Déjà Vu: The Middle East Tinderbox

When Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and some other Arab states recently issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar to fulfill in order for the blockade against it to be lifted, it was eerily reminiscent of the demands issued by the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Those demands, like the ones issued to Qatar, were designed to be rejected, so as to give a pretense for further action. In 1914, this led to World War I.

In many ways, today’s crisis resembles Europe’s a century ago. Tensions between multiple states had led to the creation of a tinderbox, where even minute crises have the potential to escalate into larger conflagrations. As I pointed out previously at Rising Powers in Global Governance, this is why the Middle East, a cauldron of conflicts situated at the geographic and cultural crossroads of the world, is where nations will clash and compete, not East Asia, as is commonly believed by many policy-makers. Greater conflict and tension are thus more likely to occur in the Middle East.

But there are important differences between the First World War and what is likely to play out in the Middle East. To start with, European states on the eve of World War I were armed to the teeth with industrial weaponry. World War I was a highly destructive, industrial war between standing armies. On the other hand, conflict in the Middle East is less directly brutal, but more endemic and pervasive, and may thus be more destructive over a wider area in the aggregate. War is being waged by militias, tribes, and proxies almost indefinitely (for example, Hezbollah has been engaged in conflict for decades); even states with large standing armies like Iran and Turkey use irregular forces or client forces when they can. So, it is no longer a question of whether a conflict will break out; the region is already more or less in a state of war, and future events will simply exacerbate the violence. In a sense then, the Middle East today is in a state of conflict more closely resembling the Thirty Years’ War than World War I: a series of many small wars between ever-shifting permutations of allies, with some regions remaining more stable, and others more violence.

The Middle East is actually particularly inhospitable to the type of organized violence between the militaries of coherent nation-states that characterized warfare in Europe a century ago, because of the nature of its society. Additionally, Arab militaries in particular, have underperformed in the past few decades. The nature of this mystery is perhaps best summed up through an observation made once by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Chapter XXII of his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

In mass they were not formidable, since they had no corporate spirit, nor discipline nor mutual confidence. The smaller the unit the better its performance. A thousand were a mob, ineffective against a company of trained Turks: but three or four Arabs in their hills would stop a dozen Turks. Napoleon remarked this of the Mamelukes.

In other words, militaries in the Middle East, are for the most part, ineffective, because individuals are not fighting for abstractions. The state is an abstraction for most individuals, but the tribe is not, and most certainly religion is not, because religion is not some corporate institution, but part of an individual’s identity and community. On the other hand, these same characteristics, make individuals effective when fighting with small groups based on more tangible principles.

There are some other major differences between the present situation in the Middle East and Europe on the eve of the First World War that also make it likely that increasingly heated conflict will take on the endemic characteristics described above rather than nation-state warfare. One is the fact that external powers, particularly the United States and Russia, will intervene to prevent full-scale warfare.

Additionally, in both 1914-Europe and modern-day East Asia, there were two clear factions, and most states fell into one of two camps. The choice was binary in a way impossible in the modern Middle East, which is home to multiple powers of approximately equal strength: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and formerly Iraq. At the heart of the conflict in the Middle East is the battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their proxies. But beyond this dichotomy, the situation is too complex to allow for a war between two alliances. For example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at odds over Qatar, but aligned against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Finally, there is the matter of ideology. Both the Saudi-led Gulf states and Iran are committed to using their respective religious ideologies to spread their influence as far as they can in the region and beyond. Salafism and revolutionary Shi’ism simply cannot co-exist, at least as they are now, which is another reason why conflict in the Middle East is so open-ended and endemic. Eventually, some sort of arrangement will be worked out, out of necessity, for not for several decades.

In all likeliness, there will be increased conflict in the Middle East in the coming decade. Yet, the nature of this conflict, based on current trends and various social and historical, and geopolitical reasons, will be different than World War I, despite many resemblances. Rather, increased conflict in the Middle East will be characterized by shifting alliances, spurts of violence punctuated by periods of peace, and the increased use of militias and proxies.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an international relations analyst, editor and writer, who contributes to the Diplomat and the National Interest. He received his Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he concentrated in international security.

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