Last week, a most unsurprising development in the Syrian civil war was announced in the news which then was presumably followed by much agonised chin scratching in western political circles who’s narrative regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria prior to said announcement had been relatively simple considering the convoluted nature of the crisis. The announcement that I make reference to is that of the Al-Nusra Front declaring themselves for Al-Qaeda which was surely news to no-one yet hit with devastating force none the less as people perhaps began to wake up and see that again foreign policy is all to often dictated by the proverb that I have used as the title for this post and that once again in Syria we are in bed with a group we barely understand. In years to come I genuinely fear that this saying will only gain in poignancy as we reflect on the legacy of the Arab Spring which despite holding such dreamy promises in its early days seems to have mutated into something bearing a greater resemblance to a nightmare. While many forces have been at work throughout the ongoing Arab Spring, this mutation of the idealistic revolution into something resembling more on a daily basis the revolutions of France and Russia is in all likelihood due in no small part to the part that has been played by Western actors who have armed factions with whom they shared all too convenient hatreds. In this post I intend to discuss notable times where the sentiments of this proverb have been applied and will demonstrate that each time it has been used that the results are always as spectacularly disastrous for innocent lives and show further that the Arab Spring is seemingly no different.
Perhaps the most notable case in relatively recent history of the use of this maxim to broker alliances between nations that were ultimately hostile to each other in the name of overriding interests would be the Second World War. Two alliances of convenience were formed during the six years in which this conflict raged, both involving the USSR as a regional power. First off the bat, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a mutual non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after the foreign ministers responsible for signing it. This pact on the part of Nazi Germany guaranteed that the Soviet Union would stay uninvolved in any emerging European war leaving Germany able to focus its energies on subjugation of Poland and other Western European nations. This is a prime example of an alliance of convenience as the Nazi party ultimately clawed hold of power in Germany through stoking the fires of suspicion against Communists working to subvert the Reichstag and democracy yet in a moment of need came to an agreement with a supposedly newly found friend. It is also a prime example this type of alliance as it ultimately collapsed once the supply of mutual enemies between the once antagonistic nations came to an end with Great Britain seemingly at the point of collapse and the USA yet to enter the war. In one of history’s most disastrous back-stabbings, Hitler then suddenly re-remembered that he despised communism and that his rant in book form Mein Kampf called for the annexation of much Soviet territory to satisfy the Nazi hunger for land.
Another reason that the Second World War is a prime example of this proverb in action is that in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, another alliance of convenience was formed this time between Great Britain (and later the USA) and the Soviet Union who if anything despised each other more than the Nazis and the Soviets had done. After all, the political movement which Stalin was a figurehead of at the time had in the minds of the British at least deserted them in their hour of need during the First World War and also the central ideology of the Soviet Union was deeply antagonistic to the ways of life of the British Empire and the United States. The feelings of dislike were very much mutual with Stalin reportedly saying that Churchill was “the worst of the capitalists” but ultimately the common interest of beating back Nazism prevailed momentarily at least. Of course, the ultimate legacy of this alliance was that while it did put an end to the threat of Nazism it evolved into a cold-war between the two diametrically opposed ideologies with almost fifty years of tension that could have at any moment ended the human race ensuing. Besides the irony of an alliance between enemies breaking down into a conflict which greatly outlasted the original war it sought to end, history will look back on this and likely say the strangest thing of all was the Britain and the USA in an effort to stop one tyrant bedded another far worse one in Stalin who is often blamed for upwards of 50 million deaths throughout his reign.
