The cost of the suppression of the Arab Spring

How many mass movements in search of political rights would have been pronounced failures if success had to be established in just five years?

The quest for women’s rights has continued throughout human history and continues today.

Palestinians, Kurds, Tibetans, Kashmiris, and numerous other groups of indigenous peoples have for many decades campaigned and fought for their rights, often with very limited success.

But when it comes to the Arab Spring, those who stand to lose most from the expansion of political rights across the region, are now — not surprisingly — only too eager to pronounce it an expensive failure.

The idea that it might have been better to stay home and stay quiet, will all too easily resonate among the millions of people who have suffered the effects of the suppression of the Arab Spring.

As some of the region’s autocratic rulers and their advisers gathered in Dubai this week and soberly measured the “cost of the Arab Spring,” they should also — had they been honest — have been celebrating the rise of ISIS.

From Dubai to Tehran and from Riyadh to Cairo, it has been ISIS that has saved the day. The Arab Strategy Forum should have invited Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their guest of honor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not promoting any of the conspiracy theories about ISIS being the creation of a foreign government (be that the Saudis, the Turks, the Israelis, or the Americans — which of those being the culprit would depend merely on who the proponent such a theory sees as the worst enemy).

ISIS saved the day through its savagery by convincing nearly everyone else that political stability is worth more than any kind of political freedom.

Much as it will often be repeated that the need to destroy ISIS has never been more urgent, those whose rule is currently being legitimized by ISIS’s existence will be quite content for this war to be a valiant fight that sees no end.

And those blinkered by the conviction that the U.S. government is the architect of all the world’s afflictions, need to recognize that conflict in the Middle East is now being driven from many engine rooms — in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, Jerusalem, Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Beirut, Raqqa and elsewhere — in pursuit of incompatible agendas.

Among those costs, the greatest are not measured in dollars — the numbers of casualties and refugees. And these are not costs of the Arab Spring; they are, above all, the cost of the Assad regime’s refusal to respect the rights of the Syrian people.

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Comments

  1. “I’m not promoting any of the conspiracy theories about ISIS being the creation of a foreign government (be that the Saudis, the Turks, the Israelis, or the Americans…”

    Well, conspiracies happen, whether you believe in them or not. There’s pretty good evidence that the Russian secret service was behind the 1999 apartment bombings that helped Putin consolidate power. The Erdogan administration was caught on tape just a couple years ago plotting to go into Syria and fire a missile into Turkey to build public support for a war. Egypt’s dictator was also caught on tape bragging about all the money the Saudis were giving him to suppress the Arab Spring.

    If ISIS has saved the day for governments from “Dubai to Tehran and from Riyadh to Cairo,” why is it improbable that some of these governments helped it along? You yourself are continually promoting the conspiracy theory — for which there is some evidence — that Assad helped ISIS. But there is just as much evidence that the Turks have done as much if not more. They bomb the Kurds, buy ISIS oil, and allow supplies and fighters to flow through their borders. The Guardian reported that after our special forces raid last spring, evidence of “direct dealing between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now ‘undeniable’.”

    If Assad has to be confronted because of his debatable support for ISIS, why do our allies get a free pass?

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    Conspiracy theories, in general, treat the recognized actor as lacking internal agency. ISIS/al Qaeda/whatever provides cover for the directions of a hidden force — the Saudis/Mossad/CIA/whoever.

    ISIS is driven by its own creators and the people they have recruited to join their organization and wider movement.

    As for Turkey’s relationship with ISIS, this is a matter of heated speculation. Clearly, there was a prolonged period during which Turkey had no interest in controlling the flow of fighters crossing the border into Syria. The fact that they intended to fight against the Assad regime gave them some sort of legitimacy whoever they happened to end up fighting with.

    Once ISIS emerged, the picture seems to have become more confused for Turkey. Ergogan has made it clear he sees ISIS no more threatening than the PKK and one has to wonder whether Turkey might have opened up lines of communication with ISIS because they see this as useful in their fight against the PKK. They may also be motivated by the need to gather intelligence on the large number of Turkish members of ISIS. They also cut a deal with ISIS when they exchanged prisoners in order to get hostages released.

    What ends up looking like Turkish support for ISIS might be more akin to making payments to the mafia so that they don’t come and shoot up the neighborhood. That’s a dangerous choice to make, but shutting down ISIS is much harder than shutting down the mafia.

    And then there’s the domestic political context in which this is all unfolding, with Erdogan nursing his semi-dictatorial ambitions and abandoning the process of reconciliation with the Kurds. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago Turkey was pursuing a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors and was inching towards joining the EU.

    The irony is that when it comes to grand designs among the geopolitical players, the only one that seems to be realizing its goals is ISIS. And that might have something to do with everyone else focusing on their immediate moves with little sense of what they ultimately want to achieve.