By Barry Rubin
After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East entered a new era, which was already on the way for a half-dozen years and in which radical Islamism sets the ideological and political agenda. It marks the end of hope for peace or democracy.
Such a trend was already clear in the rejection of peace with Israel by the Palestinian leadership and Syria in 2000; the post-Saddam violence in Iraq; the Arab regimes’ defeat of reform movements; and electoral advances by Hamas, Hizballah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, among many other developments.
This version of the new Middle East may persist for an entire generation. What is most remarkable is a return to the thinking of the 1950s and 1960s, albeit with an Islamist rather than a pan-Arab nationalist framework. What is especially remarkable is the fact that this earlier worldview and strategy failed so miserably and disastrously, leading the Arab world into years of defeat, wasted resources, dictatorship, and a steady falling behind the rest of the world in many socio-economic categories.
Yet, this new state of affairs does serve two key groups that matter the most in politics: many of the existing regimes and the revolutionary groups that seek to displace them. The basic approach builds on the traditional notion that all the problems of the Arab world and Iran are caused by Israel, America, and the West. It extols a violent struggle in pursuit of total victory rather than pragmatism, democracy, compromise, and economic construction.
In addition, recalling the positions taken a half-century ago, it is argued that Israel, America, and the West are really weak. If Arabs and Muslims are willing to sacrifice themselves and their societies as martyrs, they can achieve victory. In this respect, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Palestinian leader Khaled Mashal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sound eerily like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria’s rulers and others in the 1960s. It was this kind of thinking, for example, that led to the Arab defeat in the 1967 war.
Another pattern this repeats is the belief that some political superhero is going to bring victory to Arabs and Muslims. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was Nasser; in the 1970s, Arafat and Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father; in the1980s and 1990s, it was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; and then briefly Usama bin Ladin. All failed, all were defeated.
Now the new “resistance” axis promises to solve all problems quickly and simply, albeit through large-scale bloodshed. Why compromise if you believe you can achieve total victory, revolution, and wipe Israel off the map with armed struggle and the intimidation of the West? Victory, said Bashar al-Assad in a recent speech, requires recklessness.
Right now, the new alliance of Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas seems to be riding high across the Arab world. They are now the heroes of resistance. For the first time, the Persian/Arab, Shia/Sunni wall has been breached. Within Syria, though not Iran, the adventure also increased the regime’s domestic popularity.
It is important to note that the Syrians and Iranians were able to engage in one of the biggest terrorism sponsorship events in history at no cost whatsoever. Not only did they avoid any direct material damage to their countries but there was no serious international criticism or call for sanctions.
On the public relations’ front in the West--though this should not be exaggerated--Israel came in for far more condemnation than did Tehran and Damascus. This in itself is a victory for the latter. Imagine being able to arm, train, and incite a terrorist group to violate an international border and deliberately target another country’s civilians, suffer no cost, and make your victim come out looking worse! In the terrorism sponsorship business it doesn’t get any better than that.
But matters are not quite so simple. A number of Arab forces have also been antagonised by these events. They include Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, countries threatened by radical Islamist forces; the Lebanese majority, who do not want to be dragged into war by Hizballah or ruled by Damascus and Tehran; Kuwaitis and Iraqis, who have personally discovered the costs of terrorism and extremism; and liberal Arab thinkers, who are disgusted at being pulled back into the kind of approach that has so damaged their societies and limited their freedoms.
Most complicated of all is the situation within Lebanon. Many Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims are on the verge of being ready to fight Hizballah. Even within Hizballah’s own Shia constituency, the rival Amal movement is trying to make a comeback by showing Shia Muslims that it provides better services than Hizballah.
If Hizballah does not keep its promise to rebuild all the damage, will it lose most of its followers? And if Hizballah sabotages the ceasefire, how are those just returning to southern Lebanon going to feel about the prospect of fleeing again?
An important question in this context is how the war has affected Israel. While there is no room here to present the evidence for saying so, a serious analysis shows that Israel won the war militarily. For example, Hizballah lost about one-fifth of its best forces, not counting the wounded. For Israel, the proportion was about one-two hundredth of that. If Hizballah restarts the fighting, by refusing to disarm in southern Lebanon and sabotaging the ceasefire, Israel will achieve a far more undeniable success against it.
In direct terms, Israel’s deterrence power has actually been enhanced. When Arab governments look at the crisis, they focus on the high cost to Lebanon. It is clear to them that getting into a war with Israel would be disastrous for them. The chance of their attacking or fighting has declined, though it was low any way. What they fear is getting dragged into a war by radical Islamists.
But in indirect terms, Israel’s deterrence power has fallen, though perhaps by less than it seems. There are two such indirect ways, both of which were central to the fighting in Lebanon: covert sponsorship of terrorism and attacking Israel from someone else’s territory.
The idea of a regime assaulting Israel through another country is not a new one. Egypt and Syria used Jordan and Lebanon for this purpose from the late 1960s onward. The whole history of the PLO and more than a dozen Palestinian terrorist groups are more or less based on the principle of state sponsorship. Events in Lebanon have taken this concept to a new level: the sponsorship of what might be called a well-armed semi-army of suicide soldiers against Israel.
What is both sad and shocking is that few people outside the Middle East understand the devastating defeat suffered for progress due to the international position of, at best, neutrality in the war, and the consequent failure to help Israel, moderate Arab states, and freedom-loving Lebanese. As always in the Middle East, these mistakes will come back to haunt the globe for a long time to come.
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university.
His co-authored book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback and in Hebrew. His latest book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, was published by Wiley in September.
© 2006 All rights reserved.The Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center