It was a pleasant afternoon in Damascus, Syria. Miriam had just finished lunch with her family when a group of Syrian soldiers barged into their house and started thrashing her husband. Noor – her nine-year-old daughter – and Miriam ran to the soldiers and started crying and begging to stop the needless beating. Noor grabbed the legs of one of the soldiers – hysterically pleading to stop – but was ruthlessly kicked away. Miriam’s husband was eventually beaten to death for no reason at all. He was not ‘with the regime’, nor was he ‘against the regime’. He was simply a construction worker.
The story reflects the grip on unrestrained sadism in such Middle Eastern countries. On so many levels, these states have impinged civilian lives with such explicit despotism and insensitive belligerence, that life itself has become a slippery concept. People are so humiliated, dispirited and anesthetized by uncertainty of life, that they have become a victimized populace, resigned to their fate.
Blatantly speaking, the word ‘Middle-East’ continues to arouse seething passions across the globe. It seems to carry the baton of constant civil wars, radicalism, political fragility, social stagnation, and forever endangerment of even the most fundamental Human Rights.
The Middle East comprises of 22 Arab countries and one Jewish state, i.e Israel. Certainly, it would be unjustified to generalize the threat to life as a universally prevalent fact in the entire region. Countries like Oman, Bahrain and UAE have successfully sustained order and peace to this day. However, it is needless to say that most of the other countries like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and Iraq haven’t been so fortunate.
Historical perspective and internal threats
On one level, the ‘Middle Eastern crisis’ predominantly boils down to a political clash between the Arabs and the Jews. It began in late nineteenth and the early twentieth century when Jews from around the globe began swarming their ancient biblical homeland in Palestine, motivated by a modern Jewish nationalist ideology called Zionism. After World War I, Palestine was received by British just the way Lebanon fell under the French. In 1921, when British carved Palestine into two political entities: Jordan and East Bank, there began a violent struggle for control between the Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs for the western half of Palestine. The British handed the matter to UN, which proposed the partition of western Palestine into two states – one for the Jews and the other for Palestinian Arabs. This proposal was accepted by the Jews but declined by the Arabs. Subsequently, on May 14, 1948 the Zionists declared their own state (Israel) and the next day the Palestinians, supported by other Arab states like Jordan, Egypt and Syria proclaimed a war to prevent Jewish independence and secure western Palestine. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been waging ever since.
On a second level, the crisis is a product of bloody, gore, and septic communal clashes within the disparate Arab community. This point can best be understood by taking into account two historically dynamic events of 20th Century: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1922) and the Hama Massacre in Syria (1982). The total dissolution of the caliphate in 1922 provoked the birth of militant Islamism – splinters of which still reign havoc today. For example, in 1928 Hasan al-Banna laid the foundation of Muslim Brotherhood in opposition to British imperialism. Then in 1979, Shia Islamism overthrew the 2500-year-old Iranian Monarchy (Pahlevi dynasty) and established Khomeini’s Shia Islamic Republic. This was aggravated by its creation of Hezbollah (1985), which was aimed to unite Lebanese Shias and undermine the Lebanese government. Then Sunni militant Islamists emerged and created Taliban (1994-2001), Al-Qaeda (1988) and most importantly ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). ISIS, which has been grabbing global eyeballs since 2004, aims to unite Sunnis of Iraq and Syria to fight against Assad’s Shia regime. The Arab Spring – upheavals across the Muslim world that began in 2011 and continues in various forms today, created the immediate conditions for the emergence of ISIS as well. Hence, such communal schisms inside the Muslim community – after the fall of caliphate – has descended the Middle Eastern region into a cauldron of feuding parties.
The Hama Massacre of 1982 in Syria was essentially a sophisticated reflection of all the communal and political expressions that were incubating under the surface. Hama had always been a Sunni Muslim town known for its religiousness. Throughout modern Syrian history, Hama was a hothouse for conservative Muslim fundamentalist organizations like Muslim Brotherhood, which constantly raided against the secular central government in Damascus. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a persistent source of exasperation for Hafez Assad and his main allies who were not Sunni Muslims but Alawites (a splinter sect of Islam)
This incident is either dismissed as an anomaly or sanitized in political-science jargon as a case of “system overload” or “a crisis of legitimacy”. The massacre, which was ruthlessly carried out by Hafez al-Assad’s regime against the Muslim Brotherhood breached a plethora of human rights; in its November 1983 report on Syria, Amnesty International estimates 10,000 to 25,000 dead, mostly civilians; and thousands left homeless. Ironically, the appalling abuses of human rights in February 1982 can be as brutally replicated in February of 2017 (exactly 35 years later). Consider for example Amnesty International’s report regarding Syria’s Sednaya prison – called as “human slaughterhouse” – where reportedly 5000 to 13,000 detainees were hanged in mass hangings between 2011-2015.
