The Middle East is on the boil more than could have been expected a decade ago. It has been transformed into a zone of conflicts within conflicts, which have bedevilled the region from Afghanistan to Syria to Palestine to Yemen to Libya. It has gained the notorious reputation of being the most unstable, turbulent and insecure region of the world. Authoritarianism, violent extremism, human rights violations, social and economic disparities, shifting alliances and loyalties and foreign interventionism have come together to make the region highly explosive. Some might say ‘What’s new?’, as the region has always been on a dangerous edge. That may be so, but not to the same extent as it has been since the formation of the modern Middle East by colonial powers in the wake of the Second World War. The region is badly in need of structural reforms at the national level, meaningful cooperation at the regional level and deeper understanding of its complexities by outside powers at the international level.
Against the backdrop of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereby Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands and repressive treatment of the Palestinian people have become a perpetual source of anxiety in world politics, the 2001 and 2003 US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, were touted as enhancing the conditions for regional stability and security. Yet this was not to be the case. Not only have the Afghan and Iraqi tragedies become daunting for both the interventionists and their subjects but also more conflicts, iron-fisted rule, violent extremism, public unrest, and power struggles fuelled by major powers, national authorities and non-state actors have become a dominant feature of the Middle Eastern landscape.
The Afghan and Iraqi fiascos, emanating largely from an interactive relationship between the socially difficult and politically mosaic nature of the two countries and the United States’ inability to deliver peace, have placed the two states in the grip of long-term structural instability. Whereas the Afghan war has gone on for nineteen years with increasing violence and insecurity, which has prompted President Trump to seek an (as yet unsuccessful) political settlement of the conflict as central to a US exit strategy, the Iraqi situation has not fared any better. Although the United States pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, it left behind a broken country. The continued Iraqi turmoil in combination with the bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria dramatically altered the dynamics in the Levant. In Syria the so-called Arab Spring or popular uprisings, which commenced in Tunisia in late 2010, triggered a mass uprising against the Iranian-backed authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Instead of reaching a negotiated settlement with the opposition, the regime decided to crush the uprising. These factors enormously helped provide the necessary conditions for two important developments.
One was the rise of the so-called Sunni extremist Islamic State (IS). The other was the return of the United States as the head of a military coalition to combat IS, which succeeded in declaring a territorial Islamic state (khilafat) over one third of Iraq and Syria in mid-2014. IS’s religious extremism and politics of brutality were opposed not only by the United States and its allies but also by the Muslim world and the wider global community. However, the United States and its allies could not exclusively claim victory for folding back IS territorially by early 2019. Another coalition that played a more formidable role in the process was led by Russia, in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, in support of the Assad regime. This meant that two international coalitions, one opposing the Assad regime and the other backing the regime, deployed forces against IS as a common enemy. The US-led coalition also focused heavily on fighting IS in Iraq, where the United States, as in the case of Syria, made common cause with its regional foe, Iran. The latter vehemently opposed IS’s anti-Shia and anti-Iran stand. Although neither Washington nor Tehran ever acknowledged publicly that they were complementing one another against IS, a change of alignment and loyalty has never ceased to be a common occurrence in the troubled Middle East. It depends on who serves whose current geopolitical purpose.
Under the neo-nationalist and impulsive Trump this occurrence has become more common. While adopting a policy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran by cancelling the multilateral July 2014 Iran nuclear agreement—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and imposing harsh sanctions on the country, Trump has eased US opposition to the Assad regime. He has let Russia, Iran and Turkey (the latter is a NATO ally, but opposed to the Assad regime and yet tilts towards Russia and Iran because it has been disillusioned with its NATO partners) occupy the driver’s seat in determining the future of Syria. He recently ordered the withdrawal of 2000 US troops from Syria by claiming victory over IS. In the process, he also dropped US support for its most trusted ally in the Levant, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who had fought IS valiantly alongside US personnel in Syria.
However, after his action met condemnation from both sides of the US Congress and from his European allies, Trump back-pedalled to some extent by redeploying some of the troops, under the pretence of protecting the largely non-productive Syrian oil fields in the north, and warned Turkey against attacking the SDF. Ankara regards the SDF, or more specifically its People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist organisation and an extension of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting for the independence of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minorities over the last four decades, at a very high human cost. While ignoring Trump’s warning, Ankara negotiated with Moscow as the main force in Syria to achieve its objective of pushing the SDF back by 10 kilometres from a strip along its border—a strip where Russian forces have taken over abandoned US bases and engaged in joint patrolling with Turkish forces. In all, the United States’ Syrian policy has featured as much chaos as its handling of Iraq. Today, Russia and Iran call the shots in Syria. This, together with Iran’s having secured a formidable degree of sectarian and geopolitical influence in Iraq, places the entire Levant from Iraq to Lebanon under the Russo-Iranian axis, at the cost of the United States’ traditionally dominant role in the region and Israel’s growing security discomfort.
