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Perfect Storm: The Implications of Middle East Chaos

Henry Kissinger wrote that the causes of conflicts in the Middle East are similar to the causes that were operative in Europe in the seventeenth century, and which led to the Thirty Years’ War. In other words, the Middle East behaves in much the same way as Europe did before the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended that conflict.

From this it follows that the Middle East lags behind the modern world by more than 350 years with regard to matters of war and peace and the systems of relations between states. The significance of this is not technical, and does not lie in the number of years, but rather is substantive and qualitative.

In the Peace of Westphalia, the relevant European states defined the systems of relations between themselves on the basis of the recognition of the sovereignty of states, and on the removal of the religious component from among the factors legitimizing a declaration of war.

In contrast, the Middle East is headed in the opposite direction: state borders are disintegrating, sovereignty is meaningless, and much fighting is conducted along the friction lines between tribes, sects, and religions. Indeed, religious differences are the most significant, exerting a very strong influence over the systems of relations between the different groups in a large proportion of the places.

Moreover, in some places non-governmental military organizations are taking the place of states. Even in states that seem to be governing unchallenged, strong nongovernmental organizations maintain aid systems and armies no weaker than the state’s. This process is not new, but has assumed greater impetus during the so called “Arab Spring,” mainly because of the weakening of the state as a force in Arab society and the strengthening of the divisive forces within it.

This disintegration only serves to distance the Middle East from any process leading to political maturity of the Westphalia type. The Peace of Westphalia saved Europe from ruin and desolation. It is not clear that there is anything or anyone who might lead the Middle East to a similar agreement, or when this might happen.

So, where is the Middle East headed? Given the reigning chaos, it is very difficult to know. In the words of Professor Joseph Dan regarding “chaos theory” and phenomena in the worlds of nature and human society in general: “Causes exist, but their precise effects are not capable of being predicted, and within a system containing just a few causes, varied results of endless variety develop, such that no one is capable of predicting them with precision.”

Clearly we should be modest about our ability to assess future developments in the region. That is, even if we have good and detailed information about the various factors that brought about the present situation, those phenomena alone do not tell us will happen from now on. Moreover, external intervention in the process could lead to unexpected results that no one today has in mind. For example, the attack on IS by the US-led coalition, and the practical cooperation on the ground between Shi’ite militias and the US, could lead to a unification of the Sunni forces, who may come to view the US as the enemy of all Sunnis, and as having taken sides in the most ancient conflict in the Muslim complex –the battle between Shi’ite and Sunni.

The US has abstained from attacking Bashar al-Assad, yet come out strongly against IS. Yet the fact is that the Alawite Assad has killed tens of thousands of Sunnis and used gas against them, while IS aggression has killed far fewer people. To many Sunnis, the conduct of the Americans seems unreasonable and unjust. If the US cooperates with Iran or Shi’ite militias against IS, then this feeling will be strengthened, because the Shi’ites view not only the IS fighters, but every Sunni in Iraq, as a potential enemy. Shi’ite forces act in this way in every territory inhabited by Sunnis.

Furthermore, Sunni organizations and states will undoubtedly try to unite ranks against the Shi’ites, not out of love for IS, but out of hatred for the Shi’ites. Sunni feelings of persecution could change the balance of forces in the region, to the benefit in particular of radical Sunni organizations like IS – quite the opposite of what the US intends. Moreover, in the long term, America’s conduct could lead to a broader struggle against it, even though today many Sunni states support it and are supported by it.

This is just one example of a distant scenario that is merely possible, but not impossible, which most likely was not taken into consideration when the decision was taken to attack IS, in order to contain the threat it represents. It’s worth remembering that, among the processes we have witnessed in recent years in the Middle East, sometimes those that seemed less likely were the ones that came to pass.

The interesting question from a historical point of view is whether the coming century in the Middle East will be characterized by a constant, decades-long struggle encompassing several different conflicts: radical Islam versus the democratic West, joined by less democratic states with significant Muslim minorities (like China and Russia); Shi’ite Muslims versus Sunni Muslims; and episodic outbreaks of mutual destruction in conflicts unique to each region.

Or, perhaps the events unfolding before our eyes today, which seem like struggles between mighty forces over the future of the region, are nothing but a temporary episode, following which the region will emerge from the crisis and enter a more optimistic period? If so, it will become apparent after the fact that today’s events were a kind of last spasm of the forces of evil before their disappearance from the region, which will become freer, more stable, and safer.

In any case, it is impossible to make sense of the current situation without absorbing the lesson that almost all the events taking place in the Middle East are rich with complexity. Many forces are entangled within them: forces representing centuries-old tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites; forces of radical Islam, which is seeking its place in the sun against other forces pulling in the direction of social modernity; and local loyalties that have replaced allegiance to the state (which may have disappeared completely or just been significantly weakened), opposed by political forces trying to preserve the status quo in their own favor.

As stated above, it is difficult to assess what will ultimately emerge from this complex web of conflicts. However, insofar as it is possible to make any assessment, mainly on the basis of past experience, the direction that seems most likely, to my regret, is the pessimistic one.
Bernard Lewis Plan to Carve up Middle East and Muslim World

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