The most significant dynamic in the Middle East over the last decade has been the collapse of strong, centralized regimes in a series of Arab states and their replacement by chaos, civil war, and the proliferation of non-state militias. This collapse has taken place in five states: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and—in a very different way—Lebanon. The Palestinian national movement has also fragmented.
This phenomenon is particularly relevant given that the chaos resulting from the collapse of these regimes is providing an opportunity for predatory regional powers to extend their influence. They are doing so by sponsoring one or another of the successor entities that are fighting to control the areas once ruled by Arab nationalist regimes. The most important of these powers is Iran, which seeks regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are also deeply involved in the labyrinthine military and political chaos that is emerging in each of the collapsed states.
What may be understood from this process of collapse? Is there some element common to all cases? What does it mean for the future of the region, and what are the implications for Western and U.S. Middle East policy?
In order to answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the events themselves.
The chronology is an interesting one. The “official” timetable for change in the Arab world begins in 2011, with the self-immolation of Tunisian merchant Muhammad Bouazizi. The riots and protests that followed his death led to the fall of the ruling regime. This is seen as the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” which then spread to Egypt, Syria, and other countries.
But almost five years later, this timetable looks forced and simplistic. Perhaps a better way to understand the sequence of events is to take note of two milestones that preceded the Tunisian uprising: The sectarian civil war in Iraq, which reached its height in 2006, and Hamas’ seizure of power in Gaza, which took place in July 2007.
The emergence of sectarian civil war in Iraq and the fragmentation of that country were in many ways the blueprint for much of what followed. The time prior to the outbreak of the war was marked by a long period of repression and socioeconomic failure in the states ruled by leaders who proclaimed their loyalty to Arab nationalism. But this stifling repression and failure was also marked by a kind of stagnant stability. In effect, the regimes sucked the air out of the possibility of protest. Their willingness to crush the slightest whisper of dissent using the most brutal means meant that opposition movements simply had no space in which they could begin to organize. Opponents of the regime found themselves in jail or exile, where they were often used as tools by other regimes in their quest for power.
The first cracks in this seemingly impenetrable wall came in the middle of the last decade; not in the form of democratic movements, but rather through political Islam, sectarian organizations, and minority nationalism. This process has now repeated itself throughout the region. Whether the dictatorship was destroyed through external intervention (Iraq and Libya) or destabilized by internal processes (Yemen, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority) does not appear to have greatly influenced subsequent events.
In Iraq, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was destroyed by U.S. armed intervention. The removal of the dictator revealed that the underlying sectarian realities that characterized Iraq since its emergence as a modern state had not diminished during the repression of anything resembling genuine political life during the years of Ba’athist dictatorship.
As a result, the politics of post-Saddam Iraq have taken on a largely sectarian dynamic. This is not to say that there were not many Iraqis who had deep “national” feelings and for whom the existence of Iraq was of great meaning. But the main currents of post-Saddam political loyalty are very clearly sectarian in nature. The victory of the Shia Islamist Dawa party in the 2009 elections, for example, and the subsequent brokering of a coalition under Iranian auspices, clearly shows that events were being driven by sectarian fragmentation.
After the final U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011, events moved quickly. Sunni unrest and agitation, the Shia-led government’s attempt to suppress it, and the subsequent rise of ISIS have resulted in a new civil war. This war pits the Sunni Islamists of ISIS against both the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north. The latter, however, has its eye on the door. As of now, this has led to the fragmentation of Iraq into three sectarian enclaves—Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish. The edifice of authoritarian rule, once removed, was rapidly followed by the effective collapse of the Iraqi state.
In the Palestinian case, fragmentation followed the death of the Palestinian national movement’s charismatic leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, and then Hamas’ victory in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in early 2006. The mini-civil war between Palestinian factions in Gaza during the summer of 2007 resulted in the expulsion of the secular Fatah party from the Gaza Strip, and the de facto emergence of two rival Palestinian entities: The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, dominated by Fatah, and a Hamas-ruled entity in Gaza.
