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October 06, 2013, Sunday

The Middle East as a crisis of the international system

The fate of the process that started with the Arab uprisings may not be certain for the time being, but it is obvious that these revolts target the regional system in the Middle East and the national political regimes that people believe do not represent themselves.

When we talk about the system in the Middle East, we are certainly not referring to a system the indigenous peoples have created based on their needs. As I indicated in my previous article, today's Middle East has emerged out of a completely artificial process and as the political product of the international system, particular with respect to its geography -- defined broadly or loosely depending on the standpoint -- its name and its borders among its countries. If the Middle East is a set of countries most of which were created artificially by the powers that be of the international system, then the current crisis in the region should be regarded as the crisis of the international system. Let me elaborate on this point.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the British Empire, as the superpower of the time, and Russia, as the emerging power of the time, had engaged in a ruthless contention or competition called the "Great Game," in an effort to gain supremacy over Central Asia and the Caucasus. At the end of this competition, Russia obtained what it was seeking and designed the region, which it saw as its own hinterland, at will. In the wake of the communist revolution and between 1920 and 1936, Russians had managed to create diverse nations and countries out of Turks, who were actually a single nation in Central Asia -- a one, unified cultural basin. What Russians had achieved in Central Asia was performed largely by the British and, to a lesser extent, by the French, in the Middle East.

With borders drawn purely on the map, a number of small states that didn't exist in the past and that cannot be reconciled with the realities of the region were created. The nation-building process for these states was left to time. For instance, although no political entity named Iraq had ever existed in the past, historic Mosul, Basra and Baghdad provinces were united to create such a country. The lands that were historically known as the provinces of Damascus and Aleppo were re-designed as Syria. Likewise, Jordan was created by the British as a country that does not have a unique culture and that lacks true historical origins. The stories about the establishment of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries, and even about the formation of the new regime in Iran with Mohammad Reza Pahlawi in 1924, also fit this pattern.

Being governed by a monarch, the British Empire thought the best political regime for these artificially created countries was monarchy. At that time, Britain was the most powerful state in the world, but it failed to remain so. In particular, the world was split into the communist and capitalist blocs in the wake of World War II, and it now had two superpowers: the US and Russia. This bipolar international system characterized with Cold War relations and merciless rivalry made a deep impact on the Middle East. The most important effect of the bipolar system on the region was that many Middle Eastern monarchies built by Britain were overthrown by the army and replaced with republican regimes that tilted toward socialism.

For instance, in the early 1950s, Iran saw developments that would virtually reset the power of the pro-Western shah, who was the product of the British policy. Democratically elected to office, Mohammad Mosaddegh set on eliminating the influence both of the shah and of the Western powers that redesigned the country as a regime of the shah. The West's response was to overthrow Mosaddegh and restore the title of shah to its former position with a coup known as "Operation Ajax." Thus, it was ensured that Iran remained within the Western bloc in the bipolar system until the Revolution of 1979 by Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mostafavi Moosavi Khomeini.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the winner of the coup d'état of 1952, known as the "Free Officers Movement," was the Soviet bloc. Thus, Egypt, a country designed by the British and located in the Western bloc, set sail to socialist policies under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although it was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Egypt stayed aligned with Soviet policies until the Camp David Agreement of 1979.

Likewise, the monarchic rule in Iraq was toppled by a bloody coup staged by General Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1958. The first thing Iraq did after the republican regime was announced was to withdraw Iraq from the Baghdad Pact, a Western bloc alliance. The rise of communism and ethnic nationalism disrupted the balances in the Middle East. Following the bloodless coup of Sept. 17, 1968, the country moved closer to socialism and came under the control of the Baath regime. This kicked off the process by which Saddam Hussein come to power and started to intimidate the country and the region.

A similar coup was staged in Syria with inspiration from the coup in Iraq. The power struggle that continued between 1969 and 1970 was won by Baathist Hafez Assad, who staged a bloodless coup on Nov. 13, 1970. With a shady referendum held in March 1971, Assad was elected as president. This urged the US and the UK to take action to prevent Soviet Russia from further penetrating into the Middle East. The US staged a coup in Lebanon and the UK and invaded Jordan, citing chaos in the country. The Camp David Accords of 1979 can be seen as the culmination of these efforts.

We can come up with a host of examples showing how the crises in the Middle East can be attributed to global contentions. Yet, the artificial regional system Britain established in the region in the wake of the World War I was shaken by the Cold War that occurred in the post-World War II bipolar world. In many countries, British-made monarchies were replaced either with pro-Soviet dictatorships or with anti-systemic or non-systemic regimes in Iran, where this was not allowed. The coup d'état of 1977 in Pakistan, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the military coup of 1980 in Turkey had a special place in this picture.

During the Cold War era, the crises of the international system had their counterparts in the Middle East. However, as a new system was being formulated across many parts of the world following the collapse of 1989, this wind of change didn't come to the Middle East. Thus, the Middle East remained largely a patch of land still governed by the Cold War. Even Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, Central Asia and China felt their share from this change. But, in the Middle East, time was frozen for 20 years, as if the new world system or lack of it had never occurred.

Although the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era can be seen as an effort to redesign the region externally and forcibly, these invasions have only exacerbated the crisis in the Middle East. The flourishing of democracies in the region has always met with problems that are triggered inside and outside.

In brief, the crisis the Middle East is facing, particularly including the stalemate in Syria and the myriad of ethnic and sectarian clashes across the region, is actually a crisis of the international global system being the architect of the region. In the case of any delay in finding a solution to this crisis, it is very likely that the Middle East's crisis may create a total crisis for the global system itself.



Previous articles of the columnist