Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
Intervene in Syria? Arm the rebels? Is Iraq collapsing again? Just what is Qatar up to. How secure is the Egyptian government? Will Jordan’s monarchy survive? Why does Russia care so much for Bashar al Assad?
Fatigue has begun to set in. Every few years we become acquainted with a new set of middle-eastern place names. Irbil and Baquba have faded out; Deraa and Qusayr have been forced to the fore. The politics ever more opaque. The sects more numerous. The violence seemingly more confusing, if not more brutal. The glib theories propounded by waves of experts consigned to irrelevance by the chaos. ‘Why should we be involved?’ people still ask. Where’s the national interest? If we know so little about what’s going on, how can we sensibly make a difference? Even if we could, do we have the money, aren’t there more important things to do at home, or in the emerging markets?
It’s most beguiling to think that it’s all about us. That if we behaved differently, it would all go away, or at least, no longer affect us. This tickles our ego: yes, we, in our part of the world, caused these problems, and we can resolve them too. It appeals to what we know, whether Western military doctrine or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it promises to be cheap, to save our soldiers’ lives and limit pressure on the Government’s budget.
All these will have figured in the minds of the 81 Tory MPs who complained about arming Syrian rebels. Three more concrete questions also concentrated their minds: Who are the rebels? What to they believe? Will they have our interests at heart? That the answers are “We don’t really know"; “We have an idea and don’t really like what we see” and “Probably not,” should give them pause.
I wrote in April calling for a no-fly zone. That would have been, and still would be, better than arming rebels, but it looks remote, while our quandary is getting more acute. The (relatively) moderate fighters are being squeezed – by Assad himself, and by the better-funded Islamist opposition. Remember the Spanish Civil war, where the centre was squeezed between Franco, backed by the Nazi Germany, and the communists, backed by the Soviet Union.
The Syrian civil was has emerged from the Arab spring, but that’s only the latest twist. Add sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. Beneath, find the strategic rivalry between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the gas-filled upstart of Qatar. Mix in some Islamist fanaticism. Shaky Jordan, and justifiably paranoid Israel observe. Russia, the attention-seeking teenager, sends missiles and screams “It’s not Fair!” when Washington objects.
Like one of those vast renaissance paintings best appreciated from the other side of the room, step back from the news cycle and things begin to become a little clearer. The Middle East is best viewed from 1920, the year of the Treaty of Sèvres.
That was the year in which the Ottoman empire was formally wound up. The conflicts we see now are the wars of its succession. They were delayed for 80 or so years while first Anglo-French colonialism and then the Cold War provided a veneer of stability. Foreign support allowed a series of regimes, from the Hashemite monarchy, transplanted to what was then called Transjordan, to Nasserite Egypt, to maintain power without adapting to the shape of the societies they ruled, relying less on hearts and minds and more on that apocryphal American general who’s said to have stuck a sign up on his office wall in Vietnam: “Get them by the balls, and their hearts and minds follow.”
Both that general and Addad got it wrong. Successful strongmen are more like jiu-jitsu black belts than boxers: they get the right bits of the society to move where they want them to go. The Ottoman empire lasted so long because it created political arrangements that convinced most potential rebels that they would be isolated. It got caught out by technological and social change: militarily superior European powers, and by a growing intelligentsia, particularly strong in Constantinople, Alexandria and other major cities, which felt they could demand more freedom, a distribution of resources that was more in their interests, and a greater share in political power.
Its successor regimes haven’t lasted because they haven’t been able to cope with new groups: newly educated professionals, industrial workers, and, now, technologically adept youth integrated into the global economy and communications networks. They lack the flexibility to give them what they would see as a fairer deal, and the power to make them accept the status quo.
These conflicts are the stuff of modernisation. When they end well, they end with societies with the rule of law, accountable government, and political freedom; those things we know of as well-functioning democracy. For years people have wondered, why has the Middle East not modernised? Bernard Lewis once wrote a famous book called “What Went Wrong?”; the Arab Human Development Report posed a similar question. Now modernisation has kicked in with a vengeance.
Speaking of it like this as a “process” makes it sound orderly, peaceful even scientific. Yet everywhere it’s happened — from Europe to Asia to Latin America it’s been accompanied by bloody struggles for power. As the successor states to the Ottoman empire conduct their struggles, we need to expect more bloodshed, horror and violence. This is nothing to do with the character of the Middle East, the intensity of religious feeling or simplistic assertions about the character of Islam. It’s just what happened everywhere else. There’s one crucial difference, however. The world is more intertwined than it was. Our economies and our security depend on the condition of the rest of the world more than they otherwise did. Stock markets can be buffeted, or terrorists inspired, by distant events.
These Wars of Ottoman Succession will be with us for decades. It’s less a matter of intervening in one country or one conflict, than of developing a strategy to reduce the violence with which they are fought, and to steer, as far as we can, their outcomes in the direction of civilisation, democracy and the rule of law.