The exponential growth of terrorism in the Middle East in the last decade, and the unprecedented pace, sophistication and effectiveness of their military advances have become the biggest factor for change in the region. In more ways than one, terrorism in the Middle East may be attributed to the failed project of nation-building, a phenomenon evidenced most acutely in the rise of the Islamic State (IS).
The expanding Islamic State Caliphate has challenged a century-old political landscape and is about to introduce a new Middle East order, based on a denial, not of liberty or freedoms, but of humanity itself. The key question facing the region is: can terrorists be allowed to shape the future? If not, how can the US contribute to reversing the spiral, stabilising the region and eliminating terrorist threats. Most importantly, how can regional leaders in the Middle East set in motion a nation-building project which ensures that extremist threats like the IS are prevented from emerging ever again?
The changing Middle East order
It was almost a century ago, after the First World War, when borders were drawn for the current state system and the foundations of the twentieth century Middle East order were laid down. The post-colonial Middle Eastern settlement was characterised by the rise of communism and Arab nationalism which produced a wave of significant change across the region. Several incompetent and invariably corrupt monarchies were replaced in bloody coup d’etats by even more corrupt and brutally suppressive regimes. By aligning with either East or West, Middle East dictators and autocrats secured their longevity and, in the process, dented the social fabric of their societies, contributing, in essence, to a strong state but a weak and fractured society.
In the name of Arab nationalism, Palestine liberation and anti-imperialism, regional dictators suppressed their own people, started wars and radicalised the region while paying little attention to nation-building. Throughout the Cold War, people in the Middle East were brought up to dislike ‘the West’ (particularly the US) for supporting Israel. For generations, the US and its European allies were portrayed as the masters of all wars and the source of evil in the Middle East. Although most of the dictators were themselves friendly with ‘the West’, they too publically blamed ‘the West’ for their own failures. In return, by pursuing realpolitik and failing to adopt foreign policies with a ‘human face’, the US and Europeans did little to change this image.
Incubation for radicalisation
Clearly, events of the past few months have not come out of nowhere. They are rooted in the chequered history of the Middle Eastern region, characterised by failed ideologies, such as Nasserism, and their propensity to reify their political regimes through large-scale suppression of civil society. In order to address this chequered history, it is imperative that long term plans are generated by local, regional and international stakeholders.
The highly politicised people of the Middle East, have yearned and suffered for too long for democracy and human rights. However, a failure to address their genuine socio-economic problems has radicalised people, and in time this has led to an increase in violence (as a response to the violence perpetrated by the state) and to the contemporary situation where extremism has become the norm. Extremists showed initiative, they capitalised on protests and they filled the opposition void. With the globe getting smaller by the day and boundaries becoming blurred, extremists took their fight to a global stage. Importantly, ideologies, particularly radical Islam, further facilitated their metastasis through global networks.
The Middle East has been and shall remain an extremely tough neighbourhood. Rivers of bloodshed have been here for an eternity. Violence and suppression are often the first methods of choice for resolving differences. The learning environments at home, school and in the community are predominantly tension-generating, with a greater inclination towards intolerance and revenge. Hardly any Middle Eastern government has shown a serious commitment to nation-building, good-governance, democracy or human rights, and left alone none will be in the future.
Meanwhile, the major powers consistently throughout the Cold War refused to address the nation building issue in the Middle East. Driving economic and security motives led these superpowers to ride roughshod over fundamental principles of liberty, civil rights and democracy, and to turn blind eyes to violations of human rights by their regional partners.
The spring of blood
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European spring arrived in earnest and the western powers helped Eastern Europe towards democracy at record speed. However, the waves of change took twenty additional years to arrive in the Middle East. Meanwhile, radical movements began to fill the void that was generated by the failed project of nation-building.
The fall of the Saddam regime was a turning point, providing a catalyst for change in the Middle East order and paving the way for a greater US presence in the Middle East. However, the ‘Arab spring’ quickly turned into a nightmare, and regime changes led to even more violence and radicalisation in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt.
Such weakened and largely dysfunctional states became fertile ground for ultra-extremisms and super-terrorism. Strong local warlords also emerged and engaged in never-ending proxy wars on behalf of rival regional powers, who proved more influential in their neighbourhood than global superpowers. Iran now considers Iraq, Syria and South Lebanon as its backyard for national security interests, and has a strong political, economic and military presence in these countries. Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are determined to prevent Iranian domination of the region by supporting their state and non-state allies in the region.
Therefore, left alone, the future, for some years to come, shall remain bleak. Even if tackled, there will be no quick solutions to such chronic, extreme and deep-rooted problems. There will be more bloodshed before any corners are turned.
Turning a corner
Locally, the people of the Middle East have tried and consistently failed to change governments or sufficiently influence their policies. Protests, human rights campaigns and minority rights movements have invariably led to further suppression, violence and bloodshed. It is under this cosh that civil society has become submissive and incapable of major changes, as it remains politically undermined, ill-focused and absorbed by problems of varying degrees.
However, for the first time for decades, all sides to the conflict (except for the terrorists) agree that terrorism has grown out of all proportions and poses a major threat to all. The current aerial bombardment by the US and its allies, has won the explicit or implicit support of almost all stakeholders. For example, the Iranians have been engaged on the ground, with or without direct coordination with their traditional rivals.
It is increasingly clear to all that now is the time to talk, think and work together to negotiate workable win-win strategies. It is time to plan for a new Middle East order, where there are no failed or dysfunctional states that can breed terrorism and no minorities that are denied their right of self-determination. Human rights, nation-building and good governance must become core to these negotiations.
Left alone, the Middle East will not be stabilised, pacified or democratised. The Iraqis are trying at this moment. They have formed a new government of national unity and are fighting off ISIS. There is a ‘reconciliation’ process being launched by the new Presidency of Iraq, with participation from all parties. The Middle East Research Institute (MERI, meri-k.org), is dedicating its inaugural Forum to this process (between 3-5 November).
The US must reverse the previous Obama policy and show greater interest in the long term future of the region. The US must show leadership in bringing local stakeholders together, and in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kurdish-Turkish peace process and Shia-Sunni conflict.
The Middle Eastern countries, particularly those most affected by the current crisis, must be helped or forced to earn legitimacy, reform their system of governance and empower their people. That said, the biggest responsibility remains with the local state and society leaders to invest in nation-building, education, civil society and the institutions of democracy.