Middle East: don’t rely on the past to predict its future

Peter Beaumont writes: Recent reports from inside Syria paint a grim picture on both sides. In Aleppo, as my Guardian colleague Ghaith Abdul-Ahad described in a vivid report last week, the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad remains as split as ever, looting is commonplace and rivalries are multiplying. In Damascus, the situation for Assad and his inner circle continues to deteriorate. The president himself, suggest some accounts, is “isolated and fearful”, almost invisible and unwilling to venture outside. The operational capacity of the forces closest to him to mount operations is also declining even as Russia seems to be moving to distance itself from Assad, if not from Syria itself.

In all likelihood, some end to the regime appears inevitable, if not immediately, then in the not very distant future. The question now being posed is: what happens next? And while the desire to predict and second-guess is hard-wired into our natures, not least the nature of journalists and analysts, it’s probable that we will get it badly wrong.

The tools most commonly used to try to explain complex situations such as conflict, including the predilection for historical analogy to explain current events, are often deeply misleading, as the impressive Kings of War blog of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London cautioned before Christmas. The reality is that the Middle East is not the Balkans of the 1990s, nor is Egypt revolutionary Iran. “The truth,” the Kings of War concluded, “is we should probably not be surprised by the things that surprise us.”

Indeed, a whole cadre of Soviet studies specialists failed to spot the USSR’s coming collapse. The same could be said of those specialising in the Middle East, who not only failed to predict the Arab Spring, but once it had begun hoped to use the models of Tunisia and Egypt to suggest how other revolutions might turn out.

We cannot say whether Syria after Assad, with its specific social and sectarian tensions, will resemble Libya post-Gaddafi or Iraq post-Saddam. All conflicts and all post-conflict situations are unhappy, or unstable, in their own particular way. [Continue reading…]

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