The Future of the Middle East Conflict

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The Future of the Middle East Conflict

In 2005 the vast majority of the issues that made the Middle East such a violence-prone region in the previous century remained unresolved. In Israel and its Occupied Territories (land Israel took from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six-Dar War in 1967), Jews and Palestinians still fight physically and verbally to determine how best to settle their long-standing dispute over the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own independent nations in the region.

In Lebanon, the withdrawal of Syrian troops in early 2005, troops which had entered Lebanon in 1975 to assist the Lebanese government during the Lebanese civil war and had remained in the country to keep peace and exert Syrian control over the Lebanese government, brought hope that the Lebanese could learn how to govern themselves without violence. However, the strength of Lebanese Islamic fundamentalist groups (groups that believe that all areas of life including government, culture, and foreign policy should be ruled by the laws of the Islamic religion), who have received support from Iran, threatened a return to civil war in a country that is home to Christians, Muslims (followers of the Islamic faith), and numerous other religious groups.

In Iraq, large numbers of U.S.-led coalition (or alliance) troops remained in the country after the second Gulf War (a war in which the United States and a small coalition invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein [1937–] and his government from power in 2003) to support the newly formed democratic government. However, the new government, which is head by a Kurdish (non-Arabic Muslim) president and is mainly made up of Shiite (a branch of Islam that believes that only the descendants of Muhammad can lead the religion) politicians who won a majority of seats in the legislature, is not supported by the Sunnis (a branch of Islam that believes that any person from the tribe of Muhammad can be elected the leader of the Islamic religion regardless of if they are a direct descendant of Muhammad), who were mainly in control during Saddam Hussein's reign. This has created a conflict in the country where insurgents (those who do not support the government) continually attack members of the new Iraqi government as well as coalition troops who still occupy the country. Coalition troops have retaliated against these insurgents using force, causing more violence and making it nearly impossible to maintain peace in the country.

In Iran, Islamist leaders continued to call for Islamic revolution (an event where people rise up and overthrow a secular, or non-religious, government in order to put Islamic religious leaders in position of power in the hopes of creating a government run by Islamic laws) in other nations despite persistent criticism from the Western countries (including Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). With rare exceptions, governments in each of the Arab nations of the Middle East faced severe criticism and internal unrest often created by Islamist organizations, groups that wanted to bring an end to Western influences on Arabic culture and establish governments ruled by Islamic holy law, or Sharia.

Each of the major issues that faced the Middle East in the twentieth century—conflicting claims to territory; civil war; military occupation; the oppression of minority religious and ethnic groups; the rise of revolutionary Islamic groups, some of whom practice terrorism; and the disruptive influence of world powers—continues to exert an influence today, and each promises to be a factor in the future. Many fear that there is little hope that any of the persistent problems of the past can be successfully worked out, while others feel that progress is being made in every Middle Eastern country and that the twenty-first century will be a time of peace for the region. A quick survey of existing conditions in 2005 indicates that there is cause for both hope and despair.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Since European Jews began to immigrate to the territory of Palestine in the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), there has been conflict between Jews and the local Arabs, called Palestinians, over who would control the land. The Jews wanted to create an independent Jewish nation in Palestine while the Palestinians felt that the land belonged to them and they wanted to create a Palestinian nation free from international influence. In 1948 the Jewish population declared the creation of the independent Jewish state of Israel, and forced thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes and become refugees in surrounding Arab countries. While the creation of Israel was supported by many in the international community, the Arab nations in the Middle East felt that the rights of Arabs were being discarded and that the Western countries and cultures were intruding into the region. Since 1948, Israel and its Arab neighbors—either Arab nations or organized Palestinian resistance groups—have argued and occasionally fought wars (including the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973) over the right for Israel to continue to exist as a country and how to resolve conflicting claims of Palestinians who feel they have the right to create their own independent state on the land occupied by Israel.

Over the years, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians have come to accept what is called a "two-state solution," a compromise which modifies Israel's borders to grant Palestinians statehood in what are now called the Occupied Territories, land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was taken from Jordan and Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel fought with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria over land and Palestinian rights. Though extremists from both sides—Israelis who refuse to give up land they consider part of Israel to Arabs, and Palestinians who vow that they will not rest until Israel is destroyed—continue their threats to derail peace talks, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Palestinian people, have pledged themselves to making progress through negotiation. In 2004 Ariel Sharon, (1928–), the prime minister of Israel, agreed to pull Israeli troops and Jewish settlements from the Occupied Territories, and in 2005 both leaders agreed to the end of the Palestinian uprising called the Al Aqsa Intifada, against Israelis in the Occupied Territories. While no true action has been taken to remove troops or settlements from the Occupied Territories and while violence does continue between Israelis and Palestinians, many remain hopeful that these agreements will lead to a stable peace in the region in the twenty-first century.

