Reflection: Complex is an Understatement

Setting out at the beginning of semester, I had hoped to open my eyes to the historical significance of the Middle East and the issues concerning the future of the region. Opening my eyes became the understatement of this endeavor.

Now I have reached the end of semester, I feel like I have been hit in both eyes with a baseball bat. To make matters worse I know that I have only scraped the surface of my venture.

The Middle East became more confusing, more complex, the more I read about it.

This chart highlights the complexity of the Middle East through attempting to explain some of the relationships.

A quote from Shimon Peres the 9th and current President of the State of Israel sheds light on the complexity of the Middle East and the problems that it faces:

“If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”

This quote shows that many of the problems that exist in the Middle East seem to be more fact than problem because no solution has been found. The State of Israel with the support of the United States controls one of the most pressing issues in the region, the occupation of Palestine. The occupation of Palestine and the subsequent problems are almost allowing it to be an acceptable fact rather than a problem that needs to be solved.

In fact, as I was trying to write the above paragraph I could barely work it out myself. Yet I have arrived at the realisation that it is bloody interesting. I had never given much consideration to the region, and now wish to delve more into it.


The Middle East in the American Century

The United States has an austere, complex and in some realms successful relationship with the Middle East. Currently foreign policy and relations between the US and the Middle East are hard to overlook, yet they have only existed since the end of the Second World War. Ostensibly it may not have been until 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ that many people had even taken notice of the Middle East, or perhaps more recently with the unrest of the Arab uprisings. Regardless, the US has had an immense amount of influence on the region and continues to build and destroy (some more than others of course) relationships all over the sprawling and diverse region.

US foreign policy on the Middle East spans the whole region

Robert Fisk is a multiple award-winning journalist and renown correspondent on the Middle East. From the conflict in Lebanon to the invasion of Kuwait, from the war on Iraq to the ongoing Israeli-Palestine struggle, he has covered the majority of the recent war-torn history of the region. With a strong focus on human rights, Fisk claims that Western attitudes toward the Arab world have culminated in the current insecurity and instability that is sweeping the region.

Fisk discusses the impact of the amendment that was made to the US Army Soldier’s Creed in his article The US Military and its Cult of Cruelty, which was published in The Independent in 2006. He argues that the amendment has changed the mentality of US soldiers and enabled them to commit atrocities. He claims that this was particularly evident in Afghanistan, Iraq and of course the ‘war on terror’.

The Soldier’s Creed had originally been created to prevent atrocities that had precipitated in Vietnam from occurring again. In 2003 prior to the US invasion of Iraq the creed was amended by Donald Rumsfeld and instead reflected the harsh political view of the Bush administration. As Fisk states, it was perfectly reconstructed in line with President Bush’s belief that the ‘war on terror’ would pave the way for the 21st century and the ‘shining age of human liberty’.

The amended creed is far more aggressive and ‘warrior like’ compared to the original one. It evokes a sense of destruction and lacks compassion and dignity. Fisk suggests that it is this creed that impeded the moral judgment of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It changed their perception of right and wrong and made them torture, humiliate and abuse those that they were fighting. It is a plausible explanation for the atrocities that occurred at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram.

The US implemented some particularly interesting foreign policy during the Bush administration, which has severely affected the economic, political and cultural characteristics of the region.

This leads to an over-arching question concerning the foreign policy of the US in the Middle East. If the US has gone to such lengths as to alter the mindset of soldiers through the amendment of the creed, then what are their true intentions in the region?

The US ambition to manipulate the region is most definitely grounded in economic gains. Their prosperous relationship with Saudi Arabia emphasises this. However, US foreign policy is also shaped by its own domestic politics, diplomatic relations and security. The impact of domestic politics is blatantly clear in the US stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The partnership between the US and Egypt highlights the importance of diplomatic relations. And as we have seen through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, security has had considerable sway. By and large it seems as though all foreign policy decisions have been heavily influenced by personal gains.

Having said this, the US is not the only state that has fallen into the trap of pursuing own vested interests in the Middle East. Britain, France and Russia have all wanted a piece of the pie at some stage or another in our recent history. However, as we have seen time and time again, it is particularly the West that has had the fattest finger in that pie.

The most frightening aspect is that the West continues to make the same mistakes. Regardless of whether they are their own mistakes or those of another. Does the West ever look behind them? No.

What is to say that the next super power will not follow suit? I can only imagine that when we depart the American Century that the next super power will go to the same lengths to dominate and control the region. If the power in the world is held by the state that controls the most oil resources, then the manipulation of political, economic and cultural aspects of the Middle East is sure to be highly sought after.

