The Arab World at a Turning Point


With the ongoing American-led invasion of Iraq, the Arab world is facing one of the most serious moments in its modern history.

When Iraq invaded the tiny and vulnerable state of Kuwait in 1990, there was strong support from nearly all Arab governments and the general public for liberating it, even if such concerted action would lead to full-blown war. The U.S. was successful then in building a coalition in which neighbouring Arab armed forces (notably from Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia) participated, even if somewhat symbolically, to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The entire Arab world was sympathetic to the justifiable bitterness that Kuwaitis harboured against their Iraqi invaders.

When it came to U.N. Security Council Resolution No.1441, regarding disarmament of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Arab countries not only supported the resolution but also pressed Iraq to accept it unconditionally. And they succeeded in large measure, as the return of UN weapons inspection teams attested. But as the war drums in Washington and London grew louder by the day, Arab nations understandably became nervous. It was obvious to Arab countries (and the majority of the wider international community) that the real American-British agenda has not been to disarm Iraq over time, but to occupy it now.

Growing opposition to the use of violence against Iraq by countries such as France, Germany, Russia and China, initially gave Arab governments the courage to say “no” to war as well. But their solidarity was greatly compromised by some among them who have been convinced, or pressured into, giving the American-British assault coalition land, sea and air access through their territories. This passive aggression against Iraq runs in clear violation of the non-aggression principle of the Arab League and blatantly contradicts its stated opposition to the war. Above all, such facilitating compliance mocks the overwhelming anti-war sentiments expressed repeatedly on the Arab street.

So do we now have an infamous “coalition of the unwilling”? Those Arab governments who opened their sea, ground and air facilities to the Americans claim they had to do it, either out of fear of losing financial aid (as with Jordan), a sense of historical obligation (as with Kuwait) or, worse still, through fear of American political blackmail — which includes most other Gulf countries.

Unlike the situation of the first Gulf War, the current American-initiated invasion of Iraq could lead to very serious results. This time, Iraq could collapse into a horrific theatre of cross-border civil war between long-divided and geographically displaced ethnic factions such as Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans, or contending Islamic religious factions, notably the Sunni and Sh’ia.

In such a politically and ethnically fractured environment, so-called Iraqi “liberation” (read terrorist) organizations could easily target foreign troops. Americans in turn could extend the war outside Iraq’s borders by bombing neighbouring states such as Iran or Syria, claiming these governments are supporters of terrorist organizations working in Iraq.

Iraq has been an independent country for more than 50 years, and Iraqis have long resisted foreign domination, including the Western-imposed Baghdad Pact. They are not about to surrender that cherished independence to the United States of America and its allies, even if they do lose the military war.

Thus in the aftermath of the current campaign, Iraq could be decimated by armed coup after armed coup, with or without the blessing of the U.S., as factions within the country struggle for stability. For it is sad but true: what Saddam Hussein has represented for Iraqis has been political stability. And Iraqis know they are about to lose it — perhaps in exchange for something even worse.

Among possible future scenarios, Turkey could enter the political mix in northern Iraq over longstanding disputes about Kurdish autonomy; Kuwait could claim part of southern Iraq, and Iran could actively intervene in support of self-rule for the dominant Iraqi Shi’a Muslims.

Following a cease-fire, surrounding Middle East governments will soon feel the heat of Arab public opinion that the U.S. promise of a Palestinian state has not materialized. Arabs simply do not trust the current American administration to deliver on that promise, or any other. They are less inclined than ever to be taken for another political ride. Above all, they reject a replay of the post-1991 Gulf War scenario, with its ineffective international conference on Middle East peace, followed by a decade of unproductive negotiations, leading to a frustrating cycle of stalemates and impasses. No one wants a repeat performance of an incredibly bad show.

Many Arabs now believe that the U.S. is fighting a war against Iraq for the sake of Israel. American destruction of any Iraqi military capability and in-progress occupation of the country for the purposes of “regime change” have already distracted much of the world’s attention away from Israel’s continuing aggression against the Palestinian people. Arabs are asking if the real motive for this war is installing a post-Saddam puppet regime — or is it designed to rework the entire region’s political and economic infrastructure in accordance with Israeli-American interests?

They believe that UN Security Council resolutions are not made for Israel to comply with anyway, since Israel is repeatedly treated as being above the reach of international law. If the current Iraq war leads to a wider conflict involving Iran and Syria, and possibly other states, this could well precipitate a descending spiral of political instability and violence for many years to come — and no part of the Middle East would be exempt from its effects, including Israel.

Thus Arabs, both in leadership and on the street, see an obvious and dangerous link between the Palestinian and Iraqi issues. If Palestine is not compensated by the return of its Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967; the resettlement of generations of refugees; and the establishment of a recognized and autonomous Palestinian state — nothing that happens in Iraq will have any effect on bringing genuine and just peace to the region.

Make no mistake about it: Arabs do not like Saddam Hussain. They hold him personally responsible for the devastating Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait, and for the brutal regime within Iraq itself. But most believe that nothing positive can result from this American-led invasion of Iraq either.

“It would be very difficult to imagine anything positive coming out of devastation and destruction and human suffering, especially at a time when we thought we could have achieved the objectives of the Security Council through peaceful means,” summarized Arab League Secretary General Amir Moussa.

His words carry an unmistakable ring of truth. But is anybody listening amid the media theatrics of “Operation Shock and Awe”?

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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