From Alsace to Afrin // Echoes of Pre-War Europe in the Middle East
The centuries-old clichés about Middle Eastern complexities, quagmires, and shifting political alliances are nowhere better demonstrated today than in the defunct nation of Syria. Ruled with an iron fist by the al-Assad family for almost 50 years, the civil war that broke out in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings across the region eventually saw the dissolution of the Syrian state into a series of “fiefdoms.” These carved-out regions were not only ruled by Assad, but also by Shi’a warlords allied with him, by opposing rebel groups (many of whom also opposed each other), by Kurds, and by the now-infamous Islamic State. The entrance of foreign actors into the war, such as Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States—each with their own set of priorities—has essentially created 4 fronts, further complicating and intensifying the conflict. Foreign fighters and sectarian militias have answered the call to jihad in Syria from places like Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Pakistan, Chechnya, France, China, Australia, and even the United States. Even some national armies in the conflict, who are signatories of the Geneva Conventions and ostensibly beholden to international law, routinely and flagrantly break those laws in full view of the world by targeting medical facilities and deploying poison gas, incendiary and cluster munitions on densely-populated urban centers. Add to this the well-documented savagery of paramilitary groups on both sides, and it’s easy to understand why the Syrian Civil War was a main catalyst for the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
As it exists now, the civil war in Syria is already unprecedented in the modern era, exposing the world to a level of asymmetric warfare and human suffering on a scale not experienced in several generations. And yet, even more foreboding than what we’ve already witnessed in Syria is the emergence of a new order across the greater Middle East. Several elements shaping that order, when aligned together, create a sort of geopolitical perfect storm. The longer that storm continues unabated, the more it becomes a vortex that inevitably sucks in not only regional actors into a much larger, open conflagration, but the world. To better understand this, we only need to examine these elements as they existed on the continent of Europe prior to the First World War.
New Movements in Old Orders
After the end of Ottoman rule in 1917, the newly-formed Middle Eastern nation-states were ruled mostly by monarchies, which were installed and sheltered by the same Western governments that had created their borders. Even when some of those monarchies fell to a series of coup d’etats in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya in the 1950s and ‘60s, they were replaced with autocratic socialists, most of whom were bankrolled, armed, and diplomatically buttressed by either the United States, the Soviet Union, or both, and were therefore not exactly friendly towards Islamism. In that sense, the Cold War perpetuated the political order of secular strong-men in the Middle East for two generations.
Two events in 1979 began to change the prevailing winds in the Middle East. First was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Radical Sunni movements in Egypt and the Gulf states (also known as Salafi or Wahabi movements) had been repressed by their respective governments for decades, but found widespread support in the Muslim world after the “godless Communists” invaded Muslim lands. Mujahideen groups (i.e. paramilitary jihadi groups fighting non-Muslim armies) recruited thousands of fighters and garnered millions of dollars in financial support to wage jihad in Afghanistan. They even received open support from the United States government. As the Cold War waned, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed the game and facilitated the rise of fundamentalist Islam across the Middle East.
At the same time that Sunni fundamentalism was rising across the Arab world, a Shiite fundamentalist movement suddenly and unexpectedly overthrew the unpopular shah of Iran. Known simply as the Islamic Revolution, the new ruling class of Iranian clerics immediately began fomenting radical Shi’a movements across the Middle East wherever pockets of Shiite Islam existed, including Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. The Lebanese Hezbollah movement, formed in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War, became an especially powerful and virulent offshoot of the Iranian revolution.
As Sunni and Shi’a fundamentalist groups arose in number and influence across the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa also began to emerge at the turn of the century, shifting both the demographics of the region as well as its politics. The so-called “Youthquake” generation is so large that almost 65% of Middle Eastern Arab citizenry were under the age of 30 by 2008. This younger generation did not grow up viewing their region through the bicameral lens of the Cold War, and instead bucked against the autocracies that had governed their parents and grandparents. At the same time, social media afforded the opportunity to both share revolutionary content instantly and to organize protest movements in real-time. After the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt succeeded in persuading the ailing autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, the “Arab Spring” exploded across the region, igniting street demonstrations and insurgencies across the Middle East and North Africa.
