As economic woes continue and people stream into Europe, Russia and the US reach an agreement on Syria that is unlikely to work.
This week, the pound plummeted. It had its worst week since the recent financial crisis. The United Kingdom’s troubled marriage with Europe faces a real potential for divorce. Its current account deficit is growing, setting off alarm bells. Already, the pound has fallen to under $1.40 and Deutsche Bank estimates it will sink to $1.28 by the end of the year.
Chinese stocks also kept falling. The Shanghai Composite Index has declined by 24% this year already. The Chinese renminbi lost value vis-à-vis the US dollar. China’s slowdown has ominous implications for the rest of the world. There is real fear now that the use of loose monetary policy to prop up the economy might be reaching its limits. There are limits to fiscal policy too, particularly for aging countries burdened with debt.
Large numbers of people are fleeing or migrating to some of these aging debtor nations. As per the International Organization for Migration, more than 110,000 people have arrived in Greece and Italy so far. In 2015, the figure for new arrivals until July was around 100,000. People are risking death by drowning as they cross the Mediterranean Sea while Europe faces a big crisis.
In the midst of these developments, Russia and the United States reached an agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria. Diplomats are suitably pleased that they have an agreement on Syria for the first time since the country imploded into a bloody civil war. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously approved it. The UNSC resolution aims to install a transitional government in the first six months and envisages elections within the next 18 months. To many the agreement represents “peace in our time.”
Yet the agreement is deafeningly silent on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also fails to mention which opposition groups will engage in peace talks. What we know is that there will be no peace with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. This agreement is no modern day Treaty of Westphalia that will bring to an end what this author has called the Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War.
The agreement is flawed in its assumptions and wishful in its thinking. The Syrian state is dead. It was a product of Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French to divvy up the Middle East. They drew arbitrary lines on the map and created centralized states with overbearing capitals and a web of patronage. Native successors to the British and French masters ruled with an iron fist, but the smoldering volcanoes have erupted in the region.
When the Americans got rid of Saddam Hussein, they unleashed civil war in Iraq. Democracy does not automatically spring up in deeply divided postcolonial states with no institutions. Dour Scots from state schools might not like cavalier English Etonians, but they have been arguing with each other for more than 300 years in the British Parliament.
Iraq has a different legacy to the blessed green isle of Britain. In its infancy, more than 100,000 armed tribesmen rebelled against British rule. This 1920 uprising was quelled by dropping 97 tons of bombs, firing 183,861 rounds and killing nearly 9,000 Iraqis. The British spent more to crush this uprising than they did to support the Arab revolt against the Ottomans inspired by Lawrence of Arabia. In this season of Oscars, it is pertinent to note that no one is likely to make a film on this 1920 Arab uprising.
This uprising is important for another key reason. The British had long been past masters at bringing rebels to heel. In the history of the empire, as Jeremy Paxman memorably puts it, “rebellions were always met with savage retribution.” Winston Churchill was then secretary of state for war and air. He was “strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” to “spread a lively terror.”
Arthur Harris, who later came to be known as “Bomber Harris” or “Butcher Harris,” was commanding the 45 Squadron in Iraq. He more or less invented the heavy bomber by adding bomb racks to Vickers Vernon troop carriers. He also came up with night “terror” raids. In World War II, he would put lessons of Iraq to good use by bombing cities like Hamburg and Dresden, and killing 600,000 mostly civilian Germans.
In 1921, John Adrian Chamier, the father of the Air Training Corps, was serving in Iraq too. He posited that the best way to demoralize local people was to concentrate bombing on the “most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle.”
Local dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have taken to heart the lessons of their former colonial masters. Saddam conducted genocide of the Kurds and massacred Shia Marsh Arabs during his time in power. Assad has used chemical weapons like Saddam. His Russian allies have taken a leaf out of the British playbook and bombed Aleppo with gusto, targeting civilians to drive them from their homes and teach them a lesson.
Borders are meaningless in the current conflict. Iranians are helping Assad by providing Shia troops from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Islamic State was born in Iraq and grew up in Syria in the power vacuum after the uprisings against Assad, and drew support from desperate Sunnis who found their backs against the wall. This messianic organization was created in Iraq because Sunnis there resented the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Today, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are divided along sectarian and tribal lines. Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, assorted Shia and Russia form one gang. The Islamic State with its Sunni supporters forms another gang. The US is the biggest bully in the playground who cannot make up his mind as to which gang is more dangerous. It just wants to return to the age of innocence when order prevailed in the region. Neat lines of its elder European cousins are sacrosanct for the US. Sadly, these silly lines in the sand have been washed away by frothy waves of blood.
After years of bloody civil war, mistrust, suspicion and hatred divide communities. Ethnic cleansing has created monoculture areas. Like Humpty Dumpty, Iraq and Syria have fallen off the wall. All of Uncle Sam’s planes, drones, missiles and men will not be able to put them back together again. Yet the US refuses to recognize the fait accompli and come up with imaginative new ideas. It persists in selling old wine in new bottles.
Last year, US President Barack Obama declared that Assad would have to leave for Syria to stop bloodshed and enable all the parties involved to move forward in a nonsectarian way. Obama might be right about tensions cooling a wee bit once Assad leaves. However, the real battle in Syria, Lebanon and even Yemen is between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The former is a theocratic regime with a whiff of democracy. The latter is a fanatical kingdom with something rotten at its core.
Throw Turkey and Israel into the picture along with Russia and the US, and you get a truly explosive cocktail. Add the Kurds and Palestinians to make this cocktail toxic. Do not forget wonderful human beings like British Prime Minister David Cameron selling “brilliant things” such as Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia to shake, not stir things up.
Essentially, the inter-state balance of power has been disturbed and most actors think they can do better. Then there are non-state behemoths like the Kurdish Peshmerga and the infamous Islamic State that has declared a caliphate. At the same time, many states themselves are sputtering.
In the Middle East, things are falling apart. This UNSC resolution cannot hold.
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
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