Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa

An attempt at reframing

Authored by: Joost R. Hiltermann

Routledge Handbook on Middle East Security

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138749894
eBook ISBN: 9781315180113
Adobe ISBN:




Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region increasingly intersect. A compilation by cause, type and principal actors would yield a bewildering list that obscures rather than clarifies. Instead, this chapter offers a new way of looking at MENA conflicts since World War I through five distinct conflict “clusters”, each with its unique genealogy, as mediated by external interventions. Each cluster is set off by a political “earthquake” that generates rolling tremors and new fissures, and unleashes secondary struggles. The 2011 Arab uprisings were the latest such earthquake, precipitating the breakdown of the state in several Arab countries. The resulting civil wars invited external intervention, upon which local conflicts started to bleed into one another. The global retreat of the United States as unipolar power is leaving the region prey to a multiplication of conflict nodes without an actor capable of imposing overall dominance. Yet conflicts can and must be managed and brought to an end, whether through negotiation or victory/defeat. This chapter proposes a way forward but insists that the first impulse should always be: Do no (further) harm.

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Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa

Introduction: Writing about conflict in MENA

To write about conflicts, or conflict, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is to talk about the way in which millions of people live their daily lives. Even those not in a war zone still live in fear that conflict might descend on them as suddenly as it did on their neighbors: some form of armed conflict is never far away. That fear – informed also by the memory of conflicts past – may itself act as inoculation against an outbreak of fighting, but in the end it rarely is “the people” who choose to wage war. It is their political leaders who do – leaders who are seldom elected and even more rarely subject to peaceful rotation from office. Instead, they cling to power with a combination of habit, greed and self-preservation.

To write intelligibly about armed conflict in the MENA region is to offer, first off, a kaleidoscopic view of the political and historical landscape, and provide the beginnings of a typology for the past 50 years. (I have included an attempt in the appendix to this chapter.) The result is a bewildering (and far from exhaustive) list that obscures as much as it clarifies, and upon close examination is more likely to provoke controversy than consensus. It suggests that any attempt at a typology inescapably leads to three principal conclusions: that MENA conflicts are wildly varied, indeed unique, in origin, character and evolution; that despite the endurance of certain conflicts, they do not come to us “from time immemorial”, the result of supposedly primordial differences (Jews vs Muslims; Sunni vs Shia); and that they betray no defined patterns or rules for why or how they begin, continue in a constant ebb and flow, and eventually – usually after a long many years and great violence – come to an end. There can be no “theory of MENA conflicts” but at most an attempt to understand their idiosyncrasies, how they are linked, and how patterns of governance, the obsolescence of social contracts and growing illegitimacy contribute to their outbreak.

Nor will we get very far if we study “deep causes”, such as poverty, inequality, resource competition, poor governance, injustice, political repression, social fissures, ethnic divisions, religious schisms and so forth. These phenomena, which are not unique to the MENA region, prevail long before conflict breaks out, survive and are compounded by it, and usually persist long afterward. However, they may help explain conflict’s endemic nature and recurring cycles in societies over decades. More interesting are causes external to the region that play a determinant role. The Cold War, for instance, structured conflicts within a global geopolitical struggle in which Middle Eastern actors were not key shapers but could position themselves. The 9/11 attacks are another example, with Washington reshaping the “resistance axis” that arose from the Arab–Israeli conflict and the “Three No’s” of the 1967 Arab League summit in Khartoum into an “axis of evil”, despite the fact that the actors concerned (Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah and to a lesser extent Syria) had nothing to do with the attacks.

Generally, it would be more useful to look at “proximate causes”, aka catalysts or triggers. These are due to human actions that have immediate impact and feed on those deeper trends, exploit and politicize them, and turn them into weapons: poverty as weapon, water as weapon, oil as weapon, inequality as weapon, religious difference as weapon, etc. Examples of proximate causes are: a perceived opportunity (e.g., a sudden vulnerability in a rival), fear of attack by an adversary, revenge for a recent slight or old grievance, an acute financial crisis, pressing resource scarcity, or, simply, an accident: a miscommunication, a misread signal, a misinterpretation of an event. The possibilities are legion, and I suspect we can find examples of all of these in MENA conflicts over the past 50 years.

Of lineages and earthquakes

Even if we cannot fashion an overall theory of conflict in MENA, it may be useful to look at conflict genealogies; these may at least elucidate a certain internal logic and trajectory, if not outcomes, of clusters of associated conflicts. These lineages often start with a political earthquake – itself the result of a long build-up of pressures – which generates rolling tremors as well as new fissures, and unleashes a proliferating series of secondary struggles. The biggest earthquake (Cluster I) was the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which has its own genealogy, its own internal logic and dynamic, and its own consequences, yielding a “rolling” and pervasive disorder, visible until this day.

Starting with the dramatic changes wrought by World War I is admittedly somewhat arbitrary; the region’s “pre-history” cannot be ignored in any serious study of its 20th-century history leading up to today. However, one of this essay’s principal theses is that it is the impact of post-World War I Western dominance on what existed in the region that decisively shaped what form local political systems and governance took in subsequent decades, with variations attributable precisely to that pre-history. Hence the focus on that interaction and its consequences.

The Empire’s demise set off at least four other major earthquakes within the MENA region during the past century and has sustained the conflict clusters to which these gave birth. The 1948 creation of the state of Israel was one such earthquake (Cluster II). Then followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran (Cluster III) and the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca that same year (Cluster IV). The 2011 Arab uprisings, which spread hope through the region even as they, and the violent response to them, profoundly destabilized it, promised to drive a nail in the post-Ottoman order’s coffin (Cluster V). (I will describe region-shaking external interference, such as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2015 Russian military intervention in Syria, separately below.) The classification of these lineages is admittedly arbitrary; they serve to elucidate and initiate a debate, not to be the definitive way of grouping conflicts in the MENA region (Hiltermann, 2018).

The conflict clusters – described in more detail below – can be viewed independently of each other, yet this does not mean they are not linked; after all, they share the same brutal paternity, and therefore the same violent pathology. In its construction, the post-Ottoman order/disorder and associated colonial enterprise allowed for the creation of Israel, starting with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, even as it denied a state to the Kurds in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The same post-Ottoman order, as it aged, gave rise to ideological projects challenging it – Arab secular nationalism, Cold War socialism, Baathism, liberal capitalism, Islamism – culminating in the non-ideological Arab uprisings in 2011. The Iranian Revolution was one such challenge to secular, Western neo-colonialism. Indeed, the Arab uprisings, the Iranian Revolution, and post-Mecca-siege Sunni radicalization have a lot in common: all three are responses to aspects of the non-functioning post-Ottoman order. Even the Algerian civil war (1992–1999) may be seen in this context – as an early Islamist challenge to secularism, which was crushed and may yet rebound. Yet we should understand that it also emanated from a French colonial project that predated the end of Ottoman rule.

