When will the references to the Arab spring end? The supposed political awakening of the people of north Africa and the Middle East has, without a shadow of doubt, thrown the entire region and the Islamic world into a conflict which may rage for decades, and also created a new terrorist entity that makes Al-Qaeda look nearly peaceful.
Yet, here we are, wanting the same sort of awakening in Pakistan.
What went wrong? Why was spring so short lived, and when will the brutal summer end?
Very simply, the authoritarian regimes that were brought down during the spring knew a thing or two about the people they were governing. At its core, most of the Middle East is nothing more than a group of tribes made to live together, with some semblance of peace and order, through the use of absolute force. These tribal traditions even outdate the ones which came later through religion, more specifically Islam and the great Shia-Sunni schism. And of course, language as well.
Arabic is not one glove fits all. From Egypt to the Sudan, and from Lebanon to Jordan, the language is barely distinguishable. So, the dictators and monarchs knew very well that if they did not hold their territories in the most absolute of forms, they would not be able to sustain for too long. Hence, we have the legacies of Gaddafi, Assad, and Saddam.
The same holds true for the monarchies. Some have been able to fend the spring so far. But only just. A fragile calm exists, in Jordan and Bahrain, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. So bent are they to ensure that the enemy does not come knocking at their doors, that today they have partnered with the United States to take on the Islamic State (IS). But did they not first side with the jihadists who later went on to form the IS? The great cauldron of confusion brews.
Yes, most of the Sunni-dominated monarchies supported the jihadists fighting Bashar al-Assad. And it wasn’t really because of Assad, but the kings and princes wanted to, at the very least, stem if not set back the re-emergence of Iran as a major player in the region. Once again, it was nothing more than the usual fault lines of religion and regional dominance at play.
But today, these same countries have partnered with the US to target the IS, which is fighting Bashar al Assad. It just doesn’t make sense. Unless there is yet another hidden meaning to all this. More on that later.
As things stand today, the United States is firmly saying no to sending troops into action against the IS. This here is a delicate balance, because the Syrian regime is selling this at home as the US being on their side. Which is hardly the case. Also, Washington is sticking to its strategy of attacking the middle and top tier of the organisation. This may work in the short term, that too on a battlefield thousands of miles away, but its effects on the ground are historically disastrous.
In most cases, horrific inter and intra group battles for supremacy commence, exacting a huge price on the population, while at the same time the fire that breeds this horror is given another shot of fuel. To be sure, the IS cannot be defeated from the air. Nor can Assad do it on his own. The countries currently flying with the US over Syrian skies will eventually have to ‘invade’ (or liberate) Syria, from both the IS and Assad. The war has only just begun.
This is a slightly myopic view. There are several other dimensions to what is going on in Syria, and to a lesser extent Iraq. To unearth these layers, one must include the other players in the region: Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Egypt and of course, Russia. There is the standard issue of Sunni dominance threatened by a rising Shia belt.
The US sides with the Sunnis, and the Russians with the Shias. Syria is the latest chapter in the cold war between the two great nations. There is tension within the Islamic bloc as well. Qatar has been trying for some time now to cement a place for itself in the region, much to the dislike of certain monarchies. The same goes for Turkey. While all three adhere to the same macro-brand of Islam, they are desperate trying to influence the shifting sands in the region with their own brand of Islam.
With such a multi-layered conflict, hoping for a quick solution is foolhardy.
One thing is for sure: the US aerial bombardment of Syria will not defeat the IS. That can only happen from the ground. As mentioned earlier, the US is currently treading on thin ice by not attacking Assad, something the Arabs tried so hard last year to get Obama to order strikes against the government. Obama pulled out at the last minute. But the Arabs who have his ear have definitely scored a goal by bringing him into the conflict.
The worst outcome will be a coalition of Sunni states putting together an army to take out both the IS and Assad. It will open the Islamic world to a kind of conflict it has never seen before. Iran and Hezbollah will both be drawn in immediately, and while what happens next is anybody’s guess, it won’t be pretty.
The spring promised power to the people, but the scorching heat of ethnic and sectarian divides, the threat of the re-emergence of political Islam, and a massively corrupt polity willing to do whatever necessary to stay in power ensured that spring never blossomed.
This is what happens when revolutions go awry. Best to be careful about what one wishes for at home.