With escalating tension spreading in Lebanon and Iraq over the past few weeks, the term “Arab Winter” might well come into play in regional Middle Eastern politics. Both nations have been witnessing massive popular uprisings against corruption at the highest echelons of the political elite aggravated by poor living standards and crushing austerity measures as well as rising taxes. The upheaval in Iraq, in particular, has been more violent claiming hundreds of deaths and injuries due to the heavy-handed response by government troops and the police force. Demonstrators in both Iraq and Lebanon have been calling for the resignation of the government, retrieval of stolen state fortunes and the demise of traditional warlords turned super-wealthy politicians at the expense of poverty-stricken people and their sufferings.
Potential Long-term Targets of Lebanese and Iraqi Revolts
Whilst the stated goals – some are legitimate and overdue – of the revolts in both Iraq and Lebanon have much to do with deeply-rooted political and economic corruption at the highest levels, many analysts believe that the untold end goal is an unabated US-led campaign to curb the increasing Iranian influence in the Middle East from Lebanon, Syria through Iraq all the way to Yemen and the oil-rich Gulf region. The US administration has long decried such Iranian influence and what it claims as cross-border operations that exceed Tehran’s territorial borders.
Part of Trump’s strategy in this direction has included a unilateral withdrawal from the 5+1 nuclear deal signed by world powers and Iran in 2015, a series of crippling economic sanctions against Tehran and countries trading with it, as well as a White House resolution branding the elite paramilitary IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) a “terrorist” organization. A similar parallel campaign has been waged against Hezbollah, the main pro-Iran military and political force in Lebanon. On the campaign trail, Trump adopted the rhetoric of Washington’s hawks, labelling his domestic rivals as timorous enablers of an Iranian project for Middle East hegemony.
Some regional and international analysts maintain that Trump, sensing the painful fact that all his “maximum pressure” strategy, sweeping sanctions, tough decisions and preposterous tactics have so far failed to curb the growing Iranian influence in the region, he decided to instigate Plan B; being direct revolutions against pro- Iranian political forces in two countries where Tehran’s powerhouse is most effective, Lebanon and Iraq – not forgetting the nine-year-old war in Syria of course – Iran’s closest ally. But all US efforts seem to have neither dented Iran’s defiant policies in the region, nor compelled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, leader of the powerful paramilitary organization’s overseas arm, to scale back their activities.
The current uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon aim to put Iran and its allies face to face with the popular unrest. This has instigated an emergency strategy by Pro-Tehran forces, particularly in Lebanon, to avoid at any cost falling into this potentially fatal trap, distancing themselves and their supporters from violent street confrontations and side-allays confrontations, while at the same time supporting the rightful demands of demonstrators in combating corruption, retrieving stolen state fortunes and rectifying the sect-driven electoral and traditional militia-type political systems in the country.
Tentative Achievements Reinvigorate Uprisings
Despite massive pro-Lebanese President Michel Aoun from all over the country, demonstrations have gained momentum in some parts of the small Mediterranean nation, particularly in the Sunni stronghold southern city of Tripoli, led by the powerful former Police Chief and Justice Minister General Ashraf Rifi. The uprisings have also seen demonstrators openly reject the Iranian hand in their countries’ politics, which in both cases have democracies built around power-sharing agreements within diverse, multi-confessional societies. The resignation of three-time Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, though he will stay on in a caretaker role as the government struggles to find a way out of a crisis, was widely seen as a major success by demonstrators and their ability to force changes in the country struggling under hefty debts, poor economic performance and rising taxes- protests were originally sparked when the government tried to levy a tax on WhatsApp phone calls.
In Iraq, confrontations have been more bloody and violent, claiming the lives of hundreds, and injuring thousands of demonstrators nationwide. Iraqi President Barham Salih said in a speech last week that the government would overhaul the country’s electoral commission and draft a new electoral law – one of the demands of the protests – ahead of possible new elections. He indicated that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a target of popular ire, would stay on in his post only until a successor was identified. His promises have so far failed to dampen the mounting popular anti-government sentiments or mollify the rage on the streets. Mass protests took place over the weekend. Tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square on Saturday and in cities elsewhere, demanding more sweeping change. Clashes with security forces in the capital led to at least one death and dozens of injuries, raising the death toll of around 250 people since the protests first erupted last month.
Popular uprisings nicknamed “Arab Spring” that swept the region for a decade now, are currently entering an extremely hot “Arab Winter” phase that threatens more upheavals and potential chaos for a region that has been plagued by wars and conflicts throughout its modern and ancient history alike; sadly, it seems poised to undergo much of the same in the foreseeable future at least.