Daesh is not the point
Counter-intuiting the Middle-East
Peter Harling with Sarah Birke and Alex Simon
Granted: The pressure cooker on the cover of this e-book is an unsubtle metaphor for the social stress building up throughout the Middle East. It is also, however, an ordinary object that flavors everyday life in countries to which we, the authors, have devoted significant parts of our own lives.
Likewise, the rugs adorning these pages are meant as a reminder of the historical depth, the colorful diversity and the tightly-knit fabric of societies we first need to speak with and care for if we wish to understand.
Rugs in the Arab world are almost ubiquitous. They are there to sit and eat on. To pray on. To play on. In fairness, there are places where they are seldom found: in hotels, in restaurants, within the seats of power and bureaucracy – the more formal sides of any experience in the Arab world.
Stepping onto the carpet means entering a distinct, intimate space. One generally sheds his shoes, marking that transition to a more personal dynamic, where one’s origin, status, wealth or opinion may matter less than the state of his socks. For some reason, speaking barefoot to someone has an entirely different feel.
Rugs are of all kinds: cheaply made in China along some globalized pattern; home-woven to a rough design of unbeatable geniality; or so intricately ornate that they end up hanging, like masterpieces, on the wall. Some are so beautiful that folklore could only make them fly. They come in fabrics ranging from synthetics to silk. They may be tiny, or they may fill a hall; their price, which has little to do with size, can be just as big or small. The variety of techniques and layouts seen in handmade carpets can usually be traced back to the craftsmanship of a particular community, village, or even family.
Above all, though, a decent rug is often attached to its owner, with an unbreakable, invisible thread. Anyone who has purchased a carpet, in one of those shops where wily merchants will unfold dozens before you have a chance to back out, knows that it is almost a case of love-at-first-sight.
Rugs can be astonishingly effective in effacing boundaries. Arabs will enjoy Persian, Turkish and Kurdish rugs regardless of clichéd communal fault lines. In a mosque, the textured flooring puts all believers on equal footing. Many taxi drivers, among other voyagers, carry a prayer rug around, and as they kneel upon that rectangle the world fades into oblivion.
In the many households where we were made to feel at home, opulent or humble carpets may have been a sign of social rank. But they always did much more than signify status. They captured the warmth of the welcome. Some reverberated the light. They anchored a daily routine of meals and gatherings. In places, they changed with the season or the mood, on a rolling basis. Everywhere, they lent the room an air of openness, inviting in the process an equally unencumbered conversation.
This book is about people, not carpets. But when lives are as disrupted and minds as confused as they are today, objects have a surprising ability to remind us that all the tumult is, indeed, about human beings, whose profound depth is sometimes best captured by their personal or cultural belongings.
The Arab world into the unknown
In 2011, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess.
This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies, not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long.
Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule‚ or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are.
If commentary appears the same, events on the ground are not. On a domestic level, the region’s people remain more assertive than ever. Dissidents, both Muslim Brothers and liberals, have shown they won’t give up in Egypt, where they have spoken out against new laws banning protests and constitutional drafts allowing military trial of civilians. Syrians, despite the chaos in their country, talk openly about what they want, challenging both the regime and the opposition. Tunisia remains a place where parties are being forced to seek some sort of compromise. The environment in which this is happening has been transformed, too.
At a regional level, Iran has assumed a more overtly sectarian policy, which Tehran had hitherto tried to avoid; the so-called axis of resistance to Israel is detached from any major Palestinian faction; Saudi Arabia has opened a front not only against Shiites, but Salafi Jihadis and Muslim Brothers, leaving it largely divorced from the Islamist scene it aspires to lead; Syria is no longer a player but an arena for others to compete in; Israel is only rarely accused of joining the scrum. The most noticeable change to the international environment is the US’ relationship with the Arab world. Rather than grab on and take advantage of change of the sort the US has long called for, the superpower has focused on negotiations with Iran and a push at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, leading to strange shifts in its links with the region. It failed to define its interests in the Syrian context, missing out on what for decades was considered the prize of all regional struggles. It has allowed its relations to wane with its principal Arab partners, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It has moved towards rapprochement with Iran, a foe since 1979. All told, the Arab world is still at the start of a period of domestic, regional and international flux.
Rising costs of instability and stability
It is easy to understand why people feel that the revolutions have changed nothing. Today the region’s inhabitants find themselves in a worsening predicament. The costs of the last three years of tumult are real and rising. This explains why they put faith in narratives that rationalize events in ways that do not do justice to the scale and persistent nature of change, but provide psychological comfort. Old thought patterns offer the poise that events have shaken. Change in itself is now seen as a risk not worth taking while stability and security have become the number one goal. But, this, the only thing the old order had to offer, is now unattainable: Egypt continues to impose a curfew in the Sinai as its army deals with a low-level insurgency. Libya is growing more lawless by the day, as the recent kidnapping of the prime minister and deadly clashes in the centre of Tripoli and Benghazi showed. Nostalgia for the days of repressive regimes has surged, nowhere more so than in Cairo where general Abdul Fattah Sisi, the army chief and minister of defense, is heralded as the demi-god of a Pharaonic people. In other places such as Saudi Arabia, Gaza or Jordan, citizens resign themselves to their current rulers.
This has led the Arab people’s desire for dignity and feeling of empowerment to turn into a sense of apathy. Political actors have fallen back on behaviors that are caricatures of their pre-2011 policies. In Algeria, the regime meets creeping threats and rising expectations with nothing less than the political embalmment of ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is set to run for a fourth term in April despite being incapacitated by a stroke last year. The Syrian regime, which now rules over rubble, has nothing else to offer than more Bashar Assad. Hizbollah will do anything to save him in the name of fighting Israel, even if every measure it takes actually weakens it on that front. Saudi Arabia is throwing money at problems in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Israel and the PLO have another go with a peace process that is along predictably unworkable lines. Egypt is desperately trying to revive the spirit of the 1952 military coup that founded the Republic, although the social contract it embodied has fallen apart.
Radical change has proven prohibitively costly in numerous ways: bloodletting, social breakdown, economic slump, eroding institutions, fading borders, plummeting morale. Many of the problems that originally fueled the uprisings, such as unemployment, rapid and haphazard urbanization, a widespread sense of disenfranchisement and humiliation, distrust in the political establishment and unaccountable security services have paradoxically been exacerbated as a result of the turmoil they originally triggered. But the unambitious aim is to muddle through and preserve the status quo, uninspiring as well as increasingly high-priced, albeit in the longer-term.
Much-needed, cautious reform programs embarked on before the uprisings are today being reversed. Some countries are enlarging their creaking bureaucracies to buy social peace. As investments generally decline, the informal sector is playing an ever-growing role compared to the formal across the region. Those countries that are doing better, at least in terms of stability, such as Algeria or some of the Gulf monarchies, are resorting to well-oiled bad practices: populist redistribution, subsidies and cash hand-outs that do little to redress the underlying issues. For example, when the uprisings of 2011 got underway, rather than give more political space to opposition parties that pose little threat to those in power, the Algerian government raised salaries and launched a program to give money to anyone under 35 with a business plan, or the appearances thereof.
Tentative political openings, as occurred in Morocco and Jordan, have all but been aborted now that the fear of collapse appears sufficient to hold countries together. Virtually everywhere, the stability agenda is empowering security apparatuses whose behavior has, on the whole, worsened. They are bolstered by a popular desire for stability that depressingly echoes the argument long used by the region’s dictators. Tellingly, 2013 saw much worse repression of dissent than 2011 did. And Syria, ominously, tells everyone that no amount of violence against one’s citizens is beyond the pale.
So the region has not changed quite as much as we expected. Underlying structures remain and in some cases negative features of these societies have been reinforced. These include stale political cultures that continue to decay; corrupt and brutal security forces; conflicts between rural and urban populations, the capital and provinces, rich and poor, religious and secular, old and young, not to forget sects, tribes, ethnicities and other parochial identities. Women have not gained despite playing a vital role in all the uprisings. All told, the “youth revolutions” are in part giving rise to a new wave of talented people leaving in despair, exacerbating the region’s brain drain. The pre-existing trend of Christians departing from the Middle East has picked up pace. Geopolitical strategies are shifting, but remain more of an obstacle to change than a vector of transformation, continuing to act as a distraction or excuse for those threatened by any alternative to the old status-quo.
The change that was
The Arab world is paying the price for a wretched twentieth century; obstacles are deeply entrenched in the region’s history and geography. The last century started with an appetite for revival, emancipation, empowerment and modernity similar to what we witnessed in 2011. But Western imperialism would have it otherwise, with European powers and the US saddling the Middle East with their proxies and clients. Through support to the Zionist vision of building a national state in Palestine, it led to a parachuted “Jewish issue” after centuries of relatively functional religious coexistence (albeit one in which a Jewish aspiration to found a nation could find no expression). Legitimacy in the region became externalized, a function of outside support, regional rivalries and the conflict with Israel rather than stemming from domestic support.
With the mid-century military coups and concomitant emergence of leadership cults centered around a savior or father of the nation, legitimacy became personalized, creating a troubling political culture that bedevils the region to this day. When wealth flowed from oil, legitimacy was monetized. The growth of Islamist movements as alternatives to failing republics and monarchies gave regimes a domestic peril to play up as they repressed their societies. The century ended in political bankruptcy. Legitimacy boiled down to a threat: the status quo or the promise of chaos. Today Tunisia and Yemen are the only countries where there is any sign of an attempt, however tentative and fragile, to renew the political culture. Elsewhere, that pledge stands fulfilled.
The region’s countries are all struggling to deal with a source of genuine change that is less visible and dramatic but equally as important, and which was happening long-before 2011: the evolution of societies. These societies have modernized remarkably. Over a century, people have moved into cities, improved their levels of education, developed new patterns of consumption, and are connected to the outside world through modern media. Their sense of self is more complex, ambivalent and confused than the peasants and elites of old. We have therefore witnessed some of the same kind of evolutions as elsewhere in the world: the rise of individualism, cynicism vis-à-vis ideologies, and a drift toward identity politics.
Very little of this change is reflected in the region’s political systems. They offer virtually no representation or redistribution to the broad urban constituencies that emerged from the rural exodus, although this migration erased much of the cognitive and geographical distance that separated them from the elites. As ruling parties decayed, power became vested in ruling families and their minions, floating above the people rather than rooted in their midst. Regimes both profoundly corrupt and ideologically bankrupt hindered individual fulfillment while outlining no collective ambition. Pluralistic societies where secondary identities were expressed more forcefully as the nation-state concept receded were contained through divide-and-rule tactics, when devolution and regulation were needed. Only the security forces showed any form of modernization, as technology increased the breadth and depth of their reach. But this only improved the rulers’ ability to dominate and diminished their urge to evolve.
This disconnect is the backdrop to the discontent in 2011 and subsequently. It now has to be addressed both in countries that are undergoing dramatic conflicts and others that have been spared so far. Real stability will only come once that connection is restored, rather than the temporary stability attained by parking tanks in streets on a Friday when protests spill out after Muslim prayers, imposing curfews, repressing dissidents and waving the red flag of impending chaos. Put simply: political systems need to be sufficiently in sync with their own societies. That doesn’t necessarily entail a democratic system, but one that does cater to its people’s needs for participation and redistribution.
