Friday, October 26, 2012

The Breakup of the Middle East State System - Fact or Fiction?

While I have a high regard for Fareed Zakaria, his recent comment on CNN suggesting that we are seeing the breakup of the Middle East state system raises  a serious question. Is this process in fact occurring?  Or is this a form of hyperbole by Western analysts?

The assertion that the Middle East state system is unraveling is based on a number of faulty assumptions.  The driver behind this analysis is, of course, the current civil war in Syria.  Because this conflict has increasingly taken on a sectarian quality, it is assumed that the crisis will spill over Syria's borders and undermine the stability of neighboring states.

The units of analysis here are nation-state and ethnoconfessional groups (ethnic groups and religious confessions).  These groups are conceived as "unitary actors."  However, this idea of a "confessional mind (reminding us of two highly flawed books, Raphael Patai's, The Arab Mind, and Charles Glass' Tribes With Flags) ignores a wide variety of cross-cutting cleavages.

First, no distinction is made between ruling elites and mass publics.  Everyone knows that Bashar al-Asad's regime has consciously sought to turn the struggle for democracy and social justice in Syria into a sectarian conflict.  The Syrian Ba'th assumes that raising the threat of an unstable Syria and the possible coming to power of sectarian Sunni Islamists will erode foreign support for the uprising.

In other words, much of what is described as sectarian identities in the Middle East is often the result of elite efforts to "divide and conquer" by manipulating one ethnoconfessional group against another.  In Syria, the al-Asad regime has attempted to set the Alawite minority, which is the ruling elites' social base, wealthy Sunni merchants who benefit from ties to the state, and the minority Christian community, on the one hand, against the Sunni Muslim community from central, eastern and southern Syria, and the small Kurdish community from the northeast, both of which have not benefited from the regime's economic policies, on the other.

As the political cleavages in Syria suggest, another division is social class.  There are wealthy Sunni Arabs and some prosperous Damascene Kurds who support the Ba'thist regime.  Education, generation, ideology, and political experiences also divide Syria along lines which do not accord with sectarianism.  In short, the notion of the "communal mind" is highly problematic as a predictor of political attitudes and behavior.

Objectively, there are only two states which face the prospect of collapse, Syria and Yemen.  There are two other states which face the prospect of a potential breakup and they are Iraq and Libya.  In Iraq, the Kurds might declare an independent state and Libya's eastern Cyrenaica province might decide  to seek greater autonomy.  Neither of these outcomes would threaten the region's state system.

Sometime in the near future, we could also envision Turkey facing increasing instability if more concessions aren't made to its Kurdish citizens. A future scenario might involve efforts by Kurds in Syria and Turkey to form either an autonomous region or even a breakaway state with aid from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). 

In North Africa, aside from Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are quite stable.  In the Arab Mashriq, Jordan is facing increasing unrest, but this is largely due to the King's refusal to establish an electoral system which allows citizens who are not pawns of the monarchy to gain seats in parliament.  Israel and the US will make every effort to assure the survival of the Hashimite monarchy.  In the Arabian Peninsula, there are serious rumblings of discontent.  But aside from Yemen, no state faces any serious opposition, let alone the prospect of collapse.

Iran is experiencing severe economic problems as a result of international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear weapons program.  But, like Egypt, the nation is based in an ancient civilization and is highly likely to remain a unified state, discontent among ethnic minorities such as the Kurds notwithstanding.

Clearly the current strife in Syria has negatively affected Lebanon.  Violent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have rocked the northern city of Tripoli.  The recent assassination of Brigadier Wissam al-Hasan, the Sunni head of Lebanon's intelligence service has infuriated the Sunni community and all segments of Lebanese society who detest Syrian attempts to dominate their country.

However, as Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut convincingly argues in "Lebanon's Fragile Peace will hold despite blow" (, while pro-Asad forces have struck a blow against the Sunni-Saudi-Western alliance, the country will remain stable.  Certainly Lebanon has and will remain the political battleground for a wide variety of regional powers, including Iran, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.  It has survived the Israeli invasion of 1982, the Syrian occupation from 1976 until 2005, and will survive the current Syrian civil war as well.

What Lebanon lacks by way of a strong economy is made up by its education system, including several first rate institutions of higher learning, and a robust civil society.  While its political institutions have severe shortcomings, Lebanon remains one of the freest countries in the Middle East. It remains the book publishing capital of the Arab world. None of its citizenry wants to return to the civil war of 1975-1990.

Rather than continuing to view the Middle East's instability as a spectator sport, and blaming all its ills on sectarian identities, forces which seek to promote a stable Middle East, including the Arab League, Egypt, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, should mobilize an international coalition which would bring pressure to bear, including international economic sanctions, to force authoritarian elites, such as Syria's rulers, to engage in serious political reforms.

This international coalition should likewise mobilize  a massive effort to provide education to the large cohort of youth in the region - the "youth bulge" - many of whom are poor, unemployed and without hope in the future.  It is from this stratum that authoritarian regimes recruit their repressive forces, such as Bashar al-Asad's thugs (al-shabiha), Saddam Husayn's now defunct Fadayin Saddam (Those who would sacrifice  for Saddam), or the Iranian regime's Revolutionary Guards.

The use of education by offering courses in local languages via the Internet, paralleling the  international efforts underway by Western universities, such as Harvard and MIT, to offer the global community a wide variety of online courses is one way to address the "education deficit" which currently afflicts the Middle East.  Providing scholarships for Middle Eastern youth  to study in Europe, the United States, Turkey, India and other foreign countries, would be another.  Few students in the region have access to courses in the humanities and the social sciences and thus are largely unable to develop critical thinking skills.

Ultimately, corruption and nepotism must be addressed by the peoples of the Middle East.  Economic resources must be directed at providing employment for the next generation of Middle Eastern youth.  Apart from the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, few Western analysts have directed their efforts at suggesting ways to solve the problems of the Middle East.

Continuing the emphasis on sectarianism only distracts attention away from the real sources of conflict in the Middle East.   Focusing on the potential collapse of the Middle East's state system does not offer a palliative for the region's ills.  It only draws attention to the short sighted and narrow view that Western countries have of their national interests in the Middle East.

The sociopolitical and economic forces that engendered the Syrian civil war cry out for bold new thinking - not caricatures of the region's peoples or short term "fixes."  Only in this manner can the Middle East's complex and growing problems be addressed in a meaningful way.


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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for addressing the state system issue in this blog. We hear so much about how problems in Syria will spill over into neighboring countries; thus signaling the collapse of the state system. It is interesting (and refreshing) to read a more critical perspective on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed the post. In your opinion, Why are most mainstream analysts content to chalk almost every conflict in the middle east up to "sectarian" issues? Where is a good place to go for an informed, "honest broker" analysis?