At the outset, the protests were viewed positively by the international community, as most of them in places like Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, and Syria were initially non-violent and seemingly democratic. However, Islamist parties long suppressed by secular autocrats saw an opportunity to foment rebellion and co-opt the uprisings. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and other like-minded Islamist parties won a majority in parliamentary elections, and then ascended to the presidency in 2012. Rebel groups backed by Western powers successfully overthrew the Libyan government and assassinated strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2012, which facilitated the rise of Islamist parties and militias in that country, including ISIS. And in Syria, Sunni officers began defecting from the Syrian Arab Army to form the Free Syrian Army and initiate an armed rebellion against the Alawite (quasi-Shiite) government of President Bashar al-Assad. Jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda aligned themselves with other rebel groups in Syria and fought alongside them, with support from Sunni states such as Turkey. As the “Arab Spring” waned in late 2012 and was replaced by the “Arab Winter,” none of the popular revolts has resulted in peaceful transitions to secular, democratic governments. Some nations, such as Jordan, promised modest concessions to the protestors, and remained largely unaffected. Uprisings in the Gulf States were brutally repressed. Revolts in Yemen, Libya and Syria gave way to full-blown civil wars, while in contrast, the overreach of the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, actually resulted in a popular counter-revolution and re-seizure of power by the military in 2014.
The recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East share important commonalities with the rise of nationalistic movements on the European continent two hundred years ago. Just as the Arab Spring was inspired by the fall of the regime in Egypt, so did the fall of the French monarchy in 1789 inspire several waves of popular nationalistic spirit that convulsed the entire continent of Europe both in 1830 and again in 1848. Propagated by revolutionary literature from the printing press, the “social media” of it’s day, the spirit of self-determination spread across Europe like a tidal wave. Well-established empires could not contain the ideal of nationalism, which spawned grassroots movements in almost every European country. The ruling classes of some nations responded to their movements with modest democratic reform. Other nations brutally repressed every trace of it. And like its Egyptian counterpart, France eventually underwent a counter-revolution that restored the French monarchy. Despite how each nation experienced it manifestly, the ideal of nationalism in Europe, once awakened, could not be turned back. It was only a matter of time before the established political order that had existed on the continent under the Treaties of Paris for 100 years began to crumble, and a new order arose to take its place. Likewise, the spirit of Sunni and Shi’a sectarianism that was unleashed in the Middle East forty years ago has steadily grown in influence across the Islamic world, taking advantage of instability in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, as the hundred-year-old political order created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has also begun to crumble.
Rise of Opposing Alliances
The Romantic nationalism of the 1830s and 1840s waned on the European continent, having largely failed to capitalize on the instability of the declining order to effect political change, much as the idealism of the Arab Spring has failed to materialize into democratic reform. In its wake, a much more pragmatic form of nationalism arose in the late nineteenth century, led by a handful of adept European politicians and military leaders. Movements in Italy and Germany consolidated power and unified their countries into modern, imperial nation-states in the 1860s and 1870s.
The German unification was particularly consequential, as it involved a war with France that ended in German victory and the seizure of land between the two-nations in Alsace and Lorraine, shifting the balance of power on the continent from France to Germany. A new geopolitical landscape forced the major powers to reconsider their alliances. After three decades of intense backroom diplomacy and statecraft, the lines were clearly drawn between two opposing alliance systems: Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy were first to form a secret, mutual defense pact called the Triple Alliance, followed by a counterbalancing alliance between France, Russia, and England called the Triple Entente. These alliances were initially formed for the purposes of mutual self-defense (i.e. in the event that any party was attacked, the other members would mobilize in its defense). But as the more pragmatic leaders of the previous generation passed away and a more ambitious generation arose in the 1890s, the two alliances were increasingly seen on both sides as a way to flex political and military power.