But that is more easily said than done. The traditional elites are fearful of change, perhaps now more so than pre-2011, and do not appear to have this in mind. Medium-term survival is trumping long-term vision; their obsession with preserving their ascendency open-endedly is plunging their countries into the abyss. Their best argument is that the emerging elites, who could only be Islamist, are part of the old paradigm and have proven to be as power-hungry and inefficient as their predecessors. The old fallacy of stability is holding back the need for trial and error, however cautious. This bodes badly for the future. Cycles of discontent will likely repeat themselves, with the costs and barriers to change increasing each time.
Chaotic transition within chaotic transition
The transitions are both set amidst and impacting an international setting in flux, which in turn can create further obstacles or allow societies more room to explore. The uprisings suggest the region is being orphaned, thanks to a mixture of the West’s reduced ability to shape events and its lack of desire to do so. NATO’s military intervention in Libya revealed the West’s lack of broad legitimacy and available resources: intervention was limited and Libya has now been left to muddle through. The endless, escalating tragedy in Syria has taken the trend even further. Diplomats have disingenuously focussed on unrealistic goals, calling for Assad to step down or pushing for peace talks, regardless of whether conditions are propitious and without wanting to play any real role in matching rhetoric with action. It beggars belief that one of the worst conflicts in the region, one that impacts many traditional American and European interests, has failed to evoke any credible response, or worse, intelligible policy.
In particular, as said, a fundamental change has occurred in Washington’s relations with the region. Thanks to a combination of the trauma of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent isolationism, the purported strategic pivot toward Asia, the shale oil and gas revolution that has diminished the relevance of Middle Eastern energy producers, and inward-looking domestic priorities, America is narrowing down its interests in the region. The Obama administration has delineated two areas to put energy into: improving ties with Iran, both toward and through resolution of the dispute over its nuclear capabilities, and another lackadaisical push at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In pursuing welcome but risky talks the US has shown unusual willingness to ignore Israeli lobbying against engagement with Tehran, as well as consequences for other allies like Saudi Arabia, and the fallout of further Iranian empowerment in places like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. If that trend were to continue, we might expect an American posture in the region that would look as if turned on its head.
The US isn’t leaving the region in the sense that it is withdrawing all its assets from it. It will continue to devote considerable resources to securing oil and gas routes, notably in the Gulf, because failing to do so could create instability that would affect the global economy and therefore the US. But it is giving every indication that it seeks to rid itself of most other responsibilities it got entangled in. It is proving as unreliable a partner for its longstanding state allies (dropping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, criticizing the Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and now estranging Saudi and Israel) than it has been for its more transitory non-state ones (the Palestinian Authority, March 14 in Lebanon, or the Iraqi tribal awakening of 2006). But it has not swapped them for new allies aligned with its interests, like democrats in Egypt or the opposition in Syria. Instead it accepts the status quo—in Egypt’s case, the military.
For now, US aloofness and mixed signals have spelled significant mayhem. Friends are baffled, left to their own devices and having to improvise hectically. A clear example is Syria, where the US contracted out to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar the task of dealing with the armed opposition, and now seems keen to withdraw further. Foes such as the Syrian regime, Hizbollah and the Iranian Republican Guard are equally perplexed, tempted to overreach in the absence of a clear US point of reference that has served in recent decades, for better or worse‚ to structure the regional balance of powers, whether by securing the Gulf, pushing back on Soviet designs, negotiating peace deals with Israel, or containing alleged rogue states. New players have jumped into the void, adding to the confusion more than producing decisive outcomes. Syria, which has fallen victim to a mix of Iranian hubris, Saudi adventurism, Qatari ambition, Russian obstructionism and French brinksmanship, not to mention its own leadership and a host of other complicating factors, best encapsulates this state of affairs.
The international environment in which the region is evolving is undergoing a chaotic transition, too. The international order has changed as we move out of the unipolar, post-Cold War world. This has proved an obstacle more than an opportunity. The UN is malfunctioning even by its own standards, as shown clearly in Syria, where Russia has not just pre-empted Western interventionism, but vetoed the most benign, humanitarian resolutions. Fragile international norms are eroding, because the Western-dominated international system that articulated them is stalemated. The prohibition of chemical weapons (whose repeated use in Syria ultimately benefited the regime), international humanitarian law, international justice, and concepts like the “responsibility to protect” increasingly appear losing battles. Regional organisations are largely impotent. Emerging players challenge the existing order but for now do little to build a new one.
The framework is therefore a mixture of gridlock and vacuum. There are no broadly appealing ideologies, in the East or West. Economically, Western capitalism, a frequent substitute for failing political paradigms‚ is in crisis. Globally, people are trying to navigate the economy and society for individual survival rather than big ideas. In many quarters, once again apathy towards political engagement is growing, manifested in part by a retrenchment into one’s immediate community, isolationism, or virulent nationalism. Democracy is being tested; populism is order of the day. Modernity is bringing an identity crisis to the region as it has elsewhere. The role of Islam, which for a century has been perceived by many thinkers and citizens around the Arab world as a solution to all its ills, remains ill-defined and on trial. As a reaction, Islamic ideology is becoming more assertive, less open to change and ever less likely to provide a fruitful structure.
In theory, the flux offers opportunities. In practice it is difficult to minimize the costs and optimize the benefits. Of course revolutionary change everywhere is messy and takes time, and it is unclear at the point of change whether it will succeed. Reading a book on the French revolution while sitting in today’s Arab world is an eerie experience: almost everything seems contemporary and familiar, over two centuries later and in a very different part of the world. In both cases, and unlike revolutionary episodes in Russia or China, the confusion is made worse since there is no clear narrative, model, or vision. Most people know what they want—freedom from oppression in one form or another—but not what positive attributes that freedom should have.
May good things come to those who wait
But the authoritarianism and malaise of the current period is not the same as that prior to 2011. First, the region has an unprecedented level of awareness. Although its people do not feel able to change anything, all that is changing is doing so in visible ways. The utter incompetence of traditional elites, the vacuity of promises of reform, the final collapse of long-eroding social contracts, the pluralistic nature of societies, the exclusionary character of their political representatives and sectarian instincts are just some of the things on display. People feel confused mostly because they do not want to see realities, not because the region remains as opaque as it once was. Issues are discussed openly, if aggressively. In this sense, a public space has appeared and widened; and no amount of repression seems to be bringing it to a close.
Second, the silver lining to the many low- and high-intensity conflicts is that many of them, suppressed for years if not decades, had to play out. Not all will find solutions, let alone lasting ones, but some will. This may offer a refreshing departure from an increasingly intricate and intractable set of deadlocks the region has hitherto found itself hostage to.
Third, in this context, the challenging, slowly and painfully, of all the old narratives—pan-Arabist, nationalist, various shades of Islamism, anti-imperialism, the resistance to Israel—is ultimately positive because none of them work. They are used reflexively to fill a vacuum, to cover up for a lack of program, vision or ethic, and they are constantly belied and undermined by reality. Events, in a sense, are calling every narrative’s bluff.
Fourth, the region is emerging from a century in which a succession of European imperialism, the Cold War and US hegemony denied it any genuine opportunity to define its own future. It is only just beginning to realize it will have to sort out many of its problems by itself. In 2010, US soft and hard power had reached its nadir after a decade of disastrous war on terror. Foreign interference has left a legacy that will continue to bear down, and meddling from outside will not end entirely, but the trend points toward a more autonomous Arab world. There again, this promises to be slow and painful, but opens up a whole new horizon.
This may be aided by the region’s generational shift. The youth may not always be as reformist as one would like to think of them: the Lebanese ability to follow in their forebears’ petty footsteps is a sad reminder of that. But today’s generation was born as all political systems essentially went bankrupt and is coming of age in an era when certitudes are being challenged and undone. These young men and women often have a strikingly different outlook relative to their parents. For one thing, the political culture that plagues the region has less of a hold over them. Their vague, multiple, nihilistic but powerful aspirations drove the uprisings, although they couldn’t ultimately guide them. Just as the legacy of existing political structures and cultures won’t soon be swept away, this generational shift will only slowly come to bear. For now, those who have more to lose than to gain remain an obstacle to change, but that will not last forever.
Finally, the contagious effect of outrage, as displayed in 2011, may have a hidden corollary: the contagious effect of success. Although each and every country is profoundly different, we have witnessed the region’s startling ability to function as an integrated space as protests swept from one country to the next. Starved of achievements and doubting itself, it wouldn’t necessarily take much to be reenergized collectively, if one or the other paths taken individually showed signs of tangible success.
That, of course, is the optimistic view. Until then, for those living through the tumult, it is all about surviving to see another, more hopeful day.
The Islamic State through the looking-glass
They will say, “Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched.”
One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.
This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.
The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas—Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shiites draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship—a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is).
This is a sign of the times we are living in, not just in the region but beyond. We are emerging from a relatively well-defined, intelligible world into a moment of chaotic change and reinvention. Out of fear of the unknown and a need to categorize what is happening, we use flawed parallels and historic references. One day it is the end of Sykes-Picot borders; the next the Cold War is being revived. Iranian officials like to view current events through the lens of the 1980s, when they fought a heroic and traumatic war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his backers.
In the West, rather than naming things that trouble us, we tend to use vocabulary that is designed to be reassuring rather than true. It doesn’t take much to see a national unity government in Baghdad instead of a profoundly unbalanced and dysfunctional cabinet; we say Iraqi army for what in reality is a worn-down collection of abused and often corrupt men who fled as the Islamic State advanced and left most of the fighting to Shiite militias. We posit ceasefires in Syria to refer to surrenders under the regime’s bombardment, siege and starvation; a Free Syrian Army (or, more recently, “moderate rebels”) to describe unruly militias fighting Assad. The worst things get, the more we seem willing to describe things as we wish they might be rather than as they are.
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The Islamic State is one of many forces tearing the Arab world apart. But it evokes reactions of a unique magnitude, not least a profound malaise across the region and a global coalition of 60-odd countries proclaiming they will defeat terror. Its crimes are better publicized than others‚ because their perpetrators advertise them so effectively. Some are uniquely loathsome, notably the taking of Yazidi captives as sex-slaves. But the group’s henchmen are not the only ones to rape, to maim, to execute summarily, and even to decapitate or burn alive. Arguably the greatest horror of all in the region—the use of chemical weapons on a large scale against civilians in the suburbs of Syria’s capital, Damascus, in August 2013—prompted little more than a guarded, ambiguous and technical response, which led to the on-going effort to dismantle Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program.
Militarily, the Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions have been relatively easy to stymie, with airstrikes and skirmishes proving sufficient to break its momentum toward Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as push it back at the Mosul dam, at Baghdad airport, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane and in Sinjar. In all likelihood, the group belongs to a category of actors that grow beyond their ability to sustain themselves. This doesn’t mean it will disappear into thin air—it is likely to stay—but that its reign of terror will be overtaken by other developments in an increasingly overlapping set of regional crises.
In a region in flux, we have already seen the influence of successive actors quickly wax and wane. Until recently, Turkey and Qatar both appeared to be on the ascendant. Ankara’s soft power seemed unstoppable on the eve of the region’s uprisings in 2011; Doha peaked when Islamists gained power in their aftermath. The United Arab Emirates, long the practitioner of a low-key foreign policy, is now projecting its newly-minted military capabilities in Libya and Iraq and aggressively leading the regional charge against the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably in Cairo.