In Syria, the Assad regime’s gradual realization that it lacked sufficient manpower to maintain control of the entire country led to a strategic retreat from outlying territories in the summer of 2012. This brought into being three separate areas of control: A regime-controlled area in Damascus and its environs, a rebel-controlled zone in the north and east, and three non-contiguous Kurdish cantons in the north. The rebel-controlled area has since subdivided into an area controlled by ISIS and areas held by other rebel factions, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
In Libya, the destruction of the Qaddafi regime has led to the emergence of two rival successor authorities: The Western-supported government in Tobruk, and an Islamist-dominated administration in Tripoli. Al-Qaeda is also active in the latter.
In Yemen, the actions of the Iran-supported Houthi militia have led to a situation of renewed civil war in the country. The Houthis now control the capital of Sana’a, and Saudi Arabia has intervened to prevent their conquest of the entire country. As a result, the reemergence of North- and South-Yemeni republics is now possible.
We should add Lebanon to this list, in that while it has not physically fragmented, the state has effectively been rendered subordinate to a shadow-state controlled by a sectarian militia—Hezbollah. Hezbollah is itself armed, financed, and to a great extent controlled by Iran.
In all these cases, then, a repressive centralized authority has been replaced by sectarian and ethnic fragmentation and civil war.
Yet three Arab states (and one regional non-Arab state) that have faced serious internal unrest over the last decade have avoided internal schism—Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Iran. In the case of Bahrain, a mobilization of fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies crushed an Iran-supported rebellion by the Shia majority. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of a dictator resulted in the rise to power of elected Muslim Brotherhood-aligned governments, which no longer hold power; in the case of Egypt, military rule has been restored, while in Tunisia, the Islamists were defeated electorally. In Iran, anti-regime protests were quelled in 2009. In all these cases, serious unrest did not result in the fragmentation or collapse of the state.
The key question, then, is whether we can isolate certain common factors in those countries and/or sub-state entities that have effectively collapsed and ceased to exist as unified bodies, compared to those that, despite instability, have held together.
One of the factors that seems to be immediately apparent is that all the entities mentioned above are or were ruled by movements or individuals emerging from the pan-Arab nationalist ferment of the 1950s. This ideology had long since ceased to have any appeal by the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however. Instead, it survived as a thin justification for a brutally repressive police state.
Only in the Palestinian case does pan-Arabism retain a certain amount of popular support; but this may be related to the Palestinians’ status as a population living under occupation in the West Bank and conflict in Gaza. Nonetheless, the structures created by the Palestinians’ local version of Arab nationalism have not succeeded in creating a working civil and open society. Instead, a corrupt and repressive police state in embryo was established, in line with similar societies elsewhere. And as elsewhere, the opposition to this structure took the form of an Islamist political/military organization.
In all the cases noted above, in addition to the dominance of regimes or movements claiming legitimacy in the name of Arab nationalism, a second common factor was the absence of deep historical roots for the entity in question. That is, while Islamic loyalty and local tribal identity were powerful forces, “Iraqi-ness,” “Syrian-ness,” and so on were recent constructs. They were fostered by states whose borders were newly bequeathed by European colonialism, rather than deep sentiments or loyalties deriving from a long, consistent, and uninterrupted history. The only exception is Yemen, where a deep historical perception of Yemeni identity exists; but historically, this has not gone hand in hand with the existence of a single Yemeni state with strong institutions.
So the two notable factors of commonality in all the cases where state collapse and fragmentation have taken place are the long domination of repressive movements professing loyalty to Arab nationalism, and the relatively recent vintage of the local “national identities” in question.
In two countries—Egypt and Tunisia—revolutions took place against regimes that professed Arab nationalism, but these states did not collapse as a result. In both cases, strong state institutions existed alongside a settled national identity. Tunisia has been an effectively autonomous entity since the beginning of the 18th century, but the phenomenon is far stronger and more pronounced in the Egyptian case. Egypt has an uninterrupted national history dating back to antiquity. In modern Egypt, a longstanding tension between a specifically Egyptian nationalism and broader pan-Arab and pan-Islamic currents has long been apparent. But even in the heyday of pan-Arabism, this ideology was an instrument of the Egyptian state, and never supplanted a specifically Egyptian national consciousness. Since the early 1970s, this specifically Egyptian orientation has been clearly dominant, with the possible exception of the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012-2013. But this short and disastrous period, followed by the rapid eclipse of the Brotherhood, seems to be a clear exception that proves the rule.