Just as the unification of Germany led to a shift in the balance of power in Europe in the 1870s, after which the shaken political order eventually settled into two opposing alliance systems, so too has a similar sequence of events taken place in the Middle East over the last four decades. After the Islamic Revolution catapulted a radical Shiite Islamic government to power in Iran in 1979, the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle East began to act in counterbalance, much as the other European powers acted in counterbalance against Germany a century before. Beginning with the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, the Sunni Arab regime of Saddam Hussein invaded its neighbor Iran. Yet even with financial and military support from Sunni monarchs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Saddam’s regime gained hardly any advantage over eight years of bloody, protracted fighting, and the war ended as a stalemate in 1988.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime as an obstacle, the balance of power in the Middle East began to shift. The Iranians seized the opportunity to expand their influence throughout the region. In Iraq, long-standing ties with Shiite clerics and politicians led to the formation of large, well-trained and well-equipped paramilitary units under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), many of whom fought alongside the Iraqi military against ISIS. At the same time, Hezbollah, Iran’s enterprise in Lebanon, has now become the dominant political force in that nation and a paramilitary force that now rivals many medium-sized national armies. Iran has sponsored and armed the Shiite Houthi rebels in Western Yemen, on the southern flank of their Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia, where the rebels have taken and held the capital of Sanaa for almost three years. Most consequentially, the Iranians have also maintained a long-standing alliance with the al-Assad regime in Syria. Following the outbreak of the civil war in that nation in 2011, the IRGC has worked together with the Syrian Arab Army, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias to prop up Assad’s regime against various Sunni rebel forces. The resulting nexus of Shiite powers and their proxies—stretching from Iran to Lebanon, and south to Bahrain and Yemen—is the goal of Iranian hegemony. Moreover, this strategy places Iran on the doorstep of Israel, its arch-enemy, branded as the “Little Satan.” The “Shi’a Crescent,” as it’s called, has become one side of a dual-alliance system in the Middle East.
In reaction to the Iranian ascendency in the northern half of the Middle East, a coalition of Sunni Arab nations has formed to oppose it in the South, led by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis have even broke a long-standing Arab taboo by openly engaging in diplomatic cooperation with the Jewish State of Israel, who has become increasingly alarmed about an established Iranian military presence in Syria near the Golan frontier. Just seven years after the revolutions of the Arab Spring shook up the political order of the Middle East, an opposing dual-alliance system is emerging, in which any attack by one regional power against another could trigger a regional mobilization.
Arms Races and Population Growth
As two distinct alliance systems arose on the European continent at the beginning of the twentieth century, tensions grew sharper on both sides. A century of industrial innovation and expansion, combined with rising populations across Europe, provided the tools for the largest arms and military personnel buildup in the history of the world until that time. Between 1904–1914, the Triple Alliance powers of Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy more than doubled their military expenditures. Meanwhile, in the Triple Entente, Russia’s military spending also doubled and France’s increased by 50%. This spending funded the production and deployment of tens of thousands of machine guns, artillery batteries, military vehicles, and of course, enabled the enlistment of more military personnel. Recruitment and conscription swelled the ranks European armies and navies by the hundreds of thousands in the years just before the war. Triple Alliance ground forces grew by over a third between 1909–1914, while the number of enlisted men in France surged almost 50% in just two years. The sudden and massive buildups in manpower and armaments on both sides were viewed suspiciously by the other, and the alliance systems which had been initially designed for mutual defense became justifications for more aggressive postures as a means of deterrence. The resulting European landscape in the summer of 1914 was one in which hair-trigger miscalculations or misunderstandings could quickly and uncontrollably ignite the war which was, by that time, widely expected.
