For decades, at least through the Cold War and into the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Middle East formed a highly conflicted, but rather durable “regional security complex” (Barry Buzan). It was defined by the geopolitical conflict between East and West, the region’s oil-dependent political economy, and rather stagnant political systems. Change was limited, but the “stability” the regional states seemed to provide was a false one at best. Seven brief points to sketch what we see today in a region in flux.
1. If only one major headline could be used to characterize the current state of the Middle East, it would be the dissolution of order. Systems of order in the geographical space stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf are breaking up on different levels. The established system of states and borders is obviously under pressure. Domestic order has been disintegrating in Syria, Yemen and Libya ; Iraq has been at risk of fragmentation for quite some time. Moreover, the normative and moral order of the region is under threat, particularly the never easy yet time-honored culture of coexistence between a rich variety of religious, confessional and ethnic communities.
By all appearances it seems that the disruptions and changes we have been witnessing since the Arab revolts of 2011 are only the first phase of a comprehensive transformation that will leave no country in the region untouched. Transformation can come through different channels, of course : evolutionary change, reform from above, negotiations, revolutions, war, civil war or any combination of the above ; it can also result from political as well as social, economic, demographic, technological or climate pressures.
But whatever the dynamics, it is difficult to imagine that ten years hence countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran will look the same as today in terms of their politics, economy or society.
2. In the Middle East, as everywhere else, all politics is local. Conflicts have local causes, mainly related to the dignity and rights of people, to the inclusivity or exclusivity of their regimes of governance. The revolts of 2011 – often referred to as the “Arab Spring,” a misleading term that is too seasonal and falsely implied quick and positive results – have largely failed. Tunisia is thus far the notable exception.
But the issues at stake remain, and the same applies to the generational experience that stagnant political conditions are not stable if large parts of the population feel excluded from the distribution of power, income and resources. Despite appearances to the contrary, religion is not the root cause of conflict in the Middle East.
But wherever states fail, or social contracts and societal consensus break down in the process of state failure, people take refuge in older, sub-state and often transnational identities. Confessional, sectarian and ethnic fault lines gain relevance, both as a response to and as a multiplier of deepest fears. Sectarian mobilization by policymakers and warlords alike, particularly along the Sunni-Shia divide, has led to a region-wide polarization at local levels – most clearly in Syria and Iraq – as well as regionally. There is little wonder that the essentially geopolitical conflict over regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increasingly been cast in sectarian terms.
3. The geopolitical balance of forces in the region is highly fluid. In 2011, Turkey, under the leadership of the moderate Islamist AKP, seemed to reap the major geopolitical benefit from the wave of revolts in the Arab world. In 2013, Saudi Arabia suddenly appeared as the leading regional power. In 2015 and 2016, Iran managed to stabilize its influence and acquire a quasi-hegemonic position, at least in the Arab East along the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.
This may or may not last. There is no stable balance of power in the regional state system, but rather a balance of mistrust that has thus far prevented the emergence of any stable regional coalitions or alliances.
Instead, relations between states seem to work on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. For instance, over the last few years we have seen attempts to establish a Saudi- Qatari-Turkish coalition, as well as a Saudi-Egyptian alliance. Not much of either remains today ; and no one should expect the recently formed Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance on Syria to hold for too much longer.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the defining element of the Middle East for decades, has morphed into a local conflict. It remains unsolved, and an upsurge of violence within the next few years is more likely than a settlement. But it no longer dominates political discourse or action in the rest of the Middle East. The dominant conflicts today are the regional conflict over hegemony between the two Gulf powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the war in Syria.
4. While the wars and civil wars in Yemen, Libya and Iraq are putting their respective countries at risk, the dynamics and outcome of the Syrian war will likely be a major determinant for the future of the entire region. All the political, geopolitical, social and sectarian conflicts in the region converge in Syria like under a burning glass. Originally a local power struggle, the conflict was quickly regionalized and internationalized. The number of external players with direct or indirect military involvement has been increasing by the year, and now includes, above all, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States. The “original” parties to the conflict – the government of Syria under Bashar al-Assad and the antiregime opposition, with its political and armed components – are exhausted.
Neither the government nor the opposition could have sustained their war efforts had they not been kept afloat from abroad. Russia, in 2015, began its direct military intervention explicitly because it feared an imminent collapse of the regime.
