Sudanese protesters burn tyres to block a road in 60th Street in the capital Khartoum, to denounce overnight detentions by the army of members of Sudan's government, on October 25, 2021 [Photo by AFP]
Over the past half a century, the Greater Middle East has witnessed more war than any other region. Even when violent conflicts subsided in much of the world after the Cold War ended, they have continued unabated in this ill-fated region. Those in the Middle East have accounted for a whopping third of all the armed conflicts around the world since the turn of the 21st century.
Contrary to Western conventional wisdom, these wars were not driven by ancient rivalries, nor have they been fought for the past 4,000 years, as certain imperial emissaries claim. These are, for the most part, imperial and post-colonial wars rooted in the power politics of modern-day regional conditions, engineered by Western cynics and regional thugs, who exploit fear and faith to advance their interests.
The pretexts for these futile Middle East wars have proven once and again to be devious, their conduct disgraceful, and their goals delusional. They have wrecked states, torn their national fabric and crippled their economies.
In that way, the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven deceitful, costly and utterly counterproductive. Worse, more Afghans, Iraqis and Americans died in vain after Washington declared its war missions “accomplished” than during the actual fighting. And after many years of occupation and countless claims of progress, Washington finally withdrew in humiliation.
Russia has also declared itself victorious five years after it intervened in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad. But what has it really accomplished other than prolonging the reign of one of the bloodiest dictators of the century at the cost of destroying much of his country?
Even when Western powers intervened in the oil-rich Libya on the pretence of stopping a massacre by its eccentric leader, somehow, they managed to botch their “humanitarian intervention”. The country swiftly plunged into a civil war, and Libyans foolishly turned against Libyans.
If Western security, energy security, or Israeli security – which are in fact “interests” – were ever good pretexts for Western military intervention in the past century, and they certainly were not, no such case could be made today, when Israel is the dominant power in the region, and carbon energy is accessible and undesirable. But then again, imperial powers have always been quick to come up with new pretences to legitimise their use of force.
In short, these powers have failed to learn the lessons of the past century. They are repeating the same bloody failures and expecting different results, only to get more blowbacks in return.
The same may be said for regional and intra-state wars and conflicts. Except, well, much worse.
Israel has fought and mostly “won” a dozen or so wars over the past 70 years. How many more must it fight before it finally recognises that there is no escape from ending its occupation and sharing the land equally and fairly with the Palestinians; that it cannot continue to live in a perpetual state of belligerence and call it peace.
Nothing has proven more bloody and stupid than the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which produced nothing but death and destruction. Nothing. And yet, Iran has remained adamant on inflaming the civil strife in Iraq and weakening its Arab neighbours to advance its narrow regional interests.
But while Iran is indeed exploiting inter- and intra-Arab state tensions, Arab dictators are the true culprits – they are the engineers of sectarian and civil conflicts among their people and neighbours.
And for what!
There are no victors and losers of civil wars that cripple nations and destroy societies. Just look at Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, etc.
So, why are the Lebanese playing with fire, have they not learned any lessons from their 14-year bloody civil war? Have they not suffered enough?
And what about the Sudanese, who have suffered from numerous armed conflicts? After years of civil war, the South Sudanese won their independence from Khartoum, but then they turned against each other mercilessly. And this week, it is their northern Sudanese neighbours who are turning against each other, yet again, as the generals carry yet another military coup, deploying force to have their way.
The Algerians may have had enough from one civil war, and they seem at least for now to have averted plunging the country into another one.
It is mesmerising how many Arabs and Muslims have successfully resisted foreign domination, only to turn against each other with even more vengeance.
It is shameful for the Taliban, which prides itself on defeating the world’s superpower, to repress its own people, whom it boasts of liberating. Or, to speak of an inclusive rule while turning against fellow Afghans for merely embracing a different, less conservative, vision for the future of their country. Instead of joining hands with their compatriots in Kabul, they stormed the capital, chasing away doctors, lawyers and engineers, and much of the country’s humanitarian and other international aid.
The Palestinians did not bother to win against their coloniser before turning against each other! Now, they are split over who is in charge of life within the confines of the Israeli prison called Palestine!
And then, there are the tragedies of Syria, Yemen and Somalia. These are in a class of their own. How many more years of war is enough? How many people must die? How many children must go hungry? How many more millions must live without shelter?
When the Syrian uprising started rather peacefully, the regime threatened the people: “Assad or we burn down the country”. They ended up with both – the pyromaniac and the fire. Over the past 10 years, the Syrian war killed more than 500,000 people and displaced 11 million or half of the country’s population. All of which begs the question: what is the point of presiding over a country that looks and feels like an abandoned cemetery?
When it intervened militarily in Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia hoped to end the war in a matter of weeks. That war has been going on for years, with no end in sight. The country once called “Happy Yemen” has now devolved into a miserable nation, with the United Nations designating it the worst humanitarian disaster of the century. And the once prosperous and secure Saudi Arabia is far worse off than when it entered the war with bombast and bravado.
I realise that there is no equating between victims and victimisers; and while I cannot stand against peoples’ right to self-defence, I am a pacifist who abhors violence and stands firmly against all wars, for they are foolish and painful; destroy everything and resolve nothing.
I also realise that I might be shouting into the wind; that wailing and willowing is not enough to affect change, but do not expect me to take up arms against war.
History has shown us again and again since the ancient Greeks and Romans that victory in war is tantamount to defeat when the price is devastatingly high. It is in reference to them that we call it “Pyrrhic victory”.
But while ancient leaders knew one or two things about courage and honour and led their armies on the battlefield, today’s warmongers recruit mercenaries, pitting the poor against the poor, as they rush to their yachts, ranches and country clubs.
If only people spend as much time averting and avoiding war as they spent waging wars and dealing with their devastating consequences, the world may be a better place.
And yet, the illusion of winning by killing and dominating through destruction continues to run deep in the region and around the world.
It is rather foolish not to learn from the lessons of history and the mistakes of others, but it is utterly mad to ignore the painful lessons of our own history.
Marwan Bishara is an author who writes extensively on global politics and is widely regarded as a leading authority on US foreign policy, the Middle East and international strategic affairs. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris.