It is not easy to address war in the Middle East. There are, however, some clear trends. In the course of the last quarter century, the Middle East has steadily moved away from relatively short conventional wars between state actors and has steadily moved toward radically different efforts to use force to deter or to influence; toward conflicts that involve unpredictable mixes of non-state actors and outside powers, unstable alliances, terrorism and insurgency that cross national boundaries; and toward conflicts based on sect, ethnicity, tribe, and religious extremism. The end result is a constantly changing matrix of internal and cross border conflicts all layered across the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Much analysis of these wars is military in scope, and ignores grand strategy in the process. It focuses on force size, technology, warfighting capability, and actual or possible conflicts—and the modern MENA region provides plenty of case examples of each of these aspects of war. War, however, has never been a matter of military tactics or strategy focused simply on winning a conflict, relative force size, or even apparent victory on the battlefield.
The key issue is how does the conflict end, continue, or mutate in terms of its broader strategic and political impact. It is also how the civil side of war causes and shapes conflicts and how they end. This is particularly critical in a region where every state is in the process of radical change due to massive population growth and hyper urbanization, and a majority of countries suffer from weak and corrupt governance, weak or failed economic development, and what can only be called failed secularism.
As Clausewitz points out so clearly in his writings, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this… relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means that it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means… for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”
War does not even have to lead to any form of actual conflict. As Sun Tzu points out, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Modern theories of deterrence seek to limit and contain rather than subdue, while the use of military forces to shape political and diplomatic outcomes without fighting is as old as history. The same is true of limited wars that usually lead to limited victories and often simply to future wars.
This does not mean that force size and capability, tactics, and military strategy are not important, but they need to be kept in careful perspective. There is nothing new about the impact of non-state actors, supporting roles by outside powers, and mixing “terrorism” with asymmetric warfare in MENA conflicts. Their use has been the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, many if not most MENA wars have not ended with the first war or round of fighting. They have been the prelude to at least one—and often a long series of—future conflicts.
There also is nothing new about wars driven in part by ideology in either MENA or the world. Religious and sectarian conflicts have often taken place within Islam and between religions, and have been a key factor in shaping the Arab-Israeli conflicts. The West may choose to forget about its own role in the Crusades, or the extremism that shaped the fighting in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but the West cannot deny that it happened. And when it comes to modern ideological extremism, the impact of communism and fascism has so far produced many more intensive conflicts than Islamic extremism.
Shaping the Present Wars in the Middle East and North Africa
Between January 16 and February 24, 1991, the United States led a coalition that fought what was largely a version of the conventional war it had long planned to fight in Europe. The United States initially used the air and sea power it had built up to support NATO and check the Warsaw Pact, and then led a broad coalition of similar forces to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in days between February 24 and 28, using a mix of precision air power and armored maneuver warfare.
The United States and its allies assumed this victory was enough. They stopped once Iraq retreated out of Kuwait, and did not attempt to push Saddam from power or get involved in nation building. They did not anticipate that the war would lead to ideological struggles, proxy wars, terrorism, insurgency, or competition with outside powers over the future of the region.
Almost immediately, however, the nature of war in and around Iraq began to change. Saddam quickly put down internal efforts to oust him, and soon sought to reassert both his regional power and internal control. The result was a shift in the use of force from victory to containment that lasted from 1992 to 2003. This became an effort that required a US and allied air presence to contain Saddam, that created internal political struggles in Iraq that divided Sunni Arabs from Shi’ites and Kurds, and that led Saddam to increasingly try to exploit religion as a tool. It also led to the creation of a separate Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, and a long struggle to ensure that Iraq could not retain weapons of mass destruction.
This struggle lasted well over a decade, and resulted in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As was the case in 1991, the US-led coalition won what appeared to be a quick and decisive victory that would have lasting results. The US focus on a conventional effort to defeat the regime, however, did not accomplish a mission and did not achieve lasting strategic results.
It also helped lead to the complex mix of wars than now shape the MENA region. Infighting within the Bush administration ensured that the US invasion took place without any meaningful plans for stability operations. A US decision to disband the Iraqi army, US support of Shi’ite exiles, and US acceptance of a form of de-Baathification that excluded many Sunnis and other Iraqis provoked a level of resentment among key elements of Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite populations that evolved into a major counterinsurgency conflict lasting until 2009. In the process, it polarized Iraq between Sunnis and Shi’ites, created strong Sunni violent extremist forces that survived to eventually become ISIS, and created a virtually independent Kurdish enclave.
