I love how seriously the QN readership is taking my challenge to come up with the most important developments of 2009 in Lebanon (favorite so far: “my cousin’s wedding in Chekka”).
In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for The National this week about the Middle East in 2009. (If you’re going out to party tonight, please don’t drink and drive.)
The year 2009 began with the Middle East ablaze. On January 1, for the fifth day running, Israeli jets continued to pummel Gaza in advance of a ground invasion that produced over 1,000 Palestinian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees. The war’s effects rippled across the region in an all too familiar way: suicide bombers in Iraq targeted groups of civilians protesting the Gaza invasion, while America’s allies in the region criticised Hamas for provoking the onslaught. Meanwhile, Iran castigated Egypt for collaborating with the enemy and Syria called off its peace negotiations with Israel. The region had slipped back into the trenches of its Cold War, in which a single Katyusha could trigger a massive military response and an international diplomatic crisis.
A year later, the atmosphere in the region is markedly different. Bitter rivals have visited each other’s capitals to mend fences and the media is full of reports about a new age of reconciliation and diplomatic engagement. Following the turmoil of the previous five years, which witnessed a series of proxy wars between the Western-supported Sunni Arab regimes and the axis consisting of Iran, Syria, and their non-state allies (Hamas and Hizbollah), the relative calm that prevailed in 2009 was just one of many signs that a realignment of interests had begun to take shape.
The reasons for this realignment stem from two basic uncertainties. On the one hand, there is a question mark about the effects of a new – and still seemingly undefined – American policy for the region. Indeed, as disruptive as the neoconservative experiment was to Arab power dynamics, the presence of a new administration in Washington with a different outlook and a different set of priorities has forced the region to reorganise itself once again. On the other hand, Iran’s growing influence and the concomitant challenges to its regime’s authority have further muddied the waters, as its allies and adversaries try to gauge the health and durability of the Islamic Republic on its 30th anniversary. When these two unknown variables are combined, in attempts to assess shifting American policy toward the volatile regional heavyweight, the tea leaves become all the more difficult to read.