The End of Hope in the Middle East

Foreign Policy, 05.09.2020
Steven A. Cook, académico especializado en el Medio Oriente (Council on Foreign Relations)
The region has always had problems—but it’s now almost past the point of recovery

Summer always seems to be the cruelest season in the Middle East. The examples include the June 1967 war, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in 1985, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Islamic State’s rampage through Iraq in 2014. The summer of 2020 has already joined that list. But the world should also be attuned to another possibility. Given how widespread bloodshed, despair, hunger, disease, and repression have become, a new—and far darker—chapter for the region is about to begin.

A little more than a decade ago, analysts imagined a region in which political systems were reliably authoritarian and stable. Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the narrative has shifted to one of instability but with an expectation of an imminent new wave of democratization and further economic and political progress.

Those hopes are now gone. The Middle East has long faced challenges—foreign intervention, authoritarian leaders, distorted and uneven economic development, extremism, wars, and civil conflict. But this year has added to the mix a global pandemic and a wrenching global recession, resulting in a scale of crisis that exceeds any other time in history.

The region has become a dystopia marked by violence, resurgent authoritarianism, economic dislocation, and regional conflict, with no clear way out. There were times in the not-so-distant past that developments in the Middle East rendered even the most optimistic despairing, but those were moments when crises seemed to come one at a time. When they abated, there always seemed the possibility that better days would come. Not anymore. For the first time, it is entirely reasonable to feel hopeless about the Middle East.

The litany of horrors is long. There is Yemen, the poorest country in the region, where a multisided civil-cum-proxy war has laid waste to hospitals and wedding halls and school buses packed with children amid an uncontrolled outbreak of cholera—the largest in epidemiologically recorded history—and now COVID-19, which the head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross stated would be “impossible to manage” in the country. Not unlike Yemen, Iraq is a country in terminal collapse with little hope of reversing its fortunes. That’s because Iraqi political institutions manage to generate corruption while inviting manipulation from neighboring Iran. Sometimes state failure is a more chronic condition, as with Egypt, and since coming to power in a popularly supported coup in 2013, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not only overseen a multiyear assault on society but initiated the bloodiest and most repressive period in contemporary Egyptian history. Then there are the Palestinians, who seem fated to live in a bizarre and macabre existence, locked into the Gaza Strip or living in the West Bank with the trappings of statehood and an elaborate facade of ministries, protocol, and bureaucracy.

But Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, and Palestinians are not the region’s only sufferers nor its most emblematic. The cases of Lebanon, Syria, and Libya deserve deeper consideration. In these places, the continuing grind of dystopia is most visibly on the verge of unprecedented collapse.

Lebanon, whose capital of Beirut is oft-cited as the “Paris of the Middle East,” has experienced one shattering blow after another. Last fall, the government tried to impose a 20-cent daily tax on WhatsApp communications. It was an odd move until it became clear just how desperate the government had become to raise revenue in the shell game that had become Lebanon’s finances. It worked so long as private banks attracted dollar deposits through the promise of high interest rates and then turned around and loaned the money to the government. In mid-2019, however, dollar deposits decreased, but a skittish Lebanese public began demanding more dollars. In order to maintain the illusion of currency stability—critical to attracting greenbacks—Lebanon’s central bankers maintained the lira’s exchange rate to the dollar at about 1,500 to 1. That’s when the black market took over, shattering the illusion of the lira’s stability, leading to a sharp depreciation in the Lebanese currency. This produced the worst of all possible worlds: runaway inflation, a government unwilling or unable to undertake reform, and mass protests against the WhatsApp tax that quickly transformed into demands for the end of the government. In March, Lebanon defaulted on its debt.

The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the misery of Lebanon’s financial crisis. Although the incidence rate and case fatality rate (roughly 1 percent) are low in comparison to other countries in the region, authorities have imposed lockdown measures that have had a multiplying effect on the economic well-being of the Lebanese. Now people who have been thrown out of work due to the health crisis are contending with the parallel effects of a precipitous slide in the value of the currency. The lira is worth 80 percent less than it was in the fall of 2019, rendering goods and services more expensive. The World Bank estimates that poverty will almost double in 2020, enveloping perhaps as much as 50 percent of the population. The Lebanese, like the Syrian and Palestinian refugees in their midst, are now experiencing food insecurity. Bartering has increased throughout the country as people desperately try to secure enough supplies to survive on a daily basis. People who lived through the civil war say the economic situation is much worse now than it was then.

Even if the International Monetary Fund had enough resources to help Lebanon, it is not clear who would have the authority to go to the fund or whether they would have any capacity to implement painful reforms. The state has collapsed and along with it the credibility and authority of Lebanon’s political groups and factions, including Hezbollah. The root cause of the parlous state of affairs is an old and recurring story. The country’s confessional political order that was intended to create a rough, but uneven, balance to ensure a modicum of stability was little more than a system of spoils for Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite leaders who plundered the country. Protesters rightly want to tear it all down, but in favor of what?

Vague generalities will not cut it in the contested space that Lebanon has become, where groups are armed, external actors have compelling interests, and the competition over who gets to control whatever is left of state resources is intense. Observers have often averred that it is unlikely that Lebanon would ever fall into the kind of violence that engulfed the country between 1975 and 1990. The historical memory was too great. Too much progress had been made putting the country back together. Warlordism was a thing of the past that had been tamed in the postwar political game. This is comforting on one level, but under present circumstances, Lebanon was a tinderbox for much of the summer. And then the explosion at Beirut’s port happened, throwing the country into further turmoil and leading—mercifully—to the resignation of the government.

