The New and the Ordinary in the Middle East

Every once in a while the Middle East region experiences a series of major and simultaneous developments in several different arenas, indicating that something important is taking place. We are passing through just such a moment this week.

Every once in a while the Middle East region experiences a series of major and simultaneous developments in several different arenas, indicating that something important is taking place. We are passing through just such a moment this week, with quite dramatic developments in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and several Arabian Peninsula states, without any sign of what is truly historic and new and what is a passing phenomenon.

Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed to learn that nobody is in charge, as they had long imagined, or is pulling strings to achieve predetermined objectives, like the break-up of large Arab countries into a series of ethnic principalities, or the control of Arab countries by Islamist groups beholden to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States. Local dynamics primarily drive each set of major changes across the region, with cross-border linkages following as a corollary in most cases.

Iraq is pursuing its own post-war domestic conflicts and stresses and trying to figure out the balance among its Arab and Kurdish components, its Iraqi and Iranian interests, and the frail communalism among Iraqi Arab Shiites and Sunnis. The United States is pushing hard to revive a Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation by focusing on three tactics that have repeatedly failed and probably will fail again: tripartite meetings with Jordan; talks between Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, who would not recognize a credible peace process if they found it in their soup; and, a proposed $4 billion development initiative for occupied Palestinian territories that focuses on economic development rather than liberation as the antidote to the depressed condition in Arab Palestine.

Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are all passing through critical moments in their slow but steady transitions to new and more legitimate governance systems that allow ordinary Arab citizens for the first time ever to define their constitutions and to shape the character, configuration and policies of their state. Arab Gulf countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are all experiencing increased stirrings by assorted citizens who demand a greater say in how their government wields power and money. This occurs mostly on social media, but also with a growing number of novel street demonstrations.

Iran and Turkey, the two big non-Arab but Muslim-majority countries in the region are both learning hard lessons on now to relate to Arab people and politics in a manner that is acceptable to all parties, rather than imposing their will on weaker Arabs. Both of them probably will see their influence in the region decline as indigenous Arab systems enjoy greater legitimacy and self-confidence.

Syria is deep into its own home-grown war that threatens to weaken central government authority and leave the future country as a much more frail and decentralized state. Syria-Lebanon is the most fascinating arena right now, and it has slowly meshed into a single dynamic, to the chagrin of most Lebanese who do not like to be dominated by their larger and more politically assertive neighbor. Fighting in Syria has blended smoothly with older ideological conflicts in neighboring Lebanon, where antagonistic Lebanese who have long confronted or militarily battled each other at home now participate directly in the battles inside Syria, and the Syrian war simultaneously plays itself out inside Lebanon.

The most profound development in this respect—and this is my candidate for the most important thing that happened this month in the Middle East—was the mini-rocket attack Sunday morning against the Hezbollah heartland of the southern Beirut Dahiyeh area. This was a dramatic expression of the willingness by some party (as yet unidentified) to attack Hezbollah directly, rather than only issue strong rhetorical condemnations against it. Only Israel previously had attacked Hezbollah directly, which always resulted in Hezbollah emerging from the experience more determined than ever to strengthen its military capabilities.

So we now have Hezbollah fighting against anti-Assad forces inside Syria, many (mostly Sunni Islamists) forces in Lebanon fighting against Assad and Hezbollah in Syria, pro- and anti-Assad groups (mostly Alawites and Sunnis) fighting each other in Tripoli, and unknown groups attacking Hezbollah in Beirut and murdering Lebanese soldiers in the border region with Syria. If the anti-Hezbollah groups expand their attacks against it in retaliation for Hezbollah’s fierce determination to fight to the end to maintain the Assad regime in power in Syria, we could edge closer to the dreaded Armageddon scenario of all-out regional war among Syria, Hezbollah and Iran on one side and everyone else on the other side.

Aah, but wait, the end of the world may not be at hand, because Monday the Lebanese caretaker government agreed to hold scheduled parliamentary elections on time in mid-June. This suggests that the powers that be in Lebanon do not want an all-out war at home. They probably will fight their battles in Syria for now, as everyone else in the region and the world’s powers are doing.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global