Wednesday, October 1, 2014
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The Middle East’s Three Timelines

BERLIN – Three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East: the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics; the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts, which is measured in decades; and the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation, or what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Understanding each is essential to craft an effective strategy in the region.

The first timeline certainly receives the most attention. The media report relentlessly on the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; ongoing opposition activity and political repression in Egypt and Bahrain; and the slaughter and humanitarian tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq.

But political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline. Indeed, it is impossible to grasp the region’s contemporary history and politics without understanding the emergence of the regional state system after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

For example, there are the constant reminders that external powers – most notably, the United Kingdom and France – established the existing borders. Resistance against the so-called Sykes-Picot order nurtured the founding myths of many states and political movements in the region.

That order has remained largely intact for almost a century, enabling the emergence of separate, though not necessarily exclusive, political identities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and, to varying degrees, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. It has dictated the political parameters for 4-5 generations in the Arab world, including today’s main protagonists, who have battled over it, adapted to it, and attempted to manipulate it.

But the system may finally be unraveling. The border between Iraq and Syria is evaporating, as the Sunni militants of the Islamic State capture a widening swath of territory. And the rise of Kurdish military forces against them raises the possibility that a full-fledged Kurdish state will eventually emerge.

Meanwhile, the tenuous status quo in Israel and Palestine is crumbling. With a two-state solution less likely than ever, the area is likely to experience the creeping consolidation of a one-state reality.

In the Persian Gulf, ongoing international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are but the latest chapter in a struggle over strategic hegemony, security, and economic interests. And, though the world’s appetite for energy resources from the Gulf will not diminish anytime soon, the structure of influence may be set to change again.

When it comes to external power brokers, the United States plays the largest role, having replaced Great Britain by the 1970s. It now must learn to cope with the growing influence of India and China, as well.

But it is the leading regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – that have the greatest potential to transform the Middle East. The question is whether they will continue their competition for regional dominance, regardless of its destabilizing impact, or become pillars of a new regional security structure.

Such a structure has become all the more important as the major external powers’ appetite for sustained involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts wanes. Having learned the hard way that they cannot dictate regional political outcomes, Western powers – as well as Russia, China, and India – will likely limit their involvement to protecting their direct interests and, if necessary, containing regional threats.

Wherever the political and socioeconomic conditions of the short- and medium-term timelines fail to provide order and stability, the confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities that emerged over the longue durée gain prominence. The extent to which identities are invented matters little, as long as their invocation helps to appropriate elements of history and harness them to current political goals.

Episodes from this timeline thus become as relevant as recent events. The conflict over the succession of religious leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago is the origin of the split between Sunni and Shia Islam. The battles between the Fatimids and the Abbasids, the Crusades, the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman conquest, and, of course, Western imperialism all serve as points of reference for today’s struggles.

But these events provide more than explanation; they often provoke powerful responses. Consider the Islamic State’s recent declaration of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. Most Sunnis are outraged by the brutal behavior of the Islamic State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and consider his claim that he will eventually “conquer Rome” ridiculous.

Nonetheless, the symbols and “memories” from the longue durée that Baghdadi uses – such as the black flag of the Abbasids and the glorious stories of a time when the caliphate constituted a great power and a lodestar for all Sunnis – have an enduring impact. Of course, these ideas would amount to little were they not backed by modern weaponry, and had the countries whose territory the Islamic State is seizing not failed to create inclusive social contracts. But they imbue the Islamic State’s project with a powerful historical narrative that cannot be dismissed.

Navigating this narrative can be tricky for external actors. They must neither ignore the longue durée nor believe misleading claims that the struggle is really over the legitimacy of opposing interpretations of the faith.

More generally, these actors’ actions in the region must never be shaped by the delusion that the Sunnis, Shia, or any other ethnic or religious minority is on their side. One lesson common to all of the Middle Eastern timelines is that all local actors are on their own side – and more than willing to draw foreigners into their wars if doing so fortifies them against their enemies.

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  1. CommentedJephtah Lorch

    Western thinking tends to be logic attempting to serve western thinking, not Islamic-Arab thinking. When al-Baghdadi says he will "conquer Rome" he doesn't say how. Europe has a huge Arab and Moslem population, indoctrinated in mosques to hate the infidels (including western educated moslems), they 'hit the streets' and ruthlessly fight western police forces, plant bombs while living off EU social security, refuse to assimilate and will turn their backs on their EU hosts the moment weakness is seen. The threat is deep within EU, as Kdahfi said: "our weapon is the moslem woman's womb".
    The root cause of todays Islami extremism is the Quran, it call to spread Islam and the wish to reestablish Mohammad's Khalifate, a wish shared by Iran, Erdogan, Hizbollah, Boko-Haram, Hamas, IS, and others. They massacre each other , why should they have mercy on Christians, Kurds, Druze or Jews for that matter. Dictatorships like Qatar, to weak to defend themselves, buy time by financing part of this malice. This reality can not and should not be dealt with using typical western thinking.

