In Multipolarity

Book review by Malise Ruthven, in New York Review of Books, June 23, 2016

The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East, by Marc Lynch, PublicAffairs, 284 pp., $26.99
ISIS: A History, by Fawaz A. Gerges, Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $27.95

Syrian army soldiers at Temple of Bel after retaking city of Palmyra in April 2016 (Lorenzo Meloni, Magnum Photos)

Syrian army soldiers at Temple of Bel after retaking city of Palmyra in April 2016 (Lorenzo Meloni, Magnum Photos)

In his best-selling History of the Arab Peoples, published two years before his death in 1993, the Anglo-Lebanese scholar Albert Hourani remarked on the surprising levels of political stability prevailing in the Arab world at that time. Despite the rapid growth of its cities, and many disparities of wealth between the governing elites and newly urbanized masses who were calling for social justice, calm seemed to rule, at least on the surface. Since the military coups of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere there had been remarkably little change in the general nature of most Arab regimes or the direction of their policies. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco had seen no dynastic changes for more than two generations; in Libya and Syria the regimes that came to power around 1970 were still in place. In 2000 in Syria, nearly a decade after Hourani’s book was published, leadership passed smoothly from father to son, while in Egypt and Libya the issue of dynastic succession was being widely discussed.

Like many other observers of Middle Eastern and North African history, Hourani interpreted this picture of calm with an eye to the writings of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the Arab historian and polymath whose theories of dynastic change and cyclical renewal and especially his concept of asabiyya, variously translated as “clannism,” “group feeling,” or—in Hourani’s definition—“a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power,” provided a prism through which contemporary systems of governance could be viewed. According to the 2004 United Nations Arab Human Development Report, for example:

Clannism [asabiyya] in all its forms (tribal, clan-based, communal, and ethnic)…tightly shackles its followers through the power of the authoritarian patriarchal system. This phenomenon…represents a two-way street in which obedience and loyalty are offered in return for protection, sponsorship, and a share of the spoils.

Moreover, as both Hourani and the UN report pointed out, clannism in its modern versions has been buttressed by methods of surveillance, systemic brutality, and bureaucratic controls that were not available in Ibn Khaldun’s day, when the powers of central governments were far less strong.

The events of 2011—following on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—saw a cataclysmic change in this picture of apparent stability and continuity. Starting in Tunisia, the riots and demonstrations of the so-called Arab Spring spread to virtually every Arab country, with major insurgencies in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain, large street demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman, and minor protests even in Saudi Arabia. The protests and conflicts that have dominated the international headlines since 2011—with spectacular results in the fall of Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and the pushing aside of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen—all brought new dimensions of Arab political culture to the fore. Protesters filled public spaces in their thousands, and cities throughout the region echoed with demands for change. Major causes of unrest included a dramatic rise in world food prices due to drought resulting from global warming and sharpening perceptions of inequality and corruption by educated youth with access to social media and sources of information outside of governmental control.

The long-term outcomes remain uncertain, to put it mildly. In Iraq and Syria, Libya and Yemen, entire countries are falling apart, with the removal of the strongmen who were central to the architecture of power, causing fragile national structures to collapse into a cataclysmic series of wars. Egypt—the oldest and most enduring state in the region—wobbled with just a year of constitutional rule by President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, before the full restoration of the “deep state” under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In the current Arab turmoil, only Tunisia, where the movement began in late 2010, seems capable of fulfilling the original aspirations for change by making an orderly transition to constitutional democratic governance. Elsewhere the transitions seem more ambiguous, as the old order struggles to maintain its hold over state institutions, or groups that had previously been marginalized respond to the absence of orderly government by grabbing resources for themselves or settling scores rather than following the protesters’ original demands for democratic change and more open political space.

As George Washington University’s Marc Lynch writes in The New Arab Wars, his cool but meticulous account of the Arab disasters:

The entire regional order appears to be in freefall. Egypt’s democratic transition ended in a military coup, mass arrests, and political stalemate. Syria, Libya, and Yemen are mired in grinding civil war. Millions of refugees live in tenuous conditions, their lives shattered and their homes destroyed with little prospect of a return to normality.

