Temperance in the Arab Spring – averting catastrophe through great power politics

The world’s most politically volatile region, the Middle East, has been stabilised through the collective common sense of three Great Powers – the United States, Great Britain and Russia – applying regressive yet pragmatic foreign policy.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish 

According to the ‘Great Men’ theory of history advanced by Thomas Carlyle, global events are shaped in significant part by the decisions and personalities of individual leaders. If this account has even marginal merit, then we might survey with optimism the personalities of the most powerful global leaders who preside over the current turbulent times in the Middle East. They have exhibited remarkable restraint and wisdom, in the face of compelling pressures to fuel further insoluble violent conflicts.

The Middle East remains the world’s most unstable area. Not one calendar year has passed without armed conflict somewhere in the region since at least 1928. The reasons for this are complex, but religious enmity must be a dominant explanatory factor. The origins of the world’s three principal monotheistic religions (and both mutually hostile principal branches of Islam) have yielded perennial confrontation over centuries. While coexistence per se has not always been insuperable, religious differences have given rise to political competition that majoritarian political mechanisms have struggled to contain. If democracy entails the imposition of a larger group’s religious values upon a smaller one, violent separatism might be a near-inevitable corollary. This may explain why democracy has been a traditionally stunted enterprise in the Middle East. If religious division so infects the political currency of a society that one group seeks to impose their fundamental moral values upon others, majoritarian rule is an impossibility. The only way of imposing secular principles of tolerance for the values of others, which multiculturalism always to a degree requires, is through autocracy. No government may be afforded an unrestricted licence to impose values upon those who do not wish to abide by them, lest carnage erupts; an element of compulsion is needed to restrain the tyranny of the majority. The Middle East’s first modern state, Turkey, was premised upon the authoritarian secularism of Kemal Ataturk.

Nevertheless secular autocracy is a difficult proposition to maintain in a deeply religious region. People do not like it. They want religious principles to pervade the body politic, because they believe that religious obligations are of so fundamental a nature that society should be ordered in accordance with them. The strength of their commitment to religious principles is such that they believe others should be forced to comply even if they do not wish to do so. Faced with an autocratic society that does not compel allegiance to their values, people become upset or even incensed. Even secular autocracy is divisive. It persists by installing and maintaining a self-identifying minority in power to the exclusion of others. The principles by which the autocrats select one-another are seldom meritocratic; instead they are sectarian. The 1960s ideals of Ba’athism (“renaissance” in Arabic) – pan Arab secular socialist unity divorced from any particular religious affiliation – were unsustainable. In each of the two countries in which Ba’athism was attempted, Syria and Iraq, a minority religious group created an ethnic autocracy. In Egypt and Libya the autocrats were the military classes. In the Gulf, for the most part the ordering principles of autocracy were family and monarchy. In Iran it was monarchy until the 1979 revolution; afterwards, theocracy. The pattern has repeated itself across the region.

Any autocracy requires at the least a degree of social repression. Political freedoms have been very limited throughout the Middle East. The perennial threat of a religious majority seeking to overturn enforced secularism requires that political mobilisation be thwarted. Technological developments have made it ever harder to suppress political activity, because the internet and social media make coordinated communication ever easier and more pervasive. The level of political repression required to sustain secular autocracy may be inversely correlated with the economic situation of the country. The wealthier a nation is, the more its citizens may be prepared to accept enforced political tolerance of different groups’ fundamental religious values as an incidental cost of wealth and social harmony.

Where people suffer reductions in their standards of living, they may seek solace in their religion as a metaphysical escape from the punishments inflicted by reality. Viewed through this lens, the Arab Spring may be seen as the outcome of two principal determinants: the mass dispersal of communications technology in the early twenty-first century, and a striking downturn in economic fortunes in the region following the global financial crisis that commenced in 2008. The Arab Spring significantly affected only the poorer countries of the region. The wealthier states, particularly those in the Gulf, and nations such as in the western Maghreb where economies did not significantly dip, rode through upon a commodities boom. Moreover the phenomenon did not successfully infect Iran because that regime, while oligarchical, is not secular. It is fundamentalist, and therefore it can still draw upon the support of a significant part of the country’s profoundly pious population even amidst economic turmoil.

For the modernist, the Middle East therefore encapsulates a formidable political dilemma. Given the profundity of popular religious commitment, the only way of preventing ethno-religious conflict is minority imposition of secular tolerance. Yet government of this kind is inevitably repressive, and foments periodic majoritarian rebellion. Either these rebellions are successful, in which case ethno-religious conflict will return, as it has in Libya and Tunisia. Or they are not, in which case state repression must be ferocious, as has been seen in Syria and Egypt. Neither scenario is attractive. Either way, the western aspiration for democratic revolution in the Middle East appears chimerical. Democracy cannot thrive because there is a culture of popular religious intolerance towards the beliefs of others. Any process of change in favour of democratic ideals would be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The Arab Spring is the wrong sort of movement to achieve this. An evolution in ideas is needed, more likely to be driven by academics in universities than mobs in the street. The political dynamic of the Arab Spring is predominantly negative.