Cluster I: The post-Ottoman order/disorder 2

The Ottoman Empire collapsed from the weight of its own contradictions, helped by a push from its enemies, including the two main Western colonial powers, Britain and France, which helped dismantle it and picked over its leftovers. These two states stepped into the military, political and administrative vacuum, dividing the spoils between them, and endeavoring to fashion a new order in the territories they acquired. This led to a chronic legitimacy crisis from which the region has not been able to recover and which, as the Arab uprisings intimated, may prove terminal. France and Britain imposed new borders and new political systems that reflected their own interests focused in particular on access to resources. Moreover, by grafting tissue carrying their cultural and legislative DNA onto new systems of governance, these came to reflect not just their own interests but themselves. Yet local realities gave the emerging power structures and administrations a hybrid quality, recognizable but different, functioning but not well-adapted (Sluglett, 2014).

Resistance to the new order soon began to build. Its first target was foreign control; its agent was the very secular elites trained by the colonial powers themselves, now turned against their mentors and enablers in a fury of nationalist pride (Dawn, 1991). These Arab nationalist elites governed for decades, using the ill-suited structures they had inherited, rotating through intra-elite military coups, and aligning themselves with outside powers – including their erstwhile colonial masters – to receive protection against growing opposition to their autocratic rule. Over time, new rulers were able to thoroughly overhaul governing systems and even book economic successes. In quite a few Arab countries, rulers made serious attempts to rework the institutional framework and establish a developmental state, expand education, provide universal health care and escape economic dependency (Owen, 2004).

The problem is that, in the end, all these attempts faltered. The reasons for this are many, but much can be attributed to rapid social and economic transformation that created stark dynamics of inclusion/exclusion along the lines of social class and center vs periphery, often intertwined. These failures ultimately led to the collapse of social contracts that had established a degree of legitimacy despite a lack of political participation and persistent inequality. It would be too easy, however, to dismiss the post-colonial secular regimes as total and utter failures; they achieved a fair amount. But they were brittle, their evolution greatly hampered and weakened by external interventions (the Israel project, the Cold War, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq), even as power struggles outside the region in some cases helped regimes to survive. It is fair to ask whether MENA conflicts occurred because the regimes faltered or whether the regimes faltered because they were in a state of permanent mobilization for conflict. The answer may be: a little bit of both.

Opposition to secular rulers eventually came from the religious corner. Clerics and other adherents mobilized the masses to confront a secular ideology associated with Western domination and the reigning order’s failure to adequately address, much less resolve, the daunting economic and social challenges it faced – dependent as it was on the vagaries of a world economy steered by greater powers. The main carrier of popular discontent was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt but branching out throughout the Sunni world. The new opposition sought to establish a new social contract (International Crisis Group, 2005).

Groups taking power soon found they had no choice but to permit themselves to be co-opted if they wished to survive and thrive, or risk becoming isolated and suffer (the fate of post-1979 Iran). This also meant new rulers had to choose sides, as during the Cold War; this in turn affected the character of the ruler-opposition dynamic. Challengers invariably constructed ideological frameworks to appeal to the public and mobilize opposition; these frameworks often had foreign roots as well. Take for instance socialism (inscribed in the opposition, then ruling ideology of countries as diverse as Algeria and South Yemen, along with its Baathist variant in Iraq and Syria). Yet ideological jackets fit only as long as the opponent-turned-ruler delivered the goods, but since MENA states’ challenges remained as daunting as ever while aforementioned ill-suited structures began to atrophy, each successive ideology was shown ultimately to be bankrupt.

In sum, this evolving post-Ottoman order was congenitally unstable and riven by violent conflict. Algeria provides apt examples of both major transitions: its war of independence against France (1954–1962), and the civil war that erupted when the military, backed by post-independence secular elites, ejected the surging Islamists’ 1991 electoral victory. Interestingly, such instability was more pronounced in former French colonies with their republican systems, sometimes with democratic trappings, than in their British-imbued counterparts, many of which were monarchies and which survive until this day, having withstood shocks of the 2011 Arab uprisings. While both types have generally been repressive and afflicted with rubber-stamp parliaments, the diverging trajectory may be attributable to the monarchies’ additional layer of legitimacy, whose hereditary practices their populace accepted as legitimate and normal, whereas presidents’ attempts to hand power to their sons more commonly provoked outrage. 3 Moreover, oil-producing countries of either type may have benefitted from social contracts they had a greater ability to uphold – until oil prices collapsed (Bellin, 2004).

Cluster II: The Arab–Israeli conflict

One fateful feature of the post-Ottoman colonial enterprise was the effort to create a home for the Jewish people, persecuted throughout Europe, in one of the former empire’s backwaters, the area later known as Palestine. It set off an enduring struggle between Israel and the indigenous Palestinian population and its chosen representatives – the latter backed with varying degrees of sincerity by Arab states – which has shaped perceptions in the region for longer and arguably more intensely than any other. It has assumed various forms since the state’s violent founding in 1948 (or earlier, if one wishes to look at its roots in Theodor Herzl’s Zionist enterprise in the late 1800s and the 1917 Balfour Declaration), with Israel taking additional territory in 1967. It is not that this conflict has caused the region’s many other wars since then, although it did cause some, but that the region’s people perceive it as a grievous injustice, a festering wound, and a glaring example of their leaders’ impotence in reversing it. That perception prevails even in non-Arab states such as Turkey and Iran. This is because it has an important Islamic dimension, but also because people there see the Israel/Arab conflict as representing an unremitting Western effort to divide, undermine and destroy the entire region, not just Palestine or the Arab order midwifed by European powers after they brought the Ottomans to their knees. They see it as a form of European settler colonialism, and resent the double standards Western powers have employed to protect Israel from its enemies (for background, see Middle East Report, 2014).

The persistence of the perception of Israel as a Western foothold and unfinished neo-colonial project has infected regional politics and pushed other factors (the “deep causes”) to the background, at least before the 2011 Arab uprisings. People blamed their leaders for failing to stand up effectively to Israel, despite wars that demanded great sacrifice and enabled authoritarian rule. And they (and their leaders, for reasons of self-interest) blamed external actors for the latter’s support of Israel as a vector of their assumed neo-colonial ambitions. Even the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was seen that way by many Iraqis. (Control of oil fields was another frequently mentioned explanation, linked to those same ambitions.)

Perceptions, at times more than “objective” reality itself, are the primary shapers of responses to events. The injury of Israel’s creation, and what it was seen to signify, was one of the primary sources for the rise of pan-Arab populism, which fed on the broader experience of Western colonial control (through mandates, direct rule, or otherwise) of the post-Ottoman world. Post-1948, it spread with successive coups in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, taking the form of Nasserism and Baathism, and fueling popular support for the 1967 and 1973 wars. It also informed the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the peacemaker/traitor. And it gave rise to the PLO and, once the PLO came to be seen as trading away Palestinian rights, to Hamas, with more radical groups sprouting up (Islamic Jihad, Islamic State), still weak but primed to leap into the vacuum as their predecessors fail to deliver a viable independent Palestine.

