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 The middle east’s thirty years’ war?


The modern Middle East – understood here as the region between Egypt in the west, Iran in the east and Turkey in the north – is still largely the result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire fol¬lowing World War I and the resulting order predefined by the Sykes-Picot ac¬cord of 1916. In it, the colonial powers France and the UK reneged on earlier promises and decided to separate the region into spheres of influence. As a result, more often than not, they set borders and boundaries arbitrarily. In¬deed, the very concept of Arab states in a modern sense developed in large part only after 1916 and against a colonial background. The geographical center of the Middle East – encompassing the Levant, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – consists of states whose very existence, let alone the demarcation of their boundaries, is thus a relatively young phenomenon. To subsequent generations of Middle Eastern leaders the colonial and often artificial nature of these borders was obvious, and ef¬forts to render these borders obsolete are as old as these states themselves.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Pan- Arabism was a powerful force, propa¬gating the unity of the Arab people while incorporating nominally social¬ist elements of ideology. However, Arab unity never passed the test of re¬ality. Hence, as young as they are, the borders between the Arab states have been the cornerstone of the regional order for nearly a century. While they have certainly not prevented conflicts and wars, they nevertheless contained them and mostly chan¬neled them into state-controlled limi¬tations. Fixed and recognized borders are a necessary condition for existing peace agreements in the region, and will have to serve as the foundations for those treaties for which there is yet some hope. Challenging current borders in the geographical center of the Middle East therefore means chal¬lenging an order that has proven to be no principal impediment to peace and a suitable basis for regional stability.
As of the beginning of 2015, the trend for external actors involved in financ¬ing non-state actors to protect their own interests continues. The US, af¬ter having delivered humanitarian as¬sistance, training, and ‘non-lethal’ aid to some Syrian groups since at least 2013, is planning to equip and train up to 5000 ‘moderate’ Syrian fight¬ers to oppose the IS (and, possibly, the Syrian regime). In January 2015, reports suggested that Jordan, even before the killing of its pilot who had been captured by the IS, would start to finance militias in both Syria and Iraq to keep the IS from its borders and create a de-facto buffer zone.
The flow of fighters through the re¬gion, a veritable back-and-forth of state and non-state forces, however, is eclipsed by the flow of refugees dis¬placed by the war. Every neighbor of Syria is heavily affected by the war, if only through the arrival of Syrians fleeing the conflict. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by January 2015, 3,73 million Syrians had fled their country – out of a pre-war pop¬ulation of 22 million. Most refugees flee to Turkey (ca. 1,6 million), Leba¬non (1,16 million), Jordan (622,000), Iraq (235,000), and Egypt (136,000). These numbers do not include those that travel further to European des¬tinations, and they are expected to increase by another million to a total of nearly 4,3 million refugees in the course of 2015. In Iraq, the UNHCR in January 2015 estimated that 1,5 million residents were Internally Dis¬placed Persons (IDPs) after more than twelve years of more or less continu¬ous conflict.
The Thirty Years’ War was a religious war – or rather, it cannot be under¬stood without taking into account the impact of religious reformation, in itself an immensely political process. Major powers involved in the war, like Catholic France or Protestant Sweden, saw themselves more often than not as driven by religious imper¬atives, or even as vanguards in divine plans. Even where religious motives were not decisive, they were always at play. At the same time, however, the war saw one of the earliest and clear¬est manifestation of decidedly non-religious policies oriented towards a raison d’état: Most prominently, Cath¬olic France under Cardinal de Rich¬elieu, or Protestant sovereigns opting for alliances with the self-proclaimed vanguard of counter-reformation in Vienna. The war could not have start¬ed without religious fault lines, and it could not have lasted as long as it did without manifestly conflicting inter¬ests of states and sovereigns in a vola¬tile environment, leading to alliances that were thought unlikely under pre-war constellations. It was this dualism of religious fervor and coolly calculat¬ing ‘state’ policies that contributed to the carnage of the war.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, has contin¬ued its tradition of directing radical Islamist energies towards the outside lest it be endangered from within. It is determined to block Iranian moves towards hegemony and to prop up Sunni regimes and groups throughout the region. At the same time, Riyadh finds itself in the precarious situation of being in the midst of an immense¬ly delicate succession after the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, coupled with an increasing threat of IS forces operating at its borders.
Even though Riyadh seems to be on the strategic defensive following Iran’s push throughout the region, it might at some point decide that its interests are best served with a settlement on the basis of the territorial status quo – at least in the short term.
Egypt, plagued by internal strife since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and facing its own increas¬ingly violent insurgency on the Sinai peninsula, has been the only major Arab power content with remaining largely aloof from the Syrian conflict.
This might even enable it to act as a mediator in any settlement – provided that groups and states allied with the Muslim Brotherhood do not profit. Taken together, both Turkey and Egypt would, in all probability, be prepared to sponsor a settlement based on a balancing of regional interests.
Looking beyond these four central states, both Jordan and Lebanon suf¬fer from similar problems, though with varying intensity. Both are heav¬ily affected by the war; yet, as minor powers, they are in no position to influence the war decisively, focus¬ing instead on containing the pos¬sibly disastrous effects of an open spill over to their territory. Lebanon is on the verge of a renewed civil war, with Hizbollah and Sunni factions that are fighting each other in Syria barely keeping a fragile calm within Lebanon’s borders based on the tacit agreement of all major Lebanese par¬ties that a further spillover has to be avoided at all costs, making the state in the Levant a tense backwater of the war where fighters from both sides rest to recuperate. Jordan, mean¬while, is focused on securing its long border with ‘Syraq’, wary of its own population: though it may not be susceptible to the lures of the IS, its determination to fight for the monar¬chy against both internal and external enemies is far from clear. Considering the reported support for armed tribes in ‘Syraq’ close to its borders and the cruel execution of the captured Jorda¬nian pilot by the IS in February 2015, it seems doubtful, however, whether Amman can resist being drawn deeper into the conflict.
Taken together, all neighbours of ‘Sy¬raq’ see vital interests affected, and all would have to bear the fallout of a disintegration of the current order. They are competitors, and may even be enemies, within the framework of the current order, yet they share the same interest of preserving this order and preventing the conflict that looms after a breakdown of the current bal¬ance. The question of whether secu¬lar, coldly calculated raison d’état can prevail over sectarian loyalties in those states will determine whether a com¬prehensive settlement on the basis of the status quo ante is possible at all.
After 30 years of bloodshed and im¬mense destruction, the Peace of West¬phalia ended the war in 1648 in what could be termed a ‘great compromise’. The peace was at its core a positive af¬firmation of the old order. It cemented shifts in power, but no revolutionary outcomes. Plus, in a striking acknowl¬edgement of its international dimen¬sion, both France and Sweden were formal parties to the new constitution, and thereby de-facto guarantors of it. Finally, the peace settled the religious feud on the basis of a simple insight that lay at the basis of every compro¬mise since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555: That, at least for the time being, no sect could possibly prevail.