The quandary this presents to the international policy-maker is acute. There is a preferred solution to the dilemma only for an international leader, such as former US President George W. Bush, with sympathy for religious fundamentalism. For others, there is merely a balance of power to be upset. In Egypt between 2011 and 2013, the policy choice was between supporting a minority secular military government and a popular Islamist polity dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, the choice has been between supporting a patchwork of militant Sunni groups, and supporting an autocratic but secular minority regime. In Iraq, the US government intervened to overthrow a minority Sunni secular regime in favour of a democratic system that, in time, gave rise to majority Shia rule. In Bahrain the choice was between supporting a secular Sunni monarchy and a majority Shia populace allied with neighbouring Iran. None of these choices are palatable. However one thing is relatively certain: any change of government is likely to be associated with significant social disruption, political violence or even civil war. The opposite ends of this scale have been illustrated by Tunisia and Syria, but it would have been difficult to predict in advance which position upon the spectrum each country would have occupied.

The international policy choice is binary. The options are either reactionary – as with the United States towards Egypt, or Russia towards Syria – or progressive – as with the United States in Iraq or the British and French towards Libya. In making this choice, a purely utilitarian calculus – counting the number of bodies resulting from pursuing each policy option – proves hard to apply. The number of Iraqi fatalities in the ten years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein was surely far higher than the number in the ten years preceding. This might be perceived as a compelling argument in favour of reaction rather than progression. The Iraq Body-Count survey suggests that the number of civilian deaths resulting from military action since the US-led invasion in 2003 is in the region of 120,000; military casualties may increase the total casualty figure to approximately 160,000. However inhumane the Saddam Hussein regime may have been, it was not murdering 16,000 people a year. Surely it would have been better to leave his secular if oppressive government in place, so the argument might go, than unleash the ethnic warfare that followed majoritarian Shia rule.

The contrary argument is that Iraq is now in a more politically mature and stable state for optimistic future progress. But this supposition is fraught with uncertainties. Should the country remain perennially unstable, or even fragment still further into ethnically divided mini-states, that narrative would appear unattractive. The focus of continued bloodshed in the country is a number of ethnically divided cities, in particular Baghdad and Mosul. Political violence remains an endemic problem. Ten years have not achieved much progress towards a political model of peaceful inter-ethnic compromise in contemporary Iraq. The most politically stable part of the country, Kurdistan, has achieved success through rigid ethnic partition and radical autonomy from central government. Iraq appears empirical testament to the hypothesis that majoritarian domination yields insoluble inter-ethnic violence on a massive scale.

The relative virtues of the Syrian civil war are more difficult to divine. The war has been more intensively bloody than the conflict in Iraq. Some 120,000 people have died in a mere two years, and in a country with a slightly smaller population (Syria has 21m people compared to Iraq’s 33m). This human price is not the cost of a successful transition from secular autocracy to ethnic democracy; rather it is the cost of an attempted transition. The outcome of the Syrian Civil War is still not obvious, but at the time of writing an unalloyed victory for the Sunni rebels over the Alawi central government seems unlikely. As external material support for the Sunni rebels appears to fade, the more likely outcomes appear either to be outright government victory or long-term de facto partition. The cost of attempting regime change in Syria has been higher in lives and less effective.

Comparison of the Syrian and Iraqi examples indicates that a reactionary policy might, all other things being equal, be preferable as a general rule. Given the repressive tools of state available for deployment by secular autocracies, maybe it is better not to intervene at all. Any progressive intervention, no matter how noble the aim or admirable the principles upon which it is premised, as a practical matter will require military support sufficient to overcome the ingrained domestic security apparatus. This is likely to result in massive violence, save in the occasional circumstances in which the security apparatus themselves have a vested interest in change taking place. Egypt and Tunisia were examples of this. Their initial revolutions were relatively peaceable because in each case the security forces supported removal of an ailing dictator with an unclear or undesirable line of succession.

But the transition from autocracy to democracy seldom proceeds so happily, because by definition transition to democracy entails disruption of powerful domestic interests. Under autocratic government, those vested interests are prepared to use force to protect themselves. Hence force is virtually inevitable to change the status quo. Progressive policy entails violence. Knowingly causing large numbers of deaths is difficult to justify in the name of aspirations for a society organised in the name of finer ideals. Hayek famously identified calculi of so insensitive a nature – that people suffer in the name of ideology – as “the fatal conceit”. He was referring to socialism, which he thought beggared a nation’s citizens in pursuit of Marxist ideology principles of social organisation. An equivalent conceit might be intervention to impose progressive democratic ideals upon people for whom majoritarian government is inconsistent with their sense of religious commitment. That type of conceit might be all the more fatal, given the immediate and extensive bloodshed that results.

