Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Middle East Burning

By Daniel Greenfield

It is in the nature of the media beast that anything that happens in or around the Jewish State gets far more attention than anything that happens throughout the rest of the region. Israel has also created a safe zone for reporters. It is one of the few places in the Middle East where reporters can write what they like without having to worry about receiving a visit in the middle of the night and a ride inside the trunk of a black car.

But the time-honored obsession with Jews, which even the stiffest BBC or Guardian correspondent isn’t immune to, may also be a factor. Far more people recognize Sabra and Shatila than Hama, and if Assad survives, his current killing spree will quickly fade into distant memory by those who will go on invoking Deir Yassin as if it happened last week. No one would buy a book complaining about the Norwegians or the Syrians; and the same goes for the news stories that the media chooses to run on a daily basis.

But the media’s myopic focus on Israel also distorts the coverage of the region. Like Pavlov’s dogs, reporters reflexively reduce the Middle East to a conflict between Israel and the Arabs, Jews and Muslims, the people that they hate and the people that they like. Asking them to cover anything more complicated than that is also asking them to do too much.

The press handled the Arab Spring by resorting to a simple narrative of dictators and rebels. Now that the rebels have become the dictators, the men and women of the press in their pressed khakis have no idea how to cover them. Syria, where Sunnis and Shiites keep killing each other, is even more baffling to them. Even after all the revelations about the Free Syrian Army, the massacres of Christians and the flights of refugees escaping the Islamist militias, the press strains to return to its old comfortable narrative of brave rebels resisting a vicious dictator.

But dictatorship is a permanent feature of life in the region. And it doesn’t matter much whether a new tyranny is reached through the ballot box or the bomb. The media is unable to reach beyond its simplistic narratives to see that it isn’t merely Gaza or Syria that are burning, but the entire Middle East.

The flames of the Middle East have been lit by a larger regional struggle that has been going on, in one form or another, for generations. It’s not a struggle over big ideas, but over very little ones. Even the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites has its roots in a simple tribal dispute between the family members and successors of Mohammed. Much of the rest of the fighting comes down to equally crude tribal power struggles, which when stripped of their rhetoric, are reduced to battles over racial rivalries and clan ambitions.

After the Arab Spring, the Middle East is far more polarized and on edge than ever. A Post-American Middle East has become a much more dangerous place with little to keep Sunnis and Shiites from battling to the death over the region.

Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq tipped that country into the Shiite camp, next to Iran and Syria. Not satisfied with that, his intervention in the Arab Spring tipped Egypt, Libya and Tunisia into the Sunni Islamist camp. Both sides are now playing for Syria, in what is being described as a rebellion, but is actually a repetition of an old religious war.

The Syrian Sunni Jihadists and the Syrian Alawite government are proxies for the larger Shiite and Sunni powers hoping to remake the region in their own image. Whichever one of them wins, the conflict will be far from over. Wars never really end in the Middle East, except with massacres, and as long as there are any survivors left, then the old rivalries will flare to life again sooner or later.

The Muslim world is not terribly good at fighting wars. Certainly not wars of the modern kind. But it is quite good at supplying insurgencies and finding bands of fighters willing to engage in hit and run attacks. With many of the insurgents and factions switching sides more often than the wind changes, all the elements for an endless war are already in place.

Sunni and Shiite militias are already pouring into Syria. But Syria is only the appetizer for the main dish on the menu. Iraq. During the Iraq War, Syrian fighters were crossing into Iraq. These days’ Iraqi fighters are crossing into Syria. But it can just as easily switch around again. A decade of wars has built up a sizable reserve of Jihadists eager and willing to go anywhere for a fight.

Iraq has a sizable amount of oil wealth and is a much sweeter prize than Syria. And despite the media’s refusal to cover anything that doesn’t have the word “Israel” in it; the Iraq War never ended. Instead Maliki is uncomfortably at odds with the Sunnis and Kurds, and the real fighting is likely to begin soon enough, even not counting the usual bursts of Al Qaeda terror.

Iraqi Jihadists found their way to Libya during the Benghazi attack. Now Libyan Jihadists are headed over to Syria. If Syria dies down, they will move on to the next conflict. This reserve of fighters, funded by oil money, is the single biggest development in the region. Each war inflates their totals and their availability starts new wars.

The media insists on trying to see regional developments through the familiar lens of democracy, but in a region separated by inflexible differences, democracy is only another tool of power, no different than the suicide bomber or the massacre. Democracy in the Muslim world is nothing but a means of majoritarian supremacy, not a new stage of moral and political development.

Through a Western lens, a democratic election is a form of progress, but through an Eastern lens it is a means for the majority to assert its power over the minority, leaving the minority with few options but to flee or turn to violence. That is what we have seen throughout the region after the Arab Spring.

Democracy in the Middle East is not a sign of progress, but a precursor to violence, which is exactly what is coming about in Egypt and Tunisia. An election, like a suicide bombing, is a warning that a power struggle has broken out and that the outcome will not be pretty.

The Middle East is burning and the bright flares of the rockets rising over Gaza are only sparks of a hotter flame. The flame is meant to fill the power vacuum left behind by a decadent American policy of soft power. And rather than calming the Arab Street, Obama’s Post-American policies have lit its fuse and set it to blow.

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