By Fadi Elhusseini
In the past four years, Arabs have been living an endless Sisyphean ordeal, an unexpected nightmare after rising for what they called “the Arab Spring”. A very similar scenario was cloned in most of the Arab Spring countries. Alas, a hopeful revolution turned into belligerence, then into strife followed by a war, as if a new regional order was endorsed to guarantee instability and chaos in the region. This new regional order has marked new regional features and novel actors. The most significant feature is the rise of non-state actors, which in return bolstered their presence and influence across the region, disregarding borders and ignoring the strategic equations that ruled the region for decades.
Non-state actors, mainly Islamic movements, Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, played a limited role in the pre-Arab Spring era. However, and before going further with the newfangled non- state actors and their role in the region, it is noteworthy to highlight a number of facts concerning Islamic movements.
Firstly, any designations that labelled those movements, like political Islam or moderate Islam, are merely descriptive terms and have nothing to do with the core of Islam as a religion. Islam is a comprehensive and inclusive religion and attaching one character, without the reference to others, may give a false impression as if there are different forms of Islam (like non-moderate Islam). One may argue that such labels are simply “creative” terms to differentiate between the various Islamic groups.
For instance, several Western powers found in “moderate Islam” an acceptable term that may justify “dealing” with specific groups and not others, and the limits of the word “dealing” can range from basic and regular contacts to alliances and common interests and agendas. On the other hand, several Islamic groups did not shy away from being labelled as moderate Islam or political Islam, as long as this distinguishes them from other groups that took a violent path to achieve their goals. Being distinguished as “moderates” gives these groups some kind of legitimacy, and hence more freedom to work in their societies to achieve their goals.
Perhaps designating these groups as movements with an Islamic orientation would be more accurate. In fact, these groups share one sole goal: the return of the Islamic rule (either state or legislations “shari’a”), and the only difference is the time factor which implies their behaviour and reveals their strategy. If a group seeks achieving its goals gradually and slowly, their behaviour and activities are principally characterised with peaceful means, albeit if the group seeks instant and quick change, their policies and actions are chiefly characterised by radical and violent means.
Returning to the role of non-state actors in general, one should concede that with the advent of Arab revolts, their role has become more evident to a degree that it surpassed the role of many regimes and governments in the region. Those actors began to impose certain policies and agendas on regional and global regimes and has become at the helm of every regional summit and international conference.
The emergence of those actors has turned the whole region on its head, broken many taboos and penetrated one country after another. Puritanism is widespread in the region, and new vocabulary, like apostates, infidels and heretics, has become common in daily conversations. In no time, those actors could abolish traditional political borders drawn in the early years of the last century (Sykes-Picot), when other ideas, concepts or phenomenon, like globalisation, took decades to find their way into the region.
Those actors and their offshoots spread throughout the whole region, taking various names (e.g. Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra front, Daesh or ISIS or IS, the Houthis and others) in the Arab peninsula, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. Their expansion does not appear to have any limits or borders. That being said, they have proven to possess a sophisticated organisation that does not reflect the limited number of their members and recruits. In other words, the number of their members can’t, by any means, reflect the unprecedented “achievements” they could attain in such a short time. The most important element in this novel equation is their network of known and unknown allies who provide them with financial, logistical and arms supplies, mainly away from the limelight.
The Iraqi and Syrian cases represent the starkest example of entangled interests and relations from one side, and regional and international hesitation from another side. Some regional powers opted to keep the card of “supporting or turning a blind eye on the activities and movements of those non-state actors” as a last gamble, lest things veer out of control on other fronts, to weaken other groups (like Hezbollah or PKK) or even to harm the Al-Assad regime at large. Similarly, many Western powers, who classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, ignore outright intervention in Syria in order to weaken all those groups (the bad guys), in a destructive conflict that took a sectarian hue.
The US was able to pounce on this opportunity and use it to re-promote to its Arab allies the importance of its role as a “supplier” of weapons, as an “adviser” who provides them with information and expertise in fighting terrorism and as a “protector” through US-led coalition strikes. The reports which showed the evolution in American weapons sales, mainly to Arab countries, are just a case in point.
Russia, which is fully aware that a nuclear deal with Iran would definitely harm its economy (any agreement with Iran would lead to the return of Iran as a big oil supplier which will eventually lead to a drop in oil prices), albeit it had no choice but to bless this deal knowing the importance of Iran’s regional network of relations, mainly non-state actors.
Intriguingly, and despite regional dismay over the existence of non-state actors and their rejection of any talks about a new Sykes-Picot, one may realise that facts on the ground are going nowhere but to that end. Since the US launched its campaign on ISIS, the latter could grip control of a large swath and chunk of Iraq and Syria compared to what it used to control before the strikes. ISIS’s fighters began to appear more equipped and trained and their media performance has improved a great deal. The consecutive successes of ISIS have encouraged others either to follow suit and/or to join such a “successful” model and as a result, not one single Arab capital has become immune, especially in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring.
Although many analyses questioned the conditions that brought most of those actors and their real goals out, and despite the fact that many investigations have shown suspicious features in the activities of those groups, the region appears to be inadvertently slipping toward malignant ends.
In an attempt to evaluate the aftermaths of the existence and acts of those rising non-state actors, one may say that distorting the image of Islam was unambiguous. Secondly, some of those actors, who used to enjoy popularity among Arab masses for resisting Israel, appeared to have lost grounds in the Arab streets as they were associated either with violence or sectarian agendas. Thirdly, Israel, which was isolated in the region for decades, was uniquely endowed and could enter the regional dynamics through the door of those actors. To elaborate, Israel, which remained unscathed on the fringes of the Arab Spring and its repercussions, won three-level strategic gains from the emergence of those actors.
It started to sow a network of relations with many Arab regimes that share, “in theory”, common fears – especially a potential Shi’a menace (represented in Iran and Hezbollah). The second level of Israel’s gains is clearly signified in the weakening of traditional Arab states, e.g. Iraq and Syria, which remained an eminent threat for Israel’s decision makers. The third level of Israel’s gains is distracting the attention away from the core issue of the Middle East, which is the continuity of the last occupation on earth, the Israeli occupation.
In sum, it appears that the region is in desperate need for a real leader, for a new Saladin, who can put an end to the misery, to the division, to the schism that struck the region, and who is able to find solution for the absence of a religious reference which caused all chaotic and austere interpretation of Islam.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sunderland, UK, is an Associate Research Fellow (ESRC) at IMESC, Canada and also works as a Counselor at the Embassy of Palestine in Egypt