The conclusion of this discussion is surely that intervention in others’ civil wars is, as a general matter, to be undertaken with the utmost caution even if motivated by the noblest of goals. In the age of instantaneous media, the depiction of the suffering and cruelties of civil wars to the public across the globe may generate political pressure for immediate action. But that action may be precipitate and ill thought through. Progressive foreign policy intervention, although superficially morally attractive, may defy the dictates of Realpolitik. Hence America’s ill-fated intervention in the Somalian and Bosnian civil wars in the 1990s left both countries without effective central governments for over twenty years. Qatari and Saudi funding of rebel groups in the Syrian civil war has failed to topple the al-Assad government (the Syrian President’s Russian and Iranian backers, collectively more powerful and more committed, would never suffer such an outcome) but has exacerbated the death toll exponentially.

Yet the purview of contemporary Great Power foreign policy in the Middle East is not entirely bleak. Leaders in the United States, London and Moscow have managed to defuse the risk of regional conflagration in the region that the prospect of military strikes upon Syria, catalysed in August 2013 by use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, threatened to ignite. It is not hard to imagine what would have happened had the US government bombed Syrian government positions. Hezbollah would have retaliated against Lebanese Sunnis. Saudi and Qatari support might have spread to Sunni groups in Lebanon. Iran’s support for Hezbollah might have triggered Israeli strikes on Iran, attempting to force America’s hand in bombing Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Iraq’s smouldering civil war might have been reignited, its Shia-majority government being compelled to support Iran and Syria. In August of this year the beating of the drum for military action was relentless; yet the consequences military intervention might have engendered would have been catastrophic.

The reactions of the Great Power leaders with an interest in the dispute was, with retrospect, diplomacy at its best. British Prime Minister David Cameron was the first to play his hand. He decided that parliamentary approval would be required to authorise military action: a constitutional principle he pulled out of thin air. Hence he called a parliamentary vote then made no effort to win it. At the time he was condemned as weak, unable to take Parliament with him; but British Prime Ministers know that elections are not won and lost on foreign policy so in fact he lost nothing. Thus he lost little. This manouevre gave the US President the opportunity to play exactly the same card: Congress would have to authorise American military action. Congress is currently so irreconcilably divided that US legislators looked upon the prospect of such a vote with horror. Hence they reluctantly supported the last-minute Russian diplomatic initiative to rid Syria of its chemical stockpiles through a UN inspection process. British and American public outrage was defused through appeal to democratic process; catastrophic regional war was averted; a message was delivered to all sides in the Syrian civil war that use of chemical weapons could not be tolerated by the international community; and a measure of sense and level-headedness was restored. An opportunity subsequently emerged for diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear proliferation crisis that would have been unthinkable had America bombed Syria.

The policy now followed by the Great Powers in Syria is reactionary, not progressive. The Americans will press the Saudis and Qataris to stop funding the rebels. The Turks will do the same, as the deterioration in the security situation on the Syria-Turkey border has become a significant difficulty for them notwithstanding their distaste for the Alawi regime in Damascus. Ultimately al-Assad will either prevail in the Syrian civil war; or, all sides starved of funds, a reluctant coalition will be created between the al-Assad loyalists and a group of moderate Sunnis prepared to work under them. Syria may end up like Zimbabwe, an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement: far from perfection, but immeasurably better than either the continuing and relentless loss of life or the dismemberment that has infected Iraq. In 1916 the British and French colonial powers devised the Sykes-Picot compromise for the Levant, creating Sunni-Shia power-sharing arrangements out of former divided Ottoman provinces. In the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, this vision was almost completely denuded of its stabilising effect. In 2013 it has to an extent been restored.

Thomas Carlyle observed that “the history of the world is but the history of great men”. The world’s most politically volatile region has been stabilised through the collective common sense of three Great Powers applying regressive yet pragmatic foreign policy. That this outcome was even conceivable in the face of international public pressure to the contrary is due in no small part to the extraordinary personal qualities and pragmatism of three men: Barack Obama, David Cameron and Vladimir Putin. If the Great Men theory of history has currency, then these are the Great Men of our time.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland, a partner in a major international law firm and a lecturer at the University of Geneva. He works extensively in the fields of international relations and foreign affairs, and has written several books and dozens of articles. Dr Parish frequently speaks at conferences across the world. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and named by Bilan magazine as one of the 300 most influential people in Switzerland. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily those of any organisation with which he is or has been associated. www.matthewparish.com

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