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The US cannot win the Middle East: six reasons why

The United States has yet again attempted to resolve issues in the Middle East. This time it is by firing missiles on a Syrian military airfield, sending a ‘strong message’ to a dictator.

USS Porter launches Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase in the Mediterranean Sea. Picture by MCS 3rd Class Ford Williams/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved. This article explores why realist views alone cannot explain the complexity of insecurity in the Middle East and why internal and regional conflicts in the Middle East, since 2003, look endless. What are the alternatives to advocating a single international relations theory to explain different regions with different socio-cultural, political, historical, economic, and security specificities? The Middle East’s particularities can prove the United States wrong in addressing the region’s problems by adopting hard-power policies, at least so far, as it did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. 

The end of the Cold War coincided with the shift from inter-state conflict to intra-state conflicts. Since then the world has witnessed more conflicts within states than between states. Realists who hold a power-centric or state-centric understanding of world affairs fail to predict and explain intra-state issues. Washington continues to deal with the complex regional insecurity in the Middle East from a narrowly defined, realist/military-centric, security approach. And yet again, it is failing to give the right messages, rather, it keeps sending ‘strong messages’.  The question remains to be answered whether a multi-layered ongoing security issue in the Middle East can be fixed by such realist/militaristic approach.

There are at least six interlinked divisive reasons why the United States cannot win its wars in the Middle East and why its resort to bombing is not going to resolve the problem. These are: social issues, societal issues, national issues, political issues, regional issues, and international issues. The interplay between such divisions creates extremely complex and unpredictable security problems, which requires a comprehensive and collective approach. While these might not be specific to the Middle East, the existence of all of them in one place is. let us briefly delve into these divisions one by one.

Social divisions

Academics, elites and policy-makers often neglect the fact that societies in the Middle East are composed of various classes and categories each having different expectations and seeking different socio-political and economic demands.

These demands are socio-historically informed and are changing. For instance, in Egypt hundreds of thousands including young, well educated, perhaps liberal Cairenes gathered in Tahrir Square, seeking democracy and demanding an authoritarian president to resign. They forced him to do so, neglecting the fact that when elections take place the following year, millions of Egyptians in small towns and villages will also participate in the election, mainly and mostly people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

The election results were considered catastrophic by the same people who have contested the election, creating a critical division in the Egyptian society, which yet continues to exist. Another good example is Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. Iranian reformist elites considered young middle class Iranians, who had greater access to internet in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, as representing Iran entirely, and their view should determine the election results. They neglected the fact that these people who form a large segment of the Iranian society, underdeveloped, less educated, more traditional, and far from Tehran have different views, or can be convinced to vote against the reformist candidate. The result was considered a shock to reformists, and thus caused a major division between different social classes, each believing it represents Iran. Such social division, is also present in other countries in the Middle East, for example between secular and Islamists in Turkey, between Sunnis of different social classes, be it merchant or not, in supporting Bashar al Assad in Syria and so forth.

As a result, the gap between people’s expectations based on their social interests determines what is right and what is wrong in the many countries of the region. This growing gap, creates an interest dilemma, when any decision would be considered as a win for some part of the society and a loss for another. Therefore, in the absence of democracy, it would be extremely difficult to make everyone happy in such fragmented societies.

Societal divisions

Societal security is about identities, be it ethnic, religious, and/or sectarian. The artificially created states, their borders, and the incomplete process of national identity making undermine the cohesiveness and unity of the nations in the Middle East. Most of the identities are transnational, and more importantly are not represented by their central government, their rights are ignored and in some cases their existence is not recognised by the dominant ruling culture.  Tens of millions of Kurds residing in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, for instance, are not only historically oppressed by their governments but also by the neighbouring governments. They are either attacked or instrumentally employed for political purposes.

Peoples and their interests were neglected for so long.

The growing sectarian division, namely the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria is shaping the region’s politics and security. Furthermore, the transnational nature of the region’s ethnic make-up as well as politicised identities invite neighbouring countries to interfere in other states’ domestic security affairs. In other words, in the Middle East, the politically drawn borders do not represent the societal borders. Turkey and the issue of Kurds in Syria, Iran and Iraq is just one example. Most of these identity groups are transnational, territorially located, they are sizable, politicised and are often supported by a foreign country based on their ethno-sectarian and/or ideological affiliation. Moreover, the de-territorialised concept of Ummah which recognises no border or nationality but Islam as a faith and as the only source of authority complicates such a complex identity even further. This increases the likelihood of internationalisation of conflict in the region, and beyond.