The Arab Spring

The Swedish novelist Henning Mankell captures the significance of dignity in the recollection of his experiences in Mozambique at the height of the horrific atrocities of the apartheid era, when he saw a thin man walking towards him in ragged clothes. “In his deep misery,” the wretched survivor had “painted shoes on his feet. In a way, to defend his dignity when everything was lost, he had found the colors from the earth and he had painted shoes on his feet.”

The lack of human dignity was one of the main causes of the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening as some would call it). Freedom and poverty were also main drivers of the uprisings, causing people throughout the region to reach new levels of hopelessness and despair. Government corruption, human rights and unemployment (especially for the youth) were other causes. As Tawakkol Karman says, for the majority the goal is a modern citizenship state, which allows people their freedom and dignity, and gives them the opportunity to create their own future that is not run by an authoritarian regime, riddled by corruption.

Protestors opposing the previous Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi show the sheer scale of the Arab uprisings

Tawakkol Karman is a mother of three as well as a human rights activist, journalist, politician, and senior member of the Al-Islah political party. Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 in recognition of her work in nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building work in Yemen. She became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date, at the age of 32.

Karman sums up the essence of the uprisings in her powerful article The Expanding Arab Spring, which was recently published by the Middle East Monitor. She believes that the Arab Spring will expand and spread throughout the whole region. Karman explained that through the peaceful, courageous and aspirational uprisings, the youth dream for the state of citizens where there is partnership and a life with freedom and dignity.

Karman believes that the uprisings will come in phases and rounds, although their goals may not be achieved straight away, they will persevere until they prevail. They will continue to protest peacefully until the corrupt rulers and dictators finally take notice of the people and take their aspirations seriously. She continues to say that this will take deep reforms from the government to create a state of partnership, truth and law.

Tawakkol Karman conveys the core principles that triggered the Arab Spring and also the powerful aspirations that the youth hold. Whether it is realistic or not is another question.

The uprisings had good intentions of creating freedom and dignity for the people, which stemmed from a sense of despair, hopelessness and a deep resentfulness for the corrupt and unequal ruling elite. Although the uprisings were based on genuine reasons they were largely unsuccessful in establishing change. The biggest downfall was the lack of forward planning. The civilians protested for change, but were not prepared for the consequences obtaining it. And indeed in many cases such as Libya and Egypt they did manage to overthrow the government and generate change.

The lack of legitimate political oppositions in these states affected the establishment of stable governments in the aftermath of the uprisings. Instead the uprisings allowed illegitimate and inequitable groups to gain power, or in the case of Syria resulted in heavy conflict.

In Egypt the first post-revolutionary parliament did not implement any human rights reforms before the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved it because the election law was deemed unconstitutional. Following this the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gained control giving itself legislative powers. From here, the Muslim Brotherhood was elected and subsequently removed for their biased approach to the draft constitution and their lack of focus on human rights.

In Libya a weak interim government failed to control a state that was spiralling out of control after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Despite some positive steps, the interim authorities struggled to establish a functioning military and police force that could enforce and maintain law and order. Subsequently armed groups continue exist causing Libyans to suffer ongoing violence and gross human rights abuses.

“To the youth we say we will make every struggle. The mountains may disappear, but the struggle with forever remain and the Arab Spring’s clouds will remain heavy with the rain of revolution that will fall on the thrones of tyranny.”

Regardless of whether the uprisings were successful or not Tawakkol Karman’s quote emphasises the power and the struggle behind the uprisings. As she says they will keep continue to fight for revolution despite the monumental hurdles they must overcome.

Iran: Shiite Storm

Iran through its sponsorship of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are creating a stable arch of Shi’a allies. This is causing growing concern in the Middle East and the wider international community.

Syrians hold a placard lampooning (L – R) Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Kafranbel near Idlib, Syria.

Arash Karami is an editor for al-monitor’s Iran pulse. He relays a censored and removed article that was published about the comments of a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). General Hussein Hamedani announced Iran’s plan to form an Iranian committee to help rebuild Syria and the establishment of a second Hezbollah inside Syria. He also refers to Iran’s military support of the Assad regime and the importance of Syria as a geopolitical battleground.

According to Hamedani, recent discussions in Tehran determined the amount of support that would be given to Syria, as well as a plan for Iranian provinces to align with Syrian provinces in order to restore state.

Hamedani asked the Iranian people to view the civil war in Syria as they do the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, where civilians rallied to defend their own country in what became known as the “Sacred Defence”. He urged Iranians to fight in the Syrian war because it has now reached the same stage as the “Sacred Defence”.

