To understand the situation of the Middle East today, it is necessary to go back a century in history. In effect, you must go back to the aftermath of the First World War to understand a large part of the geopolitical conditions which explain the multiplicity and convolutedness of current conflicts. One thing is for sure, if the big powers are influenced for a long time in decisive action on the course of events, regional and local actors are going to assert themselves in an increasing way for the rest of the century. After the domination of Great Britain and France during the inter-war period, the two Cold War superpowers took the baton… After the fall of the Berlin war, a phase of US omnipotence began which was called into question after the 11th September 2001. The era of globalisation saw the regional powers increase their autonomy, perhaps their independence of action, their influence, and exacerbate the rivalries between them.

Let’s try to see a little clearer.

Links to the first 2 parts:

From one World War to another (1/3)

From 1945 to 1990, an issue of the Cold War (2/3)

The end of the Cold War and the short-lived American domination

The fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991 opened a specific period of global and regional history. The American hyperpower would unfold without encountering major resistances. The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq opened the sequence of events. Indebted to the Gulf monarchies following the expense of his war against Iran, the Iraqi dictator thought to find funds by seizing Kuwaiti oil wells. The occupation of Kuwait was condemned by the United Nations Security Council. In return, it triggered the US military intervention, dubbed “Desert Storm”, under the cover of the United Nations. This was the Gulf War of January 1991 which came to an end by the crushing defeat and the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Many of the countries in the region supported in various ways the operation George Bush desired. Many indeed were closely-aligned players satisfied to see the Baathist regime of Baghdad weakened. Iraq was then placed under a UN embargo. The civil population suffered terribly while the regime’s executives strengthened their power through violations of the embargo.

With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the failure of the first intifada, the situation of Israel in a position of strength following the end of the Soviet bloc, prompted direct negotiations between the two protagonists. In 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed. Under the latter, the Occupied Territories were divided into three zones: a Palestinian controlled area A, a zone B under mixed control, and a zone C under Israeli control. The Palestinian Authority administered Area A. In fact, the most fertile land and access to water remained under Israeli control. In zone C, the Hebrew state consolidated its implantation by multiplying the creation of colonies, real Jewish enclaves in Palestinian territory. The Palestinian side, represented by the PLO, had to accept broad concessions.

But the “hawks” of both sides tried to defeat the Oslo accords. A Jewish nationalist-religious extremist murdered Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister, signatory of the treaty. Palestinian organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which rejected the agreement, multiplied attacks on Israeli civilians. The Israeli right, behind its leaders Sharon and Netanyahu, only thought of emptying the agreements of their content and actively pursued the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza. A second intifada, an armed one between 2000 and 2005, was once again marked by a defeat of Palestinians and ended with the erection of a wall physically separating Israel and its colonies from the Palestinian territories. In 2006, the Islamists of the Hamas movement won the elections in Gaza. The following year they took control of the territory, expelling their rivals from the Palestinian Authority. There were then two rival Palestinian entities. One in the West Bank, led by the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor since 2004, and the other in Gaza, led by Hamas. In 2009, 2012 and 2014, the Israeli army bombarded the Gaza Strip intensely after rockets were fired from that territory into Israel. Successive Israeli governments refused any concession to the Palestinian side, multiplying settlement activities in the occupied territories. Even though these lands should have served as a basis for the creation of a more and more hypothetical Palestinian state, they were in fact annexed by Israel, illegally under international law. The blocking therefore persists.

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, jihadists began to return their attacks against the American ally but also the Arab political regimes then in place. There followed a long series of attacks. On September 11th, Al Qaeda hit the United States on their own soil. Hijacked planes were launched into the Twin Towers of New York as well as on the Pentagon. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. The whole world was stunned. The new US President, George W. Bush then declared “war on terrorism” and classified Iraq and Iran on a list of states qualified as the “Axis of Evil”. For the US administration, it was an attempt to reshape the Middle East map to its advantage. Initially, it was the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime housing bin Laden and al-Qaeda in December 2002.

Falsely accused of possessing nuclear weapons (despite reports from UN inspectors), Iraq was invaded in March 2003 and Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown. The structures of the Baath administration, army and party were dismantled. Power in Baghdad shifted to the Shiite majority that had stood aside since the country’s founding in 1920. Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, were empowering their region to become quasi-independent. Some of the executives of the defeated regime then triggered a guerrilla war against the occupier. Foreign jihadists came in turn: the Iraq war was a genuine appeal for the latter. Al-Qaeda thus established itself in the country, in the area where the Sunni Arab minority lived. However, the Sunni insurgency was almost overcome when the US troops were withdrawn by Obama in 2011.

Across the Arab world and beyond in much of the Muslim world, the rise of Islamist movements and jihadist groups throughout the 1990s and 2000s was witnessed. Rejecting what they perceive as a new “crusade” against Islam, that is to say the confused American influence on the region, the very relative Westernization of manners, the existence of Israel, the Jihadists attacked the regimes in place (Egypt), the western interests and the Shiite minorities. These movements were financed by money from the Gulf countries: either from the states themselves, from rich donors, or from generous private foundations. The ideology was borrowed from that of the Muslim Brotherhood in its radicalized version by Sayyid Qutb as well as that of the Saudi Wahhabis.

