The cauldron of civilization where the Sumerians invented numbers, calendars and provided base for the Babylonian empire wherein they introduced a coded Hammurabi law to settle the affairs of state and built the hanging gardens of Babylon, has plunged into an abyss of lawlessness and anarchy at every tier of state and society.
The Islamic state did not morph into a lethal war machine overnight, nor did the young fruit vendor from Tunisia blaze himself up to bring about a revolution which led to counterrevolutions and counter-counter revolutions — the cycle still continues at the cost of poor people. All this transpired in a particular context. The good and bad policies of the states inside and outside the Middle East accumulated into the anarchy of today.
The Ottoman Empire lost control of its erstwhile territories which were mercilessly truncated and shared among the victors. The post-Ottoman western imperialism was resisted at various levels resulting in creation of several fractured nation states. However, amidst these newly independent states was left a small land to settle the Jews from Europe, at the cost of indigenous Palestinians.
The presence of Israel with unilateral and unconditional support from the western world resulted in deep-seated resentment among the majority Muslims. The Middle Eastern countries countered the same and waged several wars but that too could not lead to their desirable outcome.
Jamal Abdal Nasser pursued a secular Arab nationalism under the leadership of Egypt. Yet, the same did not go well with the conservative Muslims who predicated their rise on Islamic traditions. Hassan al-bana founded Ikhwan-al-Muslimeen and Syyed Quttub provided the ideological moorings to the newly established organisation. Syyed Quttub in his book Maalam fi-tareek categorically rejects all other worldviews and calls for “Jihad” against the Arab regimes besides the western world since they have become puppets. After failing in the underground acts of regime change, they went public and set-out for electoral democracy. It has quite an organised following across the Middle East as well as sister organisations in other Muslim countries like Hamas in Palestine, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan. Besides such bottom-top Sunni Islam, the resourceful but top-bottom state controlled Wahabi Islam took roots in the KSA which exported this creed through petro-dollars.
While the Sunni conservatism was taking roots and muscled their strength through participating in various regional conflicts from Palestine to Afghanistan, the conservative Shias of Iran too made their entry into the regional affairs by ousting the secular Shah of Iran.
The rise of such conservative religious brands were not primarily the offshoot of an ideology, rather it was more of a reaction against the undue occupation and interference of the western world into the affairs of respective Middle Eastern countries. Israel could not create its hegemony and defeat the joint Arab armies without support of the west, especially US. The west made a stooge of Shah of Iran thus providing space for proselytization to Khomeni. The same space was unintendedly granted to the conservatives across the Middle East.
The respective factions have been at cold and sometimes active war among themselves — the western world always took sides. The US and Russia played their proxy wars using partners of any suitable shade which could address their immediate strategic objectives.
The situation escalated in a rash decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq. It seemed an easy prey given more than a decade of financial sanctions and weak rule of Saddam Hussain. Their calculations to the extent of occupation were correct since there was no one to defend Baghdad. More than a million were killed and thousands of homes destroyed which was bound to have an impact. The regular army of Saddam embraced al-Qaeda’s ideas and tactics. The Jordanian born Al-Zarqawi parted ways with al-Qaeda and founded his own organisation which was far lethal then al-Qaeda. The Shias and westerners were targeted and butcheries were projected to terrorise the world. He was replaced by Al-Baghdadi who named it ISIS thus uniting the Iraqi and Syrian forces against Bashar-al-Assad and other enemies.
Muhammad Buoazizi, a vendor in Tunisia, blew himself up on account of the injustice meted out to him by a police official. The civil society protested as usual, but perhaps the event matched the times for mass agitations and outpour of the pent-up resentment against the dictatorial regimes. A series of demonstrations were held across Tunisia and the dictator was deposed, the spirit flew to rest of the Middle East as well. The biggest show was held in Egypt where youth took the lead and put an end to the long rule of Hosni Mubarak. Libyans and others too followed suit.
Yemen is embroiled in a civil war with pro and anti-regime rebels. Syria has been destroyed. Aleppo and Al-Raqqa have become the symbols of our failure. Respective factions of militants including ISIS are sponsored and supported by the outside forces keeping in view their interests. US wants Asad out whereas Russia and Iran think otherwise, thus lending support to their proxies accordingly.
An elected president was not allowed in Egypt on several pretexts and the state was taken back by military with pro-US leanings. Saudi Arabia is adamant to counter Iran in the region and was not pleased at all with US-Iran nuclear deal. Saudis look the other way to Israel’s unlawful acts in Palestinian occupied territory only because the cause is championed by Iran, Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas which somehow Saudis don’t like.
There are plenty of differences even among the Sunnis, since Saudi model of governance is not acceptable to Ikhwan and the Saudi-Qatar conflict gives further credence to the intra-Sunni divide. Saudis put up a show of strength by co-opting Donald Trump to their camp which did not go well with the general population but is fine with the house of Al-Saud if it serves their genuine or perceived interests.
Where do the powerful countries of the west stand in this conflict? Well, they have been changing their positions from occupiers, to sponsors, to neutrals to being ambivalent at best. Iraq was left in tantrums like Afghanistan and reoccupied merely to cause bloodshed on an unprecedented scale, the Arab spring turned into an Arab winter, firstly on account of western neutrality then through an effort to return to status quo since it is more comfortable in dealing with dictators. The US and Russia are again taking sides in the civil wars, hence responsible in escalation of the conflict.
The role of Pakistan cannot be gainsaid in the ongoing conflict on account of its geographical contiguity, religious affinity and economic bonds. Pakistan did take the right decision by not becoming a direct party in Saudi-Yemen conflict. However, it has become a party by joining the KSA-led military alliance of the Muslim countries. Granting of NOC to retired military officers to serve the alliance is too a clear indication of becoming a party in the conflict.
Pakistan could have chosen to remain neutral and rather extended its services as an arbiter among the conflicting states. If Kuwait can become arbiter, Pakistan can do better than that. Keeping in view Pakistan’s ongoing war on militancy and the ingress of ISIS into Afghanistan and FATA, it is not advisable to get embroiled further in this quagmire. The argument furnished to this effect is that of Pakistan being dependent on Saudi Arabia economically. Well, it depends how you look at it. It’s not dependency, rather inter-dependence. Our people serve them and are a crucial human resource for KSA. As for oil, it’s only important as far as you buy it. Besides, the energy dynamics have changed and things are shifting to alternate energy sources.
The regional countries especially those not party to the conflict must get their act together and force the conflicting parties including the USA, Russia, Turkey and Iran to work out a solution for the ongoing conflict. Anyone thinking it to be an internal affair of the Middle East is living in the fool’s paradise. Such localised and regional conflicts lead to world wars.
Conflict management is an area where the civilised world has failed despite its scientific advancement. The world leaders must act maturely. It might have Islamic undertones but even that is not the case since oppressed communities will catch up on any available idiom to express their angst. Historical biases and realpolitik lie at the root of all this seemingly unmanageable conflict. Hammurabi would have come up with some solution, but centuries later his descendants, who boast of being “civilized”, are unable to find one.