It is common for analysts in the Middle East and abroad to view most of the conflicts and tensions in our region through the lens of (take your pick) the Iranian-Saudi Arabian regional cold war, the Shiite-Sunni confrontation, conservative Arab monarchies versus Arab populist revolutionary and democratic movements, or pro-American hegemony or anti-American resistance movements. There is some truth in all four conflict frameworks above, but I suspect we are dealing with something much more profound and historical than one basic conflict that hosts many smaller battlefields.
The diversity, intensity and longevity of armed conflicts and political upheaval across the entire Middle East these days are extraordinary and unprecedented. Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Sudan are all in the midst of either chronic political tension or active warfare and violence.
Here are some possible plausible candidates for a phenomenon that explains all of this: (a) the long-anticipated historical correction to the nearly half a century of authoritarian rule that has gutted the countries of the region and left them ripe for change; (b) the inevitable reconfiguration of the regional balance-of-power security architecture among some resuscitated Arabs, as well as Iran, Turkey, Israel, the United States, Russia and China; or, (c) the run-up to the great regional Armageddon that could see all-out mega-war among Israel, Syria, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and their various allies and proxies.
Wait, there is more, for into this mix of historical adjustments comes news this week that the United States and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have just launched a new group called the Security Cooperation Forum. This must be really important, because U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton attended the inaugural meeting in person. She stressed Washington’s “rock solid and unwavering” commitment to the GCC states. This is a development, based on the historical record, that should both reassure and concern GCC citizens, given Washington’s track record of standing by conservative regimes around the world that eventually fell (Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Philippines, Indonesia and a dozen or so others).
If we see this development alongside the war in Syria and the energetic moves by conservative Egyptians to blunt the revolution there, it looks very much as if the most plausible short-term analytical framework with which to understand events in the region is a common desire by many major parties – the U.S., the GCC, Iran, China and Russia, most importantly – to beat back the revolutionary democratic waves that lap across the Arab world. The counter-revolution is now in full swing in the region.
Like most such phenomena that transcend individual countries, the counter-revolution includes dizzying combinations of local, regional and foreign actors who are prepared to make any combination of arrangements to satisfy their need to maintain power and a political-economic order that suits their narrow interests. So Islamists will work with army generals in some countries as easily as they will work with Russians and Chinese or even Americans in others.
The SCF will focus mostly on what Clinton described as threats from Iran, noting that the group is exploring “practical and specific steps to strengthen our mutual security, such as helping our militaries improve interoperability, cooperate on maritime security and missile defense, and coordinate responses to crises.”
In Washington-speak, a “crisis” is like love: You can define it in any way you want, but you know when it happens to you. So a populist revolt in Bahrain for full civil rights is a crisis that must be crushed by force, but a revolt in Syria is a blessed event that deserves support. Similarly, this peculiar mindset warns against Iranian support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, while accepting as perfectly logical and legitimate for the U.S. and its allies to send arms and money to their favorite rebel groups around the region – not to mention attacking entire countries.
It is difficult to reconcile such contradictions other than through an analytical frame that makes power and incumbency, rather than consistency or principles, the central motives for state behavior.
The conclusion for this week: We now have three principal powerful forces actively engaging each other across the region: established conservative regimes that want to keep things as they are in the Gulf and other Arab monarchies (led by the U.S. and the GCC); established autocratic regimes that want to keep things as they are in places like Syria, Egypt and Iran; and populist forces with democratic or Islamist tendencies who are challenging the first two forces and seek to usher in a new period of democratic, accountable governance.
This will change in a few weeks or months, because this is what historical corrections look like when you get the chance to experience them in real time, as we are these days in the Middle East.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.