    A note to the previous commenter on Israel-Palestine: There never was a Palestinian people until 1967. If there were they could have had a state till 1967 under resolution 181 calling for the establishment of an ARAB state to fulfill Arab Nationalist movement whose successors, including Hamas call for the destruction of Israel. The writers assumption is that Hamas (who also massacred Fathah people) will suddenly become western civilized, and their Multi Billion "leaders" will give up their fortunes for the wellbeing of their plebeians.

      CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with you that conventional Western thinking will not offer any solution.
      And it is partly because it is "Western thinking, diplomacy", ambitions and interference that has contributed to the present situation basically since the Crusades.

      We could even say that gradually what takes shape is a global showdown in between radical, fundamental Islam and the Western way of life, value system, with all of the fundamental hatred, distrust, direct opposition involved.

      If we look at this picture we could see, with all due respect to the victims, and sufferers of the conflict, that the "over publicized" Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only a "sideshow" in a much greater war.

      And just as there is no direct resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian question without the whole region being settled, there is no Middle Eastern solution without the whole global world being "harmonized" since we all exist in a globally interconnected and inter-dependent system.

      So how can we find any solution when on one hand we cannot escape from each other, but are locked into the same network, and on the other hand we have unsolvable differences, ingrained, "primordial" hatred against each other?

      Only by a practical method that can teach us how to find common, mutual points, purposes we can use to build on above and despite the opposition and hatred. By grabbing those mutual, overlapping interests, goals, focusing on them mutually complementing each other instead of focusing on what is separating us.

      And here Israel, Jews, provided they can achieve an unconditional unity, mutual solidarity among them even without external pressure, can provide invaluable advice, help, since through thousands of years this is the method that kept them surviving against all odds.
      Unity, mutual connection "above reason", "love covering hate".

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Volker Perthes says "three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East". Yet the three are interlinked. We tend to get caught up in "the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics", that we sometimes can't see the forest for the trees - "the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts" and "the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation".
    Mr. Perthes insists "political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline". True, the current "state system" is a result of the Ottoman Empire's demise in 1922. The Sykes-Picot Agreement allowed Britain and France to carve up the region among themselves. Their rule-and-divide policies met strong resistance and they left the region after artificial states, whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn disregarding ethnic-sectarian fault-lines, gained independence. Their history had ever since been written in blood, with dictators coming to power, only to find themselves toppled in military coups. The Arab Spring saw the ouster of several long-time dictators. Elections had been held and the democratisation process has turned out to be tortuous. After the outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, many think that national reconciliation is illusionary. The Kurds had broken away from central governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Syrians and Egyptians are willing to trade democracy for stability and security.
    Mr. Perthes says "confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities" would determine the "long-term timeline" of the region. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq rose to prominence last year, after breaking away from Al Qaeda and formed his own group - ISIS. Following his "invocation" in June, he named himself the new Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State . He wants to emulate the Prophet Muhammad's youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566–653 CE), who founded the Abbasid Caliphate.
    The Abbasid Caliphs, dynastic rulers from the mid eighth to the tenth century led an Islamic empire that stretched from Tunisia through Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Persia to Uzbekistan and the borders of India. Yet the Abbasid Caliphs were tolerant and presided over a multicultural empire where conversion was no big deal. The Abbasids developed sophisticated systems of government, administration and court etiquette. Their era saw the blossoming of Arabic philosophy, mathematics and Persian literature. The Abbasids were responsible for patronising the translation of Classical Greek texts and transmitting them back to a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages. It was a Golden Age of Islamic civilisation and "the caliphate constituted a great power and a lodestar for all Sunnis". But Caliph Ibrahim is just another Joseph Stalin and his caliphate a modern day totalitarian state under the banner of the Abassids' black flag. Due to the cruelty of his jihadists his caliphate has been condemned worldwide. It's just a matter of time before it collapses. The rise of ISIS has served as a wakeup call for leaders in the region to stop its expansion. So its "long-term timeline" might soon be cut short.


  3. Commentedhari naidu

    “…the rise of Kurdish military forces against them [ISIS] raises the possibility that a full-fledged Kurdish state will eventually emerge….Wherever the political and socioeconomic conditions of the short- and medium-term timelines fail to provide order and stability, the confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities that emerged over the longue durée gain prominence…”.

    Finally a dispassionate and intellectually coherent perspective and analysis on a difficult issue. In the longue duree Kurdistan will emerge, as a sovereign state, and fortify its historical home which (today) stretches from Eastern Syria to Turkey. And it’s to the credit of Erdogan (Turkey) that PKK has finally been recognized by Turkey, as a political entity. Contrary to wishful thinking in Berlin – re:Erdogan’s new Turkey – and the fact that Berlin has - all of a sudden - decided to supply direct military aid to Kurdish military forces - implies that regional threat of ISIS is now considered more serious than al Qaeda terror.

    Kurdish tribe – like Palestinian Arabs – have always been deprived of a home of their own. Therefore current developments make it feasible that a Kurdistan State will finally emerge as a sovereign entity.

    Israel, on the other hand, will now have to cope with a UN Resolution drafted by UK-French-German Government’s which besides other things demands lifting of its Gaza blockade and opening up of Rafha under UN/EU aegis.



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