At the beginning of 2011 while Iraq was still on its knees following the illegal 2003 US/UK invasion, the rest of the Arab world was generally calm, domestic politics was predictable and most importantly from the American and Israeli perspective, the revolutionary fervour that underpinned the Arab Nationalist revolutions of the mid-20th century had largely given way to pragmatic and at times self-effacing secular Arab regimes that posed no serious military or diplomatic challenge to America’s desired pro-Israel status quo in the region. At the beginning of 2011, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak looked and acted unsinkable. Crucially, this included his unsinkable loyalty to the United States and Israel. The same was true in Jordan’s monarchy while in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi had given up on the Arab Nationalist cause in order to pursue what he believed was a more tangible and potentially more rewarding Pan-African cause. Crucially, not long after trading Arab Nationalism for Pan-Africanism, Gaddafi established normal relations with the United States and its traditional partners in 2003.
While Syria’s long serving President Hafez al-Assad was criticised by Iraq for his apparent eagerness to enter into an armistice with Israel in 1974 and while Hafez appeared to be on the verge of recognising Israel in the mid-1990s, recent revelations brought to the world’s attention by former US Secretary of State John Kerry indicate that his son and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drafted a letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking to enter into discussions regarding Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for Syria entering into a Jordanian style peace agreement with Tel Aviv.
In a rational environment, Netanyahu and Obama should have been utterly contented with the fact that an Arab world which was once united behind the cause of Palestinian justice had gradually capitulated while even Arab Nationalist hold out Syria was on the verge of doing much the same. But rather than being content with getting concessions from the Arab world that as comparatively recently as the mid-1970s would have sounded fantastical, Washington with Israel’s clear consent and cooperation instead decided to light a fuse beneath the Arab world.
The so-called Arab Spring began with “protests” in Tunisia in December of 2011. But the real coming out party for America and Israel’s new policy of ‘lead from behind regime change’ in the Arab world was in Egypt. It was in Cairo on the 25th of January that a combination of genuine demonstrators, paid agitators and terrorists took to Tahrir Square to protest government policies. The protests eventually lead to the downfall of President Mubarak who had governed the country since 1981.
Mubarak had many genuine home grown opponents to be sure and this is before one accounts for opposition from proscribed terror groups including and especially the Muslim Brotherhood. And yet it was only when the United States officially withdrew support for Mubarak that a full regime change came to pass which itself paved the way for a highly unstable Muslim Brotherhood regime led by Muhammad Morsi.
Unable to facilitate the kinds of lead from behind protests in Libya that were rather easy to foment in an Egyptian society where a great deal of genuine discontent served to cover the true intentions of the Obama administration in the Arab world, the US decided to accuse Libya’s government of crimes against the Libyan people including an accusation of mass rape committed by soldiers that turned out to be as fake as the 2002 allegation that Iraq maintained stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. While most Libyans were too busy enjoying the benefits of Africa’s most generous welfare state to protest, the US began preparing for a full scale military attack on Libya while France and Britain became the public face of America’s biggest war on an Arab state since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It was around the same time in early 2011 that provocations against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad were staged near the Jordanian border in the city of Daraa. Unlike in Libya there was a measure of discontent in Syria due to a five year long drought which severely impacted domestic agriculture. Likewise, in spite of modest economic reforms, the economy was largely stagnant. Be that as it may, genuine discontent in Syria was not only less than in Libya but less than in Egypt. From the US perspective this became all the more reason to fan the flames of long latent sectarian divisions and likewise it became the private excuse for offering arms and funds to individuals who later formed anti-government militias and terror groups.
The results of this so-called Arab Spring have led to instability in Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule which itself led to the politically and economically stagnant government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In LIbya what was once Africa’s most stable and prosperous nation, a failed state peppered with terrorist training camps and slave auctions has developed which itself has led to the worst migrant crisis in the modern history of Afro-European relations. In Syria, the war which began in 2011 is still being fought and while an end is in sight, Syria is still a long way away from peace.
The mutual desire of the United States and Israel to weaken Arab Nationalist governments and retard the advancement of progressive Arab unity long predates the tragic events of 2011. But while 1996 saw arch-neocon Richard Perle draft A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a radical anti-Arab foreign policy paper presented to Benjamin Netanyahu as a kind of gift, by 2010, many of the goals contained in A Clean Break had already been achieved through co-opting Arab states into a policy of submission which supplanted the radicalism of previous decades.
What had not been achieved by 2010 however was the realisation of anything approximating the Yinon Plan, a controversial policy proposal advocating for the creation of a so-called “greater Israel” that was first published in 1982 in the Israel journal Kivunim. The Yinon Plan called for the aggressive expansion of Israeli territory into Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
While the Yinon Plan was based partly on modern far-right notions of political expansionism and in other parts based on the most extreme interpretations of Zionist mythology, the idea of intentionally weakening once powerful Arab Nationalist states in the region was clearly an attempt to begin the early stages of what could have become expanded political influence and territorial domination throughout the Middle East for Israel.
Today however, it would appear that the plan has backfired for two largely unrelated reasons. First of all, the agitations of Iraq’s Shi’a majority population in Iraq combined with the phenomenon of a Shi’a Islamic Resistance spreading to Syria as a means of countering extremist Sunni Takfiri groups including Daesh, along with the increased influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon has made a once isolated Islamic Republic of Iran a major player in much of the northern half of the Arab world. Thus, as Arab Nationalist states and political movements in the northern half of the Arab world have weakened a militarily resurgent Iran has only become stronger and as such is something of a bulwark against Yinon’s map of a Greater Israel.
But the rise of Iran has also led to another major development, the long term importance of which is still being overlooked as much in the Arab world as in the west. Russia has returned to the Middle East as a major player only unlike during the Cold War, Russia is now on exceptionally good terms with every major player in the region including multiple rivalling Arab states, Turkey, Iran and crucially both Palestine and Israel.
As such, Russia looks to balance the ambitious of each of these players against one another in order to attain a regional equilibrium in which Moscow plays the role of both benign power broker and economic partner. As a result, the old Arab Nationalist dream of liberating Palestine is virtually dead as Russia views the importance of safeguarding Israel’s territory as on-par with that of all of its neighbours. That being said, while the so-called Arab Spring was supposed to pave the way for a future Greater Israel, that too is now dead as Russia would not let Tel Aviv threaten the long term territorial integrity of Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or any other Middle East state.
When viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the gamble that Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu took in 2011 to forfeit good relations with politically stagnant, diplomatically compromised and generally malleable Arab Nationalist leaders in order to attempt and fracture the political structures and territorial unity of multiple Arab states has backfired in extraordinary fashion.
While in 2010 Russia was scarcely a major factor in the region and while Iran did not have much influence in the Arab world outside of southern Iraq and parts of southern Lebanon, today the opposite is very much the case. As a result, while a combination of Israeli-US pressure and internal pettiness helped render many once proud Arab Nationalist states impotent, the omnipresence of Russia as the only regional power with a desire and ability to balance Iranian, Turkish, Arab and Israeli interests means that while Israel’s existence is now guaranteed, its expansionist aims are permanently dead. In this sense, the Arab Spring was in reality, an Israeli winter.