The Islamic State is holding tenaciously to its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, spreading into Libya and other shattered states, and inspiring terrorism globally. The very idea of democracy has been discredited among large swathes of the Arab citizenry. The major short-term effect of the Arab uprisings has not been democratization, but rather a dramatic increase in regional interventionism, proxy war, and resurgent repression.

When searching for explanations of this outcome, scholars and commentators often blame great power machinations, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, or the operations of local “mafiocracies” or “neo-Mamluks,” or indeed a combination of both—showing, for example, how George W. Bush’s “war on terror” undermined the efforts of Arab reformers by reinforcing national security establishments. Without neglecting such issues, Lynch puts his main emphasis on the linkages between the uprisings, demonstrating how both the Arab insurgencies and the reactions of the regimes have been shaped by shifting global and regional power dynamics along with “transnational flows of money, information, people, and guns”:

Protestors and regimes and insurgents all understood their struggles to be part of a unified regional arena—and such perceptions inform political reality. The role of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE have in many cases supplanted even the role of the United States as deeply polarizing issues of contention in regional politics.

The New Arab WarsDuring the 1990s, the original balance of power in the region had been relatively stable, with sectarian dynamics in the crucial countries of Iraq and Syria contained by de facto minority rule under the guise of the Arab nationalism proclaimed by the Baath socialist parties. In certain respects, the political structures mirrored one another: in Iraq—a majority-Shia country—the Sunni minority dominated the Baathist system, while in Syria—a majority-Sunni country—it was the schismatic Shia sect known as Alawis or Nusayris who controlled the army and other sources of power.

Beyond these countries lay older geopolitical rivalries between Iran—whose revolution inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 had galvanized Shiite communities throughout the world and with which Iraq had fought a bitter eight-year war (1980–1988)—and Saudi Arabia, with its fundamentalist Wahhabite faith and history of Shia persecution since the eighteenth century. In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, instead of breaking Bush’s “axis of evil”—a bizarre notion linking the mutually antagonistic nations of Iraq and Iran plus North Korea—and empowering would-be democrats against Islamist “radicals,” “tilted the regional balance of power decisively in favor of Iran.” The following year, the staunchly pro-Western King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “Shia Crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This statement crystallized the anti-Iranian sectarianism in popular discourse and helped unleash the sectarian conflicts now afflicting the region. As Lynch points out:

Sectarianism, one of the most disturbing forms of regional identity politics in recent years, has been driven more by power politics and regime survival concerns than by ancient hatreds. The U.S. occupation of Iraq empowered Iran and unleashed a brutal sectarian civil war, which played out across the nascent transnational and social media. Regimes used the sectarian underpinnings of the regional conflict and the Iraqi war to divide their citizenry, prevent mass-based popular revolts, and legitimate an otherwise shaky political order.

Sectarianism involving the religious authorities became “a key weapon” in the counterrevolutionary arsenal by which the old regimes or political forces sought to control the revolutionary upsurge. Whatever divided the public and blocked the path of the crowds who congregated in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Bourguiba Street in Tunis, or the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain was deployed in the interest of restoring the status quo ante. “This hateful logic,” says Lynch, “applied broadly: pitting Christians against Muslims in Egypt, Jordanians against Palestinians in Jordan, and, above all, Sunnis against Shi’ites wherever possible.”

