President Trump’s recent set of policy gaffs in the Middle East have led to the start of a new conflict in the region. That between Turkey and the Kurds of Northern Syria, of which Trump remarked “it is between the two of them… it has nothing to do with us”. As if he could wash his hands off a problem that he had just created.
Not so fast. Within a few days, he threatened to obliterate Turkey’s economy, then imposed sanctions, and after 10 days or so, he announced that the American troops would not be returning home, but would be redeployed in Western Iraq in order to protect Iraq from a resurgent IS. If only he had realized that allowing Turkey to attack Kurds in Northern Syria who had helped the US fight IS in the first place, and were also keeping guard over IS prisons, we might not have had this Iraq problem. But then again, compounding a problem, over and over again through confused policymaking seems to be Trump’s forté.
Later, almost as if he had to make amends for his poor decisions, Trump announced the killing of IS’s leader, Abu Bakar al Baghdadi. A few days later, he informed us that Baghdadi’s deputy who would have replaced him had also been eliminated. And, in a long and rambling press briefing, he tried to make it appear that he is the savior of the world, not that anyone is believing it for even a moment. While the world welcomes the elimination of Al Baghdadi and the weakening of IS, the terrorist organisation is far from defeated, let alone eliminated. Besides, as Tom Friedman, New York Times columnist and long-time expert on Middle East politics, points out in this opinion piece, Trump has made no effort to understand the politics of the region. Nor is he interested, beyond the securing of oil fields for US companies, that he kept harping about.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) deal with Iran negotiated under the aegis of the UN, and his recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel, will go down as some of the worst decisions he has made. In an instant, he made the Middle East region the most dangerous place in the world. That said, it is not the first and neither will it be the last time that a Western power has meddled in the Middle East. From Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt and Syria to the Ottoman wars to the present day, Western powers have always had a vested interest in the region. A strategic one to be sure. In Napoleon’s time, it was to further French trade interests and control the trading routes, as well as to undermine the British empire. He is believed to have even wanted stronger ties with Tipu Sultan in India!
In the 20th century, we not only had the two World Wars to deal with, but the fall of the Ottoman empire and the battles over the Suez. The most important canal linking the West with the East, allowing millions of troops to be transported and, of course, allowing millions of barrels of oil and other goods to be shipped.
Situated at the crossroads between the East and the West, the Middle East was important to Empire. In the post-Empire decades, it was its oil riches that were coveted by Western powers. That, along with the birth of Israel as a separate state in Palestine, are at the roots of today’s problems. The carving out of the Ottoman empire between the French and the British after the first World War in the Treaty of Sevres is what dealt the Kurds a raw deal. The people of Kurdistan were promised a referendum, which never took place then, nor later. Instead, the US backed and supported Saddam Hussein as he continued to oppress and kill thousands of Kurds in north-east Iraq, until an autonomous Kurdish region was formed in 1992. The journalist, Khabat Abbas, has called the recent Turkish offensive “ethnic cleansing” in this article in The New York Review of Books, which provides a good first-hand perspective of the recent attacks and what it means to Kurds living along the Syrian border with Turkey.
The world has had a trying time balancing the politics of oil with securing peace for Israel, often by playing one country in the region against another. Proxy wars are a regular feature of the region’s politics. And as America and several Western nations discovered oil riches of their own, oil interests in the Middle East have been replaced by arms sales. Not that the world can ever wean itself off oil from this region, as was seen in recent years with the American and Arabian oil industries warring with each other in setting production levels and prices. As this article from The Economist points out, the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities are bound to affect international oil production and prices, even as America considers itself a swing producer. Still, it has to be said that petro-dollars are not as important as sales of American, British, French and Russian defence equipment to countries in the Middle East.
America’s duplicity in choosing its allies in the region is also well-known, thanks to the Cold War. Iran, its sworn enemy today, was once its great ally in the days of the Shah. The US backed the much-maligned Saddam Hussein in the days preceding and during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s that it ignited in the region. It has several of its important naval bases in the region, ostensibly to police the region, but we all know it is to protect Saudi Arabia and Israel.
To add to all this, we had the great “Arab Spring”, which was supposed to be some kind of awakening of the Arab consciousness to Western values of freedom, democracy and individual rights. It was anything but, as we now know. The country with the largest pro-democracy movement in 2011, Egypt, today has an ex-Army general as its leader and one that the US supports. In almost all the countries, the movement was snuffed out immediately.
And in Syria, it turned into the most horrible conflict of our times: an 8-9 years long civil war, in which the country has been emptied and hollowed out. Bashar Al Assad now lords over a ghost country which, among other things, also means an open invitation to Western powers to help reconstruct it. And Russia, his chief accomplice and ally in razing his country to the ground, is likely to be chief winner of juicy contracts to help reconstruct Syria, according to this article by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The irony is cruel, as it is revealing.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Yemen, what was a war between the Yemen government and Houthi rebels turned into a proxy war years ago between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The country was already one of the poorest in the region, since it is not one of the oil-rich ones. Now, Yemen is plagued by a humanitarian crisis, the likes of which the world has not seen. Famine, cholera and hunger have all taken their toll. None of this deters America from selling the Saudis weapons which they use to bomb Yemen out of existence. An attempt by the US Congress to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia precisely for the reason that it is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, was vetoed by President Trump. You can view the poverty rates in Yemen and select Middle Eastern countries by clicking on the World Bank link below.
