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MadEast's Threat Off

The Middle East is brimming with existential angst. Whole countries feel rightly or wrongly threatened in their very survival, as do sectarian and ethnic groups and certain regimes. Maybe it is the heritage of the connect-the-dots way in which the Middle East was divvied up after the fall of the Ottoman empire, maybe it is because of the zero-sum game that is Middle Eastern politics or maybe it is because of the feeling of illegitimacy that gnaws at many of the regimes, often made up of minority groups.

Most of it is nonsense, of course, mere propaganda to justify emergency rule or to keep the mob mobilised. To separate massacre from mascara, to distinguish suicide form genocide, to point out the hollow in holocaust, here’s the MadEast Existential Threatometer:

- 1 Give Jews their due, Israel tops the list of most threatened countries as a whole. It follows a venerable tradition. There are just too many people who’d like to see that country gone and its Jewish inhabitants either dead or expelled. Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah, Hamas, Bin Laden, there’s a broad Arab and Muslim consensus on this, even though an indeterminate number may find it impractical, for now. On top of that even Israel’s nutty evangelical Christian friends only support it to bring the rapture closer, sacrifice a red heifer and bring about the reign of Christ. Sure, Israel is a pretty strong country with pretty strong backing, for now. But there may be some truth to the Arab hope that it can not always stay strong. Whether the Israelis are doing enough to make themselves more popular should be irrelevant to those who might be inclined to support its destruction. Even Germany survived WWII.

- 2 The Palestinians in various locations but not as a people. Despite the hardship and violence that the Palestinians in the Gaza strip and the West Bank undergo, they are not faced or threatened with a genocide, for now. But they are increasingly being squeezed in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. Unfortunately their situation among their Arab brethren is not always much better. They were scandalously treated in post-Saddam Iraq and many of them fled the country because of specific threats. They are most vulnerable in Lebanon, where they are scapegoats for the country’s instability and where they are treated worse than elsewhere. In Jordan, where they form the majority, the situation is tense but even during Black September in 1970 the Jordanians did not expel the Palestinian civilian population, although many civilians were targeted and killed. The Palestinians might improve their situation all around if they stopped killing themselves in suicide attacks, although these seem to have abated.

- 3 Now that we’re talking about it, Jordan, as a country and as a regime. The right wing’s victory in Israel’s elections has brought about Lieberman fever in Amman. The Hashemites and Hamas agree that the gravest threat to both is the so-called Jordan option. This would see Lieberman and friends initiate the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan in order to make Jordan the de facto Palestinian state. But bad news for the Hashemites, the minority ‘East-Bank’ Jordanians and the Palestinians: this may very well happen even without a new mass influx of Palestinians, which by the way seem more like a mirage. The Hashemite monarchy initially tried rather successfully to have its cake and eat it, annexing Jerusalem and the West Bank after 1948 and making it one country. Now it has given up on the territory but it still has the large Palestinian population, which is not going to disappear. Any move toward real democracy means that Jordan will de facto be a Palestinian-ruled country. Shhhhht, don’t tell anybody, or the world might think that the Palestinians don’t need a second or third state. At least that is what some Palestinians improbably fear.

- 4 All Lebanese sects. They really have something to fear from each other, having merrily massacred each other during the civil war and before. As the losers in the civil war, the Christians are dwindling into oblivion urged on by low birth rates and emigration. They are so irrelevant nowadays that the real fight seems to be between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Hezbollah has already shown that it has no compunction about turning its guns on domestic rivals, i.e. the Sunnis. The latter have their own extremists, the Salafists in the North of the country mainly, to carry out revenge killings. The Druze will probably still be there when the rest has killed each other. There is no threat to the survival of Lebanon as a state for the simple reason that it has already ceased to exist.

- 5 Iraq as a country and some of its people. The unity of Iraq is still severely threatened, mainly by the Kurds in the North. They have already effectively split off and the best hope for Iraq is now a confederacy that acknowledges Kurdish defence and domestic autonomy. The fight over Kirkuk and maybe Mosul will be dirty. But the Kurds are also traditionally the most threatened single group in the area, whether in Iraq, Turkey or Iran. Iraq’s other, more defenceless, minorities such as the Christians and the Yezidis are being squeezed more than others. The Shias and the Sunnis by contrast may yet agree to muddle on together.

- 6 The Syrian regime and the country’s Alawite minority that forms its backbone. They are brutal arrivistes and heretics to boot, as seen by the country’s Sunni orthodox majority. When the two groups went at each other in the 1980’s, in the form of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising, the fight was vicious, from both sides. Syria’s drift toward Iran can partly be explained by that country’s religious establishment lending Islamic legitimacy to the Assads and their Alawites by proclaiming them Shia, something they themselves would probably have denied a generation ago. But for now the Assads and their clan are safe because neither the US nor Israel nor anybody else wants a repeat of the Iraq scenario of civil strife. There is no threat to Syria as a country.

- 7 Iran’s Islamic regime. It’s hardly under threat because it controls all the levers of power and the US has no appetite for another regime change driven invasion. Yet, it’s an authoritarian system that relies on oppression to remain in the saddle and it has plenty of enemies, both in the West and in the region. To Iran as a strong regional country, it hardly matters, having survived more or less in its current form for centuries. It could only invite destruction by using a nuclear bomb first. Come to think of it, maybe Iran as a country should figure way higher on this list.

- 8 The Saudi monarchy. Even less likely to crumble than Iran’s theocracy, if only because the Ibn Sauds have literally populated the country with their own offspring. Then there’s the monarchy’s ironclad alliance with the Wahabi religious establishment. But, again, this is an authoritarian regime that may some day be brought down. If that is to happen, though, it will probably be done by even more extreme religious fanatics.

- 9 Egypt’s regime. Well, Mubarak is gonna die at some point anyway and then who cares? The army will probably impose its choice again and the Egyptians will sink further into irrelevance, which may be worse actually than disappearing altogether.

- 10 The Gulf states, mainly Dubai. Who will keep the place running when the money runs out?