Analysis. The alternatives for the Middle East, barring a much more revolutionary second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos. Neither a welcome prospect for the new year.

Flirting with global disaster: Chaos and intervention in the Middle East

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, but with menacing risks of a Third World War.

The reckless antagonism of Russia along its border, as reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries, promoting regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the increasingly confrontational approaches by the United States to China over island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas, are building toward intensifying international conflict.

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is particularly worrisome, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and an even more militaristic approach to such challenges as directed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS and Iran.

Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frightening clear is this highly dangerous mood of geopolitical bravado that is likely to worsen as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president

It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I.

In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating a system of mandates in which London and Paris would administer the territories, but with a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time.

These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures.

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War?

Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. This was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

When the Cold War ended, the United States promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally).

The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, apparently hoping to turn its regime-changing interventions into shining examples of liberation and democratization, with Afghanistan, and especially, Iraq as notorious casualties of such a misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and tribal loyalties creating an indigenous nostalgia for the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements.

To rid the region of its dictators, the West followed up on the Arab Uprisings in 2011, with further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed, the genuine democratic beginnings in Egypt that began in 2011 were crushed by a populist military coup two years later that actually restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, but in an even more severe form and accompanied by a distressing bonding between the Egyptian people and its armed forces. The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into this counterrevolutionary backlash: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” Clearly the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife and militia forms of governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, seek to work with dependable national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel used its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as its leaders wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win out.

During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to regime changing scenarios, and conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous enemies. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence is in sight.

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After the ‘shock and awe’ US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically was even worse than the overthrown regime, and hardly imaginable. The Iraqi state was reconstructed along sectarian lines, displacing the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent resistance movement plus a fertile soil of humiliation and alienation in which jihadi extremism took root, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later via ISIS.

In the background of this failure of military interventionism are the two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. What is meant by this status is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish without encountering any opposition from either Washington or Europe.

This has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of relying on this colonialist approach to block the Palestinian struggle for fundamental national rights.

The case of Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with beheadings and death by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly embraced in Western capitals, while equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and sanctioned for its far less oppressive governing abuses. Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the explanatory narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope.

It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles.

The alternatives for the Middle East, barring a much more revolutionary second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos. Neither a welcome prospect for the new year.


Richard Falk (visit his blog here) is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. 

In 2001, he served on a three person Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestine Territories that was appointed by the United Nations, and previously, on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He is the author or coauthor of numerous book.

In March 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Falk to a six-year term as a UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Bombing Damascus (Reuters)
Bombing Damascus (Reuters)