As traditional Arab powerhouses such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt have all been brought down by civil strife in recent years, Saudi Arabia has had to assume an uncomfortable leadership role. This is despite the fact that it lacks legitimacy abroad, not to mention the institutional capacity to follow through in its foreign policy (and other fields). Iran, a more efficient player whose star has been steadily rising (in good part due to the mistakes of others), seems to believe it can bully its neighborhood into accepting its dominance. Its leadership alternates between condoning the most wanton forms of violence on the part of its allies and trying to convince itself and others that it is a force for stability and coexistence.
The same overreach afflicts a range of non-state actors. The foremost Syrian Kurdish faction, the PYD, declared in 2013 that it had created a Kurdish state within Syria, known as Rojava, but this is not a done deal. The Houthis in Yemen, an armed group rooted in the Zaydi minority found predominantly in the north, have conquered the country’s capital Sanaa and taken over the state, but they have neither the political experience nor broad enough backing or basic resources to effectively hold onto it. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt acted like it owned the state and its future for the whole of 12 months; its members are now locked-up, in exile or in hiding. Hizbollah, a particularly competent Shia armed group in Lebanon, behaves both like a regional power and a narrowly sectarian force (for instance by giving the red carpet treatment to the catastrophically sectarian former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki in late 2014, in what could only be understood as a misguided display of Shiite solidarity), seemingly unaware of the growing tension involved by broadening its sphere of activity while narrowing its popular base.
In the extreme state of confusion and anguish that the region finds itself in today, it is relatively easy to enjoy a brief momentum, but extremely hard to retain it. The Middle East offers a dispiriting landscape of failed leaders, in which anyone who seems to have a plan tends to raise expectations that are quickly dashed. A profound, prevailing sense of cynicism and fatigue ensues. As a result, cultivating conflict, catering to factional fears and playing up the lack of alternatives remain the primary strategies of regional actors.
All too often the Islamic State’s opponents resort to such counter-productive tactics to cloak and push their parochial interests. When Kurdish factions in Iraq cried out for help as Erbil appeared on the verge of conquest by the Islamic State, they cynically sent troops to take over the coveted, ethnically mixed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iran continues to pump money and arms into Iraq’s Shiite militias, which are waging what is essentially a cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs. What is left of a national state in Iraq that is supposed to reach out to Sunnis is thus further eroded. Iran’s spymaster Qassem Suleimani routinely appears in photos with warlords orchestrating sectarian crimes; the Iranian air force targets areas subjected to communal cleansing, all in the name of fighting the Islamic State‚ and with Washington’s blessing. The Syrian regime has also taken to bombing civilians in places where the US is hunting extremists, blurring the line between Washington and itself. In doing so it is effectively redefining the “war on terror” as an endorsement and extension of its own repression.
Equally cynical is Turkey. After helping the Islamic State by turning a blind eye as hundreds of foreign fighters crossed its border into Syria, Turkey then used the group’s attack on Kobane, right on its border, to pressure Kurdish factions involved in a decades-long insurgency on Turkey’s own territory and lobby Barack Obama for a policy reset that would include ousting Bashar Assad. Some Gulf monarchies share the latter objective, but unlike a reticent Turkey, they have joined the anti-IS coalition with the intention to push a mission-creep agenda from within. Many Western governments, keen to encourage anyone fighting the Islamic State, seem willing to work with existing and potential partners who only superficially share their goals.
All in all, the Islamic State has prompted a response that combines all the ingredients necessary to make it stronger: Western over-the-horizon military intervention; a regional arms race as a variety of countries rush to provide money and weapons to improvised proxies (whose factional and sometimes sectarian agendas further degrade decaying state institutions and exacerbate social fault lines); and growing repression of civil liberties and empowerment of backward-looking (but formally secular) power structures. With enemies like these, the Islamic State hardly needs friends.
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In this brutal theatre of the absurd, the Islamic State has taken centre stage, capturing our rapt attention as if it was the paramount problem to be solved, not the by-product of all the other unaddressed problems. Conventional explanations of escalating violence— sectarianism, the secular-Islamist divide, the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the barbarity of a nihilistic version of Islam (a morbid culture implicitly defined as Sunni, although Shiite militias and secular forces commit plenty of monstrous crimes of their own)—eclipse the underlying dynamics in the region, which were adequately diagnosed in the early stages of the uprisings of 2011.
The region’s deep-seated problems include, but are not limited to: the struggle to define political legitimacy; the disappearance of grand ideological paradigms (replaced at best by nostalgia for an elusive golden age or millenarian utopias); the retrenchment of the state and rise of social movements, notably Islamist, that fill the ensuing vacuum; the transformation of cities as a result of social and geographical mobility; the narrowing educational and physical gap between rich and poor; and the information revolution and its redefinition of individual, collective and transnational identities. The collapsing regional order is dialectically connected to its international counterpart, which has become an additional source of confusion and escalation rather than restraint and regulation. (And the recent drop in oil price will only exacerbate economic shortcomings in states that rely on patronage more than participation.)
Many of these problems are not new: if anything, the region is closing a past chapter rather than opening a new one. In the Arab world, the twentieth century was one of ill-fated experiments, accumulating problems, aborted solutions, and growing investment in containment as the answer. The West’s primary concern in the region has always been containment: of Soviet ambition, of Arab radicalism, of both Sunni and Shiite Islamism, of Iraq and Iran, of the “axis of resistance”, etc. This, combined with a succession of military half-victories (such as the Suez crisis of 1956, the October war in 1973, and Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel in 2006) and traumatic defeats (the aftermath of the World War in 1918, the Arab-Israeli war after Israel’s creation in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Gulf war in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003), has resulted in a pervasive climate of self-doubt and a multifaceted identity crisis.
The uprisings of 2011 compounded the problems. Their outcomes exposed the failure of the region’s elites— whether secular, Islamist, mainstream religious, minority-based, security-minded, or tribal—to even start to address any of these challenges. Elements of Arab societies that were hailed as offering alternatives to suffocating states, such as new business elites, turned out to be fatalistic: they grew accustomed to dealing with malfunctioning, kleptomaniac power structures. Rather than form a lobby for change, they preferred to lie low or to throw their lot in with whomever could offer even a glimmer of stability. The only elites that seem to have something useful to say are artists and social entrepreneurs, mostly of a younger generation whose ability to influence events remains, for now, minimal.
It is the persistence of this vacuum in Arab leadership that makes for the boom and bust cycles mentioned above. The former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad, Turkish President Recip Tayyib Erdogan, the Lebanese Sunni preacher Ahmad Assir, and the Islamic State’s “caliph” Abu Bakr Baghdadi all have, in very different ways, made audacious, revivalist claims to fill the gap, just as Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, Hizbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi warlords like Qays Khazali have done on the other side of what has become a sectarian divide. Their egos, elated in their moment of stardom, continue to drive them even as their actual popular base narrows down to factional constituencies unable to support their larger-than-life ambitions. Soon enough, their attempts to lead the region come down to preaching to the converted.
In parallel, some of the more established, traditional forms of leadership have attempted to reassert themselves, with no more success. The clearest example is the reconstituted Egyptian regime under Abdel Fattah Sisi—an archetypical case of outgoing elites jumping on the shortcomings of emerging ones to make a comeback, while doing nothing to address their own previous failure. This dynamic is in evidence both within countries undergoing transition and on a regional scale, as regimes spared any serious strife, such as the Gulf monarchies and Algeria, play up the ill-fortune of others to justify doing more of the same. Religious establishments, such as Azhar in Cairo, the Marjaiya in Najaf, or the richly endowed ulema of Syria have yet to produce anything to recapture the moral authority they once had, abandoning the region to a disastrous tête-à-tête between various strands of secular and Islamist hysteria.
Two radical shifts have occurred in the vacuum that opened in 2011. The first is the unprecedented appearance of a public space. The explosion in politicized use of social media has given a voice to people who have long been avid news consumers, but whose opinions had been restricted to the private realm. The second is a transition from hierarchical to more organic movements, from top-down to bottom-up, from the elite to the popular. New political movements do not represent an ideology but rather express, and come to embody, a sentiment, a zeitgeist. They tap into a variety of frustrations, fantasies and fears and build their influence on that basis, rather than starting with a clear vision, developing the cadres and structures to carry it out, and striving to take over power and transform society in line with a programme.
These new movements articulate populations’ need for relative security, an intelligible frame of political-cultural reference, and representation when there is no trust in the state. They serve concrete interests in the context of an ongoing process of decentralization, whereby power, notably state power, is ever more diffuse. They impose themselves through comparative advantage at a time when all players are poor performers, setting low benchmarks in terms of popular expectations. Their core appeal is to be found in competing narratives of victimhood.
The Islamic State is a perfect example of this trend, but it is not the only one. Shiite vigilantes in Iraq fulfil the same functions, and a number of more traditional actors are being transformed along these lines. Under the veneer of cohesiveness offered by Bashar Assad, the Syrian regime is fragmenting and radicalising as militias increasingly run the show. The same is true of the Syrian opposition, and both have equally failed to present a vision that could transcend the emotions of the constituencies they purport to represent. Hizbollah is shifting its focus from battling Israel to fighting fellow Muslims and expanding its recruitment base in ways that undermine its claim to being a highly professional, non-sectarian, ideologically consistent resistance movement. Kurdish factions that once embraced politics and governance are redefining themselves in a militaristic way that rallies popular support and distracts from their many shortcomings.
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As the region veers toward more organic, communitarian forms of leadership, the West is only making things worse. Rather than think strategically and long-term, it has prioritized some forms of violence over others, introduced an arbitrary moral hierarchy of the different actors, and provided political support and military aid to whomever happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is either directly or unwittingly endorsing the rise of pro-Iranian Shiite militias operating under cover of the Iraqi government; further militarizing a fragmented landscape of Kurdish factions connected to a number of regional fault lines; and deepening the already horrendous Syrian conflict by striking jihadi targets and half-heartedly rehabilitating the Assad regime with no overarching plan. Measures that Western governments conceive as a politically neutral, technical responses to the immediate threat posed by the Islamic State will have unpredictable knock-on effects for years to come.
This is just the latest iteration of a Western posture that has proven remarkable inconsistent, wavering and short-termist. Over the past few years we have jumped from one idea to the next—unlike Russia and Iran which, whatever one thinks of their policies, have clearly decided what their goals are and developed the strategies and devoted the resources to implement them. The West quickly moved from skepticism that anything could change in the very early stages of the Arab uprisings in 2011 to naive enthusiasm for instant democratization, taking that idea all the way to regime change in Libya (with a similar, tacit, unfulfilled pledge in Syria). It soon became fearful of the empowerment of Islamism through elections and refocused on side effects such as the humanitarian crisis or the rise of militancy, all the while getting caught up in futile processes such as Geneva peace negotiations for Syria. By early 2014, the West was throwing its hands up in the air and trying to distance itself from the region, before returning in response to the Islamic State’s take over of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June of last year.
It is bad enough that we did not assess our long-term goals in the region, but we have not even seen through a single one of these knee-jerk responses. It is as if each problem that came along distracted Western governments from the previous one. The West’s confusion has compounded the region’s distress rather than playing a steadying role. The Islamic State is both the result and the seeming escape hatch for the West from the accumulated effect of its various half-baked policies.