As has already been alluded to in the above section on the series of alliances of convenience that were struck in World War 2 the Nazi party, inflammatory rhetoric put to one side, wasn’t afraid to make alliances with nations that it despised in order to get ahead of more direct threats. Another example of the Nazi’s propensity for such types of alliances is the friendship that developed between Nazi agents and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and one of the most divisive Palestinians to ever enter the political stage. Again, this relationship on the surface makes little sense as according to the racial hierarchy that much of the Nazi empire was classified by, the Palestinian Arabs who al-Husseini represented, were not many steps higher than the Jews and consequently would likely have experienced the same treatment had the Nazis every really made headways in the Middle East. The decision by al-Husseini to ally with the most vocally anti-Semitic power in the world was seemingly based around a mutual dislike for the British who ruled much of the Middle East at the time through League of Nation Mandates and also around the concern of Jewish immigration into Palestine as European Jews escaped the persecutions of the Nazis. And we can assume that all the Nazis saw in an alliance with the Arabs was simply a convenient ally who could support in the fight against the more militarily powerful British. Whatever the reasons for the alliance, time passed and eventually it broke down and back fired on the Palestinians. By allying himself with Hitler, al-Husseini arguably seriously discredited the Palestinian cause for a long time by making his antipathy to the foundation of a Jewish state appear to be related to anti-Semitism rather than simply being a result of his support of Arab nationalism. In appearing to be close to Hitler, whatever the ultimate reality of their relationship, al-Husseini gave the most ardent Zionists a conveniently unapologetic figurehead of supposed Arab anti-Semitism who to this day is used to justify the position of strength Israel feels the need to maintain.
The next case of a country following the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is perhaps one of the most famous instances of this idea in practice, the USA’s collusion and financial backing of Pakistani and Arab forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion of 1979. Much has been done throughout the Cold War, the USA backed paramilitary forces that often were unlikely to reclaim power from the communist forces in whichever country but militarily were adept enough to be a serious thorn in the side of the supposed “international communist conspiracy”. The financial and logistical support which the foreign Mujahideen received enabled them to hold off the military juggernaut of the Soviet Union for over 9 years until Gorbachev decided that Soviet forces would withdraw in 1989 and arguably this defeat was critical in ensuring the eventual downfall of the one time superpower. If the record ended there then this alliance might have be the most successful alliance of convenience in the history of man but unfortunately for all parties involved the story does not end there. Slowly but surely after the Soviet armed forces withdrew, the Mujahideen warlords who, during the 9 years for which the conflict had raged, had amassed massive political and military power in Afghanistan dragged the country into a vicious civil war which ended tens of thousands of lives and destroyed more of the country than the Soviet Union ever managed. This period of Chaos did eventually end when the Taliban, a politico-religious force which sought to the end the period of instability managed to gain control of the country. This in itself might have been enough proof that alliances of convenience are often very dangerous agreements but again history added some more spice to the dish when the Taliban allowed Al-Qaeda, architects of global terrorism, to take refuge in their Islamic fundamentalist state.
Now that I have considered some historical examples of the use of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy …” I will now discuss the Arab Spring and show how true to form, alliances that were formed with groups purely on the basis of a common shared enemy seem to be doomed to failure. Either these alliances have already broken down in a remarkably short time scale, in the cases of Libya and Syria or seem consistently on the verge of breaking down as is the case in Egypt and to a questionable degree also Tunisia. For a movement that sprung from boundless optimism with the lofty intentions of killing off the corrupt old guard regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa we have come a long way to the point at which we are at now with the only thing that seems to have changed being the dictator who happens to sit on the throne. I’ll now briefly look at each case in hand:
- Tunisia – The first country to overthrow its leader and the birthplace of the Arab Spring. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire little did he know where his actions would end. The Arab Spring in Tunisia resulted in a massive democratisation of Tunisia with Ben Ali, head of state for 24 years overthrown, the dissolution of the political police and elections to a constituent assembly later that year. The newly democratised country of Tunisia is perhaps the most safe of all the countries who managed to overthrow their governments being as relatively speaking it was the most peaceful upheaval and did not rely on paramilitary groups or major violence to end the regime unlike the other three countries in question. However this is not to say that that the Tunisian “Jasmine revolution” isn’t endangered by foolish alliances of convenience like in neighbouring Libya. The calls to revolt which sounded in later 2010 appealed to a broad social consensus ranging from liberal human rights based groups through to hard-line Salafist groups and ultimately the success of the revolution was based on the involvement of every group that participated. In the time that has passed since Ben Ali was overthrown concern has been voiced that hard-line religious elements have begun to co-opt the democratic process for their own ends. In the case of Tunisia then the alliance that was formed between a variety of groups has yet to result in any major backlash as the result of hastily formed alliances and so there is still hope that Tunisia will buck the trend of one time allies either usurping the democratic process or forces supported by the west turning out to be a bigger threat than the government overthrown.