At the end of so much mindless fighting and conflict in the Middle East, we have to ask what the real cost of these wars have been. The figures are staggering, and much as they are important, it is the non-statistical aspects too that are important. And it is not all about the economic cost in GDP terms alone. For example, the economic cost of the conflict in Syria is estimated to be around US $ 226 billion by the World Bank, while President Assad puts it at US $ 400 billion, says this article by Rand Corporation. And it is not merely the loss of economic activity and infrastructure.
When we read that around half a million Syrians have perished in the civil war, we also want to know how many of these were little children and women. Because we know from reports that the Syrian regime, backed by Russian forces, specifically targeted hospitals in Syria. When we hear that over half the Syrian population are now displaced and living as refugees, either in Syria or in neighbouring countries, we know most will never be able to return to their country and restart their lives at home.
Before the Syrian conflict, Syria’s population in 2010 was a little over 21 million; seven years of conflict had reduced the population to 16.9 million by 2018, according to the World Bank. The Syrian economy was growing at an average of 4.3% a year in real terms between 2000 and 2010, comparable with most countries in the region. It contracted by as much as 63% between 2011 and 2016 according to a World Bank 2017 report and Iran’s economy is expected to contract by 9.5% in 2019 alone, according to the IMF. The UN estimates that over 70% of the Syrian population are living in poverty. What country will Assad rebuild and for whom?
Yemen is now the poorest country in the world, due to this prolonged conflict, according to this UNDP study and the World Bank estimated Yemen’s poverty rate according to national measures to be around 49% in 2014. Two million children are out of school in Yemen and as many as 3.7 million are at risk of dropping out. It is worth mentioning here that it was a school bus in Yemen that was attacked by Saudi weapons (made in America, of course) that prompted the US Congress to act, but to no avail. You can view the unemployment rates in Yemen and select countries in the Middle East by clicking on the World Bank link below.
Meanwhile the region is exploding with protests over terrible economic conditions and corruption. From Beirut in Lebanon to Baghdad and several other cities in Iraq, ordinary people are simply fed up with living conditions and want a change of regime or reforms to be implemented. Years of war and conflict have taken their toll on almost all countries in the Middle East. They have been impoverished by decades of manipulation and meddling by the West, Russia included.
Most of all, one wonders at the impotence of the international community to bring any of these conflicts to an end. Where is the United Nations in all of this? And with America pulling out of most international commitments in keeping with its “America First” policies, the vacuum is all set for Russia to step into. In fact, it already has stepped in. Today, Russia is the most important power and interlocutor in matters to do with the Middle East. As Peter W Galbraith writes in this article in the New York Review of Books, Putin, Erdogan and Trump have provided Assad with his biggest victory yet in the nine year long conflict. He also says that if Russia manages to pull Turkey away from the US alliance, it could break NATO – a long cherished dream of Russia’s and something that Trump wouldn’t be too bothered by. China hasn’t still upped the anté, but it might, and it would be quite legitimate in doing so. It is indeed reported that Russia is trying to muster up investments from other countries to rebuild Syria and while China has been approached, it has so far refrained from making any big commitments besides a pledged US $ 2 billion investment.
To add to the misery in the Middle East, Trump engages his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to draw up a Middle East peace plan. It is doomed to fail from the start. Kushner’s plan doesn’t even pretend to address the political issues at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but brushes them all aside in favour of a business pact, announced with great fanfare at a summit in Jerusalem with all the big businessmen from the Arab world in attendance. I imagine the Trump family too is eyeing big business deals in Israel, and that too on Palestine territory.
If Trump and Jared Kushner understood the first thing about business, they ought to know that nobody invests in a politically unstable and uncertain environment. On the other hand, for someone who has already waged war with sanctions, tariffs and the US dollar, there’s no saying how far Trump will go to achieve his Middle East peace. And perhaps to even win the Nobel Peace prize, which he clearly has his sights set on. Especially because Barack Obama won it.
I think the time has come for the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to act. There is a UN-backed meet in Geneva on a new constitution for Syria but we have to see how much it can achieve, especially with Bashar al Assad still in place. The long years of conflict and the horrendous crimes committed in the Middle East are as heinous as those in the Balkans and previously in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Nothing but a Nuremberg type trial can end the conflict and bring closure, justice and peace to the region. With Netanyahu not able to form a coalition government once again, it can only mean a weakening of the Trump effect in Israel. Therefore, the time for peace in the region is now. And the international community must seize the opportunity to act. With, or without America.
The featured image at the start of this article is a painting titled, Napoleon in the Battle of The Pyramids, by Antoine Jean Gros (1810), which is exhibited at the Palace of Versailles. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.