Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

On the Tightrope of Fear

The world is taking a dangerous turn. A huge fire and an appalling absence of firefighters. The international clinic is out of order and almost completely unable to receive the injured. The situation has never been this bad since World War II. What is happening is much more dangerous than the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Unprecedented fear surrounds our present world. Some people believe that Vladimir Putin is deeply concerned about Russia’s future and role. He considers the Soviet collapse a crime that stripped his country of its defensive lines and brought the storms closer to its borders.

A strong man is already an anxious man. He fears the magic of the Western model that made many republics remove the Soviet uniform. He fears the “color revolutions” that present the ruler with two difficult choices: drowning the squares in blood or handing over the seals to those “manipulated by foreign embassies.”

He worries about the accelerating pace of the technological revolution in the West and his country’s inability to catch up with it. He fears the power of the dollar that surpasses that of fleets and missiles.

Fear also spread through European veins. Germany admits that its army and arsenal are not sufficient to defend its lands. This makes turning to the American umbrella for cover a question of life and death, and every umbrella has a price. Poland is afraid that Ukraine will be the first stop in a war that may go beyond the current borders.

Mighty America is also scared. Putin is able to continue the war until he crushes Ukraine, as the allies once did in Berlin. It is afraid that the West’s attrition in the Russian war in Ukraine will be the gift of a lifetime to China’s frightening rise. Japan is anxious and trying to address its concerns with the American umbrella and the purchase of missiles. South Korea is testing its arsenal after the North Korean leader found a role for himself in Putin’s world.

The dinner was delicious, but the Iraqi evening led to a conversation about fears. The politician said this part of the world had long witnessed rivalries between great empires and populations. Rivalries ended with rivers of blood and hatred that passed down from one generation to another.

Former empires feel that they have been subjected to forced amputations. Iraq itself was born in an incubator of fear. As if it was born between the jaws of pincers: Iran and Türkiye.

The hardest suffering for a country is when internal uncertainties run into external fears. The fear of the Shiites, which later moved to the Sunnis. The Kurds’ anxiety over their identity and rights. The Arabs’ fear of the strong Kurdish presence. Türkiye is demanding a role that goes beyond its current borders and perhaps its capabilities. The same applies to Iran, which draws its “defensive” lines in the maps of others.

Revolutionary Iran has always been strong and fearful. Like Russia, it is scared of the West and its model. At home, the revolution is afraid of assuming the role of the state, because it believes that this would transform it into a normal entity governed by international norms and laws.

Iraq’s fear of Khomeini’s revolution was the first reason for the Iraq-Iran war. We can add to it Saddam Hussein’s desire to ignore the concessions he made to the Shah of Iran in the 1975 Algiers Agreement.

Syria’s fear of Türkiye made it play the card of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, until it almost caused a war between the two countries.

Iraq has spent many decades in distress. The country can only accommodate one person. Abdel-Karim Qasim was afraid of the role played by his collaborator, Abdel-Salam Aref, in the 1958 revolution, so he pushed him away and humiliated him. Abdel-Salam feared that Abdel-Karim would remain alive, so he did not spare him, and decided to execute him in the radio building in 1963.

Saddam was a master of fear and was quick to uproot the “poisonous seeds” in the country, the party and the army.

Fear did not fade away with Saddam’s departure. The American invasion upended Iraq. Some of those were terrified of the situation joined the resistance, and others turned to ISIS, and all kinds of fears resurfaced.

Many agreed on the federal constitution of Iraq, but then some fears were reawakened when Masoud al-Barzani was seen seated under two flags: Iraq’s and that of the Kurdistan Region.

Fear is the gateway to panic. Panic encourages elimination and abuse. This is the fear zone. The citizen is afraid of his neighbor who does not resemble him… Perhaps because he drinks from another well, or reads another book. We prefer perfect similarity and congruence.

We prefer to be a sea of numbers without reservations or distinctions. We have not been trained to live in a country where the guarantee is the constitution and that accommodates differences under the rule of law.

The politician said his heart aches when he hears about Lebanon: “This country is a cultural and civilized idea that we hoped to learn from. We rejoiced in its open lifestyle and studied at its universities and libraries. We used to celebrate a capital, where newspaper headlines were not identical and not written by one man. We believed that Lebanon, the bridge, would send rays of hope in our direction.”

“Unfortunately, mutual fears among the Lebanese, along with the uncertainties about the surrounding countries, led to the destruction of this beautiful experiment that was Lebanon with its natural diversity and its openness to progress,” he lamented.

“Above all, we need a cultural revolution that dispels this chronic mutual fear within maps and between them,” he urged.

In this fearful world, which is testing its arsenals and drones, small maps need a state and statesmen. Only the modern state alleviates the pain and reduces the dangers. Maps cannot be saved by illusions that go beyond their borders, nor can they be saved by narrow bets.

The dinner was delicious, but the Baghdad evening awakened the conversation on uncertainties in a world walking the tightrope of fear.