Meanwhile, Trump has provided unqualified support for Israel and Saudi Arabia and the latter’s allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as the main regional front against Iran, and augmented US-force deployment in the Gulf. He has rejected a passionate appeal from Congress to pressure Riyadh over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018 and to retrench US backing for the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Iran-affiliated Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the coalition’s operations have caused massive human misery and physical destruction.
Concurrently, while backing away from any kind of support for democratic reforms, the Trump administration has lately acted unconstructively in relation to the Libyan conflict, which commenced with the overthrow of the country’s dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, in 2011 as a result of a popular uprising and NATO’s intervention. The Libyan crisis has taken a severe toll on its population and economy, and the fate of the country has fallen into the hands of several warring groups. A UN-backed Government of National Accord has materialised in Tripoli, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. However, its position is challenged by the Libyan National Army, led by veteran field marshal Khalifa Haftar, and Trump has voiced his support for him, which can only prolong the Libyan tragedy.
Against this backdrop, not only does the Middle East remain riddled with conflicts, violence and insecurity but also its demographic composition has changed significantly in favour of younger generations, whose frustrations over appalling conditions in many of the constituent states have led them to engage in mass protests. Lately there have been cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic popular demonstrations in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan in pursuit of good and clean governance, democratic rights and freedoms, and better living conditions. Of all these states, the Sudanese have managed to take the initial steps towards a transition to a kind of democracy, though with considerable sacrifices on the part of those who have demanded it. Otherwise, the struggle between the authorities and the popular opposition in other concerned states has taken a steady course with no relief in sight. This has led some analysts to predict a second Arab Spring.
Yet, the forces of status quo that stifled the objectives of the first pro-democracy Arab Spring that resulted in the toppling of such dictators as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Qaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and fuelled the Syrian uprising are still in full force in the region. Of all the countries that experienced the Arab Spring, only Tunisia has assumed a democratic trajectory; the others have either gone back to authoritarian rule, as is the case with Egypt, or are drowning in perpetual conflicts. The status-quo forces are led by two rival actors: Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Despite recently having loosened up socially to some extent under the young de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is not about to move down the path of democratic political reforms. Similarly, Iran cannot be expected to transition from a politically pluralist theocracy with a network of supporting sectarian groups across the Levant and Yemen to a liberalist posture any time soon. The two Gulf powers are locked in serious geopolitical-sectarian rivalry, but neither is willing to see any sea change in the region. Both want to see the region altering in their favour, but not in any direction that could undermine their current domestic and regional settings.
At the same time, the public’s demand for structural change in many of the countries in the region is growing louder by the day. If the authorities fail to address popular concerns whose expression has already cost many lives, the Middle East remains ripe for more instability, violence and insecurity. It is these kinds of conditions that also provide the space for extremist groups, whether in the name of religion or other creeds, to become active. The two main extremist groups—al Qaeda and IS—that emerged in the conflict zones are still alive and kicking. They have franchised and extended their networks wherever they have found a power vacuum within an arena of conflict. In spite of the US claim of success against them, the two groups can be expected to maintain and possibly widen their operational capability as the old conflicts continue and new ones surface in the Middle East as an arena of frenemies.
The outlook for the Middle East does not appear bright. Most of the conditions that have given rise to conflicts, extremism, public protests, insecurity and tensions have not been addressed. US-Iranian enmity, Iranian-Saudi rivalry and Iranian-Israeli hostility, proxy conflicts, and challenges by non-state actors—Islamic or otherwise—are set to be the major components of instability and insecurity across the Middle East in the coming years. The variable that could dramatically change the situation is a possible military confrontation between Iran and the United States or Iran and Israel or both at the same time. Such a scenario is conceivable only if a beleaguered Trump decides, under the pressure of impeachment, to go for a foreign-policy diversion. Otherwise, all parties are fully aware that a war could be very costly for them and could easily trigger a regional inferno that no one could control. Recognition of this fact undermines the reason for a war but does not free the region from being a source of boiling discomfort for its inhabitants and the international community. To shift the Middle East towards a paradigm of stability there is an urgent need for structural reform at the national level, regional cooperation, and world powers’ constructive engagement in pursuit of both. This may not come soon enough for the suffering people of the region.