The original conflict took on a logic of its own, setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of events that continues to roil the wider region. The conclusion of one round of fighting merely laid the ground for the next. The 1967 Palestinian refugees, added to the initial 1948 wave, undermined the stability of Hashemite rule in Jordan. In a brief war in 1970–1971, Jordanian forces supported by Israel expelled PLO fighters to Lebanon; here they created a state within a state in the camps erected in 1948, using these as launching pads for cross-border operations in Israel. Israel responded in 1982, occupying southern Lebanon. This provoked resistance from the local population, supported by Iran and Syria, taking the form of the guerrilla movement known as Hezbollah (the Party of God). Today Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to keep alive its regional sponsor the Assad regime. If victorious, its very success and spreading strength could trigger a new round of war with Israel after the previous ones in 1993, 1996 and 2006, which left large swathes of Lebanon devastated, even if Hezbollah, basing itself on a strategy of mutual deterrence, has conspicuously avoided a new conflict with Israel since 2006 (International Crisis Group, 2018b).

The following sequence of events unfolded inside the territory controlled by Israel: a harsh military occupation from 1967 onward, popular resistance to it, an escalation of land grabs, violent acts of rebellion, more severe and collective punishments (detention without trial, mass imprisonment, systematic torture, house demolitions and deportation of local leaders), popular uprisings (1988, 2000), and yet harsher repression. In Gaza, the same, and then also three rounds of war (2008, 2012, 2014) following Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal that have left the population defeated, demoralized, and desperate (Halbfinger, 2018). Yet their very desperation will almost surely inform their readiness for the next round, as seemingly nothing else can bring a peace allowing them to live ordinary lives. The situation in the West Bank is no more sustainable: land expropriation and settlement construction proceed without significant external constraint. Meanwhile, Jerusalem and its holy sites representing the three monotheistic religions remains a focal point for contending forces from across the region, a tinder box waiting to be set alight – along with everything around it – by a single act of brazen foolishness (International Crisis Group, 2016c).

There is another dimension to the Arab–Israeli conflict that may be profoundly destabilizing for the region. Initially, the Zionist endeavor was a 19th century nationalist project; its religious dimension was mostly absent. As nationalism has aged, Jewish nationalism has aged along with it, and a submerged ethno-religious dimension of the Israel phenomenon has come to the surface (for example, in use of the term the “Jewish state”). 4 This raises questions for states that are not based on a particular religious conviction, such as Israel’s immediate neighbors. 5

Cluster III: The 1979 Islamic Revolution: The rise of Shia Iran

The Iranian Revolution upended the precarious balance in the Gulf, where Western allies had long resisted Soviet attempts at making strategic inroads. To the extent that Baathist Iraq had moved into Moscow’s orbit – it never fully did – it now determinedly moved away from it by restoring relations with Washington, with whom it shared a fear of spreading Shia Islamist fervor. When the Iranian revolution was still young, the domestic situation chaotic, the future and who would lead unclear, Saddam Hussein made a move aimed at precipitating a political change in Tehran favorable to Iraq’s interests. He sent his forces across the border into Iran’s oil-rich, majority-Arab province of Khuzestan, viewing it as Iran’s Achilles’ heel that would ensure a swift military victory and resultant political payoff. It was a miscalculation of his own military’s strength as well as of his opponents’ readiness to rally around the flag: it helped solidify, not undermine, the nascent Islamist order.

Eight years of war ensued, with human losses in the hundreds of thousands. It left deep psychological scars after the war ground to a UN-mediated halt following a political understanding between Washington and Moscow (Razoux, 2015). Iran’s top leadership and military command today derive entirely from this war generation: hardened, embittered, distrustful of the West, determined never to leave the country again vulnerable to external aggression (Hiltermann, 2010).

Iraq, by contrast, despite its apparent qualitative edge at war’s end, went into a tailspin, as Saddam Hussein, eager to recoup his financial losses, turned on his country’s principal creditor, Kuwait, and threatened the other, Saudi Arabia. This triggered a successful US-led military effort to dislodge Iraqi forces from the small Gulf state and the imposition of crippling UN sanctions. The decade-long degeneration of Iraqi society weakened it to the point of collapse (Graham-Brown, 1999); the 2003 US invasion did the rest. Washington’s ignorance of the local state of affairs informed the fatal errors it ended up making as it basked in the glow of its lightning military triumph: dismantling the army, selective de-Baathification, promoting former exiles to leadership positions, and a highly destructive manipulation of ethnic and sectarian identities that empowered Shias and Kurds while alienating Sunni Arabs (International Crisis Group, 2003). The resulting security vacuum gave rise to an escalating conflict between Sunni insurgents and government-allied Shia militias, with young men recruited into either camp to the detriment of the country’s development, its enormous potential squandered despite its oil wealth but especially through misallocation of funds and pervasive corruption (International Crisis Group, 2016b).

The Islamic Revolution did not come out of nowhere, of course. The fault lines were there. It started as a popular revolt against the established order, which was dictatorial, highly repressive and heavily dependent on US support. In fact, the Shah owed his tenure to the US and UK, which engineered a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, after he tried to extend national control over the oil industry (Kinzer, 2008). More broadly, therefore, the movement to oust the Shah was a revolt against a neo-imperial order established during the Cold War that controlled the region through client regimes. It took on a predominantly Islamist form because the repressive order it replaced had been secular – secularism being seen as an inauthentic, alien ideology, reflecting values imposed by the West to open Iran up to Western exploitation. This Islamist awakening, which was Shia in character because it happened to take place in majority-Shia Iran, electrified believers across the Muslim world, Sunni as well as Shia (see also Scott Peterson, 2010 and Christopher de Bellaigue, 2004). Indeed, it was this sudden threat to the ruling monarchies – not all secular, but many seen as Western puppets – that triggered a dual response, led by Saudi Arabia, the richest among them: to isolate Iran by financially supporting Iraq in its war effort; and to foment a worldwide Sunni resurgence to counter the Shia one by promoting Saudi Arabia’s (virulently anti-Shia) Wahhabi creed through mosque-building, distribution of religious literature and salary payments to willing clerics (Shane, 2016).