The US in particular continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror that thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. To have one would require addressing root causes of the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria: systemic political failure. It would also require admitting that the state-building process has derailed in Iraq and that there is no longer a government and an army to work with. Instead, the US continues to find endless reasons to believe that Syria can be left to fester longer; to further empower Iran by not confronting it about its role in the region; and, generally, to pretend to assume a role in a region it sees as economically less relevant, strategically marginal, politically immature, and beset with crumbling states and proxy wars that are beyond Washington’s ability to fix or to win. In a sense, aerial strikes have become a way to simplify the issues while keeping societies and their complexities at bay.
This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy-making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements that later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy (i.e. a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means). The irony in our approach to the Islamic State consists in identifying it as a paramount threat yet deploying mostly symbolic tools (harsh words, pinprick strikes and lackadaisical pledges about dealing with its root causes) to address it. The movement, in that sense, has become a reason to do less about the region’s troubles, although it clearly emanates from them.
In fairness, the region’s problems are eminently complex and there are no easy solutions. Moreover, there is no reason to expect or even to wish that our governments, given their track record on the matter, would sort out the fate of peoples around the globe. At the same time, the stakes are real, and it is all too easy to dismiss the catastrophic events in the region as a form of Arab exceptionalism. The Arab world is more integral to our own societies than we want to admit. Events there resonate not just with immigrant constituencies; most of the social, economic, political and ecological stresses at work in the region are in fact global. It is a testing ground for our ability to do more than fall back on identity politics and containment, the costs of which are clearly rising. The war on the Islamic State is the latest illustration of the increasingly exorbitant price to pay for a failed and still much-needed transition in the region.
The answer to “what to do about it” lies in being practical. Our governments can best play a steadying role by clarifying their intentions (and therefore closing the gap between overly ambitious stated goals and mediocre means); by seeing through what they can readily achieve (not least adequately addressing the uniquely dangerous Syrian humanitarian crisis, whose consequences in terms of emigration, radicalization and destabilization of neighbors are among the gravest challenges we face); and by systematically tying justified support to existing state structures to the most basic and overdue reforms (which would entail security sector reform in places such as Iraq and Lebanon). What the region truly needs from the Western hemisphere is sympathy, patience, consistency and adequate resources. In other words, what we most need to give are precisely those currencies we seem to have in shortest supply.
The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy
To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object‚ a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loathe and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim‚ let alone seeking solutions.
With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris‚ acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory.
The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter Daesh) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our national interests as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.
More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors‚ cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy.
The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.
Behind all of this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil‚ typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism”‚ whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense.
The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite. In a region so chaotic and fluid, monomaniacal policies will unfailingly make matters worse, compounding polarization when success rests on building bridges. The result has been a dizzying spectrum of overlapping and ever-shifting alliances, rivalries, and proxy wars that regional and international players continue to escalate despite usually lacking an end game.
Increasingly, this state of affairs feeds into self-enforcing loops where governments seek to reverse or simply distract from their past failures by doubling down on the most belligerent aspects of what were initially ambivalent, multifaceted postures. Iran has shifted in Iraq from a relatively balanced approach to overt, unqualified support for Shiite militias that further alienate Sunnis, divide Shiite and Kurdish constituencies, undermine what is left of a state, and will leave a lasting and dangerous legacy of nihilism; the same can be said of Iranian policy in Syria. Russia has evolved from exercising and imposing restraint in Syria to throwing its lot in with one camp and escalating the war in a manner that almost automatically invites one-upmanship from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Yemen and the Sinai, Riyadh and Cairo have filled their own political vacuum by adopting war as a policy by default. In all cases, fresh escalation makes pulling back all the more difficult.
Western states have veered in the opposite direction, attempting to cut their losses and save face in the process. The White House, for all its posturing toward Daesh, has in reality come to view the Iranian nuclear deal as the one issue where it can hope to make a difference, resulting in a largely unintelligible withdrawal from the region that has sucked others into the void‚ exacerbating the deadly confusion it struggled to grapple with in the first place. In Europe, half-baked attempts at democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging Islamists, developing a humanitarian response, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being eclipsed by one idea: accepting whatever power structures exist that might protect against the Islamic State.
Underlying all of these tendencies is the disturbing reality that the Middle East has reached a state of such abject convolution that quite literally no one can altogether grasp the dynamics at play, let alone articulate a constructive path forward. In this milieu, everyone seems to be nurturing his own illusory, revisionist vision of a region where his own views would ultimately dominate. Listen to the various parties, close your eyes, and imagine a Middle East that would stabilize through the embrace of Western values; or submit to rising Russian influence as the only sensible alternative; or accept inevitable Iranian leadership; or roll back Persian hegemonic designs decisively; or rid itself of the Islamist cancer; or finally reinvent its true self by bringing the secular anomaly to an end. Now open your eyes, shake your head, and take another Valium.
Our challenge is to resist two temptations. The first is the comfort of our own hopes, fears and biases, which we are tempted to substitute for hard-headed analysis, in the process compromising any chance of a coherent and far-sighted policy. The second is the desire to retreat altogether in the face of the Middle East’s complexity, washing our hands of problems that we helped create and that will continue to affect us profoundly and unpredictably.
The rehabilitation of Western policy in the Middle East will rest, therefore, upon a paradigm shift. Its potential contours are outlined in this essay’s conclusion, but a first step is to explore the dynamics that have brought the Middle East to its current state and will continue to shape the region for years to come.
The reluctant superpower
A starting point is to recognize the extent to which the United States, for all its reticence, remains a focal point in the Middle East’s tumultuous geopolitics. Friends and foes alike continue to define their narratives and courses of action on the basis of what they guess are the White House’s intentions. The Syrian regime always kept an eye on the response from Washington as it gradually crossed every possible red line. Russia would not have launched its war on Syrian soil were it not convinced that its Syrian opponents, unlike its Afghan ones in the 1980s, had no real backing from its rival of old. Iranian officials often seem to posit that the victory of their “resistance camp” will have less to do with their own achievements than with the U.S. giving up, caving in, and somehow joining their side. By the same token, traditional Western allies, who have only grudgingly and sulkily formed policies of their own, cannot entirely rid themselves of the idea that any serious way forward will see Washington reclaim the lead.
U.S. policy or lack thereof must therefore be analyzed as an organizing factor. What you could call an Obama Doctrine has indeed been forming, albeit tacitly. It amounts to three things. First comes the pivot, which never was geographical per se (from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, say), but thematic: President Barack Obama has very little interest in much of what defined twentieth-century international affairs: militarism, territorial conquest, dirty wars, civil strife, democracy promotion and even human rights.
He has internalized‚ arguably faster and to a far greater degree than necessary‚ America’s declining ability to shape the fate of other people around the globe. His main forays into foreign conflicts rest on the overuse and digitalized mediation of signals intelligence and killer drones, which are intentionally designed to hyper-personalize threats and warfare so as not to wade into the depth of other societies. His dream world is one in which nations make their own decisions and solve their own problems while the U.S. continues to exercise leadership (of a quasi-hegemonic nature, perhaps) in what truly unites them: an integrated economy, the internet, ecological challenges, the financial superstructure, etc. And the Middle East tends to be increasingly marginal in such respects. Since when, indeed, can oil prices plummet even as violent instability consumes ever broader swathes of the region?
Second, the Obama administration has been managing its relative disengagement by empowering regional actors to do more for themselves‚ based on the assumption, by now serially disproven, that their best interest would happen to coincide with U.S. preferences. Parts of the region were treated as natural spheres of influence for neighboring states, which could be expected to ultimately seek constructive solutions for their own good. Some officials thus envisioned that Iran would work to shore up the state in Iraq and at least marginally reform the regime in Syria‚ not undermine the former and reinforce the latter. They pushed Saudi Arabia to take responsibility in Yemen, ending up with a war they didn’t want but feel forced to ostentatiously endorse. Other stakeholders have been getting the message that establishing facts on the ground is the best way to go with this administration: while Turkey was pushing for some form of no-fly-zone in Syria, Russia jumped right in. Officials in Washington were taken aback, but still managed to convince themselves that Moscow would come to terms with the regime’s gradual erosion and would help, one way or another, secure a transition.
The third component of the Obama doctrine is a form of fetishization of the state. Historically, the U.S. has always been a particularly poor partner for non-state players in the region, be it in Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. Under the current administration, traditional discomfort and skepticism have only grown, to the point of making meaningful engagement with any component of the Syrian opposition virtually impossible. Although it would be too politically costly to admit publicly, despite its anti-Assad rhetoric the White House is more focused on maintaining the existing power structure in Syria than taking the risk of upturning it. In Iraq, U.S. policy boils down to preserving the remnants and, in reality, the fiction of a state, which entails curtailing Kurdish secessionist aspirations (while arming Kurdish factions to fight the Islamic State, which arguably will achieve the opposite effect), training a few army units to conceal the growing dominance of Iran-backed militias, and dealing primarily with a powerless prime minister whose authority is undermined at every turn by said Iranian proxies.
Critically, this fetishization of state partners is ill-suited to the region of today. Of all potential regional partners, Egypt is disempowered and inward-looking; Turkey is viewed in Washington as suspect; Saudi Arabia raises growing reputational issues; and Israel at the best of times hardly is a vehicle for influence. This partly explains why, at the White House, Iran has emerged as a potential partner by default, although none of its actual policies would suggest so. (If only the enemy of my disappointing friends could be my friend.)
The crumbling superstructure
The problem with this state-centric paradigm is that it has coincided so precisely with a moment of historic weakness in the Middle Eastern state system. In the 1990s, the weakening of the state, which was already obvious in places, could still be explained away as an anomaly: Lebanon was recovering from its civil war, Syria was saddled with an aging tyrant, and Iraq was under grueling international sanctions. It turns out, in hindsight, that they were forebears of what has become the new normal.
The Arab uprisings revealed how dilapidated state structures are, and how willing ruling elites are to sacrifice them to their own survival. Arab societies mobilized in opposition to the bankruptcy of their national institutions, typically with a view to changing governance rather than changing governments—calling, in a word, for less regime and more state. Almost everywhere, their leaders pushed back by reinvesting in everything that made them regimes in the first place: repression and radicalization, cronyism and patronage, and the fear of chaos as principal sources of domination.
This process has profoundly undermined the belief in and desire for the state. Most Iraqis, Syrians or Lebanese have given up hope entirely, not to mention Palestinians; who would even think of building a state for the latter when the model seems to be crumbling everywhere else? Many across the region, notably among the elites, no longer aspire to a state for all, but beg for any power structure—at best a regime, at worst a large militia—that can protect them from another part of their own society seen as threatening, at any collective cost.
That is the stuff of regional politics: competing narratives of victimhood being substituted for any pretense of growth or progress, culminating in what may be called the “militia-rization” of the political sphere. The Middle East was reshaped during the twentieth century by all-encompassing intellectual paradigms (the various -isms), programmatic visions of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity, Jacobin nation-state building, and the centralization and militarization of power. Much of that has been swept away, or survives as a derelict and perfunctory frame of reference. Amongst today’s key players, almost no one purports to do more than fight some existential enemy that happens to be conveniently indestructible. Fear-mongering in itself is nothing new, and was always part of the mix. What has changed is that, with rare exceptions, there is nothing else, no positive agenda, no economic or political master plan what so ever. Politics have become almost strictly emotional and regressive.
