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Why the West is keen on dividing the Arabs

Mar 01,2016 - Last updated at Mar 01,2016

When Arab streets exploded with fury, from Tunis to Sanaa, pan-Arabism seemed like a nominal notion. 

The so-called Jasmine Revolution did not use slogans that affirmed its Arab identity, nor did angry Egyptian youths raise the banner proclaiming Arab unity atop the high buildings adjacent to Tahrir Square.

Oddly, the Arabism of the “Arab Spring” was almost as if a result of convenience. It was politically convenient for Western governments to stereotype Arab nations as if they were exact duplicates of each other, and as if national sentiments, identities, expectations and popular revolts were all rooted in the same past and corresponded with a precise reality in the present.

Thus, many in the West expected that the fall of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, especially since it was followed by the abdication of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, would lead to a domino effect.

“Who’s next” was a pretentious question that many asked, some with no understanding of the region and its complexity.

After initial hesitation, the US, along with its Western allies, moved quickly to influence the outcome in some Arab countries.

Their mission was to ensure a smooth transition in countries whose fate had been decided by the impulsive revolts, to speed up the toppling of their enemies and to prop up their allies so that they would not suffer a similar fate.

The outcome was real devastation.

Countries where the West and its allies — and, expectedly, enemies — were involved became infernos, not of revolutionary fervour, but of militant chaos, terrorism and unabated wars.

Libya, Syria and Yemen are the obvious examples.

In a way, the West, its media and allies assigned themselves responsible not only for determining the fate of the Arabs, but for moulding their identities as well.

Coupled with the collapse of the whole notion of nationhood in some Arab countries — Libya, for example — the US is now taking upon itself the responsibility of devising future scenarios for broken down Arab states. 

In his testimony before a US Senate Committee to discuss the Syria ceasefire, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that his country is preparing a “Plan B” in case the ceasefire fails.

Kerry refrained from offering specifics, but offered clues. It may be “too late to keep Syria as a whole, if we wait much longer”, he said.

The possibility of dividing Syria is not a random warning; it is situated in a large and growing edifice of intellectual and media text in the US and other Western countries.

It was articulated by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute in a Reuter’s op-ed last October, in which he called for the US to find a “common purpose with Russia”, while keeping in mind the “Bosnia model”.

“In similar fashion, a future Syria could be a confederation of several sectors: one largely Alawite — another Kurdish — a third, primarily Druze — a fourth, largely made up of Sunni Muslims; and then a central zone of intermixed groups in the country’s main population belt from Damascus to Aleppo.” 

What is dangerous in O’Hanlon’s solution for Syria is not the complete disregard for Syria’s national identity. Frankly, few Western intellectuals ever subscribed to the notion that Arabs were nations as per the Western definition of nationhood, in the first place. (Read Aaron David Miller article “Tribes with Flags”.)

No, the real danger lies in the fact that such a dismantling of Arab nations is very much plausible, and historical precedents abound. 

It is no secret that the modern formation of Arab countries is largely the outcome of dividing the Arab region within the Ottoman Empire into mini states.

That was the result of political necessities and compromises that arose from the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

The US, then, was more consumed with its South American environs, and the rest of the world was largely a Great Game that was mastered by Britain and France.

The British-French agreement, with the consent of Russia, was motivated by sheer power, economic interests, political hegemony and little else. This explains why most of the borders of Arab countries were perfect straight lines.

Indeed, they were charted by a pencil and ruler, not an organic evolution of geography based on multiple factors and protracted history of conflict or concord.

It has been almost 100 years since colonial powers divided the Arabs, although they are yet to respect the very boundaries that they have created.

Moreover, they have invested much time, energy, resources and, at times, all-out wars to ensure that the arbitrary division never truly ends. 

Not only does the West loathe the term Arab unity, it also loathes whoever dares infuse what it deems to be hostile, radical terminology.

Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, argued that true liberation and freedom of Arab nations was intrinsically linked to Arab unity.

Thus, it was no surprise that the struggle for Palestine occupied a central stage in the rhetoric of Arab nationalism throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Abdel Nasser was a national hero in the eyes of most Arabs, and a pariah in the eyes of the West and Israel.

To ensure that Arabs are never to unite, the West invested in their further disunity.

In 2006-2007, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made clear that the US would cease its support of the Palestinian Authority if Fateh and Hamas unite.

Earlier, when resistance in Iraq reached a point that the American occupiers found unbearable, they invested in dividing the ranks of the Iraqis based on sectarian lines. Their intellectuals pondered the possibility of dividing Iraq into three autonomous states: Shiite, Sunnis and Kurds.

Libya was too broken up after NATO’s intervention turned a regional uprising into a bloody war. Since then, France, Britain, the US and others have backed some parties against others.

Whatever sense of nationhood existed after the end of the Italian colonisation of that country has been destroyed as Libyans reverted to their regions and tribes to survive the upheaval.

A rumoured “Plan B” to split Libya into three separate protectorates — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan — was recently rejected by the Libyan ambassador to Rome. However, Libyans presently seem to be the least relevant party in determining the future of their own country.

The Arab world has always been seen by Western eyes as a place of conquest to be exploited, controlled and tamed. That mindset continues to define the relationship.

While Arab unity is to be dreaded, further divisions often appear as “Plan B” when the status quo, call it “Plan A”, seems impossible to sustain.

Truly interesting is that despite the lack of a pan-Arab vision in Arab countries that experienced popular revolts five years ago, few events in modern history brought the Arabs together like the chants of freedom in Tunisia, the cries of victories in Egypt and the screams of pain in Yemen and Syria.

It is that very collective identity, often unspoken but felt, that drives millions of Arabs to hold on to, however, faint hope that their nations will survive the ongoing onslaught and prospective Western division.


The writer,, has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, author of several books and the founder of His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and his latest “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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