Unlike Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, the Middle East has not experienced a century of industrial and technological innovation. Instead, over the past 45 years, it has used oil revenue to import industry and technology from the West. In 1973, OPEC nations in the Middle East embargoed the US for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, dramatically raising oil prices and leading to gasoline shortages in the US throughout the 1970s. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent US sanctions against Iranian oil, the United States was compelled to make an agreement with Saudi Arabia whereby Saudis would “recycle” US dollars spent on oil (known as “petrodollars”) back into the US economy by purchasing American goods and services, including technology. This was a boon for the Gulf monarchs, who made trillions of dollars from the sale of oil as well as the acquisition of advanced technology, including military hardware.
As Iran began its program of hegemony across the Middle East, the wealthy Gulf States and Egypt have dramatically increased their military spending, signing historic deals with the United States and other Western nations to acquire military hardware and technology. Between just 2014 and 2015, the combined military spending of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq rose 50% from 12 billion to 18 billion, mostly as a result of purchases from Western defense contractors. The pace of delivery on US-Saudi defense contracts has continued to accelerate into 2018. The Sunni Arab League also created a new joint defense force of 40,000 personnel, twice the size of the joint NATO force. Both Iran and Turkey have purchased advanced rocket systems from Russia, who is also coordinating with the Iranians in Syria to reinforce the al-Assad regime. The arms race has even threatened to go nuclear, as the extent of an advanced Iranian nuclear weapons program and long-range missile program has been gradually revealed over the course of the last two decades. These dramatic escalations in military spending, as well as the influx of advanced military technology, have exacerbated tensions on both sides of the dual alliance system in the Middle East.
As in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, birth rates have also risen dramatically in the Middle East in the last century. Combined with falling infant mortality and rising wealth, the region experienced explosive population growth in excess of 3% per year after the 1960s, leading an almost four-fold increase in population to 380 million by 2000. It’s no coincidence that the Arab Spring swept the Middle East at a time when over half the population of the region is under the age of 25. As the “Youthquake” generation marries and has children, the population is projected to increase another 37% between 2011–2030. This has prompted many analysts and policymakers to question how Middle Eastern economies will be able to absorb younger generations into the workforce, as unemployment among young people is near 50%, creating large reserves of military-age men and women who will need work. When considering both demographic trends in the Middle East, as well as the arms race that has resulted from Iranian expansion, the parallel with pre-war Europe is obvious.
Power Vacuums and Tinderboxes
In the decade before the outbreak of the Great War, there were several rounds of brinkmanship between European powers that signaled the instability of peace on the continent. As the Ottoman Empire slowly retreated from its occupation of Southeastern Europe after a series of wars with Russia, a power vacuum was created in the Balkan territories that both the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to fill. In 1908, after an uprising in Turkey led to the establishment of a new government, Austria-Hungary seized on the opportunity to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was massively unpopular with neighboring Serbia and Russia, who are ethnic and religious kinsmen with the Bosnian Serbs. Serbia made demands of Austria that were rejected, and the situation could have escalated into armed confrontation, except that Russia calmed the crisis by recognizing Austria’s annexation. Following Russia’s lead, Serbia acquiesced, but popular bitterness against Austria-Hungary lingered in both Russia and Serbia.
When a league of Balkan nations joined together with Russia’s support in 1912-13 to finally drive the Ottomans off of the European continent altogether, the power vacuum in Southeastern Europe grew even larger. Infighting developed among the members of the Balkan league regarding how to apportion the recaptured territories, leading to a brief war in late 1913 between Serbia and Bulgaria. The Serbians were closely allied with Russia, and so the Bulgarians appealed to Austria-Hungary for help, galvanizing the divide between Russia and Austria-Hungary even more. Although another treaty was signed between the parties in August 1913, the crises in the Balkans had escalated tensions to the point that the Balkan region became a tinderbox, vulnerable to a single spark.