All of this took place in spite of a largely failed exercise in nation building that the United States had to rapidly improvise after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The United States not only had to fight a war between 2004 and 2008 that forced it to relearn and update its approach to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, but it also lost much of the military credibility it had acquired in 1990-1991. When the United States finally withdrew its forces in 2011, it did not leave behind either an effective Iraqi government or an effective mix of Iraqi military forces.
The United States’ intentions may have been good, but the end result was even less successful than the end result in Afghanistan. US involvement in Iraq also did much to lead to a low-level, sectarian civil war once US forces left at the end of 2011, to ensure Iraq was not ready to deal with an invasion by ISIS at the end of 2013, and to create the political divisions and weak governance that may lead to more intense Iraqi civil conflicts in the future.
Due to its losses in 1991 and subsequent containment, as well as the imposition of a virtual arms sale embargo on the nation, Iraq could not be an effective strategic counterweight to Iran. At the same time, the need to contain Iraq and deter Iran turned the US alliance with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states into a continuing US military posture in the Gulf, reinforced its ties to Egypt and the Suez Canal, and helped trigger a growing backlash against the US presence among Islamist extremists like Bin Laden and al Qaeda. US support of Pakistan and Afghan Islamist extremists during its effort to challenge the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan has come back to haunt both the United States and its Arab allies, as it has led to the rise of hardline Islamist political groups that gradually turned to violence and extremism.
The United States effectively became the protector of the Arab Gulf states because of their critical role in providing petroleum exports to the world and their own heritage of tension with post-Shah Iran. The United States became committed to countering Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and build up its stock of conventionally armed missiles and rockets. It also worked to counter the mix of asymmetric missile, naval, and air forces of Iran, which threatened to close the Gulf.
Iran in Current and Future Wars
With the possible exception of Iran’s nuclear programs, all of these potential sources of conflict continue to grow and play a critical role in shaping the US military role in the region. They have helped trigger a massive military build up to deal with Iran by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Along with Iran’s own ambitions, the GCC states have helped push Iran to develop a massive mix of rocket and missile forces, and to create a steadily growing mix of asymmetric forces that pose a major threat to Gulf naval and shipping traffic.
Iran’s support of Hezbollah and the alliance it had created with the Assad regime in Syria during the Iraq War allowed it to expand its regional influence, take advantage of its ability to arm and influence non-state actors like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and play a major role in leading to the Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. The end result is all too obvious in Iran’s role and influence in Syria and the Syrian Civil War, in its political and military influence in Iraq, in its shaping the growth of Shi’ite militias, and in its broader role in the region.
The Impact of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Other Wars
Iran also illustrates the need to look beyond the US role in the wars in the region, and to look at other wars and conflicts. Important as Iraq was to the United States, much of the MENA region focused on other uses of military force and wars that were fought in very different ways.
Formal progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process halted with success in reaching formal agreements with Egypt (1979), the Palestinian Authority (1993), and Jordan (1994). Israel and Syria also reached what appeared to be a stable level of deterrence.
These developments did not halt major upgrades to Israeli nuclear-armed missile forces that extended their range beyond targets in Iran, and probably did not stop a slow increase in Israeli nuclear weapons. Iranian and Syrian missile forces have led Israel to create one of the world’s most sophisticated and layered air and missile defenses, and Israel has shown through its attack on Syria’s reactor program and on Syrian targets that might deploy new weapons against Israel, that Israel is still ready to use conventional forces in actual combat.
Like the United States, however, Israel has also been forced to fight or prepare for steadily more complex and asymmetric wars in the MENA region. Like the United States’ occupation of Iraq, Israel’s partial occupation created a mix of instability and hostility that led to the creation and transformation of Hezbollah into a serious threat, one that used some 15 years of asymmetric warfare to eventually drive Israel out of Lebanon in 2000.
Since then, Hezbollah has steadily built up its forces with ongoing Iranian support, fought its 2006 war against Israel, acquired long range missiles with precision strike capabilities, and played a major role in the Syrian Civil War. Hezbollah has become a model for a non-state actor that can pose a threat to an advanced military power like Israel, as well as effectively become the most important source of military power in a state.
As for the other risks of Arab-Israeli conflict, it is all too easy to forget that today’s focus on “terrorism” began largely as part of an unconventional struggle between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), helped trigger the Lebanese civil war, and shaped what might be called civil-military war in the form of the Intifadas. Since that time, Hamas has emerged as significant military threat in Gaza and as another source of a very different kind of warfare.