Democracy in Iraq

The removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003 marked the first time in Middle Eastern history that a Western nation had directly attacked a Middle Eastern country with the goal of displacing an Arab leader. The administration of U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) claimed that use of force in the region by the United States' military was an expression of its campaign to combat terrorism, to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction to countries that might use them for terroristic reasons, and to support those countries in the Middle East, such as Israel, that might be in danger of attack from Middle Eastern dictators, such as Saddam Hussein. Skeptics and critics of the administration claim that the United States entered Iraq and destroyed the Iraqi government on faulty information that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which they were going to use against the United States. Some of these critics also believe that one of the main goals of the attack was not to protect the world from attack, but to keep control of the vast oil reserves in Iraq.

Regardless of the reasons why the United States and other foreign nations went into Iraq, the result was the destruction of the Iraqi dictatorship and the creation of a new democratic government in Iraq in 2005. For the first time since the creation of Iraq, elections were opened to the public to select a new representative government. This new government, led mainly by Kurds and Shiites, faces the tasks of establishing its independence from direct American control, as well as moderating the conflicting claims of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious factions to land, resources, and power. In mid-2005, the Iraqi government continued to look for ways to stop insurgent forces from attacking newly elected government officials and for ways to begin to rebuild their country after nearly two-and-half decades of constant conflict.

Internal conflicts

Ever since the nations of the Middle East were created by Britain and France in the aftermath of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), internal dissension has been a continual concern in nearly every Arab nation as different ethnic and religious groups have tried to assert power in the region. The nation most plagued by these troubles in the past century has been Lebanon, a nation that is home to various religious sects as well as both Arabic and non-Arabic people. Lebanon, a country originally under Western control, became independent in the 1940s, but since then has faced civil war and occupation by other Arab and Western nations, including Israel, the United States, and most notably Syria, whose troops entered the country in 1975 and remained for close to twenty years. Though the pullout of Syrian troops in 2005 was welcomed by most Lebanese citizens, many wonder whether the diverse Lebanese factions motivated by religion and ethnicity will be able to reach a compromise and sustain a functioning government.

However, Lebanon is not alone in the Middle East in its struggles to maintain stability within its country. Turkey and Egypt, the most economically advanced nations in the region, both struggle to accommodate dissent within their established political systems as religious groups struggle to gain power in these secular (nonreligious) governments. And those nations with stable monarchies, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, must fight to contain antigovernment sentiment from lower class citizens who feel that the monarchy favors the rich as well as Western influences. Even non-Arabic countries, like Israel, face internal conflict, such as the battles in the Occupied Territories between the Israeli army and Jewish settlers who refuse to leave land that the Israeli government is attempting to give to Palestine to stop the Arab-Israeli conflict. While many things may change in the Middle East in the twenty-first century, it is clear that the wide variety of ethnic and religious groups in the region will continue to face conflict in all Middle Eastern countries for many years to come.

The threat of Islamic revolution

The single biggest threat facing the stability of nations in the Middle East at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism. Islamists want a conservative interpretation of the Islamic faith to provide the basis for political, social, and cultural life in every Arabic nation in the Middle East. An important part of their program of Islamization, or increasing the role of Islam in national life, is the removal of Western influences from Muslim countries. Islamic revolution brought a new government to Iran in 1979, and since that time Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian territories have used conventional political tactics to increase their power and control. Such groups play an increasingly important role in every Muslim nation.

More damaging to regional and international stability, however, has been the rise of Islamist terrorist groups, groups which go beyond the main beliefs of Islamism and provide for no compromise when it comes to cultures or political moves that do not support Islamic ways of life. The terrorist group Al Qaeda, headed by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (1957–), has pledged itself to Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world, and also to the complete removal of the Western presence in the Middle East, including the destruction of Israel, which these groups feel is a country directly under the influence of Western powers. While some in the region see this use of force as the only way to preserve their culture, many Western countries have attempted to destroy these groups, claiming that they are a threat not only to Western countries but the Middle East as a whole. Many in the international community have spoken out against the use of terror as a tactic to enact political change, and more and more countries in the Middle East are attempting to exile terrorist groups from their borders. The worst fear of some observers, however, is that the Western response to terrorism, which is often seen as an invasion in many Arabic countries of Western culture and politics, will result in a war between Western countries and Islamic powers. Some believe that if the situation in the Middle East were to develop into a war between the West and the Islamists, Arab countries which are mainly made up of Muslims will support Islamists, creating the possibility of another worldwide conflict.

The future of the Middle East is unclear at best. Some observers hope that a lasting peace between ethnic and religious groups will be reached in many of the countries and that relations between the Middle East and Western countries will improve. Others predict a world war where Western nations fight against Islamists for control of the power and resources in the region. But the one thing that is clear is that the conflict in the Middle East is far from reaching a conclusion.