Sunday

29th May 2016

Middle East risks becoming a 'giant failed state'

  • Lebanese soldier in St Gilles citadel overlooking the Alawite district in Tripoli, where Syria-linked violence flared up last week (Photo: EUobserver)

With EU countries crafting plans on how to shape events in Syria, David Hirst, a noted British writer on the Middle East, has warned that the Arab uprisings are a kind of "constructive chaos" out of Western control.

"What we're now witnessing is the greatest transformation of the region since the end of the first world war," he told EUobserver in an interview in his home in Beirut on Saturday (18 February).

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"The order which the world powers imposed on the region after 1918 was an unnatural one. These uprisings have set in motion separatist forces which no one can really foresee. But it is not far-fetched to see it leading to the disappearance of whole states and the creation of new ones ... The Lebanisation of the whole region is not within the bounds of impossibility," he said.

"One can almost envisage a giant failed state."

'Lebanisation' is a term for the break-up of nations by reference to the history of Lebanon - a war-scarred country divided between 18 minorities.

Hirst is a former correspondent for The Guardian who has lived in Beirut for over 50 years. He is best known for two books on Middle East politics - The Gun and the Olive Branch and Beware of Small States.

In Syria, what began one year ago with anti-government graffiti in the town of Daraa has become a fully-blown sectarian conflict.

Reports say that in the town of Homs the Sunni Muslim opposition is decapitating Alawite Muslims. In the rest of the country, the Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad has lost control to the extent that its military chiefs are scared to wear uniform when travelling alone, while officials and businessmen fly between the regime strongholds of Aleppo and Damascus because roads are unsafe.

EU leaders have been saying for months that Assad's days are numbered.

But some experts believe the conflict has a long way to go. Robert Fisk, the Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for The Independent, told this website: "The Alawites are a tough mountain people. They tend to fight and not to give up."

He said that despite EU efforts to isolate Assad, he has support from Iran and among Shia Muslims in Lebanon and Iraq. He added that before the Syrian leader goes he could "enflame" Lebanon for the sake of family pride. "'[Assad will say] You want to get rid of me? This is the price'," Fisk noted.

The conflict in Syria has already exposed the fragility of Lebanon.

Pro-Assad Alawites in Tripoli, north Lebanon last week started a gunfight with anti-Assad Sunnis after they defaced pro-Assad posters. Three people were killed and 20 people were injured.

The Lebanese army is now installed in Tripoli's crusader-era fortress of St Gilles, overlooking the Alawite quarter, to keep the peace.

But Arab Christians in the town are worried in case local Sunnis - the majority in Tripoli - try to break away from Lebanon in order to join the Sunni-rebel-controlled part of Syria. "If this happens, then I will have to leave," John, a Christian hotel owner, told EUobserver.

For his part, Hirst said that if Lebanon breaks down, then the Shia Muslim majority in the south and east of the country, together with its irregular army, Hezbollah, could create its own state.

He noted that if Jordan - a country divided between Bedouin tribes, its Hashemite ruling elite and a huge bloc of Palestinian refugees - also fragments, then the Palestinians could form a new military power: "What happened when Lebanon fell apart [during its civil war in the 1980s]? Something called Hezbollah emerged. Who is say that such entities will not spring up elsewhere? Why shouldn't the Palestinians of Jordan do the same along the Israeli frontier?"

He added that post-war Iraq is not immune to events in the region. The country's Sunni minority has sided with anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Its Shia majority is influenced by Shia-controlled Iran, while Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country already have de facto independence.

'No good guys'

Looking to the EU's role in the region, Hirst said that economic sanctions on Syria have so far made Assad "more intransigent ... they have created a siege mentality."

He noted that Sunni rebels would probably welcome military intervention despite EU countries' colonial record in the region. But he said the EU is mistaken if it thinks post-Assad Syria or other post-Arab-Spring entities will be pro-Western and Israeli-friendly secular democracies.

"There is a deep-rooted, inescapable, anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab world," he said. "It's out of control. Nobody can control the Arab Spring."

Meanwhile, Hirst and Fisk both noted that EU countries are more interested in protecting strategic interests in the region than in defending human rights.

"There are no good guys and bad guys in the Syrian war ... the idea that this is a battle between good and evil is dangerous and not true," Fisk said.

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