Arab Politics, Lebanon, My articles

Twelve months

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.)

Twelve months

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.

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17 thoughts on “Twelve months

  1. Qifa,

    Those that bet on America lost. America cannot win in this region as long as protecting Israel’s interests remain paramount. Arab politicians who bet the house on America have suffered embarrassing losses. Those that had the foresight to bet the other way won. This was the story of 2009.

    Happy new year to you

    Posted by EHSANI2 | December 31, 2009, 10:27 am
  2. Very interesting review – thank you!
    How do you see the developments in Yemen?

    Posted by Umm iDriss | December 31, 2009, 10:28 am
  3. To be honest, I think Yemen is still a black box. It’s primarily political.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 31, 2009, 10:35 am
  4. Ehsani2,
    Yeah right. The average Syrian is so much better off because of the Asad bets against the US.

    The Arab world is hopeless until the crippling grip of the dictators and kings is released. And that will not happen soon because the only alternative to the dictators and kings is civil war. All this has nothing to do with the US. If it topples a dictator like Saddam, and tries to put in place a democracy you are not happy. And when it supports “friendly” dictators, you are not happy also.

    Oh sure, you can chalk up another “victorious year” for Asad. But how you can declare a leader of a country with only this year hundreds of thousands of internally displaced citizens not taken care of as “victorious”, is beyond me. You may want to revisit your definitions for what “victorious” means.

    Posted by AIG | December 31, 2009, 11:58 am
  5. AIG,

    I see that you still don’t read words too carefully. My note talked about “Arab politicians”. The dictators and kings that you talk about exist precisely because of the failed policies of the U.S. and the very existence of your Israel.

    Posted by EHSANI2 | December 31, 2009, 12:16 pm
  6. Ehsani2,
    The kings and dictators were there way before Israel.
    The US did not really support Israel till after 67. Are you claiming that before 67 the Arab world was democratic?
    Seriously, do you really think the US and Israel are responsible for lack of democracy in the Arab world and not the Arabs themselves?
    To focus the discussion, how exactly are Israel and the US stopping Asad from making democratic reforms if he wants to???

    Posted by AIG | December 31, 2009, 12:42 pm
  7. AIG,

    Are you implying that the Arabs are genetically deficient when it comes to democracy? Is their DNA to blame? China is not very democratic. Do you have a bone to pick with them too?

    Posted by EHSANI2 | December 31, 2009, 3:16 pm
  8. Ehsani2,
    You claimed:
    “The dictators and kings that you talk about exist precisely because of the failed policies of the U.S. and the very existence of your Israel.”

    I am simply asking if you can substantiate this claim? How is Israel or the US stopping Asad from implementing democratic reforms?

    Of course it is the fault of the Chinese that there is no democracy in China. Who else is at fault? It is not their DNA because the Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan had no problems living in a democracy. Similarly, the Israeli Arabs adapt very well to democracy proving that the problem is not genetic. In addition, Arabs living in the West do very well under democracy.

    Posted by AIG | December 31, 2009, 3:38 pm
  9. Qifa,
    Your article is very good. However, i would have liked to see your analysis on the new Turkish foreign policy and how it has affected the middle east.

    Posted by BJ | December 31, 2009, 5:56 pm
  10. BJ

    You are absolutely correct in your critique. I should have devoted a paragraph to Turkish foreign policy, and I’d outlined one earlier in the drafting process. Don’t know why/how it slipped through the cracks, but maybe I’ll try to make up for it with a post on the blog.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 31, 2009, 6:33 pm
  11. QN,
    I am afraid that Umm iDriss is right in a sense. The review did not take into consideration any of the events in the gulf, the implosion of Dubai in addition to the war in Yemen. One can argue that these two events have left an indelible mark on the region.
    May I also add that you were too charitable to Sa’ad Hariri to call the final cabinet a rapproachment. Again may I suggest that Lebanon is being ruled as a fiefdom of HA when it comes to the issues that matter. Hariri et al can have the appearance of being head of state but they are no more than marionettes being made to perform by the deft Hezbollah moves.

    Do you think that you are capable of interpreting any set of events whereby the US is not a loser? If the US is so often on the losing side then why worry about it? My personal bet is that Bashar Assad will sell his soul for an improvement in relations with the US. And that is not a sign that Bashar has won.
    And BTW, at times I wonder whether there is something that is wrong with the DNA of the Arab world when it comes to democracy. I will say it categorically, we have never ever had a democratic regime in any Arab country at any time in history. If its not the DNA maybe its the wate, or the air that we breathe lol.

    Posted by ghassan karam | December 31, 2009, 6:41 pm
  12. How is Israel or the US stopping Asad from implementing democratic reforms?


    Thank you for getting right to the point. Arab jihadist dogma means Arabs and Muslims cannot be at fault. Anything that occurs in the ME is the sole responsibility of the US and Israel. In a nutshell.

    One day (and I’m not holding my breathe), enough Arab moderates will arise and notice that most of what ails their leadership is THEIR LEADERSHIP. Iran is already taking note. Not that Iranians are pro-America or pro-Israel, they’re just pro-“self-determination”.

    It’s a start.

    My personal bet is that Bashar Assad will sell his soul for an improvement in relations with the US.

    ghassan karam,

    With all due respect, Assad the elder and Assad the son (over the past several decades) could have had billions pouring in, near infinite military and economic aide, and the Golan.