More broadly, these shifts toward increasingly complex mixes of forces and prolonged low-level conflicts—coupled with the rise of violent Islamist extremism—have also interacted with other conflicts between governments and non-state actors in Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. The fighting between the Yemeni central government and the Shi’ite Houthis began in 2004, and spread to border clashes with Saudi Arabia in 2009. A seemingly short struggle between North and South Yemen in 1994 helped create the conditions that led to a growing al Qaeda insurgency that began in 1998, and still continues today.
War also played its role in North Africa, and one such conflict serves as something of a model for today’s civil war in Syria. The Algerian Civil War—like today’s Syrian Civil War—began after the Algerian military rejected the election victory of Islamists in 1991. This conflict steadily became a more brutal and vicious struggle between government and Islamist extremist forces, lasting until 1998. At the westernmost reaches of the MENA region, another war between a government and a non-state actor arose between Morocco and the Polisario in 1976, and continues today at a low-level, with the outside support by Algeria on behalf of the Polisario.
The Arab Spring Winter
While this history has shaped much of the military build-ups, conflicts, and risks of new forms of war in the future of the MENA region, it is only part of the story. Four other major events helped shape today’s military forces and wars in the region, and will set the patterns for the future:
- The first event was the sharp escalation of tension and competition between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and directly involving the United States, Britain, and France as outside military powers, after the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
- The second event was the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the United States on September 11, 2001, as well as similar attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003. These attacks were followed by growing threats from violent Islamic extremism in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the creation of ISIS and other major new extremist movements, and a steady increase in terrorist attacks in both the West and the MENA region.
- The third event was the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, which is linked to the failure of Iraqi politics to move toward development and unity and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to align himself with other Shi’ite politicians in ways that sought to dominate political power at the expense of the Sunnis and Kurds. This triggered a steady rise in internal violence in Iraq from 2010 onwards.
- The fourth event—and arguably the most important in terms of war fighting—was a series of sudden political upheavals and revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2011, and spread to many other countries. Initially, these upheavals were collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” based on hope for peaceful change and reform that failed, to the point where they are now referred to as the “Arab winter.”
All four events have helped shape the nature of war in the Middle East, but the upheavals that began in 2011 were arguably the most important. They helped bring down four major authoritarian leaders: Qaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Saleh in Yemen. These upheavals triggered the civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and its attack in Iraq, and civil unrest in virtually every Arab state.
All too often revolutions end in triggering fighting between major factions, and expose the fact that repressive societies lack experienced leaders and a popular base for support. Within little more than a year, the revolutions that were once called the Arab Spring went down this path, becoming the “Arab Winter.”
Factors that Made the “Arab Spring” the “Arab Winter”
Politics, local tensions, and the rise of Islamic extremism all helped turn upheavals into civil war in several states. However, there were deeper causes and pressures involved, ones that will continue to shape the MENA region for well over another decade. Like violent Islamic extremism, they seem almost certain to shape new wars in the future:
- The UN and US Census Bureau databases indicate that poor countries in a largely desert region have experienced massive population growth to the point that their populations were 5 to 6 times larger in 2015 than in 1950, and many of their populations will increase by another 70 percent between 2010 and 2050 in spite of a major drop in birth rates. For example, the US Census Bureau estimates that Iraq’s population experienced an increase of 6.5 times between 1965 and 2015, Libya’s by 6.7 times, Syria’s by 6.5 times, and Yemen’s by 5.6 times.
- This population growth created a massive “youth bulge” of young men and women seeking to enter the labor force—seeking careers, marriage, housing, and children. With the exception of a few Gulf states that benefit from high petroleum export revenues, none of the countries in the region invest enough in social or physical infrastructure to cope with this growth, create enough real job opportunities, or take the other measures necessary to deal with this bulge or the overall impact of population growth.
- Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria all have populations that are more than half composed of men and women under 24 years of age. Direct and disguised unemployment among young adults can range to well over 30 percent in MENA countries, and probably is at least 15-20 percent in most.
- Population growth disturbed the traditional balance between ethnic groups and sects, tribes, and elites while hyper urbanization often replaced what were rural and village economies with slums, poor job opportunities, and rising sectarian, ethnic, or tribal tensions. The base numbers for hyper urbanization in the 1950s are not reliable, but it is unlikely the figure exceeded 20-30 percent in 1950.
