So let me start off today with the patently obvious - with Iraq and Syria!
It is clear to all and sundry that we are gripped by a range of ISIS-unfriendly attacks at a time when we are also arguing over the legality and impact of the airstrikes conducted by the US and its coalition partners. Mind you, I do not personally think that we in the West will 'defeat' ISIS with those aerial attacks alone. They are half-hearted attempts at starving an ideology that in fact feeds on those missiles and bombs to propagate its Wahhabi-style austere dogmas. Nor, for that matter, can we defeat a ruler in Damascus who is more secular and less bearded than those ISIS thugs but who remains the flipside of the violent problem in Syria given his own culpability for some of what Syrians suffer today.
But in view of the perilous realities of Iraq and Syria, have we perchance ignored the increasing tensions in Palestine? The conflict over this virtual state was the hub of international concerns some years ago, but where is it in our political space today? After all, there are demonstrations and clashes at various checkpoints and towns in East (Arab) Jerusalem and the West Bank that are largely unreported despite dire warnings by the likes of Gershon Baskin, Rami Khouri or Daniel Siedemann. Or the increasingly anxious efforts by an enfeebled PA President Mahmoud Abbas to achieve statehood with a background that witnesses self-defeating dissensions between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in Ramallah to Israeli settlements, confiscations or demolitions from Abu Dis and Silwan to Beit Safafa and Hizma in Jerusalem.
Then there is Libya, an oil-rich country that is in the grip of far too many militias trying to impose their own rule in the country by combining violence with money-making and power-wielding at the expense of the notion of a unitary state. But Libya also goes largely unnoticed by the world community although it is key to what happens in North Africa. Here is a country that has two parliaments - one in Tubruq and another in Tripoli - at loggerheads and where tribalism is overwhelming the sense of nationhood. Islamist ideologies are also creeping in through the backdoor and the recent attempt at dialogue in Ghadames sponsored by Bernardino León of UNSMIL is unravelling already. One need only read Mary Fitzgerald, Rana Jawad or some bloggers in Libya or follow trending hashtags like #IAmTawfik to realise that this country is a large - and idyllic - expanse separated by the political contradictory behemoths of Benghazi and Tripoli.
What about a Yemen in veritable meltdown? After the many hopes that were raised by the successful conclusion of the UN-sponsored National Dialogue talks, the Houthis are slowly consolidating their positions and leading the country toward more Sunni-Shi'i as much as North-South ructions. Sana'a is politically light years away from Aden and the geographic location of Yemen at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula also renders it a malleable target for further al-Qaeda infiltrations that not only would wreak more havoc in the country itself but could easily spread toward the Gulf States.
What about other Arab countries? Egypt is grappling with a new-old president who rules Egypt with charm and a sotto voce approach that reminds me of an iron hand in a velvet glove. Besides, the Egyptian judiciary has also become creative and is breaking new jurisprudential grounds when it comes to the trials of former presidents. Lebanon is equally creaking under the burden of all those refugees as it struggles to keep radicalism outside its borders. Imagine that the 1.5 million refugees in this country of vanishing cedars would be tantamount to 80 million Mexicans pouring into the USA!
And where does all this leave us in the West? Alas, I see us once more committing the egregious error of misreading the region with wrong choices. We in the West have become schizoid between the ethical dimensions of human rights and good governance on the one hand and the pragmatism of power, influence and money on the other. We simply dither, and I marvel at public officials, writers and analysts who can come out with prognostications that suit their masters but ignore the larger picture that many locals [not only Sunnis] believe in, namely that we are re-conquering the region - a potent perception given our colonial past in the Arab World. The difference from our colonial history though is that we are now employing different methods than in the last two centuries and are doing it in complicity with some Arab rulers.
Yet we do not seem prescient enough to pause and think coherently that those alliances of convenience could well boomerang in our faces again. We might be in cahoots with some of the rulers of the MENA region but the millions of men and women of most of those countries are not comatose onlookers or castrated thinkers. Their streetwise political instincts are awake and they realise that they are being duped again for the sake of vested interests. They, and their intellectuals, will retort sooner or later but we are meanwhile aiding and abetting this process with our imprudent tactical decisions that lack any plausible strategic depth. Can we not learn from history or are we doomed to recycle it errantly?
ISIS must be defeated since the application of such Islamist ideologies is decidedly evil. But ISIS cannot be dealt with by brute force and must be countered by political solutions that re-enfranchise the peoples of the region, uphold their efforts and offer them hope for a future that does not buckle under the yoke of foreign interference or domestic suppression.
Until then, we will inhabit dangerous times as we deal with the rough and tumble of an unhinged region. I look around me at the vast MENA region and what I see today admittedly fills me with renewed dread and valid despair. So I clutch the few straws of optimism convincing me that those political stains will come out in the wash - eventually!