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Tuesday 9 April 2024

Where Are All The Other Middle Eastern Powers?


One of the most remarkable things happening with the war in Gaza right now is that the IDF is largely being left alone to focus all of its energy and power on the small city-state of Gaza, and appears not to be facing any backlash from the other Arab or Muslim nations around the Middle East.

Personally, I do not think that it is wise for any country to get involved in a war that is not theirs. The Proverbs speak to this, “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears” (26:17). Getting involved in a fight of any kind is a serious risk, any trained fighter knows that you are at your most vulnerable when you have thrown a punch or an attack, because to attack you must open yourself to counter-attack. If a fight is not yours, and you are not defending your own family, friends, kin, or nation, why take the risk of serious blowback? So from that perspective, I am not one of those people who thinks the other Arab or Islamic nations have some moral reason to fight for Gaza, I am simply amazed at their level of restraint in not lashing out while Israel is focused on another enemy.

I have been especially surprised at the level of restraint that other Middle Eastern nations have shown to not responding quickly to clear acts of aggression on Israel’s part. Iran has faced several provocations already, and yet has been remarkably slow to respond. Though they have indicated that this may be about to change. It appears to many of us watching on that Israel is trying to draw Iran into this fight, either that, or they believe they are so invulnerable that they can strike at will and get away with it. This may be the situation, because for one, Israel is backed up by what is still considered the most powerful military in the world (though that is debateable now, for sure), and secondly, historically this has been exactly what has happened, Israel have been allowed to get away with a lot and the region has stayed docile. 

A good example of this is with the war of Israel against the PLO in the 1980’s, Khalidi writes in his The Hundred Years War On Palestine,

“Meanwhile, the United States also provided indispensable material support to its ally, to the tune of $1.4 billion in military aid annually in both 1981 and 1982. This paid for the myriad of US weapons systems and munitions deployed in Lebanon by Israel, from F-16 fighter-bombers to M-113 armored personnel carriers, 155mm and 175mm artillery, air-to-ground missiles, and cluster munitions.

Beyond the intertwined roles of Israel and the United States, one of the shabbiest and most shameful subsidiary aspects of the war was the capitulation of the leading Arab regimes to American pressure. Their governments loudly proclaimed their support for the Palestinian cause, but did nothing to back the PLO as it stood alone, but for its Lebanese allies, against Israel’s military onslaught, and as an Arab capital was besieged, bombarded, and occupied. They did no more than issue pro forma objections as the United States championed Israeli demands to expel the PLO from Beirut. The Arab League foreign ministers, meeting on July 13 in preparation for the Arab summit later that year, proposed no action in response to the war, which by then had been ongoing for over five weeks. Instead, the Arab states meekly acquiesced.

This was notably true of Syria and Saudi Arabia, which had been chosen by the Arab League to represent the Arab position on a mission to Washington during the summer of 1982. Such Arab governmental opposition as there was to the war was cheaply bought off with flimsy American promises to issue a brand-new US–Middle East diplomatic initiative, eventually unveiled on September 1 and later dubbed the Reagan Plan. The initiative would have placed a limit on Israeli settlements and created an autonomous Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it ruled out a sovereign Palestinian state in these territories. The Reagan Plan, which the United States never forcefully promoted and which was effortlessly torpedoed by the Begin government, ultimately went nowhere.

Among Arab public opinion, however, the invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, whose gripping televised images were widely broadcast, provoked great shock and anger. Yet nowhere was there enough popular pressure on any of the repressive and undemocratic Arab governments to force an end to Israel’s siege of an Arab capital or secure better terms for the PLO’s withdrawal. There were few mass demonstrations and little open unrest in most of the heavily policed Arab cities. Ironically, perhaps the largest demonstration in the Middle East provoked by the war took place in Tel Aviv, in protest against the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

Israelis might have fought the war and suffered casualties, but once again Palestinians found that the foe on the battlefield was backed by a great power from the outset. The decision to invade Lebanon was made by Israel’s government, but it could not have been implemented without the explicit assent given by Secretary of State Alexander Haig or without American diplomatic and military support, combined with the utter passivity of the Arab governments. The green light that Haig gave to Israel, for what was supposedly “a limited operation,” was as bright as could be. On May 25, ten days before the offensive began, Sharon met with Haig in Washington and laid out his ambitious war plan in explicit detail. Indeed, Sharon gave Haig a much fuller picture than he later presented to the Israeli cabinet. Haig’s only response was that there “must be a recognizable provocation,” one that would be “understood internationally. Soon after, the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov (by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group), provided just such a provocation.”[1]

What we are seeing happen now is nothing new. Very early on in the establishment of the state of Israel there were efforts by Arab nations to come to the aid of Palestinians, but these were ineffective, and the clear strength of the Israel military was seen by all in the Middle East and beyond in the way that it soundly defeated any army it went up against. The Arab militaries of that day, prior to 1970, were not even 3rd rate forces, so this should not surprise anyone, but still the memory of these victories is obviously writ large across the Middle East.

