The Dominos of September

The codicils of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot led to the creation of five states in the Levant, four by commission (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan) and one by omission (Israel). A century ago three states looked promising. Lebanon and Syria contained the urban centers, the commercial and cultural elites and the closest connections to the West. Iraq had plenty of arable land, two ancient flowing rivers and sat atop a vast pool of oil. Israel and Jordan were the runt of that litter of states. Israel faced the hostility of its neighbors and murderous European anti-Semitism. Jordan was an oddly shaped strip of desert with little going for it. Its ruling house, the Hashemites, had just been ejected from the Hijaz by their neighbors to the south, the House of Ibn Saud. Their kinsmen in Iraq faced a cycle of coups until the last one, in 1958, dispatched with the king in a surge of blood lust. Its King, Abdullah I, was widely reviled by other Arabs for dealing with Israel. The one-time Mufti of Jerusalem, and a Hitler chum, sentenced him to being a “Yahudi”, a Jew. The sentence was carried out by an assassin’s bullet in 1951. Even worse, his son was mentally unstable and his grandson was a mere boy. Jordan’s luck began to turn when the boy grew up to be a substantial statesman. Today, the picture could not be more different. This brings us, by a roundabout way, to the events of September 1970, which constitute the opening shot in the long Arab civil wars, still raging 44 years after that fateful month.

Hussein did not have an easy reign. He kept a cool head, even when others sought to dispatch with it. He was not immune to mistakes, the worst of which was embracing Nasser in May 1967 after more than a decade of cool, occasionally hostile, relationship. The embrace was deadly. Jordan lost the West Bank, nearly its entire army and was flooded by refugees. Palestinian militants sought in Jordan a base of operation against Israel. The decorum of Arab Nationalism meant that Hussein should say “Yes”, even if he meant “No”, while expecting little help from fellow Arabs when the inevitable reprisals would come. But Hussein did not follow the Arab script. He behaved as a standard national statesman, placing Jordan’s interests first, and realizing that no functioning state can tolerate independent armed militias, however misty-eyed the cause might be. In September 1970 he led his Bedouin troops, clad in checkered Kaffiyahs, against Yasser Arafat’s men. When Hafez Al Assad of Syria threatened to intervene, Hussein sought Israel’s help. The Arab civil wars had begun.

The nominal, and largely self-appointed, leader of the Arabs called a conference in his hometown, Cairo. News photographs show Nasser sitting between Arafat and Hussein, urging a truce. The calendar had him at a young 52, but his temples were graying, his pallor showed the tell-tale signs of heart disease and diabetes.  He was a man working, and smoking, himself to death in order to contain the demons he had unleased. That intervention was Nasser’s last act. His weepy successor, Anwar El Sadat, would take a page from Hussein’s tale and place Egypt’s interest ahead of that of the Palestinians. When Arab leaders raged at him, including the diminutive Hussein who always secretly dealt with the Israelis, he simply dismissed them as “pygmies”, earning him the enmity of the leaders, as well as the Pygmies.

Back to the tale of September 1970. Arafat and his men were routed. They sought a new home. Only Egypt and Lebanon seemed promising. These were countries that sang from very different hymn books. If Oum Kalthoum symbolized matronly Egypt, Salacious Sabah and moody Fairouz symbolized Lebanon. Beirut of 1970 was a freewheeling cosmopolitan of many factions, most in the pay of outsiders. Arafat moved there, carrying the virus of civil war to a country with a weakened immunity to it. In less than five years, Lebanon would erupt into civil war.

Another September, five years later, would see armed men take over hotels to begin the landmark battles of Beirut, which were to last for more than a decade. The flames from that conflict would erupt in another far away corner, Iraq, in September of 1980. Sunni powers, seared by the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution, urged, and occasionally paid, Saddam Hussein to start a bloody war that lasted a decade to no effect. Two years after that, in September 1982, the world would witness the first instance of a massacre now frequently repeated throughout the Levant. On September 16 and 18 armed men slaughtered civilians for the mere crime of being Palestinians, under the watchful eyes of Israel, the West and Arab countries.

The dominos of September continue to fall. September 2014 is yet another in this sad streak. History, like a good actor, rarely repeats itself. But it often reads from the same text. Today’s Levant recalls that of a century ago. Then as now, Imperial powers, aided by Peninsular Arabs, fought over the Levant. Then as now, Egypt stayed aloof, attempting to sort out its identity crisis, albeit with more blood today. Then as now, the Western powers meant well and bumbled badly. Now as then, it will end with ravaged lands, uncertain politics, dark memories, brutal divisions and fragile borders. Proponents of the “Arab Nation” will see conspiracies where there are open plans, enemies where there are self-interested actors, truth where there are lies and lies and betrayals where there are truths.

There is little to learn from the dominos of September, at least little than can be learned by those that matter. But the least we can do is fail to be certain, strive to understand, and struggle to empathize. All else is bound to be irrelevant.

 

— Maged Atiya



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