In sum, these spiraling extremes – politicized Shiism vs politicized Sunnism – gathered strength, feeding off one another. To the extent the power competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran could be called an ethnic Arab-Persian one – both sides used ethnic slurs during the Iran–Iraq war – it now gained a sectarian overlay: the use of sectarian markers to whip up popular support inside and beyond their borders. While ethnic and religious differences have ancient origins, there is nothing primordial about the Saudi–Iranian rivalry: at heart it is a struggle between two regional powers that tried to find ways to accommodate each other but whose relationship came unstuck as a result of war (the Iran–Iraq war; Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait) and external intervention (the war to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait; the US invasion of Iraq). Such manipulation of emotive identities succeeds because these societal divides are real, even if not inherently inimical. Yet in doing so its proponents have given rise to a dynamic that may prove a great deal easier to generate than to suppress, as it permeates and contaminates politics throughout the region. The question is whether political leaders will exhibit a similar capacity and willingness to suppress the sectarian rage they have fomented before the entire region bursts into flames, sparing not even them. Yet political leaders calculate their interests in the short term; few have strategic vision or, even if they have one, the capability to implement it (Gause, 2014). 6

Cluster IV: The 1979 siege of Mecca: Sunni radicalization

The perceived threat from an Iran-led revolutionary Shiism was not the only factor precipitating a turn toward Saudi-led Sunni radicalization. The two-week siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious puritans in 1979 represented a radical contestation of the Saudi ruling dynasty from within the Sunni Muslim community, and prompted the House of Saud to bolster its Wahhabi base by championing (Sunni) Islamist causes, such as the effort to drive Soviet troops from Afghanistan (Trofimov, 2007). In other words, the Saudis’ “weaponization” of Wahhabism not only was a rallying cry against the Iranian/Shia surge but also a useful externalization of a domestic legitimacy crisis generated by a distorted transition based on exclusion/inclusion (Armstrong, 2014).

The region had a long post-Ottoman tradition of Sunni activism, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement, which had its genesis in the nationalist fervor of 1920s Egypt, was at times courted, at other times suppressed by the rulers of the day. Following their humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, Arab regimes empowered the Brotherhood and other Islamists to insulate themselves against Communist and other leftist critiques of their failure. Without this, the Islamists of today arguably would never have emerged as strongly as they did. The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates, which had not taken part in the 1967 war, resisted this approach. The Brotherhood’s republicanism, professed readiness to participate in parliamentary politics and explicitly politicized form of Islam that differed from their own posed an additional threat to their legitimacy.

Saudi proselytizing in and of itself did not radicalize the vast majority of Sunni Muslims but it fertilized the fields sufficiently that, when the proper conditions arose, a small vanguard of radical preachers was able to find and nurture a willing audience. What were these conditions? A convergence of economic crisis (especially joblessness and subsidy cuts) and deteriorating governance and politics (poor service delivery, increasingly conspicuous corruption at the highest levels of state, and presidents mimicking monarchical rule by introducing dynastic practices). Jointly and cumulatively: a growing perception of injustice, a breakdown of the social contract between rulers and ruled, and, ultimately, a severe crisis of legitimacy.

At first, republics and monarchies alike sought to deflect criticism by facilitating the departure of their restless young to Afghanistan to fight the godless Soviets. This strategy backfired. The victory by the religiously inspired mujahedin empowered these young fighters, once they returned home, to challenge local rulers using the militant Islamist discourse they had developed in combat. Initially welcomed as heroes, the “Arab Afghans” soon came to be seen as established regimes’ mortal enemies. Embattled leaderships responded by doubling down, establishing intrusive police states that operated through extensive informant networks, compliance enforced by issuing or withholding a range of administrative permits (conditioned on the provision of information), and torture and imprisonment of hard-core elements, in particular non-compliant returnees. This had the effect of spawning jihadist groups, Al-Qaeda most prominent among them. The “Arab Afghans” were particularly successful in Algeria, where they fueled the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, and in Egypt, where they inspired the group that called itself Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri (who later succeeded Osama bin Laden as Al-Qaeda leader) (Ould Mohamedou, 2011; International Crisis Group, 2016a).

Initially, these groups proved unable to spring the constraints of their own radical ideas and practices. Their inflexibility and violent excesses alienated most Sunni Muslims and permitted repressive rulers to pose as guarantors of security and stability. The next earthquake changed that, however.

Cluster V: The 2011 Arab uprisings

The Arab uprisings – in their Tunisian origin a popular response to the pervasive, vindictive rule by lowly police officers at neighborhood level – inspired hope that, in fact, change was possible, that defunct social contracts could be renegotiated, and that newly hereditary and thoroughly corrupt autocracies could be overthrown. As an expression of popular discontent, these uprisings were spectacularly successful. Yet as spontaneous eruptions aimed at replacing autocratic regimes the picture is decidedly mixed. Protesters’ success in Egypt inspired the young throughout the Arab world (and even among Iraqi Kurds) to emulate tactics. (Popular protests following contested election results in Iran in 2009 may have served as a model for the Arab uprisings two years later.) Yet regimes also learned from each other’s experiences, exploiting societal divisions to ensure quiescence by holding up the specter of chaos and sectarian war (Lynch, 2016).

Foreign military and diplomatic interventions played an increasingly important role and often promoted winner-takes-all rather than negotiated solutions: in Libya, to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and his clique; in Yemen, to nudge out Ali Abdullah Saleh in favor of his deputy; and in Bahrain, to bolster the regime of King Hamad Al Khalifa. In Syria, both protesters and the Bashar Assad regime appealed for outside support, initiating a regional proxy war, which then metastasized to draw in global powers. Both regional and global rivalries played out in these various theatres: in Syria and Libya, between Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia vs Qatar and Turkey (concerning the Islamist question); in Syria, between Russia vs the West, in addition to regional actors.

The uprisings failed in most cases – Tunisia being the exception – because the young protesters had no plan for alternative rule, no unified leadership, nor a political strategy for realizing their hopeful visions, only a pent-up desire to exercise a “no” vote in the street. The sole organized societal force capable of filling the vacuum, the Muslim Brotherhood, proved clumsy and inept at making the transition from opposition to government, and its rule was promptly contested (Brown, 2012). In Egypt, the military tolerated yet undermined the Brotherhood, whose leaders stacked error upon error from lack of experience and a short-sighted resistance to the principle of political inclusivity (International Crisis Group, 2013). The Saudi and UAE-backed July 2013 coup polarized Egyptian society further, inducing many secular young to side with the military (an updated, more repressive version of the Hosni Mubarak regime) in its repression of the Brotherhood and anyone suspected of supporting it. Extrajudicial killings, imprisonment and torture became widespread, radicalizing many (Human Rights Watch, 2014). (By contrast, in Tunisia, the local Brotherhood – the ruling An-Nahda party – pre-emptively stepped down from government following the Egypt coup and agreed to share power.) (International Crisis Group, 2014)

The coup exposed a widening intra-Sunni Islamist fault line between the Brotherhood’s defenders and opponents throughout the region. This encouraged radicalization: now, mobilized youth – the failed uprisings’ flotsam – had an address to which they could turn to express their anger and frustration, groups that were worth joining because they achieved military victories and provided a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. Jihadist groups began to gain traction and thrive, especially in war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – and “ungoverned spaces” – the Sinai, the Sahel, Hadramawt and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda grew, then split (in Syria), giving rise to the Islamic State, an insurgent group whose roots and drivers lay in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The two groups evolved diverging ideologies and pursued opposing objectives, using different methods; the outcome of their violent rivalry remains uncertain, but as long as they can operate in chaos and war, their potential for growth remains formidable despite internecine strife or momentary military defeats, such as in Libya, Iraq and Syria (International Crisis Group, 2016a).

