Images of angry mobs storming the US Capitol would have reminded citizens of the Middle East of scenes they have witnessed many times closer to home. For while inter-state wars and mass organized violence, such as insurrections and coups, have been on the decline around the world since the end of the Cold War, the exception has been the Middle East. Not surprisingly then, a few commentators were quick to liken the attempted insurrection in Washington to the unrest that shook Middle East states during the Arab Spring a decade ago. Of course, such comparisons were simply provocative for the sake of “click-baiting.” Nevertheless, they offer a timely opportunity to ponder why the Middle East remains so violence-prone.
To begin, let’s get out of the way the fact that anyone willing to contemplate comparisons between the US and the Middle East has failed to reckon with America’s own history of political violence. More troubling, it also reveals a misreading of history. The fact is, the contemporary experience of violence in the Middle East is intertwined with the origins of statehood imposed upon the region following the First World War. Thus, it is foolish to liken throngs of violent Trump supporters (attempting to disrupt the results of a legitimate election) to Arab Spring protestors (challenging autocrats like former president Hosni Mubarak).
But even among some who might be counted on to understand the difference, there is a lingering unsavoriness to their outlook – the racist tropes about the incompatibility of Arab Muslims and democracy; the claims of Middle East “exceptionalism.” In fact, the Arab region is no more naturally compelled to violence than other parts of the world. That said, it is hard to deny the reality of organized violence and bloodshed that has hamstrung large parts of the region in recent years. Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa region experienced the highest occurrence of conflict and military interventions compared to other regions even before the Arab Spring.
To be sure, back-to-back military coups in Arab countries have declined since the close of the Cold War. But rather than mark the end of violence as a means of settling scores, the region lapsed into assorted iterations of violence, often manifest as winner-takes-all brutality between sectarian or ideological rivals. Conflicts predicated on “grand ideas” – capitalism, liberalism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism and other -isms – have tapered off in most other parts of the world: in Asia in the 1950s on the Korean peninsula, in the 1970s in Vietnam; in South and Central America by the 1980s. But contest between adherents of different ideologies and religious tenets remain strong in the Middle East.
A further explanation for why the Middle East is plagued by cyclical violence is that states in the region originated in colonial arrangements drawn up by great powers. For example, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon historically experienced protracted periods of occupation and armed resistance. The lines may have been “drawn in the sand,” as the saying goes, but the states that emerged took on a real meaning in the decades that followed. Imperial meddling by British and French mandate powers endured into the 21st century via foreign-policy interventions under the guise of the “War on Terror,” humanitarian assistance or democracy promotion.
But are exogenous explanations sufficient? Not really, as interventions do not unfold in a vacuum. Such interventions have political consequences – local winners elbow out their competitors; accomplices and spoilers emerge. In short, national dynamics are short-circuited when outside forces intervene and can have unforeseen regional ripple effects.
First, the trajectory of local conflicts can become more unpredictable, owing to counter-productive foreign military assistance, debilitating sanctions or political alliances. The implication for domestic politics in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Libya was that bargains were struck with local political contenders or rebel factions, with compromises and concessions made behind closed doors in the absence of democratic accountability.
Thus, what began as reform-minded local protests against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad morphed into a multi-sided war with the intervention of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the US, each bolstering state forces or their opponents only to draw out the war beyond the point where one side was likely to run out of steam, surrender or admit defeat.
Second, decades of foreign intervention have granted leeway to Middle East autocrats to rule not by virtue of democratic credentials, but by their connection with foreign powers. A perceived special relationship with Washington or Moscow, for example, confers legitimacy and status upon client states (and non-state actors), even as their own people have risen up to challenge their unchecked power. Indeed, this might be the reason why the Middle East is the locus of choice today for foreign powers to act out their proxy conflicts. Quite simply, there are willing Middle East clients – whether autocrat rulers or opposition activists – for almost any foreign power willing to confer legitimacy.
Of course, the perverse legacies of foreign intervention are not enough to absolve the region’s leaders of responsibility for today’s problems. But ignoring the West’s role in the origin and evolution of violence in the region does not help either. A failure to rationalize this gives rise to a contradiction: while parts of the region are awash with anti-American sentiment, the pullback of US troops from the Middle East is blamed for rising insecurity.
Over 30 people were killed in a double suicide bombing carried out by ISIS in central Baghdad on January 22. A young woman living in Baghdad told me, “The irony is that America will recover from the Capitol violence quickly. It has the tools and power to wrap its wounds. We’re the ones here re-living this nightmare.” Clearly, the Middle East is no parallel to the US. The confluence of enduring foreign entanglements and challenges to democratization at home continues to place peoples of the region in harm’s way.
Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.