilaterally bomb Iran in 2012? Highly unlikely – too risky even for israel to start a war during a USA election year . The israelis NEED USA to initiate the war, they won’t do it any other way, they logistically CANNOT. USA initiating a war with Iran is the ONLY WAY israel can go to war and not have the American public turning against israel – they don’t want your average Joe and Jane to resent israel for higher food and gas prices cuz of Hormuz Straights closing down etc. The israelis would rather wait it out for the next president to do their dirty war thing and get the blame too (hello Bush and Iraq’s invasion on behalf of israel!).

    Oh yeah you’d better believe the zios are betting on a NEW president and they’re spending the next 9 months investing and working hard at dethroning Obama and heck why not throw in as much saber-rattling as possible in the meantime – get the masses ‘used’ to the idea of bombing Iran.

    In other words, Iran is ready for war in 2012, but israel ain’t. The USA political ‘conditions’ ain’t right yet for israel. Israel’s been checked with temporary handcuffs.

    As for Syria, contrary to what we hear in the western press, including the BBC, the regime, though troubled, remains ‘stable’ – cuz more Syrian people and institutions want him in than want him out. Simple. The hoopla is pure political theater that only saudi, qatary and zionist fantasists can believe in.

    Please let’s not rush into combining the Aztec Calender with Revelations and bouncing off the walls here.

    The so-called Arab Spring Part Two circa 2012 also is in motion and the chess pieces haven’t landed yet. But one thing’s for sure, it ain’t gonna be abandoned by the freedom-loving Arabs, nor will it be fading into obscurity for generations to come, nor will it be concluded in 2012. The region will feel many tremors this year, but the big earthquake will be coming later than sooner I reckon.

    In the meantime, eff it! Stay free-thinking, stay intellectually vigilant – and enjoy your life while you can for goodness sakes!

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