One catalyst for spreading the upheavals that followed the original Tunisian protests may have been the deregulated television coverage of Al Jazeera, founded in 1996 and part-owned by the Qatari government. As Hugh Miles wrote prophetically in 2005, the information revolution initiated by Al Jazeera would have a transformative effect on the outlook of Arab youth: “Unlike their parents, they have an internationalist outlook and a rights-based mentality. Their sense of injustice at what is happening in the Arab world today is neither cynical, nor naïve, but ethical.” [1]

In this new media age, the suppression of knowledge about atrocities, such as the huge massacres carried out by the Hafez al-Assad regime following the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama in 1982, is no longer possible. Lynch provides many details showing how television footage from Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned media skewed perceptions and influenced events. The contrast between Bahrain, where protests by the Shia majority were suppressed using Saudi forces, and Libya, where NATO air power supported the rebels against the Qaddafi regime, is often cited as an example of “Western” double standards. But, Lynch argues, the Arab media had their own slanted emphases. They

ignored the Bahrain crackdown while lavishing sensational coverage on Libya’s rapidly escalating violence…. Al-Jazeera from the start covered Libya’s repression intensively, highlighting the brutality of the regime’s response and placing it firmly within the narrative frame of an otherwise peaceful Arab uprising.

Unlike Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, “Libya had no international patrons to shield it from criticism,” despite Qaddafi’s surrender of his mostly moribund WMD programs and his settling of the lawsuit brought by families of the 1983 Lockerbie bombing. Qaddafi, moreover, had achieved the rare feat of personally alienating both the Saudi king and the Qatari emir, to the point where both countries were prepared to legitimize the Arab League’s “revolutionary” invitation to NATO to intervene militarily in Libya:

The common explanation for the invitation to NATO and the direct Arab military intervention [in Libya] was the extremity of Qaddafi’s brutality towards his own people. But, as the Bahrain campaign amply attested, the Arab regimes were hardly in a position to complain of such things given their own fiercely repressive ways…. To be blunt, refraining from violence against one’s own people was not and had never been a widely accepted norm governing Arab political order.

Arab solidarity against Qaddafi’s brutality, with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia acting in rare concert, succeeded in diverting public attention from the brutal repression in Bahrain. But there were never concerns or efforts sufficient to ensure an orderly transition in Libya, as patrons with different interests, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, took to sponsoring rival factions.

As Lynch demonstrates throughout his book, all of the opposition forces—in Libya, Yemen, and above all in Syria—had outside patrons who supplied them with money and arms. Videos of military exploits posted on YouTube became the means by which local militias advertised their services to potential patrons. And while patrons typically used the militias as proxies to advance their interests, the proxies acquired leverage by cultivating multiple patrons, enabling them to exploit their patrons’ demand for local influence.

If this competitive dynamic is responsible for the current chaos involving fighting between rival factions in Libya, which still lacks a functioning government, the effects have been catastrophic in Syria, where the size and power of demonstrations, the convergence of the Gulf states behind the opposition, and “growing international outrage over regime violence crystallized a growing sense that Asad would be unable to retain his hold on power.” However, the expectation that Assad would go the way of Qaddafi and Ben Ali, or that the Baathist state would collapse as it did in Iraq, proved tragically ill-judged. As Lynch points out, the regime

retained considerable support among wide sectors of the Syrian citizenry, including not only minority communities but also much of the urban Sunni elites who had benefitted from [Assad’s] rule and feared change. Official [pro-Assad] media, later supplemented by television stations such as the Lebanon-based al-Akbar newspaper and al-Mayadeen TV, expertly crafted a narrative of foreign subversion, armed gangs, and exaggerated propaganda about protests and repression. Partisans of the two narratives would clash furiously, as information warfare became a central front of the rapidly evolving conflict.

The intensity of the media war was increased by events such as the slaughter in Houla, northeast of Homs, in May 2012, which was widely blamed on the regime’s Shabiha thugs. Support for the rebels with arms and money, provided by the Gulf states and Turkey, accelerated the “sectarianization” of the conflict. The Iranian and Shia forces in Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah rallied to Assad’s support, thereby making King Abdullah’s “Shia Crescent” appear more salient. While in no way seeking to exonerate Assad’s “obstinate brutality” for the ensuing disaster, Lynch shows how the media “war of narratives” failed to undermine Assad. His regime blamed the massacres on takfiris (violent jihadists who anathematize their opponents) and reinforced its support from its core constituencies, including Christian and other religious minorities, who were terrified of the opposition advances.