External intervention as compounding factor

The picture, as seen through the analytical frame of these conflict clusters, is complicated by two factors: external intervention and conflicts’ post-2011 intersecting nature. To start with the first: From the Middle Easterner’s viewpoint, the region has been the target of an unending series of alien invasions that have preyed on divisions and filled vacuums, and have varied in form and impact but rarely helped calm the waters, much less brought peace. That same perspective argues that while MENA states may have lashed out at nearby enemies (witness Egypt/Yemen, Iraq/Iran, Iraq/Kuwait), they have never done so outside the region, which has chronically been on the defensive, trying to recover from the shock of post-Ottoman division and disempowerment.

The Cold War

During the Cold War, elites – whether in power or opposition – made their choices, altering the region’s power configurations through shifting allegiances. Regimes rose and fell as a result of the superpower struggle, and if a regime’s orientation was uncertain, as was the case of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Moscow and Washington would compete in wooing it, expending great resources, or seek to replace it with one whose loyalty could be bought. Think of the 1953 Mossadegh coup, the 1958 Lebanon crisis, or the 1955–1979 Baghdad Pact.

They would also exploit internal rifts to undermine one another, precipitating armed conflict, as in the case of Iraq and the Kurds (1961–1975) (Gibson, 2015), or keeping existing conflicts or standoffs alive, giving them the appearance of intractability. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one example, between Israel and Syria another.

The 1956 Suez crisis was a late-colonial attempt by Israel, the UK and France to wrest control over this vital waterway from Egypt’s nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The combined pressure from the US and Soviet Union, this time acting in concert, forced the parties to withdraw. In Lebanon, efforts by the so-called Multinational Force (MNF) (US, UK, France and Italy) to bring fighting to an end in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion, compel foreign forces to withdraw, and restore the legitimacy of the Lebanese government and institutions (1982–1984) ran aground amidst an escalating civil war to which the MNF contributed by shelling militia positions and civilian areas.

The US decade

The end of the Cold War brought new regional equations (Syria joining the US-led war in Kuwait) and amalgamations (the unification of north and south Yemen), as well as new military interventions by the remaining superpower, the US. Washington tried to operate under the mantle of international legitimacy whenever it could, whence the 1990–1991 “coalition of the willing” it led. The effort to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait may be the only notable exception to the notion that external interventions in MENA have made matters worse, not better. Yet even in this case, the salutary results (liberating Kuwait) were eclipsed by its unintended consequences: the rise of Al-Qaeda motivated by the stationing of Western troops on Saudi soil; and the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq. Moreover, the need to contain Iraq led to systematic infringements of Iraqi sovereignty: draconian UN “dumb” sanctions that caused the Iraqi infrastructure’s progressive collapse and emasculated its middle class; two no-fly zones, as well as a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds; the UN-led effort to dismantle Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs; and US strikes at regime targets in 1993 and 1998. In other words, an invasion justified by the act of aggression that preceded it, blessed by international legitimation, and successful in achieving its primary and limited objective of freeing Kuwait (rather than ousting the Iraqi regime) ended up by setting in motion a new and deeply destabilizing dynamic, one that empowered new actors (Shia Islamists, Kurds) and brought the country to near-collapse – a growing vacuum waiting to be filled (Cockburn and Cockburn, 2000).

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was arguably the most consequential foreign intervention in MENA since World War II. It compounded Iraq’s post-1991 territorial vacuum and tilted the strategic advantage toward Tehran in the regional Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It also provided oxygen to an Al-Qaeda reeling from defeat in Afghanistan. The group thrived in Iraq’s chaos, sprouting an even more brutal permutation, the Islamic State. Though greatly weakened by an alliance of US forces with local tribes, it survived the US occupation and gained a new lease of life when neighboring Syria descended into turmoil in 2011. Resurrected, it returned to Iraq in 2013–2014, feeding on the Sunni Arab population’s deep grievance toward the Shia Islamist rulers in Baghdad, whom they deemed Iranian proxies (International Crisis Group, 2016a). This then necessitated renewed US military intervention, joined by other Western as well as Arab states. This campaign, focused on defeating IS in both Iraq and Syria, led to IS’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria in 2017, but its ultimate success will hinge on the nature of post-conflict governance.

The Iraq invasion’s dismal failure triggered a partial US retreat from the region. President Obama argued that states should sort out their own problems; the US would act only to protect what it saw as its vital interests (Lynch, 2015). This was first visible in Libya in 2011, when the UK and France took the lead in protecting Libyan civilians from the Qaddafi regime, with the US “leading from behind”. The NATO intervention was empowered under the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), but acted beyond that mandate to help oust Qaddafi. This precluded international consensus on how to address the subsequent crisis in Syria, another country whose internal affairs the US did not deem a strategic interest (Goldberg, 2016). Instead, a popular uprising turned into an armed rebellion, then into a proxy war involving Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states. In the absence of a shared understanding between the US and Russia on how to resolve the conflict, UN-mediated talks faltered and were joined by a parallel track in Astana involving the main stakeholders on the ground: Russia, Iran and Turkey; regardless, the emergence of a shared understanding might not have sufficed to yield an end to the war, given the multiplicity of actors. Today we see the original conflict between a regime and its people, having morphed into a proxy war, giving rise to secondary conflicts that could be even more dangerous to regional stability: between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran, between the US People’s Protection Units (YPG) and regime/Iran/Russia in eastern Syria, and between the regime and the People’s Protection Units; in the latter, Turkey also pursues the YPG without, however, being able to strike a deal with the Assad regime, which brooks no Turkish interference (Lund, 2017; Heller, 2017).

Yet US strategic interests did come into play, and provoked responses: first in 2013, when the regime crossed the Obama administration’s declared red line by chemically attacking civilian neighborhoods; in this case, the threat of military force prompted the regime to consent to an international effort to dismantle its chemical weapons program. Next, the rise of jihadist groups with transnational aims provoked a US-led military intervention in 2014. And then, Russia’s September 2015 intervention tipped the military scales, precluding US-led no-fly zones or US-protected safe havens. This triggered no response apart from an offer of closer coordination; at that point, however, the US was approaching, then underwent, a political transition in Washington that removed it as a key player in Syria for the time being.

