The Middle East: Gone as we know it

The tumultuous 2014 has brought major changes to the Middle East.

The most radical reaction to the turmoil in the region was the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, writes Salama [Reuters]
The most radical reaction to the turmoil in the region was the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, writes Salama [Reuters]

The Middle East has drastically changed in the past few years and 2014 alone has etched these changes even deeper into the fabric of the region. The effects of the Arab uprisings linger on as toppled dictators and crumbling civil-military regimes leave behind an expansive political void.

Borders are blurred, non-state actors are on the rise, and regional powers are changing and shifting their tactics. As we look back at 2014, the Middle East seems inevitably and irreversibly changed.

The Islamic State

The most radical reaction to the turmoil in the region was the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL). For years the world stood silent as Shia death squads massacred Sunnis in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed over a hundred thousand in Syria. Little was said or done when Sunnis were tortured and humiliated in Abu Ghraib.

It should not come as a surprise that a decade of severe violence bore more violence in 2014. ISIL has proposed radically different solutions – brutal, destructive and outside the scope of the global political order, morals and norms. It is perhaps ISIL’s unforgiving, violent nature that appeals to disenchanted Muslim youth who, having lived through the trauma of violence, see no other opportunity to change their reality.

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ISIL has redrawn the map of the Middle East carving out huge chunks of Syria and Iraq and threatening other neighbouring states. Syria and Iraq will simply never be, even remotely, the same. These changes should not be solely attributed to the advent of ISIL; they are rooted in circumstances that came about prior to the Arab Spring and are more related to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

ISIL’s conquest of large swathes of territory has also accelerated and empowered Kurdish secessionism. Iraqi Kurdistan has, more than ever, started acting as a separate state within Iraq. It is unlikely that in the future the Kurds would willingly step back from their independence gains for the sake of Iraq’s unity.

Despite rearmament of the Iraqi army, coordinated offensives by Kurdish forces, and US-led air strikes, the militant group is not going to retreat or disappear. ISIL’s continuous destructive presence solidifies changes to the political map of the Middle East and makes it almost impossible for Iraq and Syria to reclaim their borders.

Decay of the nation state

The past year has accelerated the decline of the modern nation state in the Middle East. Decline in legitimacy still persists where states were formed on an illegitimate basis and were artificially imposed on the masses. Outdated methods of governance are no longer viable in the light of the expectations and popular aspirations which the Arab Spring ushered in. The lack of legitimacy is making it difficult for political regimes to govern their own people. 

Many states in the Middle East are still failing miserably to properly manage their economies and improve the standards of living for their citizens. In 2014 the trend of deteriorating social and economic conditions continued. While in the past, the nation state had a comparatively smaller population to provide for with stronger social cohesiveness and social security networks, today they face a divided, impoverished and demanding population which is proving more difficult to control.

Another threat to the nation state is the fact that the ideological draw of the very idea of a unified nation has eroded. Today Middle Eastern states are in danger of fragmentation and disintegration in the face of growing ethnic and religious divides. The nation as a primary identity has given in to ethnic, tribal and religious loyalties, as people seek security and protection from sub-nation groups. This is increasingly the case in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Egypt.

Regional power politics

A major shift in Middle East politics can be seen among its regional powers, namely with the emerging new leverage of Iran and changes in Turkey’s policies.

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Iran has not only managed to enter into a dialogue and negotiations over its nuclear issue with the West, but has also become closer to Western powers. Iran and the West have engaged in more symbolic gestures of mutual acceptance and improving relations, going as far as the US secretary of state and Iranian minister of foreign affairs having an official meeting.

Iran has managed to utilise its improving relations with the West and translate this development to its advantage in the region, with hardly any resistance.

Iran has de facto influence on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and lately Yemen. One cannot ignore Iranian MP Ali Zakani’s comments: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution”; he added that Sanaa has become the fourth. Furthermore, Iran has initiated rapprochement with Hamas after the fallout in 2011 over Syria.

Turkey has also positioned itself within the region very differently from previous years. Turkey is seeking to revive itself in a fashion more in line with its historical roots, lifting the hijab ban in educational institutions, seeking to revive the Ottoman language, and emphasising religious symbolism in domestic and international politics.

In 2014 Turkey continued to distance itself from Israel, and unwaveringly criticised it, while being supportive of the Palestinian cause. It has continued to be a strong supporter of the Arab Spring, which has antagonised some of its Arab neighbours. Although Ankara was traditionally close to the Assad regime, today it has become one of its enemies, supporting the Syrian opposition. Most importantly, Turkey has gone from being a staunch advocate of secularism to a country which Islamists in the region look up to and seek help from.

Looking back at 2014, it is increasingly clear that the changes that started with the Arab uprisings four years ago have persisted and produced lasting changes in the region. With collapsing nation states, the increasingly more powerful ISIL, blurred national borders, and transforming regional powers, the Middle East is simply gone as we know it.

Mustafa Salama is a political analyst, consultant and writer. He has extensive experience and an academic background in Middle East Affairs.

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