Instability and chemical warfare

Violence and political instability across the Middle East have cast a hopeless shadow on the aspirations of 2011’s Arab spring, but there are some bright points


Nearly three years after the euphoria, both inside and outside the region, that greeted the tumultuous events of the spring of 2011, the Middle East looks like a very different and, indeed, disheartening place at the end of 2013. Across the region violence and political instability seem endemic, and those early expectations of democratic transformation hopelessly misjudged.

In Libya, political stability is as far away as ever. The brief kidnapping in October of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by armed militants, from the hotel in which he had his headquarters, underlined the lack of security and the weakness of central government in the country.

In Tunisia, the assassination of leading secular politicians earlier in the year led to demonstrations in the capital by thousands of people demanding the resignation of the government and prompting concern for the stability of the country that initiated the Arab uprisings in 2011.

In Yemen, a process of national dialogue designed to provide a new framework for political life dragged on without conclusion, while kidnappings, suicide bombings and US drone attacks undermined security and stability.

Most international attention was focused elsewhere, particularly on the dramatic events in Egypt, Syria and Iran. In Egypt, the first elected president in the country’s history was removed from power when the military intervened, in July, to depose Mohamed Morsi after a year of political miscalculation and economic mismanagement. Widespread protests preceded Morsi’s overthrow. Protests also followed in the aftermath of the coup.

But these were brutally suppressed as the military hierarchy reasserted its pre- eminent position in the country’s political life. Recent, if unconfirmed, reports of an interview in which the new Egyptian strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, talked about dreaming that he would one day be president suggest the Morsi government was no more than a temporary interruption of the military dominance of political life in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the unwillingness of Egypt’s closest international ally, the United States, to characterise the overthrow by the military of a democratically elected president as a coup spoke to the continued centrality of Egypt to the strategic interests of the US and to the incoherence of the Obama administration’s response to events in the region since January 2011.

That incoherence was expressed even more clearly in the ways in which the US handled the course of events in Syria later in the year. When hundreds of people were killed, in August, in a chemical-weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a “red line” established by Barack Obama almost a year earlier had been crossed. Although there was no definitive evidence of culpability on the part of the Assad regime, a US-led assault on Syria appeared to be inevitable, even if the nature or long-term consequences of such an assault remained as unclear as any underlying US strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis.

Such action was averted by a fortuitous if somewhat bizarre combination of events. The defeat of the British government in a House of Commons vote on military action in Syria, together with an off-the-cuff remark by US secretary of state John Kerry that Syria could avoid attack if Assad turned over his stockpile of chemical weapons, provided an opening for one of the most unexpected shifts of 2013 and the re-entry of Russia as a key player in international diplomacy in the Middle East.

The announcement by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, of his country’s support for Kerry’s “demand” that Syria give up its chemical weapons was followed almost immediately by expressions of willingness to do so from the Assad regime.

The subsequent deal on the handover and destruction of those weapons delighted many but further weakened opposition to the Syrian regime. Regardless of whether or not a US-led attack on Syria would have dislodged the regime, there is little doubt that, as the year ends, Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power is stronger than it has been for some time.

Indeed, in Syria the real story may not be the chemical-weapons deal but a critical shift in the nature of opposition to Assad. Where the US and Britain initially sought to support so-called moderates in the insurgency, the dominant roles are now played by al-Qaeda affiliates on the one hand and, on the other, the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups supported by Saudi money and espousing a version of Islam close to that of Saudi Arabia. This is prompting some observers to question whether Assad, for all of the brutality of his regime, may not be preferable to likely, and even less palatable, alternatives in Syria.

In an otherwise depressing year for observers of Middle East politics, Iran provided the other big surprise. The election in June of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of Iran reminded us that, for all of its limitations, there is still sufficient unpredictability in that country’s political system for unexpected outcomes to be possible.

Rouhani’s campaign slogan of “moderation and wisdom”, combined with a commitment to reform at home and engagement abroad, captured the imagination of Iranians. Young people longed for an alternative to the posturing, negative rhetoric and economic incompetence of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and members of Iran’s elite political and military institutions had begun to despair of the direction the country was taking and its isolation internationally.

Although doubts were initially expressed about Rouhani’s capacity to deliver on the promise of reform, it quickly became apparent that he had the backing of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, without whom no initiative could have gained traction.

The new president’s willingness to enter serious negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme was met, to the surprise of many, with a positive response in Washington. Remarkably, in the course of a telephone call in September, Obama and Rouhani held the first direct talks between US and Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

By November, Iran had agreed a deal at Geneva that involved curbs on its nuclear activity in return for $7 billion in sanctions relief. Just as events conspired earlier in the year to ensure that any military assault on Syria was unlikely, so the unexpected rapprochement with the new Iranian president rendered implausible the attack on the country’s nuclear capacities that so many observers had seen as possible, if not likely, just a few months earlier.

The past 12 months have underlined the continued volatility of political life in the Middle East. But in the midst of the misery of Syria, and the uncertainty and instability that characterise so much of the rest of the region, are some bright points.

Dramatic and potentially revolutionary change is taking place across a part of the world long associated with autocracy, repression and resistance to the spread of democracy. What some commentators have characterised as a “repoliticisation” of people across the Middle East is occurring with unforeseeable consequences.

For the first time in decades, institutions that had lost their meaning – political parties, elections, parliaments – have become significant once more, as mass mobilisation takes place on a scale that would have been unthinkable just three years ago.

The future direction of political life in the Middle East remains as unpredictable as ever. What is clear is that the politics of the region will continue to surprise for a long time to come.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin’s school of politics and international relations

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