This may all be about to change, with Iran vowing that it will respond. But so far there has been no telling response from other Arab or Muslim nations outside of perhaps Yemen, and this is not the first time that Iran have vowed to respond and yet it has fizzled out.

So, is this just because Israel is backed by U.S. power? Probably in large part. The United States does not have the ability anymore to defeat countries in the Middle East, having been soundly kicked out of Afghanistan, upstaged in Syria by Russia, and failing in its goals in Iraq, but it can still set your country back a bit before it admits defeat. New missile defence systems may have changed this forever, with their ability to neutralize air power, and therefore, air craft carrier power, but to date, no major power in the Middle East has decided it wants to be the first cab off the rank test America’s resolve and currently abilities.

And why would they? There is a lot to lose and not much to gain.

Firstly, Israel is alienating itself from its own allies by its actions in the Middle East. There are countless apologists seeking to cover over what they are doing in Gaza, but the atrocities are mounting up. Why would any Arab or Muslim nation now want to turn Israel into a victim in the world’s eyes, and perhaps increase support for the increasingly isolated country, and turn themselves into a target? .

Secondly, the United State's power in the region is declining. The United States is struggling against the Houthis in Yemen, a force which is able to go to ground and move around in ways that make it hard for the Americans to strike a decisive target. America’s ability to project in the region is being brought into question. Why would any Middle Eastern state attack a United States ally while the U.S. still has some strength, when they can wait till is has close to none. That day appears to be fast approaching. Especially if the U.S. gets tied up in the South Pacific fighting with China over Taiwan, or the war in Eastern Europe escalates further. 

Thirdly, perhaps the other Arab states don’t really care about the Palestinian plight? Arabs and Muslims are not all one people, they are varied and disparate peoples with a range of different cultures and nations. Palestine may be seen as a lost cause to much of the Middle East. Whatever one thinks of the spuriously based biblical grounds for European Jews to resettle in the land of Canaan, the fact of the matter is that Israel has created a successful beachhead in the Middle East, maintained it for nearly a century, and does so while being the most powerful military presence in the region. That is an achievement. The cost of facing such a power, to the likely small benefit to their own people, may just be counted and seen as seriously wanting by many Arab and Muslim national leaders. Of course, many Muslims in the Middle East would be angered at seeing their fellow Muslims beaten so soundly by an Israeli military attack like this. But it is a reality, and it is happening far away from where many of them actually live. Maybe it just does not matter that much to these nations? Not enough to risk their own national prosperity at least. Which is something Khalidi refers to in his book The Hundred Years War, Palestinians have often felt abandoned by their fellow Arab nations, in many ways. Such is the plight of many peoples in history, who have been abandoned by others that may have been able to do something, for political or other expedient reasons. This world can be cruel at times. Sometimes the little guy loses, at least in the short term. Demographic trends may change this over time. 

Or maybe what is happening is that these other nations are just biding their time? Iran is an ancient power, the seat of the ancient Persian people, it is one of the oldest continual civilisations on the planet, and it would therefore have a long memory, and a patience towards world affairs western nations are not familiar with. Maybe some of the other Islamic nations are biding their time as well. But maybe not. What we are seeing is nothing new, there is no Pan-Arab people. The various Arab nations all have their own concerns and their own issues to deal with, and maybe they are ok with letting Israel continue with its business in Gaza. It would not be the first time that this was the case.

But what is even more interesting about this is that it shows that the various peoples of the Arab nations are not as war hungry as we are propagandised in the West to believe. Whatever the reason is that they are showing restraint, they are showing it. We'd be wise to be wary of rising nations that can display such wisdom. Great powers have underestimated the Arab peoples before, powers such as Rome and Persia, world leading powers. They ended up losing much to the Middle East when they made that mistake. This is a space to watch going forward, our world is changing rapidly, I imagine there will be many surprises for larger powers in the coming years. 

List of References

[1] Khalidi, Rashid . The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: The New York Times Bestseller (pp. 150-151). Profile. Kindle Edition.

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