- Egypt – The second country to successfully overthrow its government during the Arab Spring and a significantly more important regional player. Much the same as in the case of Tunisia the overthrow was ultimately achieved through the power of the Egyptian people themselves and not through the force of Western arms. Similar to the case of Tunisia, the threat to the Egyptian revolution is not one posed by alliances with external powers but created instead by alliances between liberally minded groups and radical elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood who were a critical component of the Egyptian revolution. Since the Election of Mohamed Morsi to the presidency and with the Islamist Bloc forming the second largest group in the Egyptian house of representatives, many Egyptians feel disillusioned and believe that their alliance with such elements was not worth it as increasingly Morsi rolls back the democratisation that took place in the absence of Mubarak and brings Egypt more in line with the Gulf Arab states.
- Libya – The third country to overthrow its government and head of state, but the first to utilise Western military aid and financial support in doing so. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where protests were widespread and the majority of society seemed to support the overthrowing of the regime in Libya the protests were very much localised and relied on specific groups within society to achieve its aims. When Qadaffi’s armed forced seemed on the verge of crushing this regional rebellion. NATO intervened and through the use of air support helped the rebels slowly capture more and more of Libya until it fell to them. The alliance in question here is more at risk and this probably due to the fact that instead of being an alliance between different elements of society as a whole who had all suffered equally, it was an alliance between internal rebels and external powers with the only shared interest being the overthrow of a somewhat unpopular leader. From the beginning of the the Libyan revolution right through to today we have been aware of highly dangerous elements active in Libya and the end result is that while Qadaffi is no longer in power Libya does not seem much safer than when Rebels and the Libyan army were fighting throughout the country. The alliance struck between the West and forces in Libya is a perfect example of an alliance based on the proverb and like many such alliances has already broken down with Westerners and other traditional victims of fundamentalist Islamic groups being murdered and chased out of the country and this is still the early days with the new government seemingly unable to control the militias that fought in the uprising.
- Syria – This last country is a slight aberration when compared to the rest I have discussed as unlike the others the revolutionary movement has not overthrown its government and is seemingly unlikely to do so. However as in Libya, Western politicians who have never been fond of the al-Assad family and its close ties to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have decided to aid the rebel movement, helping them in this are the Gulf Arab states who are wary of a Shia dominated Arab nation with close ties to Iran. As a result of these regional rivalries what started as a genuine revolution for reform and perhaps even the overthrow of the government has increasingly mutated into a sectarian civil war with militias financed by external powers aiming to establish again a nation far closer in style to Saudi Arabia than the enlightened democracies of Scandinavia for example. While support for the rebels in Syria has repeatedly been vocalised and Bashar al-Assad demonised, the actual military support that we saw given to Libyan rebels is yet to materialise and we can hope that this remains the case or in all probability what will happen is that we will see one dictatorial regime overthrown and a far greater threat replace it in the form of allies we have armed whose stated aim is the establishing of a worldwide fundamentalist Salafist state. Whether the support will dry up by itself as a result of the Al-Nusra fronts declaration of support for Al – Qaeda remains to be unseen but I would not hold out too much hope as I’m sure the people in charge knew the elements that were present in Libya before Qaddafi fell.
Of course one difference in this region is that the identity of who is friend and foe is generally speaking continually and rapidly changing and the Arab Spring only seems to have exacerbated this tendency. Perhaps in years to come, unlike the instances of such alliances I offered earlier in this post which have been critically assessed, politicians will escape the blame for some of the foolish decisions that have already been made and in all likelihood will continue to be made by using this as an excuse and failing to learn the lessons of making alliances based purely on mutual enemies. It is not too much to hope that international politics moves away from rash alliances of convenience and towards building relationships based on much broader and more substantial criteria. An ideology based on hatred – of anything, what so ever, is a curse on all our houses.