Middle Eastern Trends
September 5, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >
America's Future Ally
By NIBRAS KAZIMI
September 5, 2007
For the past two months, I've been traveling around the Middle East for this paper, looking for trends, and it's no wonder why I haven't written anything throughout that time — nothing looks certain.
My itinerary has taken me to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey — each of them has ongoing major stories — but it's been one long murky summer where much seems to be in flux. The one trend that seems crystal clear to me is that Iraq will make it; Iraq will turn out fine.
Jordan is dealing with its usual headaches: How much political freedom should be allowable in an atmosphere where Islamists confidently vie for more political clout, especially when one of the offshoots of the Jordanian Islamic movement, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, had taken the decision to roughshod over legality to impose its rule in Gaza? How should Jordan handle the upcoming prospects of a Palestinian state; should it be a confederation or a full disengagement? Jordan is edging closer to answering some of these questions during the upcoming parliamentary elections in November: What will the government do? What will the Islamists do? What will the Palestinians do?
The Syrian capital Damascus was abuzz this summer with rumors of a war with Israel in the form of an expansion of the Israel's war against Lebanese Hezbollah last summer — a matter only dispelled a few days ago when Israel decided to reduce its heightened troop presence along the Syrian border. Syria also is in the throes of a very dangerous sectarian poison slowly wriggling its way throughout the country, setting up the stage for a confrontation between majority Sunnis and the ruling Alawite sect that controls the security and military agencies of that country.
Lebanon is a mess: Beirut is in political paralysis as the issue of how a president is to be elected for the country in September further polarizes the political actors there. Sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are at a boil, and the Lebanese army is in its fourth month of trying to stamp out a Sunni Islamist insurrection in the tiny Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared to the country's north — something that does not bode well for the army's ability to confront wider challenges.
Lebanon's Sunnis are siding with the government against the extremists, but even this small glimmer of good news may fade if a sectarian clash is ignited and the Sunni fundamentalists lead their community's war against the Shiites.
Turkey has been in political turmoil ever since a ruling Islamist-leaning party tried to nominate one of their own to the country's presidency, only to be blocked by parliamentary machinations, constitutional courts, pro-secular demonstrations, and the objections of the powerful military-security establishment, which all forced the issue of early parliamentary elections — overwhelmingly won by the Islamists on July 22.
Last week, the Islamist candidate became president, and Turkey is poised for major changes, most notably a new civilian constitution that would scrap the one dictated by the military in the early 1980s.
A quick tour of the rest of the Middle East would highlight problems that have gone unresolved for years: the presidential succession in Egypt, Iranian belligerence, and Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to dismantle the ideological underpinnings of modern-day jihad that its system nurtures. More than ever, the supra-national jihadist forces threatening global and regional stability such as Al Qaeda and its various incarnations find themselves faced with an inherently unstable Middle East; an instability that they've figured out how to use to their advantage.
The Middle East is a place where Islamists — who are likely to turn out unfriendly to America no matter how moderate they seem — are on the rise, where regimes remain entrenched in their fear of change, and where internal and cross-border conflicts are more likely in the upcoming future than not. Iraq is the only country in which all these dangerous trends are in reverse — the fever had peaked and recovery is underway.
The Sunni insurgency in Iraq has been broken, and Al Qaeda is getting crushed; its remaining strength is being marshaled to visit retribution on those unsavory Sunni "renegades" who once worked with Al Qaeda and now have turned on it. Everyone likes a winner, and Al Qaeda is losing big.
Interestingly, Al Qaeda's front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, had admitted in its last biweekly report — the 31st such report spanning the period between August 1 and August 15 — that it has had an 80% decrease in its violent output over the course of the last two months.
Ten months ago, a Marines Intelligence report concluded that Anbar Province was irrevocably lost to Al Qaeda. Today, Anbar's capital city, Ramadi, is one of Iraq's safest. Diyala Province switched from being a bastion of Al Qaeda's to relative stability within a couple of weeks of a troop surge there. Al Qaeda can't claim to control a single neighborhood or village in Iraq — just two years ago, they were masters of major towns like Fallouja.
Al Qaeda tried to trigger a Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq for the last four years, but anyone using the term "civil war" to describe the situation in Iraq is grossly misinformed in my book — I'm looking at you, Senator Obama.
During 2006, Iraq witnessed the appetizer course of what a civil war would look like, and Al Qaeda's Sunni shock troops lost their appetite; the Shiites would win easy in case of an escalation. In lieu of death squads and beheadings, Sunni-Shiite tensions now run through the legal channels of parliament and how ministerial posts are allocated. Politics have been reintroduced into Iraqi life, and it's only natural that an issue as thorny and still unresolved as sectarianism would be expressed through political machinations.
The main Sunni bloc withdrew from the government — so what? The worst threat they can administer is a noisy parliamentary opposition since the recourse to armed conflict is no longer an option. No Sunni politician can ask his constituency to carry arms against the new Iraq since this was all they've been trying over the last four years and it ended with defeat.
The radical Shiites also have been broken: Muqtada al-Sadr can't control his own Mahdi army, the members of whom are now being rejected as hooligans when just last year even moderate Shiites looked upon them as the necessary counterforce to Al Qaeda's menace.
But as the fear of civil war faded, so has the usefulness of Mr. Sadr's thugs. Iran has taken over parts of the Mahdi army and uses them as spoilers of America's plan for Iraq, but this approach has had little traction in instigating far-reaching chaos and these Iranian networks are being easily rolled-back by America and the Iraqi government, with the subtle encouragement of Mr. Sadr himself.
The Islamists, both Sunni and Shiite, have disgraced themselves in running the country and providing basic services. The Sunni Islamist Speaker of the parliament, Mahmoud Mashhadani, put it best when he said, during a recent TV interview, that their governing performance has "failed miserably" and that the Iraqi voter will punish Islamist parties in the next elections.
Iraqi national unity actually has never looked better, and scenes of spontaneous jubilation and anti-sectarian slogans that were unleashed by Iraq's win in the Asia Cup soccer tournament were not a flash in the pan but rather a timely reaffirmation of the necessity of living together. Iraqis have been forced to consider all the other options, such as portioning off the country, and seem to have concluded that keeping the country together is the way to go.
Indeed, Iraq has gone very far in resolving the crisis that are pandemic to the Middle East, or at least it can be argued that Iraqis have turned a corner away from the worst case scenarios: they have rejected the multi-headed evils of dictatorship, jihadism, and civil war. Not only that, but armed with a legitimate parliament and a spanking new constitution, they are on the right path towards democracy, modernism, and national unity — something that can't be said for other powder kegs in the region such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
I predict that as early as a couple of years from now, Iraq will be America's only Muslim ally in the Middle East standing firmly and unabashedly against the expanding global threat of jihadism.
Mr. Kazimi, a contributing editor of The New York Sun, is traveling around the Middle East and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org