When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
– William Shakespeare, Richard III
The year gone by has been one of civil protests, upheaval and violence in many parts of the world. Old wars continued, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peaceful awakening movements that sprang up with much hope in Algeria and Tunisia turned violent as they spread east from North Africa to the Gulf region. A brief and bloody war in Libya, with an overt display of NATO’s military power on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces, resulted in his overthrow and brutal killing. For NATO, the Libya war was over, but not for Libyans. A fledgling government now competes with warlords for territorial control and legitimacy in a fragmented country.
External intervention in Syria is more vocal internationally, but shrouded in secrecy on the ground. Accounts of the conflict are based on claims and counterclaims and not much independent evidence to corroborate. If detractors are to be believed, the Ba’athist regime of President Basher al-Assad is on the brink of collapse. The outcome of the Syrian conflict will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, in particular for Syria’s ally Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Palestine.
Human aspirations for liberty and freedom from oppression defined the year 2011. Paradoxically, great powers who played a role in sustaining oppressive systems, and still do where it suites them, declared themselves on the side of liberty in other places. The result is confusion, division, conflict and a more insecure world. Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were America’s “bleeding wounds,” a term first coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. With both Iraq and Afghanistan far from stable, there is an unwelcome prospect of Libya and Syria also extracting a high price in terms of security threats and energy costs in the current decade.
Past events cannot be reversed, nor are their consequences easy to contain. So I have in mind events which I believe the world in 2012 would be better off without. In the United States, from President Obama and administration hawks to his Republican opponents have been talking about punitive action against Iran and others in this election year. Powerful voices in the ruling circles of Israel, France and Britain are egging the American president on. The gap between rhetoric and posturing can lead to something far more serious. How civil movements can be manipulated by external forces for their own interests has been demonstrated during the current upheaval in the Arab world.
The overthrow and killing of Gaddafi may have resolved the conflict in Libya in the West’s view. Now the prospect of real power remaining with the militias, and an ineffective Western-supported government, reminds one of Afghanistan following the 1992 collapse of the last Communist leader Najibullah. Libya, with its porous borders, surrounded by Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, is vulnerable itself and threatens others. The year 2012 could be decisive, not only for Libya, but for the region and beyond.
The situation in Syria is very dangerous. Unlike Libya, Syrian state institutions are more robust. The regime’s friends are not many, but Russia and China are taking a much tougher line with the West. Iran, its ruling allies in Iraq, and Lebanese and Palestinian groups have huge stakes in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by the West, are determined to see the end of the current Syrian regime.
Turkey, a NATO member, has moved from its previous “independent” position to a stance much more in tune with the Western interests in the Middle East. Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey hosts the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and allows the group to train its fighters and orchestrate attacks inside Syria. The Turkish military guards the Syrian rebel base, and a refugee camp, just across the Syrian border.
For Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which professed to seek close relations with its neighbors, this is a complete about face. Two factors appear to be at work here. The Sunni support base of the party is one. The prospect of joining the European Union, an idea that France and Germany in particular oppose, may be the other.
How far Turkey’s moderate Islamic government will go is difficult to predict. It has its own Kurdish insurgency to contend with, so the strategy is risky. Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria reminds one of the 1980s when, from a small beginning, Pakistan, in the midst of ethnic insurgencies, became a base for anti-Communist Afghan forces. The consequences were disastrous.
The conflict in Syria continues to simmer. The sanctions on Iran are steadily being tightened. The talk of military action is persistent and the risk of a weak U.S. president facing reelection being pushed into a war against Iran is haunting. Sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise. The country faces a new political crisis after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, prompting the mainly Sunni party al-Iraqiya to boycott parliament. The Syrian conflict threatens further instability in Lebanon and the wider region. And between Libya in North Africa and Pakistan on the edge of South Asia lies an ominously explosive region, waiting for a trigger strong enough to stage a catastrophe.