Indeed, virtually all forms of leadership across the region do little more than tap into the sense of persecution felt by constituencies whose boundaries break down the nation-state model. And everybody is a victim. Iraq has reached a stage where Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis and smaller minorities all stake a legitimate claim to extraordinary levels of suffering and aggression. Alawites in Syria are involved in wiping out the Sunni underclass for fear of their own annihilation. Iran and Hizbollah draw heavily on a Shiite tradition of martyrdom as they lend a hand in generating its Sunni counterpart. Saudi Arabia is pushing back on Iranian encroachment in ways that help make Tehran’s case that it is on the defensive. The obsessive logic of victimhood carries over into the domestic stalemates of places like Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, where all players find justification for their parochial interests, their hubris and their powerlessness against the decisive menace constituted by local rivals and their external backers. This is, of course, self-perpetuating: the more a given actor victimizes its rivals, the realer its own claims to persecution become.
In other words, the very conflicts that undermine what is left of the state have become, for the ruling classes, a primary source of legitimacy, a distraction from a backlog of problems they don’t want to solve, and a resource for further entrenching and enriching themselves. It should therefore be no surprise that war has, in many cases, become policy by default, leading incidentally into an all-out arms race at a time when no superpower is there to impose any restraint or define rules of the game. In this sense, Washington’s efforts to step back and cede power to regional governments has meant endorsing the very forces fueling the Middle Eastern nation-state’s self-destruction.
A key component of this process is economic: parasitic elites have sucked the life from the state structures off of which they live, sacrificing in the process any notion of protecting and empowering other segments of society. Generally, politicians don’t even try to redress the malfunctions of the state: they use them to generate income (through corruption) and submission-inducing anxiety (through the fear that dysfunction will give way to collapse). Après moi, le deluge. The ensuing breakdown of existing social compacts naturally creates tensions, which they manage by playing one segment of society against another.
Economic elites have been in on the region-wide skimming scheme, in which fortunes are made mostly on the basis of privileged access to markets, through connections to decision-makers and at the expense of the state. The region has generated enormous wealth, which never begins to trickle down because it is captured in remarkably unproductive ways. Banks and investments funds are a dime a dozen, sitting atop immense capital that does not fill the state’s coffers (given low or absent taxation), does not generate much employment (by diverting cash into real estate, intangible products and foreign assets), and hardly supports local entrepreneurship (due to an excessive focus on major construction projects and mature private equity, seen as low-risk and high-profit). As states have wound down their ability and ambition to provide services to their societies, public resources have been siphoned off through privatization, leaving ordinary citizens dependent on politicized patronage networks, low-level corruption, kin-based solidarity and unregulated economic activities—an ever-expanding informal economy.
This state of affairs has not come about overnight. It is the climax of a process decades in the making: the Middle Eastern nation-state as we know it was built upon securitization, repression, and patrimonialism, with regimes binding themselves as tightly as possible to their state apparatus while assiduously subverting any prospects for more broad-based and authentic political and social institutions. The brittle structures that resulted were never stable, although it was far from certain that their implosion would be so sudden or spectacular.
Today, regional and Western elites alike have increasingly wedded themselves to a self-defeating policy of conservatism, grasping at the remnants of an ancien régime in which reliable tyrants generally kept their unruly societies under wraps. Rather than evolving and forging a new path forward, key actors from Washington and Moscow to a host of Arab regimes have sought to restore, primarily through violence, a pre-2011 status quo which was never sustainable to begin with and which becomes more illusory by the day as regional governments continue‚ in the name of stability, code for self-preservation‚ to hack away at their own and other states’ already compromised foundations. The outcome, of course, will not be a return to what was, but the region’s continued and accelerated self-cannibalization.
The poster-child for reductive, backward-looking politics and flailing, Sisyphean stabs at reviving a bygone status quo is the international campaign against Daesh, a monster that has grown out of and taken root in the Middle East’s decaying political structure. The group’s potency can be attributed to an immensely complex set of interconnecting circumstances, including but not limited to the US invasion of Iraq; the bankruptcy of alternative sources of Sunni Arab identity; the information revolution; and the Arab uprisings and subsequent crumbling of the regional superstructure as described above.
Rather than grapple with these deep and diversified root causes, Washington et. al have insisted on treating Daesh as a military problem that may be bombed back into its box and, ultimately, out of existence. The policies emanating from this fallacy are not just futile; they actively add fuel to the fire. In combatting an enemy which feeds on sectarianism, Sunni Arab marginalization, failing state institutions and the ensuing security vacuum, just about everyone is pursuing tactics that push these phenomena to new heights. Washington’s whack-a-mole bombing, Russia’s more muscular equivalent, the haphazard escalation by regional opposition backers, Baghdad’s handover of the state to Shiite militias pursuing a scorched earth policy, Tehran’s support for said militias, Damascus’ deepening reliance on Iran and Hizbollah and its determination to obliterate any portion of the country it can’t keep for itself‚ all are sowing the seeds for many more years of mayhem precisely because they are deepening, rather than plugging, the void that Daesh emerged to fill.
Chaotic devolution of power
As the superstructure crumbles and the traditional top-down organizational framework recedes, new, organic actors are taking shape through a de facto, chaotic process of decentralization and privatization. Nationalities remain fixed but everything contained within them appears to be on the boil. Something has already begun to rise from the ashes of the state system as we know it, although it remains to be seen precisely what it is. While we cannot hope to anticipate the outcomes, a constructive approach rests on studying the social undercurrents at play and seeking to organize rather than resist this process.
At the heart of this reorganization is the degree to which the region’s social and demographic fabric has begun to reinvent itself post-2011, on a scale and with consequences that we have yet to apprehend. The current context is defined by an alignment of factors: the destruction of entire cities, with virtually no prospect of reconstruction in the foreseeable future; multiple, overlapping waves of internal and external displacement (many of which remain under-reported, such as the flight of Egyptians from Libya, or the departure of Levantine Shiites from the Gulf); a lock-down of Western societies, closing the traditional safety valve of emigration to the “developed world”; an internalized brain drain redirected from the West to the Gulf, leading to a migration of the region’s intellectual center of gravity to cities like Dubai; the emasculation of the educated middle-class in places where it is needed to define a better future; the re-mobilization of old diasporas and multiplication of new ones; the list goes on.
Against this backdrop, the chaotic devolution of power is occurring on all levels. While conflicts are destroying many of the traditional cultural anchors of an Arab and Islamic belief system, identities are being deeply reshaped mostly outside the framework of national, regime-driven narratives. The virtual public spaces that have emerged in the wake of the information revolution make for a bottom-up formulation, discussion and negotiation of new narratives. New forms of Sunnism, of Shiism, of secularism, of localism are gestating. Never before, arguably, has a pan-Shiite identity been so vivid. Sunnis by contrast have to contend with kaleidoscopic fragmentation. Anecdotal evidence suggests atheism is on the uptick. And all sorts of parochialisms are being reinforced.
A particularly destructive aspect of this devolution is what one could call “militia entrepreneurship”, which takes many forms in different contexts. In Lebanon it mostly comprises the revival of neighborhood gangs; Syria and Iraq are witnessing the cannibalization of state structures and the colonization of empty spaces by armed groups operating under a variety banners, including Daesh and Iran-backed Shiite paramilitaries; in Yemen and Libya, militias essentially vie for resources in a sophisticated economy of war. In much of the region, violence has asserted itself as the only source of wealth redistribution, and the primary vehicle for individual social ascension. Often, combatants on different sides are in fact ideologically interchangeable, fighting for a living more than a worldview.
In this context, Daesh is introducing a new model: a decentralized network that rests more on acquiescence than adherence; internal coordination using modern communication technologies; a loose and evolving narrative; a governance paradigm that puts little on offer but doesn’t necessarily obstruct quite as much as predatory regimes or pillaging militias; and a combination of pragmatic engagement with their environment and utterly ruthless violence in overcoming any resistance. The Islamic State itself may recede, but the bottom-up dynamic that shaped its design is likely to be replicated.
There is, it may be said, an element of constructiveness to the chaos. As the superstructure fails to provide, societies and individuals are doing more for themselves through privatized, ad hoc solutions, creating informal socioeconomic and political structures to fill the vacuum. In many countries, most basic services have already shifted to the private sector; when this frequently fails to satisfy, households must improve their lot through initiatives of their own. The urban landscape is ever more dominated by informal habitat: Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp seems to be inaugurating a whole new era by becoming the first informal city in a region of informal neighborhoods. Even the provision of security is increasingly the object of devolution, all the way down to individuals who cannot place their trust in relevant institutions, and activate their networks to anticipate, identify and address threats (feeding, again, into the increasing dominance of militias in their various forms). Paradoxically, societies appear empowered even in the desperate act of emigration, which has developed into a sophisticated, connected economy that individuals navigate using the wealth of information made available through social media.
One thousand and one shades of grey
This tectonic shift—from top-down authoritarian regimes exercising strict control over their societies to burgeoning grassroots, communal identity structures—poses immense challenges to Western governments, who for decades have felt comfortable only dealing with central authorities. The sheer level of fragmentation is, to say the least, intimidating: even relatively nuanced discussions are rendered abstract and reductive by the constant and accelerating multiplication of identities and factions. Virtually every constituency we might speak of can—and, for the sake of meaningful analysis, must—be broken down into sub-constituencies whose fast-evolving composition, alliances and enmities quickly become dizzying.
An intelligent conversation will, for instance, distinguish the principal actors among Kurdish camps of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi lineage, but only a select few can hope to parse the umpteen subsidiary acronyms and the political and military rivalries they denote. A well-informed analyst grasps the policy-relevant distinctions between Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, but what about the difference between Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib as opposed to in Daraa? Even the Sunni Arab tribes with whom the American military partnered in Iraq in 2007-2008 are more complex and fractious than they were a decade ago, having developed new factions and fault-lines under the continued strains of war and repression. The list goes on, and only gets messier.
The central lesson of 2011 was that Middle Eastern societies, in all their ever growing complexity, could no longer be ignored. Policymakers and commentators have been quick to forget it, hastening back to the comfort zone of shallow “strategic thinking” in which one ponders whether Assad may not be the lesser evil or Iran a more effective partner than traditional allies. To a baffling extent, these conversations occur in complete oblivion of popular feelings, social trends, economic factors and the basic issue of legitimacy‚ as though these were not precisely the factors that turned the region upside down almost five years ago.
This is not to say that meaningful analysis is nowhere to be found. It is almost always available to some degree, but its volume and influence are dwarfed by those of the more emotional and reactive lines of argument. Most troubling of all is the frequency with which nuance, when it does rise to the surface, is shouted down or ignored outright in deference to reductive and preordained conclusions that better comport with our worldviews.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq is, of course, the textbook example of bending reality to conform to our wishes. But what of the West’s non-policy in Syria? Disturbed by the carnage but, from the beginning, unwilling to take any action that might stop it, Western officials have sought refuge in a seemingly endless string of wishful thinking. In the very early stages president Bashar Assad would save the day; soon thereafter the regime would inevitably fall; the silent majority would ultimately have the better of it; its economic base would crack and crumble; an Alawite coup d’etat was in the works; a hurting stalemate could only force negotiations; Russia was about to leverage Assad’s departure; and some would have list go on, with the defeat of the Islamic State by Russian strikes, Iranian troops and sectarian militias, after which all would undoubtedly be prepared to negotiate a civilized endgame. Meanwhile inaction, from the start, was justified with reference to the fear of chaos, even after a surreal, nightmarish chaos had long since taken root and begun to flower.
