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Dr. George Irani Addresses Long-term Changes in the Arab World

Dr. George Irani, Associate Professor of International Relations, recently published an article entitled Arab World in Throes of a Long-term Change for the Arab Times newspaper (July 19, 2013) which discusses the current state of the Arab world.

Arab World in Throes of a Long-term Change

The Middle East is in upheaval again. Two years ago the uprising that began in Tunis spread across the Arab countries including Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen. This so-called Arab "awakening" or "spring" was interpreted as the dawn of a new era in the Middle East; a period of radical changes resembling the revolutions in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. But two years later the Arab world is in the throes of a long-term change that will know moments of calm and moments of bloodshed. If Tunis was a harbinger of a possible democratization of Arab politics the tragic events in Syria portend towards the region's balkanization.

The civil war in Syria could lead to the country's partition into autonomous regions: a Kurdish zone in the northeast; a Sunni-dominated center and here the jury is out as it is not known who will lead this area. The Syrian opposition is fragmented and there is a risk of an internecine fight between moderate and radical jihadi and salafi elements. Bashar al Assad, the embattled Syrian president, will seek refuge back in his Alawi-dominated region in the country's northwest. The Druze community will end up with a zone adjacent to the Golan Heights in the southeast.

The same pattern has emerged in post-US invasion Iraq. The north is under the control of the Kurds who now enjoy full autonomy in their own region and a possible emergence of a long hoped for Kurdistan.

In the center of Iraq the Sunnis are still beleaguered and trying to envision what kind of future awaits them. In Southern Iraq the Shias are predominant and are headed towards an Iranian-supported autonomous area. There is a lot of speculation that the future of the Palestinians may reside in a possible confederation with Jordan as the two-state solution has so far dismally failed.

Lebanon is a failing state. Like humpty dumpty, outside powers try to unsuccessfully patch the country's various communities together. Lebanon is facing a major upheaval in light of the constant influx of Syrian refugees almost one million by early summer. This is a heavy burden for a country of four million inhabitants. Add to that that Lebanon is being slowly sucked into the Syrian maelstrom.

In Egypt the awakening has been painful and uncertain. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to impose its vision and will on the majority of the population. This attempt is faced by a stiff resistance from the country's intellectual and bourgeois sectors as well as the military. The military will maintain law and order as it has done throughout the country's history. Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak emerged from the ranks of Egypt's military.

In the Arabian Gulf the awakening has been less violent with the exception of Bahrain and Yemen. This whole picture predominates the current struggle between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran giving to the Arab "spring" a strong sectarian flavor. Tensions between the regions Sunnis and Shias have never been so high. Christians of the Middle East are becoming more and more irrelevant and their fate lies more in decisions taken in the Vatican, Moscow, Paris and Washington.

Beyond the local and regional events major powers are dominating a dangerous game of nations. The United States, the EU, with their regional allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hoping for a possible fall of the Assad regime in Damascus. Their attempts are hampered by the fragmented nature of the so-called Syrian opposition now made more dangerous by infighting between moderates and extremists. The US and its friends would like to see Assad leave the scene but their efforts are hampered by Putin's Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional proxy Hezbollah and to a lesser extent China.

Putin, as the new Russian czar, believes that Russia ought to regain its place as a respected major power, an empire in the making. Furthermore, Russia would like to maintain its access to the Mediterranean that it currently has in the Syrian port of Tartus where more than 1,000 Russians operate with their families. Russia would like to be at the table when borders in the Middle East take a different shape. In 1916, Britain signed a secret agreement with France dividing the Ottoman-Arab territories into colonies and spheres of influence. France took control of Syria and Lebanon while Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq went to the UK. Are we assisting today to a new carving up of the Middle East into US and Russian spheres of influence complemented and assisted by the three non-Arab regional powers: Turkey, Iran and Israel?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the American University of Kuwait.

Released by the Office of Public Affairs on the 22nd July 2013

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