Countries and Their Internal Struggles
Lebanon has been in a precarious position geographically and politically for years. It is not at peace with other Arab countries in the region or with Israel. It has long-standing border disputes with Syria and Israel, particularly over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The country suffered through a fifteen-year civil war (1975–1990) among Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Christians, which ended only when Syrian army elements intervened. And political parties fighting for power within the country drew in Israel in June 2006 when Hamas members captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid. Shalit remains in Hamas custody, which ensures continued friction between Lebanon and Israel.
In 2008 Hizbullah won a series of street battles with other groups to seize control of the Lebanese government. Hizbullah's victory created an imbalance in political power. It formed a coalition government with the March 14 coalition, a Christian-Sunni alliance. Then, in January 2011, Hizbullah forced the government's collapse, once again throwing the country into political chaos.
There is also a political divide between Hizbullah and the country's temporary Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, over the role of Iran in the internal affairs of Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. Hariri decried Iran's interference in Lebanon and Middle Eastern countries in general in opposition to Hizbullah's support of Iranian influence.
There was a familiar refrain in Hariri's claim, as he averred that Saudi Arabia is Lebanon's most important ally. Once again events in a single country centered around the struggle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which prevents any integration in the region.
Hamas Versus Fatah
The civil war that erupted in 2006 between the two primary Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah, is indicative of the ongoing struggles between factions in the region. Hamas recorded significant political gains through the electoral process in Palestine in the early years of the twenty-first century. That prompted a conflict called by various names, e.g., the “Conflict of Brothers” and “Wakseh,” an Arabic term that denotes self-inflicted damage.
The military fighting between the two parties began in 2006. They established a Palestinian unity government in 2007, but that did not end the hostilities. That same year they fought the Battle of Gaza against each other, after which Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and removed Fatah officials.
Israel and key Western countries such as the U.S. and Britain support the Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in the Palestinian conflict. They refuse to recognize Hamas until it recognizes Israel, accepts agreements made by the Palestinian Authority under the previous Fatah-led administration, and denounces violence. The stalemate over these issues contributes to the political instability in the region.
Middle Eastern government officials in other countries, such as Egypt and Syria, have stakes in the outcome of the Hamas-Fatah split, and encouraged the two sides to reconcile, which they did in April 2011, when they reached an agreement to reunite their governments. Their internal struggles have impacted a host of other countries inside and outside the Middle East, as is the case throughout the region.
Turkey: Middle East or West?
Turkey is in a tough position economically and geographically when it comes to Middle East versus West. It is the only Middle Eastern country in a position to be a member of the European Union (EU). But countries in the Middle East look to Turkey for guidance as well. The balancing act is difficult for the country.
It may be several more years before Turkey is admitted as a full member of the EU. It was not recognized officially as a candidate for full membership until December 12, 1999. Six years later the negotiation process to grant it full membership began. A final decision may not come until 2015—and there is no guarantee that Turkey will be admitted.
Western countries expect Turkey to play a significant role in their interactions with the Middle East. In the 2011 unrest, Turkey consented to act as a “protecting power” for the United States during Libya's civil war. In that capacity, Turkish representatives served as consular officers on behalf of U.S. citizens in Libya and passed messages between the two countries.
Meanwhile, there was a bit of unrest in Turkey in light of declining press freedom and freedom of expression in the country. That happened as Turkish diplomats pressed for stability in Bahrain and Libya and held meetings in Cairo to forestall protests there against the army and discuss the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All this was going on while NATO was using an air base in Izmir, Turkey, as a command center to conduct its operations in Libya. The dichotomy demonstrated Turkey's peculiar dual role in the Middle East as it seeks a “home” somewhere between it and the West.