With the start of Operation Decisive Storm (the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen), there are now three Arab countries tearing themselves apart: Syria, Libya and Yemen. In each country the fight has now devolved into a level of factionalism that more resembles a street fight than any higher political calling.
We can try to make sense of the fighting in these three countries and understand the motivations of the protagonists, but ever-increasing tribal and ideological splintering is making that difficult.
In the outskirts of Damascus in Syria, ISIS just invaded the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, essentially a Syrian-imposed Palestinian ghetto. This has spurred Hamas fighters to resist. While they are resisting, they are also being shelled by Assad’s forces. Yet according to Erika Solomon, writing in the Financial Times, “A pro-opposition Hamas splinter group known as Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis is believed to be fighting Isis under a barrage of artillery from Isis and another Palestinian faction close to the regime.” Add in the recent defection of many Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters in the vicinity to Isis. Got that?
Where there were once Assad’s Alawites (and allies) against the semi-secular anti-Assad resistance, there are now at least four major factions fighting the regime – and each other. Not to mention Iranian Quds Force generals advising Hezbollah on how to prop up Assad. What’s more, Turkey has now sealed its borders with Syria and is pushing back against ISIS. The revved-up Saudi Defense Minister, thirty-four year old (no prior experience necessary) Mohammed bin Salman, also just accused Putin of cynically wanting peace in Syria and slammed him for supporting Assad.
For another real look at an Islamic street fight look no further than Libya. With the flood of Qatari weapons and money the local Islamists looked to be ready to rule, until ex-Gaddafi officer Khalifa Haftar drew a line in the Sahara Desert sand. As strongman of the day, he is attempting to rouse Western secular sympathies, but it’s a hard choice: secular psychopath vs. religious ones. Meanwhile the National Forces Alliance and the allied al-Sawaiq and al-Qaqa brigades are using proxy forces like the Zintani Brigades against the Islamists, and let’s not forget the Warshefana militia, which has its own issues. Hope that is clear.
The Saudi push into Yemen to counter the Iranian-backed Houthis has even managed to rouse Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah from his bunker to launch one of his usual stem-winder diatribes. This time Israel was spared; it was directed at the Saudis. However, just so the Jews would not feel totally left out, Nasrallah accused the Saudis of being aligned with the Zionists, a sure-fire argument winner. The Saudis have even accused the Houthis of hiding behind civilians and using public buildings as arms depots. Sound familiar?
Just as the Greeks imagined thunder to be the sound of fighting amongst their gods, so too is the thunder heard throughout Yemen from the fight between the ruling gods of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
So there you have it. Well over a dozen countries are slugging it out in Syria, Yemen and Libya, often through scores of proxies marginally under their control. Yet while the chlorine barrel bombs land on more civilians and the helpless refugees begin to outnumber those left behind, the fighting amongst the factions increases. It is fair to say that Syrians today are literally in the crossfire of armed groups that are metastasizing by the week.
What it all means for the superpowers beyond the Middle East may not be very much. The military intervention in Yemen by the normally risk-averse Saudis, flanked by many other Arab countries, is very significant. It means that Arab powers are finally willing to formally commit their forces to fighting in other Arab countries. With Arab countries taking such a direct role in this conflict, the ability of the world superpowers to shape developments will be ever more limited. There is no real room here for American, European Union or Asian interests.
This is beyond “leading from behind.” The current role of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the others is to commit to action in their own neighborhood, which they previously just relegated to the United States and then complained about. It’s man-up time in the Middle East.
As for the humanitarian horror, that too will have to be confronted by the Middle Eastern powers that be. They all have very loud voices when it comes to condemning Israel for its actions in war. The beastly brutality of the Syrian civil war, the errant Saudi bombs falling on refugee camps and the civilians trapped in cities are all immeasurably worse than anything Israel ever did. So far, I have been listening in vain for the outraged voice of Prime Minister Erdogan, from his billion-dollar palace, who was so strident and pugnacious about the Gaza flotilla and its nine dead. That’s one second of Syrian violence.
The ISIS incursion into Yarmouk threatens to make the 1982 Israeli Phalangist massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camp look like a Sunday picnic. The initial reports from Yarmouk are horrific.
It is going to be hard to unwind this. Centuries of despotic rule is coming to a violent end. The failure of iron-fisted rulers is being exposed in the most violent manner. The only glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is that the Arab and wider Islamic world will take responsibility for itself. Decency and care for human life will hopefully follow all the bloodshed to come.