Russia’s resurgence

Moscow’s decision to launch an air campaign in support of the Assad regime and its regional backers Iran and Hezbollah was inspired by its assessment that its ally in Damascus was about to collapse. By late 2018, this effort seemed to have paid off: the regime, though weakened and fractured, appeared secure and in control of the country’s main cities, with only a last rebel holdout in the province of Idlib. With the US inward looking and in political turmoil, Russia placed itself in the driver’s seat, but a political process it launched in Kazakhstan (the “Astana process”) has sputtered along, raising questions over President Putin’s capacity to deliver, if not his intentions. The military intervention did little to stabilize Syria, or to defeat jihadist rebels occupying major tracts of territory, for example in Idlib. Instead, it aggravated long-term governance challenges whose continuance foretells endemic violence and strife (International Crisis Group, 2018a).

Turkey’s defensive aggressiveness

Turkey’s role also has been important. The country is both of the region and…not so much. It was the seat of the Ottoman Empire, but when that fell and Turkey’s modern borders were set, its ambitions were clipped along with its territory. Today it holds no realistic aspiration to rule its former domain, but merely seeks to do business with the states that emerged. A non-Arab Muslim state and NATO partner, Turkey also has endeavored to serve as a bridge between its Western allies and a post-Cold-War Arab world. For some time before 2011, it appeared to pursue an arrangement that Arab elites derisively referred to as “neo-Ottomanism” – Turkish economic rather than administrative domination. Its spearhead was the AK Party, which received its economic power from unlocking the Turkish interior and mobilizing an aspiring new middle class. Its standard-bearer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strengthened economic ties throughout the region, including with Assad’s Syria. Yet the AK Party was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, and so when popular uprisings shook the Arab world in 2011, Turkey faced a dilemma: back the besieged regimes or shift its support to the only organized, viable alternative, its ideological ally, the Muslim Brotherhood? It settled on the latter – in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, even in Yemen.

This proved the wrong bet, as the counter-revolution – led by Egypt’s “deep state” and backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – was more determined, unleashing a military power that overturned the nascent regional economic order Turkey tried to build. Meanwhile, Turkey experienced internal convulsions (Erdoğan’s bid to install a presidential system; a return to war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK; an attempted military coup) while becoming embroiled in foreign military adventures: against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but also and especially against the PKK and its affiliates in these two countries. Its friendship with Israel suffered over Ankara’s support of Palestinians in Gaza (and an activist-led attempt to provide aid to the besieged territory), then partly recovered. A dangerous confrontation with Russia in the skies above the Turkey-Syria border in 2015 triggered a year-long stand-off, diffused as suddenly as it had come about, with Turkey acknowledging Russia’s dominant role in Syria. Relations with Iran deteriorated over the latter’s support of the Assad regime and a growing presence – by proxy – in northern Syria and northern Iraq. As Ankara lashed out at both internal and external enemies, it was not the first, nor the last, to discover that often it is easier to get in than to get out, and to start a war than to end it (Bechev and Hiltermann, 2017).

The EU as paying bystander

Finally, a word about the European Union. It is somewhat of a cliché that the EU, unable to reach foreign policy consensus across its 28 member states, has been more of a payer than a player in MENA. This has been true with one notable exception: the High Representative’s office was prominent in helping secure the 2015 nuclear deal between the EU3+3 and Iran. EU diplomatic efforts in finding a just settlement to the Israel–Palestine conflict have been tepid and yielded no results. At times, the EU has patted itself on the back merely for being involved, as if the act of trying, rather than getting things done, counted more. This was its attitude in post-coup Egypt, when it heralded its mediation attempts as a success – and proof that the union mattered – even through it was being used by the regime to buy time.

Elsewhere in the region, the EU has been better known for providing humanitarian and development aid, and promoting economic integration and democratic reform. Like any large conglomeration of states, the EU has been sluggish in responding to breaking crises, which has encouraged an overly securitized approach to what are fundamentally political problems. Witness its participation in the anti-IS campaign and military support of local proxies, such as Iraqi Kurds, while neglecting to address Sunni grievances in Iraq and Syria; and its use of naval power to interdict people-smugglers and rescue migrants crossing the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) (Hiltermann, 2015).

Moreover, the EU has yet to become more than the sum of its parts; instead, member states have undermined unity at times, and thus its reputation. Some of them also have been openly interventionist, unlike the EU (which doesn’t have common foreign or defense policies), whether through NATO (Libya) or individual membership in US-led alliances (e.g., in Iraq/Syria). The UK, France and Germany have taken differing approaches toward the migrant/refugee crisis and jihadist threat, and sometimes different sides in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. In Yemen, in particular, the EU shone by its neutral approach to the war that started in 2015. It reached out to all sides and strongly backed UN mediation, even as the UK and France supported Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the UN Security Council (the shamefully one-sided Resolution 2216 of April 2015) and in their warfighting capability (through weapons sales). Such contradictory actions serve merely to compound crises like the one in Yemen.

In sum, the common characteristic of perhaps all external interventions – military, political or economic – is that they are driven by motivations that have nothing to do with the region’s welfare and stability. Instead, they deepen the crisis of legitimacy that all states face, thus making the next round of problems worse and increasing the chances of further conflict.

Intersecting trajectories

The challenge we face today is that subsets of the five conflict clusters, set off by their respective earthquakes, have started to bleed into one another. Seemingly strong authoritarian states have collapsed in the Arab uprisings’ popular fervor, and geographically limited conflicts have begun to metastasize beyond post-Ottoman borders. Each conflict cluster has its own drivers and actors, its own logic and dynamic, but when they become intertwined, things are mixed up: conflict actors form unlikely new alliances because their interests have become tactically aligned, and they dilute their ideologies to attract manpower and rule territories they acquire.

Moreover, when lines are blurred, conflict discourse becomes confusing. When Saudi Arabia states, as it does, that Iran has no right to stick its nose in Arab affairs (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, or Yemen), it is seeing Iran in light of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, its leaders striving to export their model across Shia populations and beyond through conversion (Cluster III). However, for Iran, its support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime is not primarily related to its wish to protect Shia populations and simultaneously implant the Velayet-e Faqih doctrine. Tehran is far more concerned by the threat it sees emanating from Israel and its offensive nuclear capability (Cluster II); in response, it supports Hezbollah as an instrument of “forward-defense”, and it backs the Syrian regime as essential to securing its arms channel to Hezbollah. The presence of a Shia population in southern Lebanon has been a facilitating factor, one that it has skillfully exploited. The same goes for its declared solidarity with the Palestinian people. For Iran, the original driver is key, but Saudi Arabia does not see it that way.

The argument concerning Iraq is different. Here Saudi Arabia is correct to view Iran’s assertive presence (military advisers, weapons training and supplies, political manipulation) as an effort to supplant Sunni political dominance; given Iran’s experience in the 1980–1988 war with Iraq (Cluster III), this cannot be a surprise. Yet that presence should be understood also in the context of the political-security vacuum created by the US in 2003. In other words, unlike its Syria role, Tehran’s Iraq posture today is a legacy of the Islamic Revolution – and the Saudi–Iranian competition that escalated in its wake – as mediated by external intervention, and also informed by Tehran’s need to protect its “near-abroad”.