Hamedani referred Syria is a geopolitical battleground, and the subsequent key to the balance of power in the region. On one side are Russia, China and Iran, and in the other are Arab states, the United States and Europe.

Karami’s article highlights the complexity of the Middle East. He relays the comments from Hamedani well but leaves many aspects open for consideration.

Has Hamedani made these comments to achieve the support of the Iranian people? Is it a strategic step to gain greater influence in the throughout the Middle East region? Are they attempting to strengthen their relationship with Syria and Hezbollah?

Hamedani is attempting to rally the support of the Iranian people in a strategic step towards gaining greater influence in region. The battle for Syria is rooted in Iran’s perceived role as the leading Shiite revolutionary power. But is this bad?

Some argue against a powerful relationship between Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. However, compared to the alternative outcome it may not be so bad. If the insurgents do succeed in Syria, the civilians and the region could be left with a much worse situation to deal with, similar to that which is occurring in Iraq at the moment. If Assad falls the void could be filled with insurgent groups tied to al-Qaeda and jihadists.

It poses the question of the greater evil. If Assad wins the war will a powerful leadership between Assad, Khamenei and Hezbollah be worse than what could take control of Syria and the wider region? Although Syria and Iran are governed by authoritarian regimes if Assad and Khamenei gained control it could be a more stable and viable outcome in the future.

Although Iran is governed by an authoritarian regime, it does have a number of democratic rules. Corruption and inequality still hinder the state from achieving more democratic values, but there has been an improvement in women’s rights and access to education. Similarly before the Syrian War, Assad was loosening his control and allowing more freedom with fewer restrictions. It is possible that the government could one day return to this, but Assad may be skeptical in allowing citizens more freedom once the brutal war ends.

It is difficult to foresee the possible out come of relationship between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. But if Iran does follow through with its plans to help rebuild Syria after the end of the war, surely this is a good outcome? Whether they use their alliance to suppress other religions and abuse human rights is another question.

This article in particular evokes many unanswerable questions. It highlights the complexity of the Middle East and the almost impossible task of predicting the future of the region.

Iraq: The Devastating Reality

The violence that erupted after the fall of Saddam had devastating and long lasting effects on Iraq. Fuelled by religion and ethnicity, it gave rise to insurgent groups and soon escalated into a full-scale civil war. In the period between 2003-2006 it is estimated that between 104 000 – 223 000 civilians were killed. Although violence and insurgency peaked in 2006, it still remains a principle challenge for the fragmented state today.

Armed Insurgents chant against the the government, 2014.

Memlik Pasha is a journalist who focuses on news and analysis of the Iraq insurgency and Syrian civil war. In his Vice News article he discusses the severity of religious schism and insurgency that is engulfing the Iraqi state.

“Some ten years after it first began, the Iraqi insurgency has been fully reborn, and the conflict is escalating into a bloody new phase.”

Recently, insurgent groups with ties to al-Qaeda have been taking over cities in the Anbar region as a means of political gain and control. After the withdrawal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the army from this region, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took control of Fallujah and most of Ramadi, declaring the Anbar region an Islamic emirate.

Pasha argues that Iraq faces a long period of instability. As tensions rise between ISIS, Maliki’s government and other insurgent groups, the possibility of another bloody scuffle is on everyone’s minds.

Furthermore Abdullah al-Janabi, a radical cleric has returned to preach in mosques. Al-Janabi used to lead the Mujahideen Shura Council in Fallujah, which was established by al Qaeda in Iraq. He has previously been known to set up Sharia courts whose punishments “made the Taliban look soft.”

Pasha claims that ISIS has captured large quantities of Iraqi army equipment and also learnt from their mistakes in 2006 following the Anbar Awakening. They had previously lost a lot of support from local tribes and insurgents who were resentful of ISIS’ brutal domination. This time they have taken a far more conciliatory approach with their stratergy.

ISIS insurgents have taken control of the vast rural areas around the West and South of Bagdad. In a maneuver, previously used in 2006 and 2007, to encircle the capital and gain control.

The violence and insurgency that precipitated after the fall of Saddam is not over yet. In fact it seems as if it is going to escalate into a full-scale, deadly and devastating reality. The situation in Iraq seems worse than it was before the fall of Saddam. With most of the country controlled by al-Qaeda, and a severe lack of infrastructure and political stability, the road to peace will be very windy.