Daesh has provided an escape of sorts, allowing Washington and its allies to finally do something while not, in fact, doing anything. Through its calculated use of ultraviolence, the group has built itself up into an epitome of evil: the clear-cut, black clad enemy all crave in a landscape otherwise defined by innumerable and ever-shifting shades of gray. Even better, it doesn’t present the conundrums of a regime to topple, an identifiable army to destroy, a partner to reform, a conventional economy to sanction or an enemy to diplomatically engage. It is an elusive adversary dwelling in forsaken lands, which lends itself to shadow fighting, in the form of senseless strikes against fleeting targets, and a feel-good public relations crusade.
And some continue, puzzlingly, to indeed feel good about it, or at least pretend to: the killing of this or that famous jihadist is celebrated, and President Obama touts Daesh’s “containment” the very week that the group breaks out and strikes in Beirut and in Paris. And then more bombs are dropped, because Daesh is indeed evil, because the punishment‚ however ineffective‚ is cathartic, and because nobody knows what else to do.
The nuclear antidote?
Other than Daesh, no single issue since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings has carried quite as much psychological and emotional baggage as the Iran nuclear deal, an achievement which has, for many, taken on the role of a sort of anti-Daesh, a clear-cut positive agenda one could pursue without the burden of ambivalence.
Any available analysis has been almost entirely derived from and driven by binary positions taken in favor of or against the agreement, which would have made some sense if there were any way of forecasting its outcome. The amount of hyperbole used in one direction or the other was bewildering: while opponents decried a Faustian bargain, sympathizers celebrated a “triumph of diplomacy” that would, in time, make the world better -- a rush to conclusion reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2009 nomination for a Nobel peace prize, even before he had truly settled into office. It is remarkable that a particularly complex negotiation, delivering a technical document frankly unintelligible to non-experts, and whose effects will take years to assess, would prompt such thoroughly polarized reactions. They have everything to do with what both sides project onto the deal.
The least interesting camp, analytically, is the opposing one. The fears evoked by Tehran’s re-legitimization and empowerment are pretty straightforward for countries and people that view Iranian foreign policy as a threat. Most supporters of the deal, not least Iranian officials themselves‚ make no mystery of their satisfaction at the fact that it comes at the expense of Israeli and Saudi interests. Many go further and argue that is should serve as a basis for an entirely new strategic paradigm, in which Tehran would become a central partner for Western governments‚ a source of angst or anger not just among so-called “traditional allies”, but also many ordinary citizens across the region who interpret Iran’s behavior as hegemonic. They may be mistaken, but it will take more than words to convince, for instance, millions of Syrians subjected to chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and barrel bombs deployed by the “axis of resistance”.
These concerns are understandable, although we may debate the extent to which the agreement would in fact introduce something fundamentally novel as opposed to reflecting and endorsing dynamics already at play: Iran’s ascent and assertiveness; the Arab world’s disarray; Western ambivalence and powerlessness; and Israel’s relative estrangement from the U.S. At this stage, it updates rather than replaces, so-to-speak, the region’s incredibly dysfunctional operating system. Its short-term outcomes, for that matter, are already in plain sight: Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention kicked in as a preemptive consequence of the deal in the making, and Tehran continues to escalate support for its proxies in Iraq and Syria.
More intriguing are the often tacit but nonetheless redemptive, grandiose hopes vested in the nuclear deal by its proponents. Although they typically have been quick to hide behind the argument that the agreement had only limited aims, these in no way justify, precisely, the amount of energy, capital and hyperbole they devoted to it. Rather, they flow from the transformative powers of a diplomatic breakthrough, which would see Iran open up to the world, reinforce the more pragmatic strands within its polity, and endow its society with the means to exact political change. From there, the sky is the limit to our eager expectations: Tehran could only, in due time, inch closer to Western views about stability in Iraq, transition in Syria, de-militarization of Hizbollah, normalization with Israel and Saudi Arabia—a brave new world with a “regional security infrastructure”. All told, the agreement is less supported (and, symmetrically, rejected) for what it does than for what it may do.
There is, meanwhile, no particular reason to dismiss the countless, more ambiguous scenarios one can all too easily imagine. Iran could choose to comply within limits while using carefully calculated provocations to both enjoy sanctions relief and maintain a politically expedient level of tensions with the U.S. in order to preserve the regime’s ideological underpinning. It may implement the deal irreproachably while finding reasons to pursue the exact same regional policy; indeed, if the dismal performance of its allies in Syria and Iraq, the inflammatory role of the sectarian militias it backs, the dangerously rising tensions with Riyadh, and its loss of blood, treasure and soft power could not convince it otherwise, it’s unclear how Western engagement will.
Besides, purported hardliners and pragmatists in Tehran have‚ for all their competition at home‚ shown no visible disagreement on regional issues. In any event, the Supreme Guide having just turned 76, the current political landscape that revolves around him gives us little indication of what the future holds one way or another. The keen desire to believe in diplomacy’s transformative power for the better is mysterious in light of the recent precedent with post-Soviet Russia, which has become more trouble than good news. The parallel, as always, has its limits, but remains a cautionary tale if there ever was one.
The audacity of hope
The roots of such optimism are therefore to be found not in articulated thinking but in a curious combination of Western failure and faith. We are at the end of a remarkably short-lived Western era, which has bestowed us with a set of potent beliefs and nothing to uphold them. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the U.S. inherited the world, took ownership of its problems, and controlled its international system of governance, the West also happened to enjoy relatively strong economies, confident societies, no clearly-defined enemy and no serious pushback.
Over twenty years we developed a new approach to conflicts, in which our interests and ambiguities would be wrapped up and veiled in the narrative of “conflict prevention and resolution”. As was the case during the Cold War, we would project power for the greater good, but this time in a more scattered way, through peace-making or -keeping, the imposition of a set of binding norms, the containment if not removal of rogue states, and by supposedly helping societies realize their democratic potential.
With time, our obvious double standards, the accumulation of operational fiascos, and growing resistance to this agenda worldwide reinforced the quest for a new paradigmatic enemy, sought and found in the struggle against an ill-defined “terror”. The development of a Western-styled police state, the closure of our borders to people in need, and the increasing resort to mindless strikes, primarily designed to keep societies and their problems at distance, flow from there.
The Arab uprisings came to compound all the intrinsic contradictions and shortcomings of our posture. In a matter of five years, the whole agenda was turned on its head. In a nutshell: Libya nailed the coffin of regime-change; Egypt of democratization; and Syria of human rights and humanitarian intervention. The UN plunged back into paralysis. Weak economies, anxious societies and governments increasingly skeptical about their own ability to shape events decisively have put the Western moment of the 1990s and 2000s behind us. As all else failed, the concept of an amorphous war on terror, once associated with a divisive George W. Bush administration, has won over many of its strongest critics.
Enter the Iran nuclear deal. Not only does it come in to save us, it is hoped, from our disastrous track record of dealing with the Arab uprisings, but it redeems some of our calamitous military interventions, diplomatic snubs and destructive embargoes. The agreement comes across implicitly but forcefully, in many Western narratives, as a triumph of genuine Western values‚ as if we were crying out loud: this is what we truly stood for all along. At its backdrop, everyone is expected to ultimately see the light, and understand that Syria needs a transition, that Iraq and Yemen should be inclusive, and that the nuclear freeze is for the better good. As if other players‚ still engrossed with fighting enemies they intend to defeat and wars they want to win‚ will one day wake up and embrace the rehabilitated conflict prevention and resolution agenda.
The sense of redemption attached to the nuclear deal has much to do, more particularly, with the Iraq invasion and its catastrophic knock-on effects. This is ironic in more ways than one. First, the deal will entrench and possibly exacerbate the fallout of the Iraqi tragedy, further disrupting the regional balance of forces by expanding an Iranian presence that sadly boils down to supporting militias. This trend might well have continued regardless of an agreement, which is precisely the point: the deal has strictly nothing to do with redressing the Iraq blunder, and our feelings about the latter should not affect our analysis of the former. Incidentally, Obama has done nothing to end the Iraq war; he has simply washed his hands of it and passed it on.
Second, the dogmatic, hyperbolic, binary debate surrounding the nuclear issue has suspiciously too much in common with the climate that prevailed in the run-up to 2003. The neocons and their supporters had had an epiphany: war was to be the solution. Just knock down the obstacle of tyranny, and the best in some foreign society will take over, putting it back on track with the normal course of history; empower the pragmatists, the moderates, those who share our values, and they will triumph over the hardliners, in a millenarian understanding of politics pitting good people against the forces the evil.
Today, the more enthusiastic advocates of the deal come dangerously close, with a tweak: everything but war! Diplomacy, engagement, economic transformation are the solution. Given the messy situations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, Iran became the showcase for a U.S. policy driven everywhere else by what remains an ill-defined opposite of war. (Even the fight against the Islamic State is mostly a public relations device, rather than a military campaign that allocates appropriate resources in the pursuit of realistic objectives.)
The problem with both the neocon proposition and its liberal rejoinder is what they have in common: the obsessive rejection of one extreme of the foreign-policy gradient; the excessive faith in the other, as if international affairs did not take place in an imperfect world of muddled outcomes; and the assumption that Americanization of the other, in some shape and form, can be the desired and expected consequence—a uniquely American form of bipartisan naiveté. The Iraqi invasion was, notwithstanding other motivations, largely the product of emotional, romantic visions of America’s ideological righteousness and its emancipatory power, which we still see at work today.
In this sense, there is unexpected continuity between Bush and Obama, despite the latter’s efforts to portray himself as the former’s antithesis. A potentially important factor in the psychology surrounding the nuclear deal is the coincidence of strikingly similar political transitions in both Tehran and Washington. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George Bush were outsiders, representative of the depth of their respective societies, decisive but instinctive, inspired verging on millenarian, in conflict with the more sophisticated elites and projecting the worst stereotypes of their country abroad. Their successors, Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama, belong organically to those sophisticated elites, are highly cerebral and calculating, are disconnected from the uncouth masses but also from essential parts of the apparatus of power itself, and spectacularly redress the reputational issues stemming from their brasher predecessors—except, that is, in the Middle East, where their image is often worse.
In a word, just as Obama was the best leader some Iranian officials could hope for, Rouhani was this U.S. administration’s dream come true. The nuclear issue made for a civilized, complex, intellectually arousing discussion with tough but urbane Iranian negotiators— the very contrary of the dirty wars, uncomfortable moral dilemmas and emotional mess otherwise presented by the Middle East to an administration essentially fatigued with anything Arab. Not surprising the two sides could connect.