One could argue that Israel remains Iran’s most dangerous enemy, requiring it to protect its Hezbollah alliance at all cost, whereas Iraq offers Iran strategic depth against a chaotic region with hostile neighbors and radical Sunni jihadist enemies. At the same time, Iran stands accused of trying to link its chance post-2003 Iraq role to post-2011 events in Syria, namely by endeavoring to forge a land corridor from Iran through central Iraq westward into Syria and, finally, Lebanon and the Mediterranean to supplement its air supply channel to Hezbollah. In other words, Iran could be marshalling its Cluster III advantage in Iraq to bolster its Cluster II “forward-defense” stance. For some, this apparent project is merely a cover for Iran’s millennialist ideology, which seeks regional hegemony (Al Shihabi, 2016).

Iran’s recent influence in Yemen and Bahrain (though much less so in the latter) also stems from the Saudi–Iranian rivalry (Cluster III). Yet in both cases, it was enabled by the breakdown of the prevailing order in the Arab uprisings (Cluster V). Sectarianism was not the driver of events in 2011, yet it is increasingly becoming so, as Iran and Saudi Arabia both appeal to people’s insecurity as threatened religious groups. It is understandable that Saudi Arabia would view Iran’s minimal interference in Bahrain and limited but growing support of the Houthis in Yemen as part of their post-1979 competition, but one must query the wisdom of the way in which Riyadh has chosen to counter its adversary.

Now let us look at Hezbollah. The group established itself, with Iranian help, in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was directed against the PLO. It therefore is a creature of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Cluster II). While pro-Shia in origin – defending Lebanon’s Shia community from external aggression and promoting it within the Lebanese political system – the group never profiled itself explicitly as sectarian until it was drawn into the Syrian war. Even then, it argued it was fighting a Sunni jihadist threat to the regime, not Sunnis as such (i.e., religion-based political formations, not a religious group). The primary reason for its involvement in Syria was the fear the regime might collapse, endangering the Iran-Hezbollah arms channel and thus Hezbollah’s survival as a militia standing up to Israel. At heart, Hezbollah remains a Cluster II actor, but a Cluster V conflict (arising from the Arab Awakening in Syria) compelled it to take on a new role, one that converged with a Cluster III (sectarian) role as the Syrian conflict became regionalized. In other words, the original conflict driver remains critical to Hezbollah even as its immediate objectives and character are changing by its need to adapt to new circumstances.

If the joint Saudi-UAE 2015 military intervention in Yemen can be explained by these two countries’ enmity toward Iran, their role in North Africa has an altogether different source. Here – in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – the two Gulf states (mostly the UAE) bring their financial and, in the case of Libya, military weight to bear in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood (Cluster IV). This reflects an intra-Sunni-Islamist struggle unleashed by the Arab uprisings (Cluster V). It places the two Gulf states in opposition to Turkey and Qatar, which champion the Brotherhood’s cause for reasons of both ideological affinity and business interest (Cluster IV). This conflict further saps the energies of Gulf states, which face economic pressures as a result of low oil prices while being overly reliant on oil (a Cluster I feature of post-Ottoman order/disorder), and which may be heavily armed but are limited in their capacity to project themselves militarily.

And so, even if Iran has no hegemonic ambitions, it has projected military power in the region by filling sudden security vacuums and pocketing the mistakes of its adversaries – if it can avoid over-reach and a protracted entanglement in the Syria and Iraq theatres. The situation is even more complex in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia’s objection to the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islah party, is not as strong as the UAE’s (Cluster IV). The UAE’s opposition to Islah weakens, possibly fatally, the anti-Houthi front (Cluster III). This leaves little space for a swift political resolution of the conflict, while outright military victory for either side seems equally improbable (International Crisis Group, 2016d).

Initiatives are afoot to forge a novel regional anti-Iran alliance (Cluster III) combining Israel with Sunni Arab states (Lerman, 2016). At once, such a project runs into obstacles. The most important one is that Arab states cannot afford to ally themselves openly with Israel – not even against common enemy Iran – as long as Israel, in their eyes, fails to make the necessary concessions to reach an acceptable outcome of its conflict with the Palestinians (Cluster II). It is difficult to envision any progress on that front; more likely, a new round of war will break out in Gaza, and even in the West Bank – if the Trump administration rolls out and seeks to implement a peace plan largely favoring Israel (Zalzberg and Thrall, 2017).

Another obstacle is Egypt, which has the same concerns but is resentful of its financial backers in the Gulf and whose president, Abdel-Fattah Sisi, has not concealed his admiration for his fellow survivor (Cluster V), Bashar Assad, who is the Gulf states’ enemy to the extent he remains in Iran’s camp (Cluster III). Egypt, in other words, would not be an enthusiastic partner in any anti-Iran alliance with Israel (its original Cluster II enemy), even as its military relationship with Israel has reached unprecedented levels in the two states’ common struggle against jihadists in the Sinai (Sabry, 2015).

What does it all mean?

Conflict is endemic in society; in this respect, the MENA region is no different from any other. Moreover, MENA conflicts, like conflicts elsewhere, are unique in their origin, evolution and defining characteristics. Yet it is possible to group these conflicts into five distinct conflict clusters whose members share a common genealogy and drivers even as they morph over time to draw in more actors motivated by new or different grievances. This analysis suggests three main, related conclusions.

First, there is utility in grouping conflicts this way. It helps explain the persistence of the original conflict drivers as conflicts belonging to different clusters start to bleed into one another, and brings them back from the relative obscurity to which the current mayhem has consigned them. And it forces the following questions: How can we even begin to tackle today’s conflicts if we fail to recognize their original sources? Aren’t we merely scratching the surface while the forces struggling below generate yet new generations of conflicts? Isn’t it likely that we do more harm by providing the wrong treatment based on misdiagnosis? And what can we effectively do to address the systemic crises that have rotted the post-Ottoman order from within? 7

Second, the growing, deeply alarming convergence of the five conflict clusters, aggravated by external intervention, has rendered individual states’ social contracts unsustainable, precipitated the collapse of state structures, exposed ideologies promising salvation to be bankrupt or a sham, forestalled urgently needed efforts to tackle tough social, economic and environmental challenges and rapidly depleting resources, and left old injustices to fester and deepen. This disaster is exploited by new, assertive actors using violent, even brutal tactics, to replace the old with something new.

Yet what can that be? Dynamic actors such as the Kurds want their own state, claiming today what was denied them a century ago, even as the Arab nation-state model as a form of governance is disintegrating in front of their eyes. Moreover, they are concerned only with their own fate as Kurds; they have no vision for a new regional architecture (Hiltermann, 2008).

Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are more potent, having much broader, more revolutionary, ambitions. One way or another, they aspire to resurrect the Caliphate, abolished by the truncated and stridently secular Turkish state that arose from the Ottoman Empire’s ashes. Yet while their methods are hyper-modern, their ideology is regressive and their predominant method no less repressive than that of the states they are seeking to supplant. Nor have they given any indication that they can offer solutions to the region’s problems, or provide an alternative and workable social contract. Their project is therefore bound to fail, no less than their ideological predecessors’ projects.

And, third, the global retreat of the United States as the unipolar power of its era is leaving the region prey to a multiplication of conflict nodes with not a single one capable of imposing overall dominance, not even within “camps” (e.g., pro-Iranian vs pro-Saudi) that could provide a measure of stability by cordoning off conflicts. The primary organizing principle is gone, and nothing has yet replaced it. As Antonio Gramsci put it with great eloquence: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” (Gramsci, 1971).

As internal contradictions mount and external intervention escalates, the post-Ottoman order/disorder appears ruined beyond repair; the outlines of what might replace it remain far from discernible. There is little that states outside a disintegrating MENA, fearing the fallout, can do until and unless MENA actors themselves gather the capacity and will to create a new order (or face the possibility that external powers will impose another ill-fitting structure on them). Yet conflicts can be managed, avoided or prevented, and even brought to an end, whether through victory/defeat or, preferably, negotiation. This is hard work, and the first impulse should always be: Do no (further) harm. This means: no unilateral military intervention, nor arms sales to conflict actors except for strictly defensive purposes; instead, redoubled efforts to support negotiated settlements, stepped-up humanitarian assistance, bolstering of technocratic institutions to prevent financial collapse, promises of reconstruction funds conditioned on conflict actors upholding international law and negotiating inclusive peace settlements, and cautious backing of the states still standing conditioned on their willingness to institute reforms. 8

An afterthought

One could take the metaphor of five earthquakes and their aftershocks a step further into the realm of shifting and colliding tectonic plates. As the post-Ottoman MENA conflict clusters continue to spawn new wars and hollow out states, actors and conflicts external to the region will impose themselves. Over time, the post-Ottoman order/disorder is likely to give way to an altogether new formation, one with its own violent eruptions and its own internal logic, drivers and actors. May the region’s people be the primary drivers and shapers of whatever emerges.

Appendix: An attempt at a typology of MENA conflicts of the past 50 years

  • Interstate wars (Iran vs Iraq, 1980–1988; Israel vs Lebanon, 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, 2006, also listed below) and internationalized interstate wars (Iraq vs Kuwait, 1990, turned into Iraq vs US-led international coalition, 1991, including Iraqi rocket attacks on Israel)
  • Civil wars (Jordan, 1970–1971; Algeria, 1992–1999; Iraqi Kurdistan, 1994–1998; Iraq, 2005–2007; Libya, 2014–today), including wars of secession (Yemen, 1994), and metastasizing/regionalizing civil wars (Yemen, 1962; Lebanon, 1975–1990; Syria, 2012–today; Yemen, 2015–today, also listed below)
  • Violent uprisings/revolutions (Iran, 1979) and those provoking external intervention (Libya, 2011; Bahrain, 2011; Syria, 2011)
  • Violent insurgencies and counter-insurgencies (Iraq/Kurds, intermittently 1960s–1991; Turkey/PKK, intermittently 1980s–today; IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sinai, 2013–today)
  • Violent internal repression, perhaps following – failed or successful – coups d’état (Syria, 1982; South Yemen, 1986; Iran, 2009; Egypt, 2013; Turkey, 1960, 1980, 2016)
  • Military occupations (Israel in Lebanon, 1982–2000; Syria in Lebanon, 1976–2005; Iraq in Kuwait, 1990–1991; US in Iraq, 2003–2011), with cyclical fighting (Israel in Palestine, 1967–today, including two uprisings, 1988, 2000, and three Gaza wars, 2008–2009, 2012, 2014)
  • Cross-border wars between state and non-state actors (Israel vs Hezbollah in Lebanon, 1993, 1996, 2006; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia/UAE vs Houthis/Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, 2015–today; Islamic State in Syria/Iraq, 2012–2017)
  • Wars of national liberation (Palestine vs Israel; Algeria vs France; Western Sahara vs Morocco)
  • Wars over resources? (Iran vs Iraq, 1980, maybe; Iraq vs Kuwait, 1990–1991, maybe; use of oil as a weapon in Kuwait, 1991, and in Qayyara/Iraq, 2016; Kirkuk/Iraq as pre-conflict over oil, 2003–today; use of water as a weapon by and against IS in Iraq and Syria, 2014–2017)
  • Genocide/genocidal acts/ethnic “cleansing” (Israel vs Palestinians, 1948, 1967; Iraq’s counter-insurgency vs Kurds, 1987–1988; Sunni vs Shia violence in Iraq, 2005–2007; Islamic State vs Iraqi Yazidis, 2014)


Program Director, Middle East & North Africa, International Crisis Group. This essay is based on field research conducted by my Crisis Group colleagues and myself, as well as historical insights I gleaned from teaching a course on the politics of the Middle East at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies in 2016 and 2017. I wish to thank Issandr El Amrani (who had an early idea for the proposed new approach to conflicts in the Middle East), Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Robert Blecher and Heiko Wimmen for reviewing an earlier draft and providing helpful comments. Responsibility for any errors of fact or historical judgment is entirely mine.

I have gone back and forth on whether the post-Ottoman order/disorder should be regarded a conflict cluster or addressed separately for having informed all subsequent conflicts in the region. I ended up labelling it a cluster in its own right, because the types of conflicts it has spawned concern the foundations of state legitimacy, whereas this is not necessarily true of clusters two, three and four. Cluster five, however, constitutes the culmination of cluster one’s internal contradictions, and has ushered in a new set of conflicts.

As Jean-Marie Guéhenno pointed out in comments (here paraphrased) on an earlier draft of this chapter, the logic of democracy in republican systems introduces the logic of numbers and majority rule in fragile polities. The question of legitimacy after the demise of the Ottoman Empire is a central one that was not addressed very well by either Britain or France.

I am grateful to Jean-Marie Guéhenno for his insights on this matter. See also, Ofer Zalzberg (2018).

On the inadequacies of the “peace process” (a term that seems to uniquely evoke the Israeli–Arab conflict, despite the great number of conflicts around the world (Middle East and North Africa Report (International Crisis Group))), see Crisis Group, 2012).

For a nuanced take on sectarianism, see Ussama Makdisi (2017).

For interesting takes on this, see James L. Gelvin (1999) and Eva Bellin (2012).

I have elaborated these ideas in my commentary “Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts” (Hiltermann, 2018).


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