The Middle East is always discernible amid the plashes of history that go beyond one continent. It was religion since early times; then commerce with Suez Canal since 1869 and with oil after a few decades – each scarred and uglified the region vividly. And, now both religion and commerce play together in this perennial war front, and may determine the path of our civilization in the times to come.
Moses led a community of slaves to freedom and to a land they could call their own. The story of human near Red Sea evolved that saw flourish of major religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam that shared many prophets and myths. But then the shared stories engaged shared geography too that was perceived as sacred by followers of different religions, and ushered in periods of severe conflict and bloodshed. While the struggle was called crusade at the start of the first millennium after Christ, it’s now Israeli-Palestinian conflict though politics spray venom across the entire region, in different ways, all in the name of religions. And, the dominant religion there has been split into several sects like Shia, Sunni, Druze, Salafist making the disputes involute.
An important theatre during both World Wars turned more intense with Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948. Suez Crisis in 1956 saw the formal demise of centuries old imperial power of Britain. The new world powers during the Cold War played cautiously while keeping in mind of their commercial and strategic military interests. Power plays resulted in theocracy in Iran, firm establishment of ruling dynasties in several countries and several dictatorial rulers too. But a delicate balance of power was seen in spite of Iran-Iraq war in the eastern front and Palestinian conflict in the west.
With the end of Cold War, the USA entered into the theatre in a big way. It was largely due to commercial interests – oil. The recent history will perhaps blame the USA and its democratic alliance in the West for opening Pandora’s box. The intricate balance got lost with dethronement of dictators in several countries and by inciting ‘Arab Spring’ in several others in this highly factional region with warring tribes.
Now, aggressive Salafist terrorist organisation ISIS controls a large part of Iraq and Syria. The modern civilisation takes a back seat there, and humanity appears to have left the place. History also sees a withdrawal symptom with destruction of ancient monuments like Mosque of Jonah in Nineveh, an important Assyrian city of early times – an archetypal symbol of the shared past. In fact, the modern counterpart across the river Tigris in the west, the city of Mosul, is the seat of power for this terrorist controlled area. Nobody can wish away ISIS’s influence in the world politics as many rebel groups elsewhere have expressed their allegiance; and its authority has expanded to Libya and Nigeria too. The recruits in droves from Europe and Asia prove the fatal, yet mesmerising, religious appeal of this organisation.
The growth and consolidation of ISIS demonstrate the inherent weakness of the USA policy of engaging disparate interests and powers in the region. The USA does not believe Iran, yet conducts nuclear diplomacy in multiple cities around the globe. While the American President is unsure of his grip over Congress and other stakeholders in his country, Iranian interlocutors too do not know if the agreement, provided it happens at all, will be approved by their all-powerful Leader back home. But the parley continues in the face of strong warnings from close allies of the USA like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
We have now the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Israel who own the election on an anti-Arab plank and who defies openly against the two-states solution proposal awaiting implementation since decades. So, the western front of theatre will remain alive apart from the possibility of wrongful developments with expanding ISIS control in the area of Suez Canal and uneasy political reconciliation in Egypt.
On the other hand, Saudis are fighting multiple battles with their neighbours in spite of a smooth transition of power in their ruling dynasty after the passing away of King Abdullah. The current turmoil in Yemen due to Houthi rebel groups have started testing the military and political power of this much-pampered state by its Western friends. It is quite interesting to see the USA providing logistic and intelligence support without taking part in direct strike – an exception in the recent times casting slight suspicion about the beginning of a decline of this invisible Empire. And, it is fighting against Iran-supported Houthis with one hand, and is befriending Iran for a nuclear treaty with the other. Well, who can afford to ignore a huge Iranian market after the economic sanctions are lifted?
When shameless diplomacy happens in broad streets, and chaos is nurtured and proselytized fast through information online, going back to the basic issues and striking a measured balance perhaps will be a wiser way out in this ‘Arab Winter’. Let us wait and see.