But that is precisely the reason to be cautious. The polite chess game that could play itself out in the comfort of fancy hotels is off the table. Now, back to earth, with the real-life challenges of implementing the agreement and managing its unintended or unexpected consequences. If the Middle East was prevented from ever bursting into an insulated negotiations room, the negotiators themselves now have to step out into the wilderness. It has been striking, in recent years, to witness how easily and enthusiastically Tehran would be sucked in and engrossed in all its Arab neighbors’ turpitudes, by contrast with the White House under Obama. Here the parallel stops, and Iran brings no particular sophistication to the issues. It is up to the Americans to shed their proverbial Manichaeism and accept that the Middle East is overwhelmingly‚ and perhaps increasingly‚ shades of gray.
The right to ambivalence
In conversations with outside observers, just painting things as they are all too often raises accusations of being pessimistic. Rather, commentators and policymakers tend to jump on anything that they perceive as a source for optimism, grasping at piecemeal or speculative achievements while waving off the ambiguous, frequently ominous dynamics that lurk in the background. Daesh, they point out, is on the backfoot, but what will become of the territory it has lost to devastating bombardment and sectarian militias?
However much we may crave one, there will be no triumph in the foreseeable future; it is unlikely, too, that we are anywhere close to a turning point for the better. Prepare for years of false hopes, real dangers and, in the best of times, least bad options. As the old order comes crashing down, a new one will only slowly emerge. It will doubtless proceed from some combination of the current set of failed elites, policies and structures, and the new generation whose formative experience was precisely all this failure.
How, then, can we best navigate the road ahead, whose terrain is as dangerous as it is unpredictable?
A central goal must be to establish a measure of clarity and continuity after a half-decade of vacillation and ad hoc, reactive efforts to keep pace with a fast-changing region. American Middle East policy since the Arab uprisings has dabbled in regime change in Libya, cosmetic interventionism in Syria and Iraq, drone strikes here and there and full-throated backing for political processes (no matter how shallow) wherever they seem appropriate. Perhaps the lone unifying theme has been a tendency for box-checking in the absence of any intelligible end-game or strategic (or ideological) framework. The costs of vanishing red lines and other such incoherencies are already taking shape, with Washington’s friends and foes alike escalating their own brands of destructive, polarizing violence region-wide in the absence of any Western inclination to promote a positive vision or, at least, impose restraint.
A first step is therefore to rein in our affinity for empty gestures in all their forms. The pitfalls of broken promises, hollow threats and strategically incoherent airstrikes are self-evident, but the habit of propping up political and diplomatic processes as an end unto themselves is likewise pernicious. Each time regional or international actors invest in dead-end negotiations or cosmetic political reforms, the result is intensified polarization and disillusionment with politics as the alternative to violence. Such initiatives should, therefore, receive Western support only insofar as they are pursued seriously rather than as political theater. Low-key, dogged negotiations between Libyans or Yemenis make immediate sense; not so the circus of world leaders parading in support of Syrians left to watch the spectacle.
Rather than pouring resources into political and military endeavors that achieve little while often making matters worse, we should invest far more seriously in alleviating the massive human suffering that will define the region for years to come. This means redressing not only the politically loaded subjects of funding shortfalls and paltry resettlement quotas‚ although these are at the heart of the issue‚ but also subtler failings in an aid regime hampered by bureaucratic inefficiencies, inter-organizational competition and coordination failures. Likewise, it would be more constructive to invest in a broadening of humanitarian programming beyond short-term relief aid to include more medium- and long-term initiatives in areas such as education and governance, and developing creative platforms to support the multitude of micro-projects local societies depend upon to fill the gaps left by cumbersome top-down campaigns.
We share in the responsibility for the region’s troubles after a century of constant Western interference, from the encroachment of colonial powers to the creation of Israel through to the invasion of Iraq. But, precisely because Western influence has been so pernicious, the Middle East must also do more for itself on every level. The area is immensely rich, and this doesn’t apply to oil states only: massive wealth accumulated by the private sector even in relatively poor countries is going to have to find ways to trickle down if socioeconomic distortions at the backdrop of the uprisings are to be resorbed in any meaningful way. The business establishment must undertake a conversation about its own responsibilities, in such fields as philanthropy, social impact entrepreneurship, job creation, and private equity for small and medium-sized enterprises, all of which are nascent at best. Part of the discussion must bear on the legal framework required to confidently move away from cronyism and the accumulation of unproductive capital, and back into the real economy—that of ordinary people earning wages.
Increased focus on humanitarian relief and private sector engagement should come as part of a broader recognition that the military-centric paradigm through which Western actors approach the Middle East has conclusively failed. By making violent counterterrorism and massive weapons transfers the two most reliable hallmarks of Western policy in the region, Washington in particular has spurred an ongoing arms race, wrought new destruction and sown fresh popular grievances and fissures in diverse corners of the Middle East. It should be little surprise that a policy of military escalation absent any substantive treatment of the political, social and economic drivers of regional upheaval has been self-defeating, fueling jihadism and instability rather than curtailing them.
A more constructive approach thus requires that we recognize our reactive, bomb-first policymaking for what it is: at best a necessary stopgap and at worst a cover for our own longstanding and continued failure to articulate well-rounded and far-sighted strategies in such a complex region. The sooner we transcend the comforting but futile vernacular of good versus evil‚ of destroying amorphous and resilient enemies who are the symptom and not the disease‚ the sooner we may stop doing harm and, if we indeed choose to be optimistic, hope to achieve some good.
Epilogue: Charting the Course
Five years have come and gone, wrecking hopes and spreading sorrow. In the giant maelstrom in which the Arab world is foundering, all seem to be clutching at the flotsam: some cling to hatreds that are consuming them, while others grasp at the receding horizon of salvation through migration. Those who can afford to philosophize ramble on about the same ideas, circling round and round: the end of Sykes-Picot; an obsession with the Islamic State; the lesser evil of reactionary regimes; or a brave new world shaped by middle-powers like Russia, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The contrast couldn’t be greater between the rigidity of these narratives and the extreme fluidity of the region to which they pertain. In an ocean of confusion, it appears that we can either sink to our doom or whirl on the surface of things.
These essays are part of a broader effort to chart this tragic journey, to navigate the storm of events and emotions. The voyage, of course, will continue; this epilogue is but an entry in the logbook, and we can only assume that the next five years will be as dense, intense and disorientating as the last. The greatest intellectual challenge posed by the transformations at work in the Arab world has been to understand them in their historic context. Societies move slowly, in pointed contrast to the hurried pace of individual lives; media coverage and political statements are more frenzied still, shaping in turn the cadence of pundits and many academic commentators. This book is an attempt to slow down the arms of the clock, posit a long view and take stock.
The ambition here is to explore the potential for iterative, accumulative, dynamic thinking that resists the temptation to always move on, while also fighting the lure of repeating the same soothing mantra. There should be no finding vindication in these traumatic transformations, that seem to endlessly negate our assumptions and invalidate their own outcomes. But the other pitfall has been to always project into the future as if it held the key to unlocking the present: for more than five long years of waiting for Godot, something was always going to happen that would change the course of events for the better—and save us from our failure to imagine ways of effectively doing so. Tomorrow will remain obscure to us, but there is no limit to how much light the past may shine on today. That is not because “history repeats itself”, but because it is a process, a continuum, an itinerary that has its logic and milestones, however convoluted the trajectory may be. It is also a way of remembering that even decades-old regimes are transient against the timescale of their societies.
* * *
The 2011 uprisings were preceded by at least three other seismic upheavals in the region’s social fabric, all of which illustrated and reinforced the deepening integration that continues to drive change in the Arab world. The first was the late-Ottoman tanzimat, a string of reforms throughout the mid-19th century that initiated profound changes still visible to this day. In particular, the land reform of 1858 dispossessed large swaths of the peasantry in countries like Iraq and Syria, transformed tribal leaders into landowners increasingly cut off from their base, and laid the groundwork for the massive rural exodus that occurred in the 20th century. The latter pushed migrants into suburban slums and informal neighborhoods that, by erasing the physical boundaries between haves and have-nots, ultimately served as the incubators of the uprisings. The second was the elitist, intellectual Arab awakening or nahda, which in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire was pregnant with the emancipatory paradigms later known as Islamism and its secular counterparts, to include Baathism and Nasserism, all of which helped reshape both politics and societies in the aftermath of the Ottoman breakup.
The third was the upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, which saw revolutionary, anti-colonial fervor wash over the region as coups overturned Western-friendly regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and threatened the foundations of several others. These military takeovers flowed neither from popular uprisings nor from elitist intrigues: they consecrated the dramatic ascension of provincial outsiders, united in the underground movements generated by the nahda, empowered by their absorption into militaries being modernized by colonial forces, and legitimized by the failure of existing power structures to confront Western interference and the traumatic reality of Israel.
Then, as now, much of the region was united by an electric solidarity, born of resistance to subjugation: yesterday’s domination came at the hands of predatory Western powers, today’s at the hands of the predatory strongmen who replaced them. Then, as now, emancipatory movements took on grand, universalist overtones: yesterday’s called for national self-determination (often through the framework of a romanticized pan-Arabism), while today’s have focused on personal self-determination through an end to region-wide despotism.
A key distinction, however, is to be found in the nature of the revolutions themselves. Yesterday’s were invariably orchestrated from above; while the revolutionaries of the era often came from petty provincial stock and leaned heavily on populist rhetoric and economic policies, the nature of their revolutions and the regimes they installed was always antithetical to inclusive politics. Where yesterday’s revolutions were top-down and belonged to strongmen, today’s are bottom-up and belong to everymen: Nasser and his ilk have been replaced as icons by the likes of Mohamed Bouazizi and the unnamed Syrian youths whose detention and torture sparked their country’s uprising.
This represents, of course, part of the broader shift from the top-down to the bottom-up, and the new model brings both benefits and immense risks. The grassroots, decentralized quality of the new uprisings has empowered individuals and, to an extent, mitigated the chances of new strongmen who would consolidate power and run roughshod over their populations for decades at a time. Yet in much of the region, the toppling of the old political order with little in the way of coherent alternatives has inaugurated an unprecedented level of disorder with no end in sight. If the almost Hobbesian chaos engulfing Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen is enough to provoke nostalgia for yesterday’s tyrants, it is not enough to produce any aspiring tyrants capable of reining it in.
In neighboring states, meanwhile, the long-standing binary offered by regimes between despotism and chaos is increasingly compelling. Yet it cannot be repeated enough that the underlying dynamics that spurred the uprisings—repression, corruption, demographic shifts, growing connectedness and political awareness, economic malaise—have, if anything, intensified, and will not be swept under the rug forever. Endorsing failed leaderships to contain the explosive effects of their governance is an absurd proposition we seem all too keen to hang on to.
The complexity and fluidity introduced by the uprisings and subsequent conflicts has caught the Western world flat-footed. America and Europe appear simultaneously mired in Cold War strategic thought and post-Cold War triumphalism: while some policy choices rest on naive assumptions of the transformative power of democracy and diplomacy, others are rooted in the notion that superior force can contain complex socio-political phenomena that clearly jump borders from the Middle East to Africa, Europe and beyond. It is ironic that the West would revert to an anthropological, almost colonial understanding of conflict as the expression of archaic fault-lines and primordial hatreds while seeking as un-anthropological as possible a relationship with the societies in question—substituting barbed-wire, surveillance, airstrikes and proxies for genuine engagement.
