Spring sprang in the Arab world with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, affecting country after country, moving quickly to Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and finally Syria.[i] Results to date: no democracy, no elections, no stability, no security; and instead the strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Iran. While the protests and demonstrations may have begun with well-meaning poverty-stricken people fed up with tyrannical repression and economic exploitation, radical Muslim extremists, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), seem to now have the upper hand as elections loom in Tunisia and Egypt.
When Gaddafi goes, the tribal instincts of the Libyan rebels are more likely to drive their Transitional National Council (TNC) to in-fighting and internecine violence than to a unified coalition thirsty for freedom and democracy. Armed groups within the TNC have known connections to el-Qaeda and are not likely to let the opportunity to create an el-Qaeda base in Libya slip away because of some pesky elections.
Jordan and Morocco have kept the Arab spring’s rebellious wolf from the door, at least for now, with cosmetic changes in government and promises of more power to elected leaders; but the natives are restless and the kings of both countries know that they are sitting on powder kegs. Jordan’s Abdullah II is acutely aware that the most powerful enemies in his kingdom are Hamas and the MB.
Saudi Arabia has stemmed the tide with massive social spending, a new phenomenon in the kingdom: about $130 billion at last count for salaries, housing, and religious organizations. But the Saudi royal family knows that using cash to keep things calm can go only so far. They too are on a powder keg, and they fear that Iran seeks to light the fuse.
The uprising in Bahrain was brutally and effectively repressed with the aid of Saudi tanks and troops. The Saudis acted quickly, and without regard for public opinion, because they did not want neighboring Bahrain to become a stepping stone for Shiite Iran’s influence in the Sunni Arab world. Neither did the ruling family in Bahrain, who welcomed the Saudi armed forces. No one wants the price of oil to go up, so the Saudis have no concerns about world opinion or UN sanctions.
In Yemen protests began in late January and have continued almost non-stop. President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled to Arabia for medical treatment after sustaining injuries during an attack on his palace, the economy is on the verge of collapse, hundreds have died, and there is no front runner for leadership among the feuding tribal groups that coalesced against Saleh back in March. As the New York Times described it, Yemen is “…on the brink of hell.”
At this point things are not looking good for the Arab countries assailed by the “Arab Spring.” Already fragile economies have been disrupted by the violence, and nowhere in sight is the emergence of anything other than feuding tribes and radical Islamist destabilization, and certainly not the free, stable, and prosperous liberal western-style democracy that President Bush hoped would blossom in Iraq to serve as a model of freedom for other countries in the Middle East.
Syria is different, because it is hard to decide which are the least bad of the bad options. On one hand we have young Bashir al-Assad, whose brutality seems boundless and to whom Obama gave a free pass, benignly ignoring his butchery for months while thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered, quite unlike our President’s swift political and military actions against Mubarak and Gadaffi. Bashir is Iran’s closest ally, almost a puppet; and his demise would be a major defeat for Iran. A break between Syria and Iran would also be very bad news for Hezbollah, whose terrorist leaders rely heavily on Iranian supplies, funds, and armaments, all channeled into Lebanon via Syria. Hamas too would suffer from a break in its link with its Iranian godfather. So one might think that the USA’s Commander-in-Chief would see the military and political value of regime change in Syria.
On the other hand, the MB, aided and abetted by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, is at work both overtly and behind the scenes in organizing and staging the revolt against Bashir. After Bashir’s father, Hafez el-Assad, slaughtered between 15,000 and 20,000 of his own people in February, 1982, in Hamah in order to crush a revolt fomented by the MB, the Brotherhood was weakened and ill-represented in Syria, but it was still a growing force in other Arab countries. In the unrest and chaos that would almost certainly set in if Bashir were to fall, the MB would be poised to step forward and fill the void. Jordan’s Abdullah II would love to be able to re-direct MB efforts in Jordan to a new and far more repressive target in Syria. But Iran does not want to see its foothold in the west undermined by this upheaval, so it has helped Bashir in his use of extreme force, and it has begun to manipulate the violence and unrest in other Arab countries as well.
To gain maximum benefit from the situation in Egypt and to turn the world’s attention from Syria, Iranian proxies Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and “resistance committees,” in conjunction with al-Qaeda, have renewed attacks on Israel: blowing up the natural gas pipeline from the northern Sinai to Israel, firing scores of rockets into Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, and most recently launching three brutal attacks on civilians near Eilat. Igniting a new war between Israel and Egypt would be a marvelous win-win for Iran, al-Qaeda and the MB.
If Israel’s response to the attacks from the Gaza Strip and Sinai were to trigger a war with Egypt, Israel is likely to win. Then the turmoil and upheaval would weaken the Egyptian generals, now shamed in defeat, and would create the perfect storm into which the MB could sail to political control. If despite the attacks Israel shows restraint, the MB can shame the generals for not confronting Israel, and then either provoke a war or use the generals’ failure to confront Israel as a way to shame and weaken them and pave the way for the MB’s own rise to power.
Better yet, if the provocations from Iran’s proxies could spark a war, and the other forces confronting Israel were to join in, Israel would be fighting on seven fronts at once. In that case, the likelihood of Israel’s victory could be in question.
No matter what, Iran wins.
[i] See http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D05E2DF123CF934A25754C0A9679D8B63 and http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2090357,00.html for the most recent comprehensive summaries of the status of the “Arab Spring.”
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