- The CIA World Factbook estimates that hyper urbanization, or the percentage of a country’s total population living in urban areas, had reached 43 percent in Egypt in 2015, 73 percent in Iran, 70 percent in Iraq, 84 percent in Jordan, 83 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 58 percent in Syria—reflecting the fact that even without war, population distribution ensured that no “traditional” society that existed in 1950 had anything like the same character and network of social stability in 2015.
- Corruption, poor governance, steadily worsening income distributions, and a deterioration in the rule of law has made things far worse. The World Bank governance indicators rank several MENA countries as having some of the worst governments in the world since the early 1980s. Four current conflict countries—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—were ranked as some of the least effective and most corrupt governments in the world, and others—like Algeria, Egypt, and Iran—came close.
These are only some of the major forces creating instability in the MENA region and correlation is not causation. None of these pressures inevitably lead to any given form of conflict. Politics, religion, and ideology are as important as ever.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that the Arab Human Development Reports also warned as early as 2002 that it would take at least a decade of exceptional stability and governance to stop such problems from being serious potential sources of conflict in most MENA countries. Little has actually changed in most MENA states, and these problems have grown far worse in conflict states like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
The Future of War in the Middle East
It is impossible to predict the near term character of the wars that will take place in the MENA region, but it is clear that several current wars and any future wars will have many options at a wide range of intensities that involve diverse mixes of force elements and tactics.
Four Uncertain Wars Involving the United States
The United States is already engaged in four unstable conflicts whose future natures are uncertain, but all of which seem likely to either continue in some form, or to eventually resume, even if some peace settlement appears to take place:
- A war in Iraq in which the United States leads a coalition in what has gradually escalated into a major air campaign against ISIS/Daesh, while also training and helping to equip separate groups of government (largely Shi’ite Arab), tribal (largely Sunni Arab), and Kurdish forces under conditions where the United States cannot forward deploy its advisors to help develop fully effective combat units. The United States is dealing with an unstable central government that is Shi’ite dominated, deeply divided, and weak. Uncertain Sunni forces and Kurdish forces are also divided and may seek independence. There is a strong Iranian presence in Iraq; there are also Shi’ite militias and factions hostile to the United States, other Sunni factions that support ISIS or are hostile to the United States, and a Kurdish regional government and set of forces that are also divided and caught up with Turkey’s tensions with the Syrian Kurds.
Many uncertainties are present in Iraq: the ability of Iraq to defeat the ISIS “caliphate” in both Iraq and Syria remains uncertain; Iraq’s unity and ability to avoid a sectarian and or ethnic civil war remains uncertain; and Iraq’s near bankruptcy as a result of a massive decrease in oil revenues starting in the spring of 2014 deepens the country’s economic uncertainty. The United States no longer has a meaningful civil program in Iraq that can help deal with Iraq’s governance and economic failures, indicating that the United States has no clear grand strategy to unite and stabilize the country.
- A civil war in Syria between the backers of the Assad regime, Arab and Kurdish rebel forces, and ISIS. The civil war has left over 300,000 dead, has turned more than half of the population of Syria into refugees or internally displaced persons, and has destroyed the Syrian economy. The United States is conducting the same air campaign against ISIS targets in Syria as in Iraq, and has succeeded in creating some effective Syrian Kurdish forces, who have limited their advances against ISIS while seeking to create an enclave in the north. Turkey, however, is now attacking these Kurds as terrorists.
There is no strong moderate political or military Arab faction in Syria, ISIS still remains strong, Russian intervention seems to have given the pro-Assad forces new strength, and pro-Assad forces are strongly backed by Iran and Hezbollah. The United States is the largest donor of aid to Syria, but—as in Iraq—has no grand strategy to deal with problems in governance, economics, and recovery, or to go beyond diplomacy in trying to find some form of conflict resolution.
- A war in Yemen where the United States plays a supporting role in a conflict that has expanded from a smaller border war between Houthi Shi’ites in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to a major civil war that brought down the Saleh regime and threatened to make the Houthi Shi’ites the dominant force in the country. A Saudi and UAE-led coalition has invaded Yemen and seeks to drive the Houthis from power and exclude Iran. Here, the United States is providing intelligence support and support for the Saudi and UAE air effort. The war in Yemen has further crippled a failed state, and has also empowered an expanded role by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The nation is bankrupt and a humanitarian disaster, and is growing steadily more divided.
