The Turmoil in the Arab World and its Repercussions
The Arab world, which includes 22 countries and a combined population of around 442 million, occupies some of the most important areas of the world, geopolitically. It includes states in the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and North Africa. Many Arab countries are endowed with vast natural resources, especially oil and gas, attracting big-power attention and rivalry.
The current boundaries of the Arab states were largely drawn after the First and Second World Wars. In many cases, these borders were the result of deals between the erstwhile colonial powers, particularly Britain and France. Not surprisingly, they were characterised by inherent instability and disputes. Wars have been a regular feature of the Arab world, particularly since Israel came into existence in 1948.
Israel was carved out of historic Palestine, which was under British “Mandate” after the First World War. Immediately after its birth in May 1948, Israel was invaded by Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, which did not accept Palestinian land being taken away to create a new state. Israel defeated the Arab armies and gained more territory, expanding beyond the borders laid down by the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. The Arabs have been losing more and more land to Israel ever since, with one exception—Egypt, which got back the Sinai peninsula after signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979.
The 1948 war was only the first of several wars that Israel fought with the Arabs, mainly Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, in 1967, 1973, and 1982. Each of these wars ended in “victory” for Israel and further loss of territory for the Arabs. The result is that at present, Israel controls almost 80% of the land of historic Palestine, while the Palestinians are crowded into the remaining 20%, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also known as “Occupied Territories” (OT). And even this 20% is under Israeli military control, which severely restricts the freedom of movement of the Palestinians.
Hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians rose after the Sept. 1993 Oslo Accords, which resulted in the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994. The PNA administered the OT for a few years under the leadership of Yassir Arafat. Then the “Second Intifada” erupted in Sept. 2000, with serious repercussions. In Aug. 2007, the PNA split into two factions, Fateh and Hamas, following the latter’s victory in the 2006 elections held in the OT. The split further weakened the Palestinian movement, which had already been dealt a severe blow by the death of Yassir Arafat in Nov. 2004 from a mysterious illness.
Relations between Israel and the Palestinians have been deteriorating steadily ever since, regularly featuring harsh Israeli military operations against the Palestinians in the OT (Jenin, 2002; Gaza, 2008, 2012, and 2014) as well as in Lebanon, which was subjected to extensive Israeli bombing in July 2006. Thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians and Lebanese were killed in these operations while casualties on the Israeli side were minuscule in comparison.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is now more than 67 years old and is very far from a solution. In fact, with each passing day, it is becoming more intractable, as Israel builds more settlements on occupied territories, in violation of the UN Resolutions.
The last serious effort to find a solution to the dispute was made in the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency in 2001. The negotiations collapsed over the question of East Jerusalem, on which Israel was not willing to accept Arafat’s legitimate demands, codified in the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 242 and 338, which called on Israel to withdraw its forces to the 1967 borders.
That was the end of hope for the Palestinians because Bush, who came to power after Clinton, had no intention of putting any serious pressure on Israel to reach a just solution with the Palestinians. From then on, things went downhill rapidly.
The IT revolution in the last two decades has brought wars to our drawing rooms in real time. In 1996, the TV channel “Al Jazeera” appeared on the scene and covered Israeli military operations against the Palestinians extensively. Public opinion on the “Arab Street” was inflamed. Large sections of the population, especially the youth, in Arab and Islamic countries, were radicalised. Alienation also grew amongst the Arab and Muslim diaspora in Europe.
This population of disaffected and radicalised young men was a fertile recruitment ground for extremist outfits such as Al Qaida and ISIS, that promised to fight Israel and its supporters, the US and Europe. Religion provided a ready-made ideology and infrastructure to organise them. Members of these and other Jihadi groups were involved in the bomb attacks in Paris, Copenhagen, and Brussels in the last 18 months.
Another issue that has created major upheavals in the Arab world concerns “regime change” in three countries that have resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, displacement of tens of millions from their homes, and the rise of sectarianism and extreme religious fanaticism. This process began with the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 and included the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, as well as the campaign launched against the Assad regime in Syria by the West, Gulf, and Turkey in March 2011.
Iraq was targeted for various reasons including its hostility to Israel, and its oil. The invasion and the occupation that followed resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, rise of sectarianism, and the emergence of “Al-Qaida in Iraq,” which later morphed into the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham,” better known as ISIS.
Libya became a victim of regime change in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” which broke out in Tunisia in Dec. 2010. Some Western powers, along with their Gulf allies, saw it as an opportunity to get rid of Col. Qaddafi, who did not toe the Western line on many issues. Besides, Libya had vast quantities of oil and a long Mediterranean coastline close to southern Europe, making it geopolitically significant.
Britain and France, with US support, obtained a UN Security Council resolution to enforce a “No Fly Zone” over Libya on the specious ground of an imminent massacre by Qaddafi’s forces of civilians demanding his ouster. NATO bombing of Libya began within 48 hours of adoption of the UNSC resolution in March 2011, even though Qaddafi announced a cease-fire soon after its adoption. The attack continued for seven months till a mob lynched Qaddafi on 20th Oct. The sustained bombing killed at least several thousand civilians.
Today, five years after the NATO attack, Libya is a failed state, with armed groups controlling different parts of the country. There are two “governments,” and a third is trying to emerge as a “Government of National Accord”. ISIS and other Jihadi groups have established a significant presence in the country, and Libyan mercenaries and arms are being exported to other conflict zones like Syria, which became the next casualty of the “Arab Spring.”
Again, the same game was played. The West, Gulf, and Turkey organised covert external intervention in Syria from March 2011 onwards, exploiting the opportunity provided by some demonstrations against the regime demanding political reforms. Assad’s forces initially tried to crush them by force, resulting in the deaths of many civilians. But he quickly realised his mistake and changed course, promising extensive political reform. But it was too late. The decision to get rid of him had already been taken by the West and its allies.
Assad was targeted because he was an ally of Iran and Russia and permitted supply of Iranian weapons across Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was an anathema to Israel. Getting rid of Assad would weaken both Iran and Hezbollah. This was the strategic rationale behind regime change in Syria, though there were other reasons also.
Things, however, didn’t go according to plan. The West never thought it would take long to dislodge Assad. But it had ignored crucial differences between Libya and Syria. More than five years later Assad is still in power, and the situation on the ground is changing in his favour. But in these five years, almost 500,000 Syrians have lost their lives and nearly 12 million have been displaced. And the conflict in Syria has resulted in the biggest refugee crisis that Europe has faced since the Second World War.
For the reasons detailed above, there is currently a great deal of turmoil—all of it man-made—in the Arab world, which is now spilling over into Europe, in the form of bomb attacks and refugees. It is, therefore, necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue in a just manner, in accordance with the UNSC Resolutions mentioned above. It is also important that the big powers stop playing geopolitical games of “regime-change,” which may not unfold according to their script. It should be a sobering thought for them that they do not know what will finally happen in Syria, when the refugees will stop coming to Europe, and when the bombs will stop exploding in that continent.