We Cannot Afford to Misjudge the Middle East Yet Again
Published: 20th August 2014 06:00 AM |
As I write, the immediate crisis on Mount Sinjar appears to have been resolved, but this is a problem that will not go away. One million people have been displaced since Islamic State militants took over swathes of northern Iraq. On Friday the governor of Dohuk province warned of a “genocide” as hundreds of thousands sought refuge there. The situation in the Middle East is now more chaotic and dangerous than it has been for half a century.
The enthusiasm of yesteryear for the Arab Spring has proved entirely misguided. It has led to chaos in Egypt and anarchy in Libya. Those determined to be “on the right side of history” now find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and western meddling makes matters immeasurably worse.
The fundamental reason for our failure is that democracy, as we understand it, simply doesn’t work in countries where family, tribe, sect and personal friendships trump the apparatus of the state. These are not societies governed by the rule of law; rather they are better described as “favour for favour” societies. When you have a problem of any kind, you look for someone related to you by family, tribe or region to help you out.
Behind this somewhat chaotic structure lie the secret police and the armed forces. They hold the state together under the aegis of the president, king, or whoever rules the roost. That leader keeps the different elements of society in play with concessions to each group, but he has an iron fist to be used when necessary, as the public well understand.
Examples can readily be found in presidents Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria and Saddam in Iraq. Nor are the kings of Jordan, Bahrain or, indeed, Saudi Arabia altogether different. There is much less cruelty in the latter countries, but the iron fist is there when needed. And who in those countries today could survey the Middle East and believe that a republic would be a better option?
The West’s abject failure to understand the inner workings of Arab nations has had some disastrous effects. Iraq is the classic case. I was opposed to the invasion of that country, not because I had any love for Saddam but because I believed that the alternative would be worse. I was concerned that our invasion would destroy the stability of the Gulf which had, since the fall of the Shah in 1979, depended on a tripod comprising Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (the latter supported by the West). That is exactly what happened, and we now find that the Iranians are in a position to dominate the Gulf region.
Internally, the outcome was even worse. The Iraqi army was disbanded (although some would say it disbanded itself). The Americans then closed down the Ba’ath party, the only political organisation in the country. Certainly, it had been an instrument of Saddam’s rule, but it was not all bad. Just as anyone in a position of responsibility in the Soviet Union was obliged to be a member of the Communist Party, so were senior Iraqis obliged to be members of the Ba’ath party. The result was to atomise the social and political structure of the country. Favour for favour ground to a halt, and so did governance.
Elections followed, with a huge turnout by the majority Shia, who must have been amazed at the naivety of their occupiers. As it turned out, Nouri Malaki, the Iraqi prime minister who was finally forced to step down this week, proved to be a Shia version of Saddam — at least as the minority Sunnis perceived him. Indeed, it was the severe disaffection of the Sunni tribes in the north of Iraq that permitted Islamic State to make its rapid territorial gains.
We in the West have little conception of the mutual hatred between these two Islamic sects. Add in a regional struggle and we now have the leading Sunni state, Saudi Arabia, feeling threatened by the growing power of the Shia standard-bearer in Iran, as its influence spreads in Syria and Lebanon — a Shi’ite arc which the Saudis are determined to oppose.
Where do western interests now lie? We have a humanitarian interest in getting aid to the refugees fleeing the blood-curdling violence of the Islamic fighters. Protecting them requires that the front line of Kurdish-controlled Iraq be stabilised, and only the Kurds can do that, as the US and most of Europe have now recognised. They must be provided with the ammunition, equipment and intelligence that they need. It is likely that close air support will also be necessary, at least for some months, with a small number of special forces in a position to direct air strikes.
Once the immediate crisis has been addressed, we must prevent the development of Islamic State. That will require an effective government in Baghdad to win back the acquiescence, if not the loyalty, of the Sunni northern tribes, who could take on the Islamic extremists if they chose to.
Beyond that, we need to review our attitude to Tehran and Damascus. An ‘Islamic state’ is a major threat to the stability of the Middle East. Furthermore, it establishes an area under the control of Islamic extremists, which threatens Britain. The Security Services have been unambiguous in pointing to the risk of “blow-back” — young British men going out to fight and coming back fired up with hostile intent.
To be effective in the Middle East and to ensure our own security, we must, for once, learn from the past and ensure our policies take account of the internal dynamics of the countries of the region. We cannot afford any more mistakes.
The growing chaos in the Middle East is a real and present danger to our economy, to the peace of our society and, indeed, to the wider world.
© The Daily Telegraph