With more than half of all Syrians internally displaced or driven into exile, the conflict in Syria has produced this century’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. While differing over details, the UN, Russia, the US, Turkey, and the EU now all agree on the urgency of a sustainable cessation of hostilities and a political process that leads to inclusive governance and a modicum of power-sharing in Syria. Alas, all local and regional players do not necessarily share this position.
5. There will be no sustainable solution for Syria and no regional stability without some form of consensus and a balancing of interests between the relevant regional and international powers. However, even a cursory overview shows how the interests and priorities of these powers differ.
Russia is bent on demonstrating its great-power status and reestablishing itself as a main force of order in the Middle East, and has had some success in Syria so far. By the end of 2016, Moscow and Tehran had helped the Syrian government gain a substantial military victory by defeating the rebels in Aleppo. Russia then initiated a tripartite effort with Turkey and Iran to resume political talks between the government in Damascus and selected opposition figures, which effectively sidelined the outgoing US administration.
The priority for the EU and its member states lies in averting risks that emanate from the region. EU members have had to learn that it is simply impossible to wait for the conflict in Syria to burn itself out without creating new risks for Europe as a whole, particularly in terms of irregular migration and terrorism.
The priorities of the US remain unclear. The Obama administration was eager to reduce America’s over-commitment in the Middle East. It gave priority to the fight against terrorism while seeking to avoid being dragged into new conflicts. At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry spent enormous diplomatic energy on attempts to resolve conflicts, often in cooperation with Russia. We can assume that the Trump administration will follow most of the same approach, but with much less emphasis on the diplomacy part.
Saudi Arabia, driven by a deep sense of insecurity both in terms of dangers from within and its lack of natural and secure borders, will try to keep the US politically and militarily involved. Riyadh’s priority has increasingly become to prevent what the kingdom would regard as a hostile Iranian takeover of Syria and the Levant.
Iran is indeed seeking to establish a form of regional hegemony. In the absence of any real friends, and driven in part by real security concerns, it has been trying to gain influence through a rather crude projection its power, directly and through various proxies, into the countries of the Arab East.
Turkey’s interest generally lies in a stable Middle Eastern neighborhood, and in breaking the links between external and domestic security threats. However, this interest has translated into widely varying policies, even within the last few years. After unsuccessfully trying to export its own political and ideological model into parts of the Arab world, Turkish policies have become more realistic, giving priority to physically preventing a contiguous Kurdish belt along its own border with Syria and, on this basis, seeking to establish a great-power consensus with Russia and Iran.
6. Terrorism is indeed the main threat emanating from the region, and one of the main threats for societies and states within the region. There is no doubt that the totalitarian and terroristic state project of the Islamic State (IS) must be fought militarily and destroyed.
At the same time, it is necessary to realize that even the liberation of Mosul, Raqqa and al-Bab from the IS and the destruction of its military infrastructure will not in itself defeat IS ideology. Without a political transition towards a credible form of inclusive governance in Syria, without more political inclusivity in Iraq, and without a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an “IS 2.0” will sooner or later emerge. Needless to say, in the absence of such a positive evolution, we should not expect an end to the conflict in Syria, an end to sectarian polarization in the region, an end to the flow of refugees from Syria or a conducive atmosphere for reconciliation and reconstruction in Syria and in the mainly Arab Sunniinhabited parts of Iraq that so easily fell under IS control only two or three years ago.
7. While we cannot predict the future of the Middle East, we can imagine and frame its options for political and geopolitical development with the help of two historical metaphors : the Thirty Years War in Europe and the Concert of Powers in the 19th century. The former depicts a region in a generationlong period of unrest and violent conflict. It would not mean actual war being fought in all countries at all times, but rather a long series of wars, civil wars, revolts and other forms of organized violence involving the entire region as well as a host of extra-regional actors.
The latter would stand for a sort of Vienna Congress (or, as some prefer, a Westphalian Peace Conference), whereby the functioning states of the region, along with all influential external players, would agree on basic principles of coexistence that do not deny – let alone abolish – political, ideological and sectarian differences and conflicts of interests, but rather help to accept and respect them as the requirements of common survival.
Europeans, as the region’s closest neighbors, have a vital interest in supporting developments in line with this second metaphor. This will involve some unsavory compromises and agreeing to work with partners that are part of both the problems and the solution. Without regional partners, none of the conflicts will be contained, let alone solved. Ignoring or isolating difficult players does not inspire them to change. It is altogether easier to deal with difficult yet functioning partners than with failed states.