Today I woke up to reports of gunfire near a popular tourist site in Istanbul (which I plan to visit in October) and more ancient artifacts destroyed by ISIL in Syria. A recent attack in Tunisia killed dozens and threats of violence keep the Middle East in a constant state of tension.
The Arab Spring of a mere four years ago appears to have turned to Arab Fall. Libya has exchanged the oppressive regime of Kaddafi with internecine warfare and economic collapse while Egypt has exchanged one dictator for another. Only in Tunisia has the new democratic government held on despite regular attacks from fundamentalists who wish to bring it down.
Syria of course never got past the first days of its Spring uprising. There, it soon became clear that those who would overthrow Assad were a mixed lot at best; some were undoubtedly progressive, some were worse than the regime they wanted to replace. ISIL, which may have got its start in Iraq, has rapidly expanded into much of Syria and has forced the west into an awkward position. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? It is not apparently so.
Many felt that the initial movement was truly democratic and modern. It was, so the media told us, fuelled by the dissent of the young and the educated using the most modern of technology – cell phones and social media. But some have suggested that the leaders of the movement were CIA trained while others have argued that those behind the uprisings were motivated by Al Qaeda and while they may have used the tools of the West, they were decidedly against its purported values.
Western governments frankly don’t know how to react and so are reacting in a multitude of conflicting ways. They can’t even seem to agree on whom, if anyone, is to blame for the current crisis. Does it go back to the original colonial adventure that divided up this oil rich region after World War I – when British, French and to a lesser extent American interests split the area up into zones of interest? Much of what has happened since may be laid at the feet of various oil companies and their agents (witting or unwitting) in the foreign services of a dozen countries. Throw in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and various proxy wars between the USA and the USSR and it’s a wonder it is not worse.
The road ahead is not clear but it seems likely that the only solution lies not in the hands of western armies or interventions. The solutions to the Middle East lie in the hands of the people who live there. But finding those solutions will require strong principled governments on the ground. The recent nuclear deal with Iran – despite its critics – may help stabilize one of the key players and make it more inclined to influence its neighbours in a positive way. Now, if something can be done with the Saudis and an acceptable resolution found in Syria, it may be possible to address the root causes of violence: poverty, inequality, authoritarianism, the denial of rights and sectarian hatred.
But that’s ten minutes.