* * *
Aside from the aforementioned chaos, perhaps most distinctive about this moment is the level of uncertainty by which it is defined. Notwithstanding shallow talk of partitioning this or that country, destroying the Islamic State, or installing a UN unity government in Libya, it is impossible to say with any confidence how the region will look in ten or twenty or thirty years, except to say that it will look very different than it did in 2010. Surely something better is somewhere over the horizon, but it remains altogether unclear what that something will resemble and when it might arrive.
At some level, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be said to have prophesied the current state of affairs with her notoriously callous invocation of “creative chaos” as a framework for change in the Middle East. The Iraq war indeed helped unleash the pent-up forces necessary to convulse the old order, but with results very different from the stuff of neoconservative fantasy: rather than a miraculous transformation into functioning pro-Western democracy, we got violent pandemonium with a hard sectarian edge. This chaos is now an increasingly regional affair, and it remains to be seen just what it will create. What is clear, though, is that tearing things down without a positive vision to build something new is not the sort of freedom that breeds progress—at least not in the near-term and without immense collateral damage. George W. Bush, learning of Saddam Hussein’s fall, scribbled: **Let freedom reign!** Amidst all this bloodshed, the memory triggers a nervous spasm. Paradoxically, Barack Obama’s preference for disengagement has a similarly laissez-faire bent: “Do whatever you must, just keep us out of it!”
Of course, outsiders’ self-centrism and general failure to promote a coherent, positive vision in the Middle East would be far less problematic if local elites were not so guilty of the same sins. The region has made little progress in intellectualizing its own change, leaving a gaping cognitive space for others to conquer. Too many local voices, especially the loudest, are quick to negate any agency of their own, define all problems as imported, and endlessly speculate about solutions they believe can only come from abroad. Even claims of resisting Western schemes, which now serve to veil power grabs, sectarian hubris and the lack of any constructive agenda, are just another way of surrendering to them. The region both echoes our own imaginaries and is maddened by them.
Complexity and the internalization of domination are two genuine obstacles to a homegrown vision of change. Another is ambiguity. The region is locked in a labyrinth of words where every other term seems both an inescapable pathway and a dead-end. We speak of the Lebanese parliament, the Syrian army, or the Iraqi state for lack of better words, but such entities are extraordinarily difficult to define. Tribes have little in common with the romanticized vision projected onto them by Western observers and many locals alike, inherited from forms they once took that have long since transformed beyond recognition. We continue to use the same term for borders, which remain in the same place but whose functions have evolved spectacularly over time. The Saudi or Egyptian regimes today are works in progress at best, increasingly at odds with everything we thought we knew about them. Libya is a place that almost defies semantics, which is precisely how its former tyrant Muammar Qaddafi wanted it.
Interestingly, the narratives that best capture the state of the region are those that are the least factual and analytical, let alone ideological. The Middle East is best rendered in artistic, literary, lyrical terms. There is no shortage of such voices, if one lends an ear.
The region also tells its own story through innumerable metaphors that could hardly be more explicit. Iraq is cowering under the quasi-biblical threat of an impending rupture of the Mosul Dam, a derelict structure that evokes 30 years of erosion and attempts to paper over the cracks. Egypt’s president laid out his vision for rebuilding the capital from scratch, in a Freudian admission of how little he can do about the country’s backlog of existing problems. In a case study of literal thinking, Sisi also purports to build a massive bridge to Saudi Arabia that almost no one has any reason to cross, but which may somehow tie the two countries’ fates together. Lebanon has decided to sit on its garbage, having abandoned processing it for months. You can dine at a fancy outdoor restaurant and suddenly the wind changes, bringing in the nauseating reality of local politics; but nothing else moves, in a country determined not to take the smell of rotting for the omen that it is. In martyred Aleppo, the US and Russia agreed on one thing only: calling a ceasefire a “silence period”, as if the goal was to keep the media quiet.
But today’s Middle East is so much more than the sum of its own contradictions and convolution. It reverberates around the world, shaping and being shaped by the American presidential campaign, Europe’s political identity, Moscow’s resurgent ambitions; more than ever, it captures our imagination, with its tormented uprisings, the phantasm of the Islamic State, the peril supposedly posed by refugees, the hyperbolic threats or opportunities offered by Iran, the boundless, talismanic power of democracy gifted to or taken by peoples long repressed. This deepening connection is paradoxical, at a time when the region counts for virtually nothing in the world’s financial or knowledge economy. What is striking is that the Middle East has become important, however implicitly, for its people and their agency: what they believe in, what they reject, what they consume, and where they move. In a sense 2011 achieved people’s power—a blatant reality that nonetheless needs constant repetition.
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As the West and the Middle East go on interacting in ways both subtle and spectacular, the challenge of understanding the latter’s chaotic evolution looms ever more urgent and intractable. A last goal of this book is to set forth some ambitions regarding how best to approach this task; even as the region’s urban fabric and infrastructure continue to break apart, intellectual landscaping and road works can commence. The needs, of course, are boundless, but three conceptual construction sites can provide a useful foundation.
The first is a people’s history of the ongoing dynamics, which are the least intelligible the more we succumb to generalities. The geopolitical lens that used to clarify an order of things only reveals how messy and confused the world has become. There is much more certainty to be found at the micro than at the macro level: in the surrounding chaos, an epiphany often comes from just talking to individuals, and understanding what all this means in their everyday lives. Never has the old style of fieldwork—the patient, qualitative, heartfelt, instinctive kind—felt more indispensable. Never has it been more challenging.
The second rests in de-essentializing the Middle East and all its tumultuous change—in looking beyond the region’s mesmerizing violence to see the global dynamics with which that violence is bound up and from which it distracts. Climate change, human mobility, a straining nation-state framework, failing elites, the explosive tension between gaping, growing inequality and technology that empowers the global underclass to both visualize and cry out against its lot. The vague underlying causes to which politicians refer in discussing the Islamic State happen to be extraordinarily banal in nature—the very opposite of the uniqueness they attribute to the group itself. In this context, we trivialize the wrong object: extreme violence on all parts is being accepted as the new normal in the Middle East, while genuine change is being conceptualized as implausible and even undesirable. We have come to view the region—which has also come to see itself—as an anomaly worthy of a set of rules and values that would not apply elsewhere. Recognizing the region for what it is—not an outlier, but part of a broader, tentative process of global reinvention—is essential if we are to begin accepting change as welcome and rejecting wanton violence in all its forms.
Finally, and consequently, the Middle East can only be understood as part of an ecosystem with the rest of the world. Its political economy, which has produced so much waste and warring, is not detached from our own. Local political elites have for decades externalized their quest for legitimacy, seeking it in carefully cultivated alliances and rivalries. The region’s wealth of financial capital, mostly derived from plundering natural resources and privatizing the state, is enmeshed in a globalized economy that helps find ways of being unproductive. Our imaginaries, as said, feed on each other. Its issues resonate among our people, and its people have long lived with us or today knock on our doors. The region is not an organism foreign to our own: until we treat the Middle East as part of us, we will continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds.
Postword: A Tapestry Unraveled
Who knows what to think about the Arab world anymore? The last five years have upended a few regimes and changed a few major assumptions, but more than this, they have rendered the preexisting frameworks for understanding the region meaningless. Or rather, they have punctured the illusions that sustained such frameworks, and revealed a far more complex underlying reality. Our old certitudes lie in tatters, the new complexity is overwhelming, and we yearn for our former confidence, back when we knew little but were pretty certain about it.
In the early days after the Arab uprisings of 2011, it was tempting to replace old certitudes with new ones. The myth of a depoliticized or apolitical public was replaced by memes about youth revolutions, while the notion of stable autocracy was overtaken by one of burgeoning democracy; archetypes of despotic secularists (sons of bitches, but our sons of bitches) gave way to Islamist democrats (our best hope against al-Qaeda!), and we embraced the idea that there can never be a going back. History, as it turns out, does not move ever forward in a Hegelian dialectic or follow a Nietzschean cycle of eternal return; it plays cruel pranks on you.
This collection of essays does not present you with a ready-made new framework of interpretation, a grand theory of Middle Eastern politics pre-chewed for easy digestion. It will not lay out a map according to which you can safely navigate today’s uncharted waters. At best, it will tell you what dangers to avoid – Cave! Hic Dragones! – and hint at how much there is still to discover.
Its insights are drawn from pain and heartbreak, from close encounters with the region from which the authors have long reported. Inasmuch as outsiders are able to, it strives to offer not an embedded form of journalism, but an organic one. Peter Harling and his co-authors Sarah Birke and Alex Simon have lived and worked in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere for many years. What they have distilled in these pages stems from a sense of frustration at conventional interpretations of the events of the last five years. They draw their approach from having a foot in Western circles where writing about the Middle East is a profession – journalism, analysis, advocacy - but remaining above the fray of the reductionist logic that often characterizes this sphere. This is not a book about what “we” should do; it is an invitation to rethink the boundaries of what might be done.
I was very proud to host these essays on The Arabist blog, their humble home for several years, where they long remained among the most popular articles we have published in over 13 years. If there is a single impulse behind The Arabist, it is to humanize a region that, particularly in the West but also, rather perniciously, also at home, is considered in far too abstract terms. The region is in crisis, to be sure, but its inhabitants do not just suffer, they adapt and keep on living, awaiting better days and making their own opportunities for it. Making sense of a major, ongoing, historical shift of the kind the Middle East (indeed the world) is undergoing cannot even begin if we focus on the urgent – today the Mediterranean refugee crisis or the Islamic State, tomorrow something new and unseen until it is too late – at the expense of the important.
Authors and credits
Peter Harling came to the Middle East in 1998, as a young man, and never really left. He lived for years in Iraq and Syria, spent extensive time in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and traveled to most countries around the region. His work as an academic, a project manager, a journalist, and a political advisor informed numerous publications and projects. In 2016, he founded Synaps to distil this experience and start building a brain trust of local analysts equipped to tackle the challenges they will face in coming decades.
Sarah Birke fell in love with all things Syrian during a holiday to the country in 2008. Between 2009 and 2012 she lived in Damascus, learning Arabic and exploring the country, before turning to writing. Between 2012 and 2016 she lived in Beirut and Cairo, first as Middle East Correspondent and then as Middle East Bureau Chief for The Economist. Her heart remains in Damascus.
Alex Simon is a researcher and analyst who has been drifting in and out of the Middle East since his first visit to the West Bank in 2011. He returned in 2013 to live and work first in Jordan and then in Lebanon, traveling as widely as possible in the meantime. Getting to know the neighborhood has been exhilarating, but incomplete: swaths of the region remain out of reach, knowable only through images, literature, and the stories of friends and colleagues waiting to go back. He loves Beirut, not least as a place to one day board a bus to Damascus.
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The authors extend their warmest thanks to The Arabist for publishing three of these texts, which could not have found a cosier platform.
Pressure cooker and steam, licensed by CC.
Loom threads, licensed by CC.
Silk and wool, licensed by CC.
Carpet fragment from Esrefoglu mosque, licensed by CC.
Carpet Museum of Iran, licensed by CC.
Weaving, licensed by CC.
Antique Syrian carpet, licensed by CC.
Patchwork of tainted old carpets, author’s photo.
Steam and teapot, licensed by CC.