Enthusiasts for limited militarization, including many in Washington, “failed, at great cost,” to appreciate how arming the opposition served to strengthen the regime’s “insular, internally coherent narrative.” This basic misreading was compounded by a failure to see that the internationally recognized Syrian National Council was little more than a conduit by which the “hopelessly factionalized Syrian opposition” was able to attract and distribute money and arms from its foreign sponsors, making it “fully a creature of competitive intervention and proxy warfare.”

“What looked like indecision” on the part of the Syrian National Council “was as often the result of intense Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari pressure on the Council members.” The same logic applied, a fortiori, to supposedly “moderate” rebels of the Free Syrian Army, a force that was “something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity.” In reality the Free Syrian Army amounted to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.”

American attempts to “vet” opposition fighters contrasted with the free-spending ways of Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. As one rebel commander told CBS News in September last year, only a small proportion of U.S.-approved fighters under a $500 million program were receiving training, weapons, and ammunition, and much of this material was being taken over by the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

In analyzing the Arab uprisings and subsequent civil wars Lynch generally avoids criticizing the current U.S. administration, arguing that “it is easier to blame Barack Obama’s weakness for Syria’s catastrophe than to examine the contributions of a diverse range of actors to the radicalization and fragmentation of an externally-fueled, ill-conceived insurgency.” Indeed, he commends Obama’s determination to resist relentless pressures from the Saudis and Israelis as well as U.S. officials and lobbyists to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran—an achievement that promises to be his most enduring foreign policy legacy. Lynch endorses Vice President Joseph Biden’s observation in October 2014:

Our allies in the region were our largest problem…. [They] were determined to take down Asad and have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Asad. Except that the people who were being supplied were (Jabhat) al Nusra and al Qaida, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.

The extreme jihadists, of course, are now mainly drawn to the so-called caliphate of ISIS, also known as Daesh. While several books have already charted the rise of ISIS out of the chaos of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, in ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges joins Lynch in explaining its provenance more specifically as a direct consequence of the sectarian feelings the invasion unleashed, for which America must bear responsibility:

By destroying state institutions and establishing a sectarian-based political system, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion polarized the country along Sunni-Shia lines and set the stage for a fierce, prolonged struggle driven by identity politics. Anger against the United States was also fueled by the humiliating disbandment of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification law, which was first introduced as a provision and then turned into a permanent article of the constitution.

In his well-researched and lucidly argued text, Gerges shows how the U.S. de-Baathification program, combined with the growing authoritarianism and exclusion of Sunnis under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, provided fertile conditions for the emerging of ISIS out of al-Qaeda under the brutal leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his even more extreme successor. Al-Baghdadi is an evident fraud whose claim to legitimacy by virtue of descent from the Prophet’s tribe Gerges discredits on genealogical grounds.

De-Baathification, based on the American envoy Paul Bremer’s foolish analogy with the postwar de-Nazification of Germany, had deprived the country of the officer class and administrative cadres that had ruled under Saddam Hussein, leaving the field to sectarian-based militias. As Gerges rightly observes, Baathism as practiced in Iraq and Syria was “less of a coherent ideology than a hizb al-Sulta, a ruling party that distributed rewards to stakeholders based on loyalty to the head of the party.” In view of the absence of ideological content, it was hardly surprising that disenfranchised former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army, facing exclusion from Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, should have migrated to the militant version of Sunnism Gerges calls Salafi-jihadism.

In analyzing ISIS’s success, Gerges points to the legacy of Paul Bremer: some 30 per cent of the senior figures in ISIS’s military command are former army and police officers from the disbanded Iraqi security forces. It was the military expertise of these men that transformed the Sunni-based insurgent movement of al-Qaeda in Iraq into ISIS, “an effective fighting machine, combining urban guerilla warfare and conventional combat to deadly effect.”