    Actually, the Assads have sold their souls to the jihadists they support. And this is worth more than all the tea in China including all the benefits to the Syrian people described above.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 31, 2009, 7:18 pm
  13. This observer doesn’t yet see any magnitude of change in current US FP at the levels of priorities. Sadly.

    If anything, under the Obama executive, it’s more sincere in it’s desire to impose it’s own design on the region with more predictably disastrous results for the those living and/or fighting in the vulnerable target zones of interest. The meddling within the Israeli negotiations over Gilad Shalit in order shore up Abbas is a case in point.

    A majority (57%) of Israelis favor dealing with Hamas. DC does not.

    I wonder what our clueless strategerists make of the regional implications of “zero problems with the neighbors” policies that has never excluded Israeli participation.

    Are they for homegrown efforts at stabilization or agin ’em?

    Posted by lally | January 1, 2010, 5:49 am
  14. QN,
    First off, the gaza war produced no refugees. There is a technical definition of a “refugee”. You mean to say that the Gaza war produced many internally displaced people, but since the borders are closed, there were no refugees.

    Also, im not quite sure that it is “Washington’s determination to deal with Tehran through engagement rather than coercion.” Admittedly the USA has joined the 5+1 talks, but not with serious proposals. And Obama has been pushing a sanctions track harder than Bush did.

    But more generally, I disagree with your assessment of the year. If i were to boil your article down to a sentence, you seemed to be saying that there was a retreat of American policy of force that lead to a strengthening of inter-Arab foreign policy, with an emphasis on the Sunni/Shia split as the dominant issue.

    But it seemed to me that the general regional trend was an “emperor’s wearing no clothes” theme. So, for example, the likes of M14, Fatah, Egypt, Dubai and others… had to basically concede that they were reliant on the outside to sustain any strength they had. While on the other side, the rejectionists still showed how weak they are, if independent.

    It’s my guess that 2010 will be notable for an increasing emphasis on interrelations between Arab governments, with several huge events dominating the priorities (so, for eg., I expect a new war with Israel, maybe Mubarak’s death, a de-escalation in iran internally, yet an escalation in tensions with iran externally, probably the collapse of the PA in Palestine, while the USA will generally fail in walking a simultaneously hands on/hands off approach to the arabs. Though, in lebanon, depending on what happens with the Israel war, i feel there will probably be a movement toward better relations among parties.)

    Posted by joe m. | January 2, 2010, 4:36 am
  15. Hi Joe

    Yes, I meant to say that the Gaza war produced many internally displaced people, but sometimes a few inaccuracies save tons of explanation.

    Re Washington/Tehran, I think that there are some notable differences between the Obama/Bush policies. Had Bush still been around, I do believe that we’d have seen an Israeli strike on the nuclear facilities by now, or some kind of more robust support of the Green Movement (which would have probably backfired).

    You characterize the gist of the piece very nicely, and that is indeed how I read the developments. Your alternative reading doesn’t quite ring true to me. Was anyone ever under any illusions in 2009 that M14, Fatah, Egypt, and Dubai were entirely reliant on the outside? I don’t think that 2009 provided any great revelations in this regard. What seems to me to be the case was rather that various Western-supported governments and political entities sensed that the winds had changed, and that there were going to be new American priorities and objectives. You’re right to point out that, in fact, the winds haven’t changed very much at all, but this did not become fully apparent until at halfway through the year. There was a big swing from optimism to frustration, sometime in early autumn.

    As for 2010… who do you see as the opposite partner in your forecasted war with Israel? Hezbollah? Hamas? Syria? (gasp!) Mubarak may well kick the bucket, but people have been saying that for decades.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 2, 2010, 3:30 pm
  16. HI QN,

    I think that Fatah, M14, Egypt, Dubai… were under the illusions that they were somehow controlling events, rather than being controlled. And thus they had to generally retreated in the discovery of how weak they were (like Abbas saying he would not run again, M14 agreeing to a unity government that was weaker than they wanted, egypt giving up its position as negotiator between hamas and israel/fatah…) So, not that the average arab was under illusion, but that the bubble burst for those such forces.

    I have no doubt that Israel will do another massive attack against someone. I suspect that Netanyahu is trying to strengthen his government now (by adding kadima) in order to have a strong government for some major attack. probably with iran but an attack against Gaza is also likely. An attack on Iran is more dangerous for obvious reasons, including a counter-strike from Hizbullah/Syria… But, also, I think Israel will try to make major “progress” in negotiations with either Syria or the PA if they plan to do an attack, so similar to Menachem Begin, he can attack lebanon under the cover of being a camp david peace maker… or something.

    If israel passes the golan referendum bill, then a war will be much more serious, as Syria is likely to take a more direct measures against israel (though, not an outright attack).

    Yeah, and i just hope to see Mubarak die. so maybe i am just dreaming. Though, i would also like to, at least, see elbaradei mount a campaign against mubarak.

    And you’re right about the mood around Obama during the first half of the year. But that was just delusion and did not reflect policy differences….

    Posted by joe m. | January 2, 2010, 10:09 pm
  17. i will just add that i am not a supporter of elbaradei, but i do think that he is the single best positioned person to really shake things up in egyptian politics.

    Posted by joe m. | January 2, 2010, 10:28 pm

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