- A low-level air campaign against ISIS in a Libya divided into two “governments” in Tripoli and Benghazi. It is a crisis where US and European powers including Britain, France, and Italy have plans for far more serious intervention if the two Libyan governments can achieve any degree of unity, but where ISIS still is making gains in a divided country.
What all of these four wars have in common is a heritage of poor, corrupt governance, and deep sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions that may lead to future civil conflict even if Islamic extremists are defeated. There are no clear plans for stability operations nor for rebuilding or recovery, as the United States does not seem to have any grand strategy other than degrading the capability of ISIS. US planning and intelligence experts privately acknowledge that there is no near term prospect of defeating ISIS, AQAP, or other extremist groups like the Al Nusra Front in Syria. At the same time, the spillover of these wars and the burden of refugees threatens the stability of Lebanon and Jordan.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Other Arab States
Iran’s Al Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards play a major role in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, and at least some role in the support of the Houthi and Shi’ite forces in Yemen.
More broadly, Iran is involved in three major military build-ups and arms races that could lead to war, even if Iran fully honors its nuclear agreement with the P5+1. There is no way to know if these efforts will lead to conflict, how far any such conflict might escalate, what forms such conflict would take, or how they might interact. They include:
- The Iranian build-up of conventionally armed rockets and ballistic and cruise missiles that now target the Arab Gulf states; the Arab build-up of modern precision strike air forces; and the Arab and US deployment of missile defenses that could all combine to crease a major missile-air conflict.
- A build up of Iranian naval-missile-air forces inside and outside the Gulf that can threaten petroleum exports, other shipping, and Arab, US, British, and French naval forces. This is coupled with a matching build-up of Gulf Arab air and naval forces, and US contingency capabilities to fight Iranian forces if they seriously threaten the Arab states and the flow of petroleum exports.
- Iranian efforts to gain strategic leverage and influence by providing major aid to Hezbollah as well as a major increase in missile and rocket forces, similar support to Shi’ite popular militia forces in Iraq, and major military support to the pro-Assad forces in Syria. Experts disagree over the level of such Iranian efforts in dealing with Shi’ites in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, but not over the fact they exist.
Iran has not softened its political and ideological attacks on Israel, and has equipped Hezbollah to fight a far more sophisticated rocket and missile war against Israel with increased range and target coverage and some precision strike capability. Hezbollah has also become a more sophisticated and experienced force, while Arab rebel and Islamist extremist forces are now present on the Golan Heights.
New Forms of North African and Arab-Israeli Conflict
Israeli tensions with the Palestinians on the West Bank have reached a level where some have begun to talk about a “Third Intifada.” Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have both become more actively hostile to Israel; Israel faces a continuing tunnel threat from the Sinai; and Egypt is fighting a low-level war against hostile elements in the Sinai that include some Islamist extremists.
The rest of North Africa also raises the possibility of future conflicts. Tunisia has come under sporadic attack from both Libyan tribal elements and ISIS terrorists. Algeria has had terrorist incidents as well, and Morocco and the Polisario are still technically at war, although Morocco seems to have largely won the conflict.
The Changing Role of Outside Powers
Finally, outside powers are playing changing roles that may lead them to become involved in future conflicts. Russia has reasserted its military role in Syria and the Mediterranean and is likely to become more active in the MENA region if its sees the opportunity. China has acquired basing rights in Djibouti, deployed ships as part of the anti-piracy force in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, and may acquire access to ports in Pakistan.
Outside powers have also played a major role in reshaping the capability to fight future conflicts through arms sales. The declassified US estimates presented in a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) study showed that Saudi Arabia alone purchased US$86 billion worth of arms between 2007 and 2014. The United States signed new arms sales agreements with nations in the Near East worth some US$134 billion between 2007 and 2014. Russia signed US$29.3 billion worth, China signed US$4.9 billion worth, major European powers (UK, France, Germany, Italy) signed US$49 billion worth, and other states signed US$19.3 billion worth. These purchases were driven largely by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the growing tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors.
The recent drop in regional petroleum export revenues may reduce this flow, and has already had a major destabilizing impact on nations like Iraq, interacting with all of the existing demographic and economic challenges cited earlier.
War may not be the natural state of man, but—at least in the near term—it is almost certain to be the state of much of the MENA region. It also seems likely to involve wars that will often be fought with no clear end, no clear prospect of lasting stability of development, and where none of the participants will have a clear grand strategy.