Terrorism will continue to thrive while the Middle East remains a pit of despotism

It is too soon to write off Isis, and Donald Trump can only make matters worse in the region

Iraqi forces celebrated in Mosul when it was liberated from Isis, but the threat from Islamists is far from over
Iraqi forces celebrated in Mosul when it was liberated from Isis, but the threat from Islamists is far from over

I always say to Lebanese friends that my crystal ball was broken many years ago. But so extraordinary – so delinquent – have these past 12 months been that we should perhaps remake the ball.

And 2018? Well, Donald Trump will do something equally insane in the Middle East to rival his demented recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Having turned his back on the Palestinians, I suppose we’re going to see the Americans trying to make peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in an attempt at proving that we can all have an anti-Iranian alliance made up of Wahabi cultists and Israeli Zionists, perhaps the whackiest idea anyone ever dreamed up.

But first, let’s not believe all we’re told. Sure, the Syrians and the Iranians and the Russians have all declared Isis dead, mission accomplished, but I’m not so sure. Isis cells have sprung up across Sinai and now threaten the rule of President el-Sisi. Isis is not dead in Libya and definitely not in Mali and maybe not dead in London or Paris or Brussels. And are the Saudis so safe under their Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to think that Isis cannot strike them in Riyadh or Jeddah?

In fact, the more people claim there will be an Israeli-Saudi alliance, the less safe I suspect the Saudis are. Let’s remember that it was the kingdom’s decision to call in the Americans to counter Saddam Hussein’s threats in 1990 that provoked Osama bin Laden to create al-Qaeda. And isn’t al-Qaeda still in existence in the Idlib province of Syria? That province has for months been the great dumping ground of Syria’s Islamists. Or are we supposed to believe that they have all fled from Syria.

And 2018 is surely not going to be a great year for the Kurds. Having played their preposterous referendum hand in Iraq, what makes the Kurds of northern Syria think they are safe from Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus? Do they believe that the Americans with their pseudo-militia (the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces”) are going to protect them? If Donald Trump can’t protect the Palestinians from his own act of folly, he’s hardly going to care about the Kurds.

And then there’s the Sunni-Shia conflict, which Trump has done so much to inflame – along with his Saudi chums – and the possibility that Iran will be re-demonised (as it already is in Washington). And what of Hezbollah, which fought so well in Syria? Hezbollah – whose existence supposedly almost cost the Lebanese Prime Minister his freedom in Riyadh – is now an existential power in the region, possibly stronger (on the ground, at least) than Iran. Will the Israelis – with or without Saudi encouragement – try to whack Hezbollah in Lebanon? I think this is unlikely since the Israelis have no taste for a replay of Lebanese wars, despite their raucous cabinet. But what if Trump himself decides to play the Hezbollah card, with or without Saudi permission?

Qatar, I suppose, will go on being regarded as a terrorist state by the Saudis (with Trump’s help) and investors will continue to take a shady view of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself – which is why the crown prince is not seeing the big hitters lining up in Riyadh. Taking all power into your hands – which is what Mohamed bin Salman has done – does not provide a stable environment for foreign investments. Maybe the UAE and Kuwait can calm the waters of the Gulf – but I have my doubts.

The real problem that is not being addressed, however, is that the Middle East remains a pit of despotism, dictatorships, autocracies, occupations, fake democracies and torturers -- with the twin needs of education and justice, as usual, totally ignored. Time was, of course, when we could expect an American president to raise these vital issues. But we can forget that with Trump. In fact, the only thing we can hope of Trump is his silence which, we all know, he is not going to bestow upon us.

We can, alas, be sure that all the intelligence services of the Middle East are going to continue to oppress their peoples – which is one reason, I suspect, why Isis exists, and al-Qaeda and all the other outfits. And dare I ask when we’re going to see “son of Isis”? What new horrors can yet be perpetrated to keep us in the mystical aura of fear in which we all now live? And then we will all have to listen to our leaders and pundits talking about terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism. Sometimes I think we have got so used to this word that it has become a punctuation mark to prevent any discussion of the future of the Middle East or examination of its past.

It is quite amazing that humanist scholarship has made so little headway in the region. Is this because of the spread of mosque teaching – and here, of course, we come back to Saudi Arabia – or merely fear on the part of regional governments to upset the status quo? We have had, I suppose, quite enough of revolutions in the Arab world. Though I do sometimes wonder what Saudi Arabia has in store for us when it comes to turbulence and instability. Now that’s a thought for 2018.

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