That spark came less than a year later on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke and Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary made harsh and unrealistic demands of Serbia under the pretense of their investigation, which were naturally rebuffed by the Serbians, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia the following month. Serbia’s alliance with Russia, a Triple Entente partner, triggered a declaration of war by Russia on Austria-Hungary, a Triple Alliance partner, which in turn triggered both alliance systems and the mobilization of all the great European powers. By August of 1914, the European continent was engulfed in a full-scale war that would eventually include the other great powers across the globe before its conclusion four years later, at the cost of over 20 million lives.
Surveying the current state of affairs in the Middle East, and especially the civil war in Syria, we can see a similar pattern of tense standoffs and tinderboxes emerging. Syria is a gaping power vacuum, pulling in regional powers to fill it. In particular, Iran and Turkey’s aggressive postures in Syria have provoked a series of international crises in the war. In February of this year, the Turkish army crossed the border into Syria in cooperation with Syrian Sunni rebel allies, ostensibly to root out militant Kurdish factions that were based in the area surrounding the city of Afrin. This act of aggression has prompted a counter-attack by thousands of Syrian Kurds and Shiite militias aligned with the Assad regime. The Turkish military has also built a ring of forward posts around the rebel-held enclave of Idlib province in Northwest Syria, prompting the Russian and Iranian military to do the same around it’s periphery. This puts the militaries of the regional powers of Turkey and Iran within sight of each other, each side working with unpredictable paramilitary groups. This new front in the Syrian war continues to grow, with Turkish president Erdogan promising even more operations in Syria and Iraq.
At the same time, the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Shiite proxies in Western Syria has been an issue of great concern for Israel and neighboring Sunni Arab states. Iran’s constant threats to destroy Israel, including a recent threat to destroy the Jewish State within 25 years, have been coupled with increasingly brazzen actions along the Israeli border. Israel, for its part, has avoided direct engagement in Syria. But in February of this year, the Israeli army shot down an armed Iranian drone that flew across the Syrian border into the Golan Heights. The incident touched off a brief exchange of rocket fire and airstrikes between the Iranians and the Israeli Defense Forces. Then again in May of this year, Iranian rocketfire into the Golan Heights provoked an even larger response from the Israeli military, in which warplanes struck every known Iranian position within Syria. The rhetoric on both sides of the divide has become increasingly bellicose, and a recent conference of Middle Eastern powers hosted by Russia failed to make any headway in cooperation between regional adversaries.
So far, none of the provocations by either Turkey or Iran have touched off a full-scale war in the region. But as the geopolitical temperature continues to rise in the Middle East, brief skirmishes break out, like fissures in the ground above a pool of magma, revealing the pressure underneath and the instability of the status quo. These events are not unlike the pre-war indicators in Southeastern Europe during the decade before the Great War.
The catalytic event for the great Middle Eastern conflict of our time may still be months, even years away. After all, it took almost three decades for the causal factors of World War I to come to fruition (although the pace of geopolitical events is much faster today than it was 100 years ago). The character of Islam obviously differentiates the Middle East from that of pre-war Europe, as well as geography and other ethno-cultural nuances. But the four major historical elements of a major conflagration are present: the demise of old orders amidst new social movements, the rise of an opposing dual alliance system, the rapid buildup of armaments, and the repeated occurrences of crises in disputed territories. Apart from a significant course correction, a similar outcome of regional war is becoming increasingly certain. Eventually, some event will likely ignite the Middle Eastern tinderbox, the dual alliance system will be activated, and the growing reserves of armaments and personnel will be mobilized on both sides. Such a conflict would not only send political and economic shockwaves across the world, but the current engagement of American, Russian and European forces in the region would almost certainly secure their military involvement as well, widening the scope of the war to a global one. Such a cataclysm seems unthinkable now, but no doubt it seemed unthinkable in 1913 or 1938 as well. Dramatic events in human history never seem realistic, until they become reality.
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