The Middle East is currently in the beginning of a grand regional realignment, one so vast it is sending shock waves slowly altering the post-Cold War alliance system. As the Syrian Civil War winds down, a new phase in the conflict will give rise to great power competition. Syria will be the focal point where powers will compete for political and economic influence in the remaking of the Middle East. With the United States and Turkey on one side and Iran and Russia on the other, each have been playing a delicate balance act between winning the tactical goal of wiping out the Islamic State and determining the political usefulness of keeping Bashar al Assad in power. Although they have forged military alliances when needed for political expediency in defeating the Islamic State, the lack of a common enemy will duly expose the seriousness of their diverging political goals.
As Turkey waivers in its commitment to follow a Western-led order in the Middle East, Ankara will seek to build regional supremacy, starting in its own backyard. Iran will bump up against Turkish interests as Tehran seeks to maintain military bases in Syria, which would broaden its political influence into the Mediterranean. Russia is likely to be looking for a military exit while still being able to maintain political influence in the region. Moscow has been aesthetically, and somewhat politically successful, in diplomatically sidelining the United States in leading Syrian peace talks through the Astana Peace Talks with both Turkey and Iran.
The Syrian Civil War has become the epicenter of geopolitical turmoil, one where nations have forged together to challenge America’s vast military enterprise in the Middle East, and one where Russia has temporarily succeeded in upending America’s military and diplomatic preeminence in aligning Middle Eastern nations to its interests. With the United States foreign policy in disarray, Washington is seeking not to extract itself from the Middle East, but to dispel military adventurism where unnecessary.
On To The Future
In order for the Middle East to stabilize, conditions must be conducive for a balance of power treaty that can bridge the divide between the Islamist driven politics of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. American leaders, along with its European and Russian counterparts, must help create conditions favorable for negotiating a legalized framework that can foster growth of new regional political blocs.
The goal of these new blocs should be to set precedent for the configuration of a Middle Eastern political union. The creation of such an entity might not take place until the end of the 21st Century, but political stability is not a static condition and is wrought with war and diplomatic failure.
History shows that violence will be used when war fighting is not regulated by codes of conduct that pacify bellicose actors. Remember, the European continent has a centuries-long history of war, political realignments, and regional restructuring. A Western institution like the United Nations was not created in a vacuum, but through the birth of Enlightenment ideals and the need to systematize legal codes to deter the scourge of war. Europe’s experiment with codifying the norms of peacemaking helped to shape how those ideals are institutionalized in new political systems (like democracy).
In order to understand how U.S foreign policy can be geared toward facilitating a path for a Middle East peace settlement, let’s take a look at how the Middle East developed into its current chaotic state and how a 19th Century European treaty can be looked at as a guide in helping to shape a new political architecture for the region.
State Actors and the Arab Street
What started with the 2011 Arab Spring protests has steadily developed into Arab power politics.
Populist revolutions rarely follow a precise formula for a smooth transition out of authoritarianism and into democracy. Street protests are a tool for echoing the sentiment of the masses and one ingredient in what causes paradigm shifts in political institutions. Although there is a genuine desire within sectors of Arab society to engage in democracy, popular will alone is not strong enough to dispel the socio-political-military machinery of autocratic dictatorships and their fight against the democratically more popular Islamist groups.
Democratic institutions take a long time to develop and cannot be birthed by the voiding of governing bodies. Thus, the action of toppling a dictator is a building block for political change but not necessarily for institutional change within the existing state. The development of democracy can occur when the environment is conducive for the growth of civil society movements that work together with the government in order to help secure economic privileges. This helps foster the linkage between state and society, where people can start to define how democracy (as understood as liberty) can be implemented.
For example, there is a staggering difference between Tunisia and Libya in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts. What happened? Tunisia is the lone success story and has shown a leveled degree of stability in its transition from the Ben Ali regime to successful parliamentary elections. Libya has devolved into a nightmare scenario ripe as a breeding ground for Islamic State militants and has two rival governments; a Tripoli based Islamist-backed government and one in the Eastern region that was the sole internationally recognized government up until recently (there is an ongoing effort in the United Nations to configure a unity government, also known as the Government of National Accord).
How did this happen? Tunisia has a rich history of civil society groups where 300 of them and 320 university representatives got together to discuses the future of the country. They provided deliberation and input on the drafting of the new constitution, helping to consolidate a balance between of the role of religion in society and the rights of all individuals. These post-revolutionary discussions were anchored by peaceful strategies that entailed rigorous debates supported by both powerful actors in political parities and ordinary citizens engaged in online social networks.
Libya had no such structure prior to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Modern Libya was a collection of tribes governed by a loose definition of statehood. There were no political or civil groups and state institutions were defined by a cult of personality under Gaddafi’s rule; Gaddafi was the state. Libya never developed modern state infrastructure in part due to a contentious history of Italian, French, and British colonization in the mid 1900’s. Independence was granted in 1952 by the newly established Western-backed United Nations. In the after-math of World War II, post-colonialism had a resounding affect on Libya. By 1969, a young Muammar Gaddafi militarily overthrew the newly minted monarch King Idris I due to his weak ruling authority. Gaddafi ran the country as a petro-state and distilled an environment of tribal authority and questionable strategic alliances. Once Gaddafi was disposed, the entire Libyan state unraveled into its true form; that of various tribal factions with competing interests where no established law governs order.
