Alphen, Netherlands. 15 July. Herodotus, the father of history wrote, “Force has no place where there is a need of skill”. In the Middle East there is a desperate need for ‘skill’. Like Europe a century ago today or more accurately Europe on the eve of the 1618 Thirty Years War everyone and everything is deeply connected and yet at the same time dangerously divided – the classic cause of what Thomas Hobbes called “a warre of all against all”. What is at stake and what next?
Israeli forces enter Gaza following the murder of three Israeli teenagers and up to two hundred Palestinians die. Shia Iran extends its influence over Baghdad as the Sunni Islamic State is proclaimed in parts of what used to Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia mobilises its forces as the Sunni-Shia split deepens across the Middle East whilst states as far apart as Algeria and the Gulf totter in the face of Islamism and liberalism as elites and societies pull apart.
What is at stake? Three fundamental struggles are combining to threaten peace across the region (and beyond); the state versus the anti-state; the battle for regional-strategic dominance by states and the struggle between interpretations of Islam within failing states. Although ostensibly about religion the Thirty Year wars (for that is what they were) were complicated by shifting ‘state’ power - the Habsburgs versus the Holy Roman Empire and the European core versus the European periphery - England, Sweden and Russia. They were further complicated by growing populations and divided ideologies.
Critically, the war was triggered in 1618 by a relatively minor but nevertheless explosive event – a constitutional dispute between Protestants in Bohemia and their Catholic rulers and the destruction of a single Protestant church. What happened next was unimaginable carnage.
Similar dangerous connectivities are apparent across the Middle East today, particularly as notions of pan-Arabism compete. The Islamic State and the rise of fundamentalism has been fashioned from the failure of Arab nationalism, specifically the collapse of Baathism in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is in fact an anti-state the very existence of which threatens all other states in the region as it seeks the destruction of the entire state system and its replacement with a Caliphate.
To many Arabs nationalism once seemed the future acting in uneasy tandem with and in the name of pan-Arabism. It was nationalism fuelled and reinforced by the creation of the State of Israel in 1947. However, two crushing defeats by Israel in 1967 and 1973 helped to undermine the credibility of both the Arab ‘state’ and nationalism in the minds of many. Defeat also helped Islamists offer a new form of pan-Arabism - Sunni fundamentalism.
The Arab state has been further undermined by corrupt elites, a rapidly growing population and an imbalance of wealth across the region. In states such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States oil-rich conservative elites have become fabulously rich whilst at the same time reluctant to disseminate wealth too widely. They are like all such elites fearful that reform would critically undermine their power. To buy off opposition Riyadh in particular has at times appealed to extreme conservatism to buttress their power in return for funding the exporting of the very fundamentalism that threatens the Kingdom.
And then there is Iran. Shia-Persian Iran’s regional-strategic ambitions to be the dominant power have also further complicated an already flammable political landscape. Worse, in its struggle with both Israel and Saudi Arabia and through the use of proxies in Syria and Lebanon a series of bilateral disputes have slowly morphed into one enormous confrontation over the future shape of the Middle East focussed on the relatively small space in and around Jordan. Good old-fashioned Machtpolitik informs much of Iran’s policy but also what Tehran sees as a Sunni threat to Shia influence Iran believes it controls.
What next? The Middle East is in as dangerous a state as at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Indeed, it is hard to see how the acute tension in both Arab societies and between Middle Eastern states and with Israel can be resolved peacefully. The outstanding question is who will be on what side for what reason? It would be easy to suggest that a future war would be essentially between those states of Shia extraction and those of Sunni extraction. This would have Iran and Israel on the side-lines but seeking to influence proxies in a general Arab struggle. However, the Middle East is simply not that easy. Such a scenario would be complicated by ethnic divisions within many of the states involved rotting from the top down, which is precisely why the Islamic State has appeared. It would be further complicated by interference from the Great Powers – America, China, European powers and Russia. In other words a kind of Sykes-Picot revisited.
The war itself could be triggered by what is in systemic terms a relatively minor event. It would also be a long war with hatred and calculus causing many twists. The first war is likely to be triggered by an unofficial, unspoken and unlikely ‘coalition’ of states determined to defeat the Islamic State, i.e. to destroy the anti-state. Such a coalition might include Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and even by extension Israel, albeit implicitly.
However, if and when the Islamic State is defeated much would be unresolved, not least between Iran and Israel. To protect its borders and break the link between Iran and Hezbollah Israel would do all it can to establish some form of influence over an Assad successor regime to in Syria. Any conflict that strengthens the hand of Iran on Israel’s borders would be seen by Tel Aviv as a zero-sum game. For the sake of its very survival Israel will not and could not tolerate such an outcome. Iran in turn would also seek to establish influence over Damascus and Baghdad as it attempts to extend its sphere of influence across the Middle East. Riyadh will act to prevent what it sees as a threat not just to the Kingdom but the wider region over which it too exerts influence.
Of course, the great unknown in all of this is the state of the Middle Eastern state. So weak are so many Middle Eastern states that ANY conflict in which they are involved could see elites cast away. Jordan is the most obvious example, but the Arab world’s most populous state Egypt is not far behind. Logically (for Herodotus ‘skill’), it would actually be in the best interest of all to avoid any such general conflict and try to contain and then weaken the Islamic State. However, such ‘logic’ would take clear vision and calm judgement neither of which the Middle East is renowned for together with a control over events which today many leaders simply lack. True to form many leaders will seek what got them into power in the first place and which created the Middle East tragedy – short-term, secret pacts.
War today in the Middle East would not simply be another Middle Eastern conflict. And, if it breaks out there is no telling to where it would lead...and who would be drawn in. As Herodotus wrote, “The bitterest of men’s miseries is to have insight into much but power over nothing”.