So the states that have collapsed are those that lacked any firm grounding either in institutional or national identity. Those that have held together despite internal unrest possessed both of these, albeit to varying degrees. The question is what will happen in those states that did not, and have now collapsed.
Since the eruption of civil war in Syria and Iraq, some analysts have speculated that the likely outcome will be the emergence of new entities with “deeper” sources of loyalty, almost certainly arranged on ethnic/sectarian grounds. Such an outcome is not impossible, but neither is it inevitable. As of now, the partition of these areas remains embryonic, with both Western and regional powers opposed to it. The areas that most closely resemble “successor states” in both countries are those controlled by the Kurds. In particular, the KRG in northern Iraq has most of the attributes of a state, including its own armed forces, internal administration, and border controls. However, there are serious external constraints on an early Kurdish declaration of independence—most importantly, concerns regarding the Turkish response to such a declaration, as well as U.S. objections to the breakup of Iraq.
The Syrian Kurdish autonomous zones, meanwhile, are more fragile, non-contiguous, and controlled by a local branch of the PKK, which remains on the EU and U.S. lists of terror organizations. As a result, they have far less international legitimacy than the KRG in north Iraq. Outside of the Kurdish zones, the participants in the Syrian civil war remain ostensibly committed to the unity or reunification of the areas in question.
Thus, while it might be an intellectually attractive idea to imagine new “nation-states” emerging from the ruins of Iraq and Syria, it remains just as likely that the dysfunctionality caused by the “artificial” nature of these states will remain. In such a scenario, the states would still be officially united, while, in practice, successor entities will divide up the territory between them.
A third possibility, more likely in Syria than Iraq though by no means inevitable, would be the forcible reunification of the country by one or another of the sides following a military victory. In such a scenario, the dysfunctional nature of the state would again be buried beneath the strength of an authoritarian regime. This new repressive state would almost certainly rule in the name of Sunni Islam. In effect, this would be a return to the pre-war status quo, but with religion, rather than nationalism, as the unifying factor.
At the present time, however, there is no country in which such a reunification by force looks imminent.
In both Syria and Iraq, the forces fighting to preserve the unity of the state and regard themselves as the legitimate central government of the area in question are anti-Western elements. As a result of this, the U.S. and Western continued commitment to the “unity” of the areas in question has the result of preventing alliance with other, potentially more positive players. This is particularly notable in the case of Iraq, where Western commitment to the increasingly pro-Iranian Baghdad government prevents the direct supplying of the overtly pro-Western (and far more militarily effective) Kurdish Peshmerga.
Thus, Western recognition of the fragmented nature of these countries, of the deep structural reasons for and probably irreversible nature of this, needs to happen for coherent policy to be made. Allies who can effectively be assisted in the battle both against Iran and against the Islamic State are available. But a conceptual “leap” toward recognition of the fragmented nature of the polities in question needs to take place before these potential alliances can be effectively exploited.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the struggle raging across large parts of the Arab world, it may be concluded that the cause of the collapse of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is the prior failure to develop strong national identities and workable institutions in the areas in question.
Despite this failure, pan-Arab nationalism and the brutal police states it spawned managed to achieve stability for a long, stagnant period. That period is now over. Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war is the result. What will follow these wars cannot be stated with any certainty. What can be asserted with confidence, however, is that those regional states that are based on a strongly-held national identity—Egypt, Israel, Iran, and Turkey—are likely to remain intact despite these pressures, though they may face revolts from within by national minorities and other marginalized groups.
The failure of the populous Arab states of the Levant and Mesopotamia to build strong national identities and institutions is one of the most remarkable and comprehensive of modern times. Unfortunately, this failure has now cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. What “ought” to happen is that these failed states should give way to successor entities based on more stable foundations. Strategic realities, however, make such an outcome uncertain. It seems, unfortunately, that the bloodletting is far from over.
Tower Magazine, June 2015