Syria: Children of the Crisis

The Syrian Civil War has had devastating effects on the lives of millions of people. So far the war has killed more than 150 000, displaced 6.5 million within Syria and forced 2.5 million to seek refuge in neighboring countries. The refugee crisis is creating severe regional strain, especially for Lebanon and Jordan where the majority of refugees have fled.

Refugee Child in the Shanty camps set up in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon

Over 5 million children are in need of assistance. Almost half of the 2.5 refugees who have fled Syria are children. These children are the most vulnerable in an increasingly precarious situation. Millions of refugee children have lost their right to education and are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited.

Save the Children launched a campaign to raise awareness and change the conditions for Syrian children called #savesyriaschildren. Their short campaign video imagine if the Syrian conflict was here, highlights the trauma that the war is having on children, BUT more importantly relates it back to Western societies.


Many people living in Western societies become easily detached from the horrific circumstances surrounding children of war. Whether it is because people cannot relate to it, or that people are in a state of compassion overload, the children of the Syrian Civil War cannot be ignored.

Save the Children’s video is highly emotive, bringing home the kind of trauma that children are exposed to. It cleverly captures the essence of war for children in such volatile situations. The use of a young girl living in a Western society relates the situation back to people unaffected by it.

Especially in a time where Australia is cutting its foreign aid budget, it does make you wonder whether people block it from their minds, are completely naïve, or completely heartless.

Lebanon: on the edge of the Syrian Civil War

Lebanon is a complex state, riddled with diverse political and religious factions. This secular yet fractured state has endured numerous adversities including 20 years of occupation by Israel and Syria and 15 years of bloody, multifaceted civil war. Not to mention the influx of more than 750 000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon as a result of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Lebanon’s complex social fabric and political instability impacts its domestic and regional security and also its economic development.

More recently, a major concern is the large number of militants fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who have been forced over the boarder into Lebanon. After the Syrian regime army gained control of Yabrud in the Qalamoun region, Syria, many of the militants sought refuge in Arsal, a town in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

The town of Arsal where many militants have fled. Arsal is just over the Syrian boarder, in Lebanon.

Jean Aziz is a columnist for Al-monitor’s Lebanon Pulse and the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. He is also a lecturer at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. Aziz discusses the possible implications for Lebanon due to the Syrian militants who have fled over the boarder into Arsal. He discusses the potential political and military problems, and also the issues that could arise on a domestic, regional and international level.

The concern for Lebanon is that the Syrian conflict could spread, particularly throughout the surrounding towns in the Bekaa Valley. Arsal is a Sunni majority town, whereas neighbouring towns are predominately Shia. The potential for the conflict to spread throughout this volatile region, where conflicting religions exist, is high. There is also the risk that the militants will encourage more terrorist attacks and the spread of fundamentalism within Lebanon. Especially due to the recent increase in terrorist attacks. For example, the bombings in Tripoli which occurred in August 2013, as a result of Hezbollah intervention in Syria.

Aziz argues that the international community will be concerned with the threat of fundamentalist and terrorist growth in the region, and the safety of the UN deployed troops from France, Italy and Spain in the South of Lebanon. Particularly as UN troops have previously been targeted in terrorist attacks by extremists in Lebanon. Another international concern is the fear of the militants turning towards Israel, and carrying out attacks on their most Northern boarder.

At a regional level, resolving the security situation in Arsal will be keenly supported by many states in the region. Again to prevent the spread of fundamentalists and terrorists, and also to prevent another sectarian fuelled conflict. It will also be supported to prevent more instability in the region and maintain relations between states, particularly as the Saudi-Qatar relations are dwindling.

Finally at a domestic level, Lebanon will want to curb the potential of full-scale conflict breaking out. After the recent increase in terrorist attacks, Lebanon needs to prevent another sectarian conflict occurring. The difficulty in doing so will depend on Lebanon’s ability to unite its factions to prevent the spread conflict. As Aziz suggests, it is possible, with Hezbollah heavily supporting the Assad regime and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s team wanting to continue good relations with Saudi Arabia and prevent the spread of extremism throughout Sunni Islam. However, Hariri’s team and other Lebanese factions have previously been reluctant to get involved with the Syrian crisis, which could pose a problem in term of confronting the militants.

The main concern is whether Lebanon can unite its fractured state in order to tackle the militants together. And whether they can do this before terrorist attacks and extremism spreads. Moreover, Lebanon must consider the potential for secular fighting to breakout again. Despite the Syrian war and Lebanon’s civil war, they will have to unite to stop the militants in order to prevent the situation from escalating into a wider, more devastating conflict.