National divisions

This refers to divisions between people and their governments, regardless of their social and/or societal affiliation. Most of the states in the region are authoritarian, under different guises, whether militaristic, religious, ethnic, sectarian, or monarchic. These governments have hardly been democratically verified by their people. The region inherited these authoritarians from the advent of the 20th century, and the emergence of the so-called nation-state, and were solidified during the Cold War. At that time super powers considered states in the region as objects that serve their geo-political interests. As a result, peoples and their interests were neglected for so long.

The growing gap between people and their governments has resulted in several revolutions, civil wars, uprisings and coups d'etats across the region since the advent of the 21st century. People, empowered by mass communication technology, new media, and education acquired an increased socio-political awareness, and now demand greater freedom. Their expectations increased dramatically while existing governments either cannot or do not want to meet these expectations. The result is emerging strong societies versus weak states. The increasing gap between people’s socio-political expectations and their capabilities to meet these demands has created a greater gap between people and their governments, further undermining the state’s legitimacy and greatly empowering people’s views, seeking what they perceive as a greater human emancipation.

Political division

This refers to the fragmentation of the political systems. Since most governments in the region are not necessarily democratically elected, they often rely on army and security forces to maintain state security. Legitimacy was not sought by people democratically, and rentier system disengaged states from people economically. Yet, authorities in the region were also divided: reformists versus conservatives in Iran, seculars versus Islamists in Tunisia, or Islamists versus military in Egypt, or also in Turkey, and fragmentation within the ruling Al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia, and so on.

The division between the already fragile states in Baghdad and Beirut is also evident and is manifested not only between sectarian factions but also divisions within sectarian political parties and factions. Such political fragmentations and divisions between different factions within political systems would not only increase political insecurity in those countries but also undermines unity and cohesiveness in making a solid and lasting internal and external political and security policies.

Regional division

Regional rivalry has been present at least since the Arab Cold War between Egyptian nationalism and Saudi Arabian monarchism, in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 that the balance of power changed in favour of Iran by removing the Baathist regime in Iraq, and replacing it with a Shi’a government close to Iran. 

International powers have been serving and seeking their national, economic, military, and political security, but hardly ever pursuing human security.

The rise of Iran’s power and its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, have been perceived by many Arab states and particularly Saudi Arabia as a threat to their security. Such political rivalry has been translated into a sectarian language and, since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, into proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, while In Lebanon and Bahrain, it has been transformed into political confrontations.  Iran allied itself with Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia aligned itself with Turkey and Jordan to implement their regional policies in any means possible.

International divisions

The current international confrontations between the US and Russia in the Middle East, and in Ukraine is another international division that is affecting the region. What makes the aforementioned regional divisions even more complicated is the presence of major interests of international powers in the region. The declining power of the United States internationally, and particularly in the Middle East has coincided with Russia’s rise to power and its increasing involvement in the region to serve its geopolitical interests, especially during the last few years in Syria. The United States’ legitimacy and credibility has been seriously damaged since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its weak performance afterwards in its war on terror.

On the other hand, Russia’s allegiance, at least tactically, with Iran has succeeded in maintaining their interests in Syria and Iraq. Such international rivalry between the United States and Russia coupled with the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran created such a security complex, where each side tends to address their concerns by mobilising their proxies, and bombing their enemies, often the other side’s allies. At best, they are coordinating on how, when and where to bomb, not necessarily to achieve their objectives but, in fact, to make sure that they are not hitting one another. 

The mere existence of any or a few of the aforementioned divisions would inevitably lead to insecurity in any region. Interestingly, all the six interconnected divisions are strongly present in today’s Middle East. Some of these issues are structural and are socio-historically constructed, and the interplay between them makes the case of the Middle East even more complicated. To address these issues requires adopting a comprehensive approach. The issues mentioned in this article, may not have been caused by a specific agency, or by one or two key critical events such as the 2003 Iraq invasion, or the 2011 Arab uprisings, or even by significant historical phenomena such as divisions within Islamic denominations, and the emergence of artificially created nation-states, rather they are socio-historically constructed.

Nonetheless, no matter how these security divisions or threats are conceived or perceived, they are strong, and they do exist. They may be invented, but they are practiced. Ideologies and identities might be imagined but they are believed. Borders and states might be artificially created but they are contested. Bombing and launching missiles may be considered a strong political message which serves a politician’s domestic interests, but they can never resolve the regional security complex in the Middle East. So far, and for so long, international powers have been serving and seeking their national, economic, military, and political security, but hardly ever pursuing human security.

About the author

Alam Saleh is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is a council member of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and reviews editor of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. He received his BA, MA, and PhD from the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.


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