The “Arab Spring” and the consequences

The “Arab Spring” came to disrupt the regional order. From the beginning of 2011, it affected a large part of the Arab countries. The fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt; then Saleh in Yemen; civil wars in Libya and Syria; demonstrations in Bahrain and Morocco are examples of how it manifested itself which will be explained in further detail. Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip were also affected, although it was more brief and less spectacular. In the case of the first two countries, money from the oil windfall, coupled with selective repression, bought the “social peace.”

The rivalry between Saudis and Qataris was illustrated by the support given by some to the Salafists and others to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian case illustrates this situation perfectly: the democratically elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood was finally overthrown by the army supported by both the Salafists and the laity, although their ideologies have nothing to do with it. The clumsiness of the Muslim Brotherhood, which wasn’t able to create bridges with the secular democratic opposition, partially cut them off from a large part of the population. In any case, for both the military and the Islamists, it was a matter of recovering the uprisings and preventing the emergence of an autonomous civil society.

In the case of Bahrain, repression prevailed. The Syrian case is the most terrible. The government, supported increasingly by its Iranian and Russian allies, chose to crush the protest without mercy, while the governments of Riyadh, Doha and Ankara were sponsoring the move to the armed struggle as part of the opposition under the aegis of the jihadists. The partisans of peaceful change were persecuted by both. Thus Al-Qaeda and then its embodiment of Daesh that settled in Syria. Jihadist organizations were also present in Yemen. They also benefited from the chaos provoked by the civil war between Houthists, more or less supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran and governmentally backed by the monarchies of the Gulf. It should be remembered that Daesh is a dissident of Al Qaeda. Daesh first developed in Iraq, taking advantage of the disarray of the Sunni Arab minority populations and discriminated against by the power in Baghdad. This is dominated by the Shiites, majority in the country, who took some sort of historic revenge on the Sunnis who had ruled Iraq since 1920.

The cold war between Iran and the Gulf monarchies thus affected Yemen and Syria. It is both a classical rivalry between two states, regional powers, and a reminiscence of the old secular antagonism between Sunni power and Shiite power for leadership of the Muslim world, antagonism that goes back to the early days of Islam. The Sunni/Shiite rivalry is also found in Daesh’s policy which targets the Shiites, whether linked to Iran or not, whenever they can and wherever they can (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen).

Iran showed a growing divorce between its population and its regime. The young generations no longer recognize themselves in the ideals of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The violent repression that followed the contest of the re-election of conservative president Ahmadinejad in 2009 is proof of this. In Turkey, the Islamic-conservative president Erdogan, in power since 2002, tried to gain more and more power. A rampant dictatorship is in place. A part of civil society nevertheless expressed itself massively during the events of Gezi Square in 2013. Both Iran and Turkey, both heirs of prestigious empires, traditional powers of the Muslim world and the Middle East, implicate conflicts in neighbouring countries and develop dynamic foreign policies that make all or part of their interests prevail despite external pressures.

The recent and relative disengagement of the Middle East under the Obama presidency can be explained for several reasons:

First, there are reasons of globalization. We note here the growing importance of Asia-Pacific in the global economy and geopolitics, but also less interest in Middle Eastern oil due to the discovery and exploitation of the vast reserves of shale gas in North American and of course the rising cost of military commitments that adds to the external debt burden of the United States. Then we add factors specific to the region. Here we are faced with the difficulty for Washington to uphold its own choices over the divergent ones of its main allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt), but also its distrust of Sunni activism, even Salafist, one of its own allies in the Gulf and Pakistan. At the same time, the cause and consequence of this American position increasingly manifested in the involvement of Turks, Saudis, Iranians and Qataris in the conflicts of the region.

From this, a series of US decisions can be understood:

– The nucler agreement with Iran,

– The very soft support to the armed opposition in Syria, opposition considered unreliable by Washington,

– The choice is instead directed to the Kurds to fight the expansion of Daesh.

These choices, in turn, widened the gap with the Israeli, Saudi and Turkish allies. They thus provided an opportunity for Russia to advance its own interests and regain at least partial influence which it had lost since the fall of the USSR. They also encourage the regional powers, Iran on the one hand, and the United States’ allies on the other, even when they enter contradiction with Washington, to further push forward their own geopolitical choices.

At the end of this brief overview of a century of history, it can be said that the Middle East political actors tend overall to re-appropriate their destinies. Classical states, non-state actors such as jihadist organizations, but also civil societies, while not brutally repressed, expand their margins of manoeuvre in relation to the choices of the great powers outside the region, the United States and Russia. Alongside the traditional struggle for power between political movements or traditional rivalry between states, it is apparent that the voice of civil societies and the younger generations is being asserted. Yet it does indeed exist as the Iranian events of 2009, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the Turkish protest in 2013. Youth, women, artists, intellectuals, ethnic-religious minorities and all those who are fighting for human rights, democracy and peace deserve all our attention and support because they are the future of this region so often associated with the image of violence.

Translated from French by Charlotte Crundell –