Open up a national newspaper and flip to the stories about the Middle East. The daily toll of bombings and shootings, starving refugees and demolished cities have little resemblance to the cheerful stories about the transformation of the Middle East that were running during the boom days of the Arab Spring.
There isn’t much mention of the Arab Spring anymore. The same media outlets that were predicting that the Middle East was about to turn into Europe have fallen silent. They are eager to forget their own lies.
But it was the Arab Spring that unleashed this horror. The Arab Spring was not an outburst of popular democratic sentiment. It was a power struggle of a clearly sectarian nature. It was the rise of Sunni Islam under the black and white Salafist flags.
Obama and his people favored takeovers by “moderate” Salafi groups that appeared to accept Western ideas such as democracy and modernization. The “moderate” Salafis however worked closely with their “immoderate” Salafi cousins playing a game of Good Salafi and Bad Salafi with America.
The “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt opened the door for Al Qaeda in the Sinai. Its Syrian branch, along with other “moderate” Salafist militias in the Free Syrian Army, fought alongside the Al-Nusra Front which was then Al Qaeda in Syria.
The takeovers led to civil war in Egypt and Syria and escalated a sectarian regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. The biggest beneficiary of the Arab Spring was Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Iraq had defined itself by the killing of Shiites. Its murder of Americans took second place to its fanatical hatred of Shiites. Its killing sprees had alienated other Muslims at a time when America was seen as the central enemy. But the Arab Spring had made the Islamic terrorist group relevant again.
Iraq’s government tilted toward its Shiite roots as the Arab Spring split the region down the middle creating no room for middle ground. Peace in Iraq had depended on locking Al Qaeda out with a political alliance between Sunnis and Shiites. Bush had made that alliance temporarily work. Obama, who had repeatedly denounced the Iraq Surge, washed his hands of it as quickly as he could.
The Arab Spring helped kill what was left of that alliance as Sunni-Shiite civil wars moved the arc of history in the direction that had been carved out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the Iraq War. Al Qaeda in Iraq was no longer seen as a bunch of homicidal lunatics. They had become visionaries.
The media had chosen to wipe Al Qaeda in Iraq out of the headlines after Obama’s victory. The withdrawal cemented the silence.
When Obama claimed that he needed to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan where it was hardly a presence, instead of in Iraq where it was still a menace; they didn’t ask many questions. Buried in the news stories were reports that Obama knew that Al Qaeda had ceased to be a major player in Afghanistan.
If Obama had been a Republican, there is no doubt that those stories would have turned into a major issue and the issue into a narrative about a president who lied about a war.
But Obama was a Democrat and those stories and the stories about Al Qaeda in Iraq escalating its attacks remained no more than background noise. Iraq was yesterday’s news. Tomorrow’s news was the Cairo speech and the Arab Spring. Terrorism was over. The tyrants were falling. A new wave of change was coming. And the region would never be the same.
Change did indeed come.
The Arab Spring split the region more sharply than ever across Shiite and Sunni lines. Syria became the fault line in the bloody end of the Arab Spring. And Al Qaeda made its biggest power play yet.
Mali showed that Afghanistan was yesterday’s news. Al Qaeda franchises no longer needed to rely on a Taliban to carve out a territory for their training camps. They could become their own Taliban and seize an entire country.
It took the French to stop them in Mali after the disastrous Libyan War; the most destructive effort at implementing the Arab Spring. But the question is who will stop Al Qaeda in Syria?
The various branches of Al Qaeda and their allies may win in Syria. And Syria is not Afghanistan. It has huge stockpiles of advanced weapons, dwarfing the Gaddafi stockpiles that have already caused a great deal of damage, not to mention the chemical and biological weapons that it will likely hold on to despite the brokered disarmament deal. Syria even had an infant nuclear program.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now envisions a vast territory under its rule. It is surging in Syria and Iraq and has reached into Lebanon to strike at Hezbollah. There is little to mourn about Sunni and Shiite terrorist groups killing each other, but it would be wishful thinking to imagine that a vastly expanded Al Qaeda with access to advanced weaponry and cities full of manpower will not eventually direct that weaponry at the United States.
The Emirate, like most of Al Qaeda’s plans, will probably go nowhere. The various Al Qaeda groups descending from Al Qaeda in Iraq can barely get along with each other. If Syria falls to the Salafist militias already fighting each other over the spoils, they will probably go on killing each other over bakeries, oil refineries and drug smuggling routes.
But there was a time when Western experts thought the same thing about the “Reds” in Russia.
The Syrian Civil War is as chaotic as that civil war with militias battling each other, clumsy attempts at Western intervention and new countries forming out of the rubble of the old. And it may be that the experts predicting that the Arab Spring was just like Europe in 1848 got it very wrong. Instead of looking at Europe in 1848, they should have been looking at Russia and Eastern Europe in 1919 instead.
The Arab Spring did to the Middle East what WWI did to Russia and Eastern Europe. Al Qaeda, like the Bolsheviks, plans to pick up the pieces. The new Soviet Union may be an Islamic state that stretches across the Middle East while the Salafi preachers and thugs terrorizing Europe play the role of Communist infiltrators in the West. And another world war may be here before we even know it.
It seems unlikely now, but unlikely events can happen faster than we expect.
In 1903 the Bolsheviks were a quarreling band of radicals, in 1923 they had formed the Soviet Union and two decades later they ruled an alliance that reached all the way to Western Europe and was aiming at the conquest of the world.
Lenin and Bin Laden built their respective organizations as a base around a core elite that would serve as the revolutionary vanguard. Lenin’s approach produced the Soviet Union. We have yet to see where Bin Laden’s approach will lead.