To corroborate this observation it would be relevant to reiterate the callous statements made by Bhashar al-Assad when he was questioned about such tortures, executions and secret trials in an interview in 2017: “so Amnesty International knows more about Syria than me,” he said, “first of all, execution is part of the Syrian law. If the Syrian government or institution wants to do it, they can make it legally because its been there for decades.” When asked what was the point of committing these executions in secret trials and without lawyers, he spontaneously asked, “Why do they need it? If they can make it legally, they don’t need anything secret.” This very statement snatches away, the Syrian civilians, the basic right to life.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and personal security”. The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 6 (1982) on Article 6 of ICCPR declared this right to be a pre-eminent right – from which no deprivation is allowed even during a state emergency that threatens the life of a nation. But, practically the situation does not comply with the directions of the declaration.
Peculiar political traditions
However, to perceive such events exclusively from a felonious point of view robs the chance to understand the Middle Eastern situation as a whole. The massacre in Hama not only outlines various obliterated Human Rights but also gives holistic lessons regarding the political traditions involved in the Middle Eastern crisis as a whole. Roughly two different socio-political customs can be seen as operating here:
First is the custom of ‘tribe like politics’ – a primordial form of political interaction characterized by a cruel, survivalist quality all bound by a strong tribe-like spirit of solidarity. For example, when the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat returned to Cairo from his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 after leading his army across the Suez Canal in the 1973 war and constantly kept referring to his people as “Ya, Sha’ab October” - Oh, you people of October – he was basically referring to the Egyptians’ triumph over Israel in the early stages of the 1973 war. Likewise, a tribe makes concessions or compromises provided they emerge from proven strength and chivalry in the wake of victory. That’s what Sadat aimed to do when he used that reference 18 times. And so, the Hama massacre was ultimately a tribal clash between the Alawite sect (Hafez Assad) and the Sunni Muslim sect (Muslim Brotherhood) in a game where you either do or it is done to you. Assad didn’t see the Sunnis as his fellow citizens, but as members of an alien tribe.
The second custom in play is that of ‘authoritarianism’ which is rather a persistence of tribal affiliations. In heterogeneous Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, people have witnessed consistent waves of rulers who haven’t enjoyed much legitimacy from their people. As the population is highly fragmented (Maronites, Alawites, Sunnis and Shias), the modern autocrats become insecure and respond to the threats with chemical attacks and bombs. Coming back to Hama, the massacre that was played out was therefore a reaction by a vulnerable modern authoritarian (Hafez Assad) who was not enjoying full legitimacy from his people. Similarly in 1988 when Saddam Hussein dropped chemical warheads on the Kurdish town of Halabja, he was basically doing so to legitimize his authority in the minds of Iraqi Kurdish tribesmen who had been seeking independence with the help of Iran. As an authoritarian move Saddam Hussein also invaded Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991.
Hence, the crisis in the Middle East has strong domestic roots; the violent tussle on sectarian lines along with a modern authoritarian outlook has failed to blend together peacefully. Similarly, the presence of a powerful Jewish state is like catching the tongue between teeth – making the political climate unsettled. The entire chaos is severely amplified internationally by the radicalization of certain orthodox offshoots of Islamic sects in the area – leading to a wave of bloody campaigns and random killings.
The entire crisis is also a war of interests, which is politically propelled on a global scale. Countries like America have been active here for a very long time – since 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan to 2003 in Iraq war – the US has brought enormous destruction and suffering to people across these countries. If you look at Iraq, the reason why ISIS was able to gain such a foothold was because they were not fighting alone – they were supported by ordinary Sunnis who were apprehensive of the new sectarian government installed in Iraq by the US as it seemed more oppressive than ever. This made them regard ISIS as a lesser evil. Thus, when President Jimmy Carter said that they would use force to protect “our resources, in the Middle East”, he was talking about oil in Saudi Arabia. But how did “our” oil get under “their” sand, is the real question.
Subsequently, this has mitigated the basic livelihood of millions of civilians in the sensitive parts of the region: reportedly, 27 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and 3.3 million have been categorized as severely malnourished.
In such a scenario, the ‘right to life’ of the common men in most of these countries is automatically compromised and overlooked. Loyalty to either of the warring factions has to be ascertained frequently and failure to prove allegiance directly costs lives. Such a plight guarantees severe impoverishment of universal entitlements such as right to life or personal security. This persistent deprivation also exemplifies today’s leaders, whose vision of tomorrow is yesterday.
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