Much of the Middle East has developed according to this model. For most of its modern history, the Middle East has been under the overarching authorities of outside Empires, such as the earlier Roman and later Ottoman Empire. Arab societies were run as mini statelets, locally governed by actors subordinate to more powerful nations.
After World War I and II, European power politics were played out using the Middle East as a proxy in order to gain economic and geopolitical power. The French and British were the most entrenched in shaping the politics of the region and have a long history of propping up puppet regimes in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. In short, monarchs were installed and quickly overthrown by locally powerful military leaders.
Concepts such as pluralism and democracy are foreign concepts in Arab/Muslim societies and have only recently been understood by exposure to the Western World. This is not to say that Middle Eastern/Islamic societies have never pondered or explored ideas of freedom or humanitarian rights, as democracy is a system of representation and not a sole guarantee of liberty. There is a long history within the doctrines of Islamic thought that dwell on the rights of man. But doctrine has not caught up with what the West understands as the modern world, and the modern world has not given the Middle East a chance to understand how the Western oriented nation-state fits with Islamic identity.
The 20th Century was not conducive for the exploration of this problem. The 21st Century now bears the consequences. For the better part of this century, the Middle East will continue to struggle with the concept of the nation-state and how Islam can be integrated in the changing structure of the modern Arab state. The people of the Middle East will need to develop these definitions on their own. With radical Islam attempting to fill the power void left in the region with the death of Arab Nationalism, there has never been a better time for both average citizens and respected leaders of the Middle East to get together and define the boundary lines of religion, politics, and identity together as a concerted group of peoples.
What Was the Congress of Vienna?
After the defeat of Napoleon I, European leaders organized a set of talks in order to reestablish broken political institutions and deliberate over previously defined borders diluted by continent-wide violence. From 1814 to 1815, Austrian emperor Francis I hosted monarchs from the major powers of the time. This included Czar Alexander I of Russia, King Frederick William III of Prussia, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand of France, and the duke of Wellington of Great Britain. The Napoleonic Wars systematically upended the previous political order as defined with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. For the next 100 years, this treaty helped to establish order in Europe by giving ordinance to ownership of fought-over lands and decreeing that the Spanish and French Crowns were never to seek political union.
The Congress of Vienna 1814 was by no means perfect. It was used by Britain as a tool to contain the re-emergence of French military power and procure buffer states to block quick rising incursions from potential enemies. Issues regarding the national aspirations of weaker territories were ignored, as they possessed too much strategic value to give up. Treaties may be laced with the language of the victor but are essential towards helping to legitimize a code of conduct for inter-state relations.
Vienna 1814 helped to establish very important precedent in the diplomatic culture of warring powers. The principles set out in the treaty were essentially used as public law for all European states that signed the agreement. This helped to establish decorum for how agreed upon norms set within the treaty can be used as a foundation for engendering political order on a regional level. This helped to foster a sentiment of collective good will toward agreed upon territorial exchanges and helped to create the customary framework for the free navigation of European rivers.
The most important and widely unknown fact about the Congress of Vienna is that it created nascent legal and political norms that helped to legitimize the formation of the United Nations. The treaty attempted to normalize to usage of periodic unions in order to discuss and mollify outstanding issues before they shaped into conflict. Although this tool was mismanaged, it established the design for organizational cooperation.
Today, the United Nations is the preeminent global governing body. It may have taken two world wars to institutionalize, but could have never come to fruition without the legacy of the Congress of Vienna. It cultivated a formula for a regional balance of power within Europe and helped to formalize the rules of engagement for great power politics on the world stage.
Can the Middle East Build a Similar Framework?
Currently, the situation in the region has grown more complex due to the fact that multiple types of wars are occurring at the same time. Civil wars are interlaced with regional battles as old Cold War fault lines are resurrected between the U.S/EU vs. Russia. Helping to fuel these networks of battles is the ideological fight happening between revolutionary Islamism (as defined by Iran’s Shi’a axis) and radical Sunni Islamism (as defined by jihadist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State).
Iran is the main backer of Bashar al Assad (whose minority Alawite clan is an offshoot of Shia Islam) and seeks to project regional power through alliance with an assortment of weak minority groups and non-state actors (such as Sunni Hamas with new reports even indicating al Qaeda). Iran is currently in a strong position to enhance its role as the center for Middle Eastern power.
Saudi Arabia is an important player in the Sunni Axis and is a powerful state actor that supports Wahhabi-Salafi aligned groups, but is not a supporter of political Islamists groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood). Sunni-majority Turkey, under the Islamist-leaning President Erdogan, is engaged with radical Islamist groups and seeks to expand its power eastward into the Arab Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are high stakes players in a battle over the face of Sunni Islam as they fight for their place in the monumental regional reshuffling taking place. Neither has yet to define their relationship with an assertive Iran.
