By: Nandini Khandelwal, Research Analyst, GSDN
Although the countries that make up the WANA region are often referred to as being around the Mediterranean and Red Seas, there may not be unanimity on this matter. Alternative terms for this region include WANA (West Asia North Africa), NAWA (North Africa and West Asia), SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa), and MENA (Middle East and North Africa). The precise nations that make up this region may vary depending on the context or the source. The Indian Ministry of Commerce describes the region as WANA, indicating its preference over the term MENA due to its lost relevance with the end of British colonialism and its geographic bias.
Owing to the region’s strategic importance, it has long been a geopolitical significance. Israel-Palestine conflict revolves around this region beginning with the flourishing civilisations such as Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire, and the Roman Empire known for being the birthplace of Jews in historical Israel and Judah, along with their long-drawn persecution. Its relevance for the origins of three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, gave rise to the multiplicity of cultures, faiths, and ethnicity. However, this rich past has also become the source of the region’s current political turbulence and instability.
Thucydides, one of the most prominent ancient realists, stated in The Melian Dialogue, “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” This statement is especially relevant in this region, where over time certain religions and ethnicities have dominated others to maintain their power status quo. While the seeds were already sown by the inevitable power politics, external factors such as European colonialism, beginning with the Sykes-Picot agreement post World War I marked its entry into the modern international system.
COLONIALISM’S LONG-LASTING EFFECTS
Modernisation theory argues that under-developed and developing nation-states should follow a universal Western path for optimal development. However, the response of the WANA region has proved it false. The Europeans’ arrival as torchbearers for the region’s economic development caused turbulence in practically every nation-state. The lone distinction consisted of whether there were positive impacts or solely negative ones. The notion that peace and development go hand in hand, proved paradoxical with the advent of the Europeans in the region.
While Israel at least saw some positive impacts after years of violent displacement due to European colonialism as a result of gaining a Jewish homeland for themselves, Palestine’s condition turned into a political wreck as a result of its experiences with Zionism, which proved problematic when it took a cultural nationalistic turn, committing Spacio-cide (coined by Sari Hanafi) on the Palestinians alongside genocide. Alongside, its socioeconomic graph displayed a decline over time, coinciding with the large-scale Jewish settlement in and around the region.
UNENDING TALE OF PROXY WARFARE
Proxy warfare refers to a military confrontation taking place in a proxy land, away from the homeland involving one or more players directly or indirectly supporting state or non-state actors to further their strategic goals while undermining that of their opponents.
Following European colonialism, the region was entrapped into the neo-colonialism of the United States and the European nation-states, beginning with the Cold War era. The British as a result of rising violence between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine post-Balfour declaration (1918) relieved themselves of the responsibility to shift it to the United Nations (the US, implicitly) to decide. This resulted in Pan-Arabism with key players of the Arab world, especially Egypt, and Syria forming the United Arab Republic against the creation of Israel by the UN mandate of 1948. With each following Arab-Israeli wars, Israel became militarily, and technologically richer with the relentless support from the United States.
This resulted in two blocs in the region, one included Israel supported by the US and the other bloc by Arab states supporting Palestinians like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the like. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 provided roots to Hezbollah supported by Shiite Iran’s mobilisation in the country. This formed the present-day Axis of Resistance, a rebranded elite overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which includes Lebanon-based Hezbollah, the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad, Iraqi Shia militias and the Houthis of Yemen. The support to Arabs also witnessed an inevitable evolution of Russia (former Soviet Union) from supporting Israel’s creation to providing military aid to the Arab nation-states in their fight with Israel in the light of Cold War politics.
REPLICATING HISTORY- ISRAEL VS HAMAS
The blocs are relevant in the ongoing Israel’s wrestle with Hamas, which began on October 7, 2023. Repeating the history of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched massive attacks on Israel taking advantage of the people celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The only distinction is different and multiple players, adding to the graveness. The bloc supporting the Arabs includes the revived Axis of Resistance. Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree blamed Israel for instability in the Middle East, saying the “circle of conflict” in the region was being expanded by its “continued crimes”. The Houthis would continue to mount attacks “until the Israeli aggression stops”. For Hezbollah, Naim Qassem stated its clear purpose, “We are trying to weaken the Israeli enemy and let them know that we are ready.” Hamas officials have said that if Israel starts a ground offensive in Gaza, Hezbollah will join the fighting.
Europe is showing many voices concerning the humanitarian pause in the conflict. Both inter-divide and intra-divide are visible. For instance, there are countries such as Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain and Sweden most critical of Israel owing to their domestic politics, stressing issues of human rights and international law while Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and the Czech Republic are among those condemning Hamas terrorism on Israel. Intra-divide is apparent in the United Kingdom between the political parties as well as the public, thereby accusing the government of failing to be a critical friend to Israel.
Israel has no right to defend itself as it is an occupying power, Russia’s representative to the United Nations (UN), Vasily Nebenzya, said at an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, along with stating that Israel as an occupying power doesn’t hold the power to self-defence according to the International Court of Justice ruling in 2004 and resolution of the Palestinian issue through the UN resolutions is the pre-requisite to Israel’s security. Russia’s continuing support comes at a time per the national interests when it is itself being condemned by the West for its invasion of Ukraine, referring to the US as a hypocrite. On the other hand, White House spokesperson John Kirby said “We are not drawing red lines for Israel,” pressing relentless support for Israel. The US also supports the “humanitarian pause”, however, for the captives held by Hamas alone. It’s interesting to note that the precursor to Hamas, the Mujama al-Islamiyah (Islamic Centre) was allowed to raise proxy funds through Israel with the West (US) overhead.
The proxy warfare continues to the extent that it is no longer about the original issue involving peace between Israel and Palestine but the assertion of the influence of different state and non-state actors in the region. The US’s aspirations to urge mediation and peace in the region while continuing to unconditionally support Israel years after the Cold War has ended, appears to be paradoxical. Iran, a US rival, is benefitting by promoting propaganda against Israel to achieve its interests at the cost of catastrophic violence. Russia is manoeuvring as per its interests and taking advantage as the conflict is putting a shadow over its actions in Ukraine. The UN appears to be defunct which is reflected upon by its recent resolution about the immediate ceasefire and humanitarian pause. After all, it is regulated by the P5 nation-states which never come to a consensus, vetoing around the bush. Perhaps, the proxy actions by the external actors wouldn’t have been conceivable if international organisations like the UN had been sufficiently trustworthy as a collective security mechanism.