The Middle East today is in such bloody and tragic turmoil for many different reasons, but one of them is that the five major powers of the region and the two global powers are all at war simultaneously. The five regional powers—Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—are all involved in wars at home or in neighboring lands, or both, and the United States and Russia also engage in warfare across the entire Middle East.
For most of the past century, political violence within a society in the Middle East was an occasional and narrowly targeted phenomenon. The episodic use of political violence usually saw a rebel group attack government targets, a political faction in a country assassinate a senior official, or a terror group bomb a police post or other government symbol. Those days are long gone. The troubling aspects of political violence across much of the Middle East today are that violent attacks occur on a daily basis, they target political foes and the public at large, they often reflect sectarian polarization and warfare, and they are well publicized in order to provoke fear in the public or the intended target groups.
Also, political violence is so prevalent because it is not confined to one or two perpetrators, but rather is carried out by every major political actor in the region and abroad. Most governments in the region routinely use violence against their domestic or regional foes, sometimes with justification (fighting terrorists) and at other times without due cause (jailing or killing human rights activists and bothersome political foes). Rebel or opposition groups with a domestic agenda use violence to make their case, as do terror groups that have a broader regional or global agenda. Foreign powers are also actively bombing targets across the Middle East, funding and arming allies, or threatening to use force if their demands are not met.
Sadly, it has become the norm that if your demand is not met quickly, you arrange for someone to set off some bombs here or there, assassinate someone, carry out a suicide bombing, or kidnap and kill some innocent civilians to force others to deal with you seriously. Such violence almost always fails to achieve its objectives, and only ignites a wider cycle of counter-violence that has resulted in the deterioration and destruction that define our societies today. The fact that the five regional powers all use violence at home and are actively involved in waging war in neighboring lands means that this condition of death and destruction as a routine language of political engagements is likely to become worse and remain with us for some years. This is what I conclude from watching chronic Israeli attacks against Palestinians under its occupation or in neighboring states; the Saudi-led war in Yemen that is now actively supported by Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; Iran’s deep military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; Turkey’s war against the Kurds at home and in neighboring Arab lands; and, Egypt’s escalating confrontation with Islamist militants at home, while also assisting Syrian and Saudi war efforts and constantly seeking a larger regional military role.
The significance of militarism and death as the common vocabulary of power politics in the Middle East is troubling for at least three reasons. First, it seems to be escalating and spreading (e.g., Qatari, Emirati and Saudi troops at war in Yemen is quite a novelty, but probably only one of others to follow). Second, it reveals the absence of either the mechanisms or the willingness of political actors—whether governments or political groups—to resolve disputes and serious conflicts through peaceful means, as we just witnessed so spectacularly in the resolution of the Iran nuclear/sanctions issues. Third, it shows the willingness of all parties—states and citizens, locals and foreigners—to disrupt or even shatter the social order, leading to more fragile states. This has resulted in the fragmentation, polarization, and steady contraction or even occasional collapse of the integrated, nationalist, developmental state that had defined the Arab world for most of the last century.
The result is the sort of decentralized authority, political identity, and social consciousness that we have witnessed in recent decades in Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Bahrain, Libya and Iraq, and less dramatically in some other Arab states like Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. The trend seems to be escalating, not retreating.
Political sociologists and historians will explain to us in the years ahead the exact cause-and-effect relationships among frail statehood, citizen discontent, foreign militarism, and widespread and routine violence. For now, we should simply brace for worse days ahead, given that the five major regional powers and the two global powers (the United States and Russia) all routinely act militarily and violently across the region.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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