Rather than dismissing this as mere opportunism, with the former Baathist officers controlling the group from behind the scenes (as anti-ISIS jihadists from al-Qaeda Central claim in their propaganda), Gerges argues that the shift from Baathism to Islamism had already occurred during the upheavals of the 1990s and 2000s following the U.S. invasions, when both Sunni and Shiite elites became radicalized according to “a gradual process of ideological and identity conversion…fueled particularly by armed resistance to the U.S. occupation.” In the general breakdown of security in Iraq as in Syria, Salafi-jihadism became, by default, the identity chosen by many Sunnis facing Iranian-dominated Shia regimes—as they saw it—in Baghdad and Damascus, and a Kurdish revival in the north.

For Gerges, these default identities should not be equated with religious fervor or commitment: rather he argues that Iraq, like other postcolonial states in the Arab world, has

nourished traditional institutions at the expense of a nationalist project around which citizens could unite…. Sunnis and Shias feel entrapped in narrow communal identities, and battles over identity rage not only between communities but within them.

Indeed, an essential part of his book recalls the vicious war of words and struggle for power that followed Baghdadi’s split from Ayman al-Zawahiri (Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda Central).

At the time, ISIS in Syria gave priority to its conflicts with the Nusra Front and other opposition militias rather than against Assad’s forces. Both groups share the totalitarian impulse of the jihadi movements that gave priority to the “government of God” over the will of the people. This pernicious ideology, with its strong dictatorial resonances, holds (in the words of its founder, the Indo-Pakistani ideologue Abul Ala Mawdudi) that “no single individual, family, a class, a party or any individual living in the state has the right to Hakimiyya [governance], as Allah is the true ruler and holder of real power.”

The question this raises, of course, is: Who will exercise power on behalf of God? Before he was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, Mawdudi’s disciple, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, added a revolutionary element to Mawdudi’s vision by calling for a jihadist vanguard whose mission was to bring about the “rule of God,” if necessary by force.

Gerges shows, depressingly, that the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 as the first and only democratically elected president in Egypt’s contemporary history took place in a coup jihadists said couldn’t have taken place “without a green light” from Washington. The Salafi jihadists, Gerges argues, used the fall of Morsi to advance their cause. In October 2015, the group now known as Wilayah Sinai (the caliphate’s “Sinai Province”) brought down a planeload of Russian tourists, killing 224 passengers and crew. Many jihadist atrocities have followed.

Gerges recalls that the jihadists made it clear at the time that the Muslim Brothers to which Morsi belonged deserved the repression visited on them after the Sisi coup. They “were dragged into humiliation and shame as they had diverted from obeying the rules of Allah” by adopting “democracy instead of Jihad.”

The competition between Baghdadi and Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, leader of the Nusra Front, which Gerges recounts in some detail, seems likely to strengthen the jihadist movement rather than the reverse. Unlike the Nusra Front, ISIS excommunicates Islamists who take part in electoral politics, thereby justifying their execution. Its extremism and violence may have the effect of alienating fellow travelers, leading—with help from drones and coalition air strikes—to the pseudo-Caliphate’s eventual extinction.

By contrast, Joulani and his distant emir Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was born in Cairo in 1951 and now lives in hiding—present themselves as the more “‘rational’ wing of the global jihadist movement” by blending with mainstream rebel groups and local Syrians.

There is now an abundance of evidence that money and arms intended for the shadowy “moderate” Islamists of the Free Syrian Army are filling the coffers and arsenals of the Nusra Front, although it is anathematized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its allies. As Gerges sees it, Zawahiri appears to be playing a long game, hoping that Baghdadi’s recklessness will be his undoing, and that ISIS’s message of Islamic “triumphalism and empowerment” will resonate ever less with Sunnis as the balance of power turns against them.

The best way to throttle ISIS and the Nusra Front, Gerges argues, would be for Arabs to collectively resolve their spiraling sectarian conflicts and support state-building structures. In Tunisia, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, made way for secular leaders after losing the struggle to have sharia written into the constitution. This offered the rare example of an Arab state system capable of embracing change. But the prospects everywhere else seem bleaker than ever, as the clans and coteries envisioned by Ibn Khaldun strive to maintain their grip on power.


1. Hugh Miles, Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West (Grove, 2005), p. 386


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