In the 21st century of human rights, international law and the United Nations, we have convinced ourselves that the era of the ‘Great Game’ exists only in history books. Many of us have told ourselves that the Arab Spring is different this time – that it will transform the Middle East for the better, where the common man (and woman) finally has the opportunity to achieve popular sovereignty and genuine political representation. Unfortunately, the unbiased lens of history suggests it is imperial business as usual for the Middle East.
No conflicts better highlights this unfortunate truth than those in Syria and Bahrain. Never before have two conflicts, each a different branch from the same tree, managed to so evidently embody the age-old idiom: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.
The players? Principally the US, UK and Iran (with Saudi Arabia thrown into the mix). We all know that the tagline of both the US and UK foreign policies is the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide. Iran, having long considered itself to be the pioneer of the Islamic resurgence within the Middle East, is supposedly committed to the endeavors of Muslims that it sees are striving to end the remnants of Western colonialism in the region. Its support of such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah is guided by this principle.
I may offend your collective intelligence when I say that the Middle East is a demographically complex region. The states that comprise the Middle East today do little to reflect this complexity – the vast majority of them were brought into existence as a consequence of imperial rivalry between Britain and France after the First World War. It would not be far off to suggest that the Arab Spring has been cast out of Arab frustrations of their disenfranchisement resulting from this arbitrary state system. Of course, each Spring is unique based on its host country’s geography, demography, history and politics – but the feeling of disenfranchisement is common to them all.
In their simplest terms, the Syrian and Bahraini Springs have been born out of the same problem – an insular, detached demographic minority ruling over the majority. In Syria’s case, this is the Shi‘i Alawi al-Asad regime ruling over a Sunni majority (with Kurds and various other minorities thrown into the mix). In Bahrain, it is a Sunni monarchy ruling over a much larger Shi‘i minority. This relationship is absolutely abhorrent to democracy, where the concept of ‘majority rules’ forms the basis of our conceptions of popula participation. In theory, the US and UK should be supporting both movements. Regarding Iranian foreign policy ideals, it also should be opposed to despotism, injustice and tyranny – the evils that the Islamic Revolution sought to expel from its borders through ousting the Shah in 1979. But of course (and frankly, predictably), they do not.
Anyone who maintains at least a minimal level of awareness to international affairs will be acquainted with the situation in Syria. The al-Assad regime has literally been getting away with murder against anti-regime protesters, with politicians in the US, UK and France calling for action exasperatingly close to military intervention. Iran is reported to have provided the regime with support in the form of military advisors placed at the highest levels of Syria’s government. Even with the involvement of UN observers, the situation is far from resolution.
Don’t know much about the Bahraini Spring? I’m not surprised, it rarely makes the news – when it does, it is only because it has interrupted our enjoyment of international motorsport, slipping from view when it can no longer create an awkward nuisance. However, the Al Khalifa regime has sported the same disgusting techniques as the al-Asad family, however there has been nothing near the international condemnation as there has been toward Syria. Just like the protestors in Syria, Bahrainis protested peacefully for modest reforms – and were given a government response in the form of live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets. In particular, government forces have used the old ‘occupy hospitals and torture the wounded’ tactic against all those suspected to have been involved in the protests. Indeed, the Al Khalifas are certainly not playing cricket.
The most remarkable aspect of the ongoing situation in Bahrain is our complete silence on the matter. Even Tunisia, which has had the most peaceful and stable transition toward democratization, has had more coverage than Bahrain. Whilst we ignore the situation, the Iranian press has adopted a different approach. The Iranian news outlets (all state-owned, I might add) rather obviously refer to the Bahraini protestors as ‘martyrs’ whilst labeling the Syrians with the conspicuously vague ‘armed groups’. The West has acquiesced the Saudi military intervention to crush the Bahraini Spring whilst laying ample criticism on Iran for supporting one of the few allies it still has left.
It is not the intention to lament about the incompatibility between idealism and reality in foreign policy – states have interests, and it has been clear for a long time that states will compromise their ideals to secure those interests it perceives as strategically necessary. But let’s not fool ourselves – what we are witnessing in Syria and Bahrain today is yet another Great Game. However, unlike the Great Games of the 19th and 20th centuries, this Game can now bite us back and the information age has shifted the power of the Game towards the hands of the pawns. In 19th century Central Asia, the response of the local Khanates was constrained to using violence against foreign intruders to such an excessive extent that commanders would think twice before straying again into the Khans’ territory. In the 21st century, protestors in the Middle East can project influence much further than just their local areas.
The Middle East’s greatest tragedy has been its manipulation by the hands of outside powers. By constantly meddling in their affairs, we risk consigning many of these states to a fate similar to that of Afghanistan. The effect of these games of influence will ultimately cause deeper problems that become harder to solve as time progresses. Enmity becomes more entrenched and violence quickly becomes the sole language of political disagreement. If we must play, we had better be sure the prize is worth it.