The axis of power has been tilted and is cascading into a hotbed for wider wars on a worldwide scale. These conflicts will continue to be used as strategic geopolitical gains for foreign powers if Middle East actors do not take serious action. Unfortunately, the Middle East does not have a history of collective engagement or a strong history of building state architecture as typified by the West.
The modern Middle East is a consortium of different tribes, clans, and ethnicities thrown together under the patchwork of colonial born nation-states. There is no native concept of a nation-state in the politics of the Middle East. There were great empires that ruled over tribal collectives (what we might understand as closer to the ancient city-state). Powerful ancient empires like Iran and Turkey are the more stable actors in the region due to a long history of fighting for political borders that helped to foster concrete terms for cultural/ethnic identity. Arabs remained politically decentralized within tribal conclaves and never asserted a state-centered pan-Arab framework. Pan-Arabism was only experimented in the colonial soaked 20th Century and was used by military dictatorships to assert tyranny.
Secular nationalism is seen as a great failure in the Middle East due to the sketched out boundaries lines fostered by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. In the era of World War I, these colonial powers administered the creation of the Arab nation-state and used them as platforms for installing leaders friendly to their interests. Arabs as an ethnic collective were never able to develop their own political system of state sovereignty.
After 100 years of providing an artificial state structure in the Middle East, Sykes-Picot has tattered into pieces. Left in its ashes is the failed ideological experiment of pan-Arabism. Arab states (like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya) have become nothing more than shell states, existing as anachronistic to the whirlwind of populist revolutionary voices being heard on the Arab Street.
The only well established framework in the Arab world is Islam. It is the foundational institution for societal/communal values and has been codified in Arab traditions of law. Since its conception in the 7th Century AD, there has been an ongoing battle to discern how doctrinal interpretations of Islam fit within local governing institutions. There were experiments with political Islam through the age of the Caliphate (such as the Umayyad and Abbasid empires) but there was never an agreement on how to balance both the spiritual and political role of Islamic leadership, especially within Sunni Islam.
Today, Islam is in a transformative state akin to a reformation. It is one man’s political Islam vs. political Islam, and yes, the competing strands are quite radical. Arab power politics will continue to shape the boundaries of Islamic doctrine and the degree to which it defines the role of a new Arab state system. This is why major players in the Middle East must come together and figure out how a new state architecture can emerge to bridge the gap between radical and moderate forces within Islam. Failure to define a system of sovereignty for the Middle East will mean that the ghost of the Islamic State will win the inheritance of post-revolutionary Islam.
Toward a Balance of Power in the Middle East
Vienna 1814 provided warring Europe with a framework for diplomacy and the principles of political unity. It helped build legitimacy for a multilateral state system to use collective governance in order to thwart politics from turning into violence. The Middle East needs its own balance of power treaty.
Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan (and possibly Tunisia) are well suited to assume leadership at a series of negotiations. The United States, Russia, European powers, and China should assume mediation roles to help foster a climate of political goodwill.
The current chaos is in part due to the fallout over the Iraq War followed by America’s strategic disengagement from traditional war fighting in the region. It is in the best interest of the Middle East and world powers to ensure that there is no overarching hegemon, as this would only foster more violence. The Middle East is not monolithic in terms of religion or ethnicity and it is unrealistic to assume one powerful state can accord peace.
There must be put into place a set of principles validating minority rights and a shared vision on how to build inter-communal trust. Only then can a new inter-state framework start to emerge. In the future, it is likely we may see the gradual emergence of Syria and Iraq into a confederal arrangement, but it is unlikely for such a system to remain in tact for long. Borders in the Middle East will continue to be fluid into the greater half of this century and will be one small part in the development of models for stable governance. Building a framework for balance of power in the Middle East will mean that security issues, such as the use of weapons and humanitarian rights, will have to be used as a grand bargaining chip in order to offset the concessionary powers of powerful states.
Furthermore, the emergence of new governing models cannot take place without serious thought as to how Islam will be defined in state and society. Diplomatic language will have to be developed for establishing what role non-state actors will play in any grand bargaining, as they play an important role in shaping the nature of the conflicts taking place.
The role of the Islamic State is an incredibly important calculation if any serious attempt at establishing a peace treaty is to occur in the near future. They may use guerilla tactics against Western enemies, but in the Middle East they have the power of collective will under a regimented ideology. War fighting alone will not stop further attempts towards building an “Islamic state” in the Middle East.
It will be a centuries long venture to set up functioning governing institutions in the Middle East. A united Middle East under the umbrella of a political union may seem like a far off dream, but in order to potentially get there we must start to construct what principles can foster a balance to competing interests.
The first step is for major powers to figure out how to construct a conciliatory environment for large-scale talks. If not, violence will continue to pay off as a strategic tool and aid the cycle of destabilizing power voids.
The Middle East will be in jeopardy of being a victim of 21st Century politics and losing out on economic development. The 21st Century will be defined by the further development of globalization and economic integration. Supranational entities in the form of financial (and not political) institutions will shape multilateral power in the coming decades. Today, the Middle East may be contracting inward but it would be in the interest of regional actors to start looking outward towards multilateral diplomacy for a path to the future.