The Middle East Add Crazy has been an area that for many reasons has been part of our history. Most Western religions came out of that area and that got us involved in early religious wars, but apart from the mystique little else interested us until we built a canal to ease the journey time to the Far East; then suddenly we needed oil and they had it in abundance. From that moment the Middle East became of massive strategic importance. The First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire let the French and British take over most of the territory in the central and Eastern areas (South of Turkey) whilst the French had already colonised most of North Africa.
After the Second World War most of the area was decolonised allowing new states to be shaped including the Jewish state of Israel created on what had been for 100’s of year’s Arab territory. The early rulers were largely pro- West although the running sore of Israel created serious issues in that area. Those states have slowly evolved with a few significant defections from pro to anti west and several strong leaders emerged providing internal stability; be it sometimes brutal in the suppression of the population. An underlying feature in the Middle East has been the Islamic faith and that has conflicted with our own largely Christian faith since it started. Islamic extremism has emerged as a significant part of that faith.
Last year saw the advent of the so called Arab Spring which saw several dictatorial Middle East leaders driven out and replaced by democracy – well that is the idea. But almost inevitable it appears that Islamic parties – if not radical Islamic parties – will win subsequent elections. It looks far from certain that those parties will be supportive of the west: or more importantly anti Islamic extremism.
There are other pressing problems as well. Syria looks like going the way of the other Arab spring countries. Iran is threatening to get a nuclear bomb and its rhetoric – against the West in general and Israel specifically – is far from reassuring and of course the running sore of the Israel and Palestinians continues with little sign of let up or solution.
Part of the problems of the Middle East is it is religiously diverse and the very problem Mohammad tried to solve – the unification of Arab tribes – has been further compounded by splits in Islam with Shea and Sunni representing two very different positions. The Ba’ath party which dominated Iraq under Saddam Husain and Syria under Assad is a technically minority socialist leaning party espousing a more secular position.
I am no Middle East expert but it is not hard to understand the tribal and religious problems of countries created arbitrarily with significant populations of different tribes and religions.
It is on this confused area that much of our Western energy (and thus wealth) depends and one thing is becoming clear the Arab spring may, or may not, have liberated the peoples of those countries but it has further confused an already tricky region. The war in next door Afghanistan looks like ending in an ignominious exit and Pakistan just adds to the problems. The fear that radical Islamic states could rule supreme from Pakistan to the Atlantic (across North Africa) is a genuine concern and one which would without doubt endanger Europe. To that end the survival of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia is very important and we would be stupid to support changes there – that includes Bahrain.
I am not convinced the fall of Assad in Syria is sin our best interests and whilst I thought Gaddafi deserved his fate (Lockerbie, PC Yvonne Fletcher) the chaos now created does not look promising and I am reliable informed that are worrying numbers of weapons (including missiles) are unaccounted for. Such an outcome in Syria bordering on Israel, an unstable Iraq and on an important NATO allay (Turkey) would not be good.
But it is the nuclear ambitions of Iran that are causing the most concern – not I suspect because a conventional threat – in the end MAD (mutually assured destruction) kept the cold war cold for exactly that reason and with Israel (we assume) possessing an arsenal of nukes Iraq would suffer the same fate if it tried an overt attack. The real danger is that Iraq could supply nukes, or nuke elements (to make a dirty bomb), to Islamic terrorists and then we may have a damn good idea but could not prove where those elements came from. Another danger is if they sell nuclear arms and technology to other states with similar anti West inclinations. All in all a nuclear armed Iran looks bad all round and just as bad for its sometime sponsor Russia with Islamic extremism and terrorism rooted in the Caucuses.
The experience of Iraq would suggest that even though there is large opposition any attempt to invade and overtly charge the regime is not a simple option – quite the opposite. An air campaign may degrade the Iranian development of nukes but is unlikely the stop them and will almost inevitable compound the problems. The long and the short of it is all options look bad – the question must be asked is a nuclear armed Iran the worst, or the best bad, option?
But the really bad position we are in is our exposure to covert Islamic extremism at home through a massive number of first and second generation Muslim immigrants. If the Middle East becomes a largely anti west region with Islamic governments at best turning a blind eye to terrorism – if not whole heartedly supporting it – Europe, and then inevitable the USA, is going to have some serious issues to contend with.
One of the little made points about the war in Afghanistan is that whilst we are fighting them there the Jihadists concentrate their efforts in that country. When we pull out and they have no local targets they will concentrate on the west.
It all makes the Middle East a region we need to handle with great skill but the problems have no easy answers. I do not think the Arab spring has done the West any long term good: quite the reverse and I suspect that is so for most of the peoples in countries that have won hard earned change. Our best hope is that true pluralistic governments take over – but I would not bet too much on that!
As to Iran my instincts say we can’t let them get a bomb but I suspect there is no appetite in the west for any overt action. This article throws some interesting light on the matter.
In the end we have little option but to try and contain Iran. We need to then work with Russia and China to stabilize the rest of the region and good doses of pragmatism would be more helpful than rhetoric. What is good for Europe is good for the rest of the World as the consequences of Europe fighting a jihadist war with united Pan Arabic countries would be just as bad for them as us