The Battles of the Future

"Here we mourn the year that was, a year that brought us nothing but grief. Then we'll lay our hands on our hearts and conquer our spirits; we should not lament that year, regret its days and nights, because the unknown is powerful and the battle fated to come may be terrible, imposing even greater terror upon us." (Lebanese columnist Arfan Nizam al-Din, in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat)

Nizam al-Din listed last year's woes one by one. His article reads like a primordial Middle Eastern catalog. He lists three main flash-points in his elegy: the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the war in Iraq and the crisis in Lebanon. He mentions the Iranian nuclear issue in passing, calling it "Peace gone, war here" because of the threat of regional strife.

Christmas isn't included among these three points. If conciliation and concord remain the exception, we can rest assured that these flash points will continue to smolder next year. It's no stretch to surmise that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain just as intractable next Christmas - but could Israel and Hamas achieve a hudna (cease-fire)? Might Hamas and Fatah reconcile, thereby enabling a unified Palestinian Authority to exercise better governance of Gaza and the West Bank?

Either question could be answered with a yes, given the pressure both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are exercising on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. If both goals were to be achieved next year, 2008 would be a good year.

Lebanon won't disappear from the headlines either. A presidential election, when it happens, won't cure all the ills of this country, which could have been a model of multiculturalism, a unique pearl in the Middle East: It officially recognizes 18 sects, it allows civil marriage, its constitution promises the right to freedom of religion.

But while this is the only Arab country whose basic legislation is not based on Islamic religious law, it is also the only country held captive by an organization. The very multiplicity of sects is also the source of woe and there is no way now, nor will there be next year, to get past this problem. The memory of the 15-year civil war still throbs as painfully as ever, but that doesn't mean the country can't fall apart.

Building an Iraqi nation

Another civil war possibly dying down is that in Iraq, the country that was liberated from a tyrant four years ago, only to crumble into components divided by sect and religion. The world learned about the "war between Sunnis and Shi'ites," and about the Middle Eastern model of an Arab nation that is only partly Arab, while another part is not (it's Kurdish).

That uniqueness also sanctified Iraq's new constitution, which was intended to serve as a platform for a harmonic, functioning nation, and mainly, a potentially wealthy one. It hasn't worked, though. Colossal corruption, the kind thought to exist only in quasi-states like Somalia, snatches huge gulps of income. Although the army's power has increased, it continues to demonstrate practical powerlessness: thousands desert each month and even the police are resorting to recruiting untrained cadets who pay bribes to enlist. Electricity is supplied between six to 10 hours a day, at best, and only in the capital. Two million Iraqis roam the Middle East and the rest of the world seeking shelter. A whole territory, the Kurdish zone, has been torn from the state and civil protection is largely in the hands of private militias, as well as religious, tribal and neighborhood watches.

Iraq appears incapable of fostering the feeling of being one country, one nation and mainly, of having one future, more so as car bombs continue to explode in its marketplaces. So what will next year be like? Nothing special, much the same as in the last four years. During 2008 more forces will withdraw, British, Poles and some Americans, too. Trillions of dollars will continue to be poured into battling terrorism and trying to "build a nation."

Much depends on neighboring Iran, whose control over Iraq is growing, to the point that even the Americans have admitted that Iran's influence helped to reduce terrorism in Iraq. What the Iranian revolution failed to achieve - to export the Shi'ite-Iranian regime to other Muslim countries - has been realized by America's military coup in Iraq. Today Washington is the one imploring Iran for help in Iraq.

The Tehran-induced turnaround in Iraq dovetails the upheaval caused by the American intelligence report, which ruled out an imminent regional war against Iran. Tehran can continue developing its "peaceful" nuclear capacity. The Bushehr reactor will apparently be ready by year-end.

One intriguing question concerns the outcome of Iran's parliamentary elections in March 2008. Will the "moderates" win, or will victory go to the "fanatics," as the West refers to them? Will the polls deem Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policy right or wrong? If there is an answer to the Iranian nuke, it lies in the internal political struggle in Iran, not in sanctions and threats. The force of the Iranian threat also depends on the political orientation of the next American president: neo-conservative or Democrat - meaning, is there a chance for political dialog, or will relations be characterized by the dialog of sabers?

Islam against Islam

These three battles resemble concentric circles, internal crises that influence external relations with the enemy: Palestine versus Israel, Lebanon versus Israel, and Iraq versus the U.S. occupation. Yet each of these conflicts holds the seeds of political solutions.

That is not the case for the wider amorphous war on extremist Islamic terror, whether in the form of Al-Qaida or local organizations. There were few victories in 2007 and 2008 could turn out to be just as bad or even worse.

Ostensibly the battle has territorial boundaries. The Taliban in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan; Al-Qaida in Iraq; terror in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco; terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia. But it's also taking place in cyberspace, in the domains of fanatic sages and their blogging followers. It's a war that is waged by means of schools and textbooks, a clash of ideas that will only worsen the more these organizations feel threatened by soldiers in Tora Bora or Baghdad, or by alternative education systems.

It is not Islam against the West. It is moderate, humane Islam against the sects that try to remodel it. It is the battle of Arab and Muslim regimes against people seeking their overthrow in order to build one Muslim nation. It is a battle over the good name of Islam, in which the West, the U.S., plays a tremendous role: to ease the political conflicts that feed terrorism and strengthen Arab nations so they can cope with the internal threats. That is the mission for 2008.