The Middle East in 2017: A chaotic regional order emerging

It looks like that after five years and more of once promising 'Arab spring,' chaotic regional order is emerging

A member of the Syrian government forces replaces an Islamic State (ISIS) group flag with a Syrian flag at Aleppo’s thermal power plant, on February 21st, 2016. (AFP)


2017/01/15 Issue: 89 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Nassif Hitti



Beirut - Five years after the bur­geoning of the “Arab spring”, the Middle East has been caught in a long “Arab winter”. Tension, turmoil and all kinds of wars — civil ones fought under different names, wars by proxy and a bloody regional civil conflict — have developed from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya.

Looking back at the last five years, one could observe through the hotbeds of conflicts, which be­came more and more interdepend­ent because of the grand strategies of the regional and international powers involved, that non-state ac­tors — sectarian, ethnic and extrem­ist religious movements, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and others — are the key players in the trans­national fighting. They yield more power than the countries in which they fight their wars under different banners with the support always of major powers.

In many cases in the “Arab spring” countries, the regimes proved to be stronger than the country they have confiscated and privatised to serve their interests. Meanwhile, society is imploding along primordial iden­tity lines — sectarian, religious or ethnic — and weak state institutions are breaking down and collapsing.

The rise of sub-national identities with their transnational solidarities are threatening, with the exacer­bated violent conflicts, the future of a country itself. One can eas­ily observe the looming danger and growing number of failed and fail­ing nations phenomena due to the open-ended wars of all sorts.

Interesting enough from a histori­cal perspective, this is happening at the centenary of the Sykes-Picot ac­cord and is allowing many observ­ers to predict the collapse of such an order.

Indeed, the taboo of the sanctity of the country that fell after the Cold War allowed many to consider a post-Sykes-Picot order: The carv­ing of new states out of the existing ones amid the absence of any fore­seeable solution to many of the on­going conflicts and the difficulties if not the impossibilities to put back together the broken de facto pieces of many of the concerned states.

Thus, a decade ago Joe Biden, then a US senator, was among the first to call for the partition of Iraq on sectarian basis as the only fea­sible way to establish peace, one based on the breaking of Iraq into pieces. The strong return to the front burner of Middle East politics of the Kurdish independence issue raises the spectre of redrawing bor­ders in the Levant in particular.

Yet, it is worth reminding that states’ divorce or splitting does not necessarily lead to peace and to set­tling conflicts. The clash of sub-na­tional identities in a failing country contributes to and encourages such splitting plans. Breaking up could be considered by certain sectarian or ethnic groups as the only way for final salvation from a historical in­justice done to them in the absence of a successful nation-building strategy.

However, the partition of Ethio­pia and Eritrea as well as of Croatia and Serbia and later the independ­ence of South Sudan have indicated that breaking up does not necessar­ily translate into a peaceful situa­tion.

In the war-torn Middle East, three scenarios appear to be plausible:

— The Sudanisation or the divorce and the fragmentation of certain states into two or more ones along ethnic or sectarian lines, a sort of post Sykes-Picot system. Such a sce­nario is difficult to envisage because it cannot be limited to one particu­lar country. It cannot be done à la carte without having a spillover ef­fect into other countries leading to general chaos and a more compli­cated situation.

— The Somalisation scenario, which has been ongoing for years in many places. It is being looked at as the lively illustration of failed coun­tries. Such states feature ongoing protracted social conflict that could be contained or managed with no spillover effect outside the borders in the absence of any plausible solu­tion due to the complexities of the conflict. At the same time, they de­velop the capacity to live with such kind of conflict that witnesses ups and downs in intensity of fighting, at an acceptable cost and as the only possible option.

— The Lebanonisation scenario or the establishment of a political system based on the consociational democracy model, a consensus over power-sharing among different eth­nic, sectarian or religious communi­ties. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy, such a system is the worst of all sys­tems except for all others. Yet, as the Lebanese model has proven for years through its different crises, it is a system that invites interference and interventions and that needs to be revisited regularly because of its tension- and crisis-provoking na­ture and for being vulnerable and attractive to regional tensions and crises.

It looks like that after five years and more of the once promising “Arab spring”, a chaotic regional or­der is emerging in the Middle East carrying more instability, tension and wars of all sorts.


Nassif Hitti was head of the Arab League Mission in Paris, Rome and the Vatican. He is based in Beirut.


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