Of course one can conjure any number of scenarios for Lebanon, but it would be naive to seriously entertain any of the positive ones. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Lebanese people have been the lone bright spot banding together to help each other and clean the streets of debris, but as time goes on and the collapse of the country means even more hardship, people will be left to themselves to find relative safety and succor. Where does anyone believe they will find it? Most likely where they have found it before: within their own faith and ethnic communities. Adding to this misery is Lebanon’s collapse in a regional context. There are any number of external and internal actors who might want to use the country’s tribulations to squeeze their enemies and rivals, Hezbollah included. Perhaps the Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, and others will exercise atypical restraint, but it seems unlikely given the incentives to pursue regional proxy fights in precisely those places where the state either does not or barely exists. The future is unknowable, but Lebanon’s general trajectory is almost assuredly profoundly and distressingly negative.

At least the Lebanese have not been forced to endure what their Syrian neighbors have experienced over the last almost decade. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become a machine of death and dispossession. Its onetime peaceful opponents who wanted the opportunity to build a better society gave way long ago to an array of militias, extremists, and outside powers waging war against Assad and each other for their own reasons—and always at the expense of Syrians. The near-total disregard for human life throughout the conflict has rendered the well-known statistics meaningless. Even so, they bear repeating even if they are unbearable: The conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 585,000 people, including tens of thousands of children. More than 12 million Syrians—a stunning 57 percent of Syria’s prewar population—have fled their homes. Among those who fled, 5.6 million now live as refugees in every condition imaginable with little chance of ever returning home.

Not long ago, the thinking in Western and Arab capitals was that Assad had prevailed, in no small measure because of Russia’s military intervention and diplomatic support, yet the war continues. In places that were once believed to be pacified, there are new protests and new regime violence. With Syria’s economy continuing to deteriorate with the collapse of Lebanon and in the absence of any possible reconstruction, Assad’s supporters have grown ornery as their expected economic rewards of victory have failed to materialize. The imposition of new U.S. sanctions through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act—which specifically targets members of Assad’s inner circle, regime supporters, and entities that do business with them—promises to accentuate the Syrian government’s economic problems and international isolation.

No doubt, there will be cheers throughout the world if the Assad regime falls, but they will be fleeting. Assad’s demise would likely lead not to an end of the struggle for Syria but to a new phase in the fight. The idea that the combatants would lay down their arms and negotiate a way forward after so much bloodshed is as unrealistic as the idea—often asserted in the early days of the Syrian uprising—that it was only a matter of time before Assad fell. Whatever comes to pass, those Syrians who remain in the country will continue to be caught in the middle, forced to exist in a shattered land fought over by people whose cruelty knows no bounds, with no end to the violence in sight.

Libya’s demise has received far less attention than Syria’s. In 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi fled Tripoli, some Western analysts thought Libyans were best positioned in the region to build a democratic and prosperous future because it was, as they said, a “clean slate.” Except that it wasn’t and the country quickly fragmented.

As Libya split along geographic and tribal lines, a dizzying array of militias and extremist groups stepped into the breach, and in time two different governments claimed a mandate to lead the country. The country tipped into full-scale civil war when Gen. KhalifaHaftar sought to overthrow his Tripoli-based rivals in the spring of 2019. In this effort, the former Qaddafi loyalist had the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia, all of which harbored a confluence of concerns that converged on Haftar and his Libyan National Army.

Haftar’s march on Tripoli has been beaten back only recently with help from Turkey and Turkish-aligned Syrian militia members. Ankara’s interests in Libya are a combination of Turkish domestic politics, principle, a bid for Islamist leadership, animus toward Egypt and the UAE, and geostrategic calculation. Like their adversaries, the Turks care little about the well-being of Libyans and have sought to extend the war despite Haftar’s string of defeats and sudden willingness for negotiations. Turkish bravado may be misplaced; Haftar is weakened but not defeated. If Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan overplays his hand, he and his allies in Tripoli may confront newly galvanized opponents in the eastern part of the country.

Thus all the questions in Washington and European capitals during early summer about the prospect for war between Turkey and Egypt. The Turks demonstrated significant military capacity in helping the internationally recognized government turn almost certain defeat into potential victory. But this has roused Egyptian ire. Since 2013, Turkey has led the effort to delegitimize and undermine Sisi’s regime. Ankara welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood to Turkey after the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi and brought Sisi to power. The two countries are on opposite sides of major conflicts in the region including in Syria, Gaza, and, of course, Libya. The Egyptians have never successfully projected military power beyond their border, but Libya is Egypt’s backyard. And with increased Turkish naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a maritime economic exclusion zone agreement with the Libyans, Egyptian security planners are no doubt alarmed. In the third week of June, Sisi declared Tripoli’s intention to retake Sirte with Turkish help a “red line.”

It may have been a bluff, but for all of the Egyptian military’s technical weakness in comparison to the Turkish armed forces—the second largest in NATO—the Egyptians can mobilize a lot of soldiers, armor, and F-16s against the Turks, who are far from home. Any conflict involving these two armies would further fragment Libya, perpetuating the civil conflict and setting the state for the country’s actual split. Given these circumstances, it seems that Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam was correct when, in February 2011, he warned fellow Libyans that, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, they would fight against each other for the next 40 years, though it is unclear whether he understood how much help killing each other they would get from outsiders.

Some relief for Libyans came in the form of a cease-fire proposal from the Tripoli government in August. It was good news that the Egyptians, Emiratis, and speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issa, all welcomed it. Yet Haftar did not sign on, and his forces continue to battle near Sirte. Even if he is compelled to lay down his arms, it seems unrealistic after a decade of conflict to expect Libyans to come to some kind of durable agreement about what kind of political system they want. In the absence of such an understanding, the fragmentary pressures on Libya will continue to fuel violence. This would be bad enough, but now the interests of outside powers are fully engaged in Libya, where Russians, Turks, Qataris, Egyptians, Emiratis, French, and Italians are playing out regional power struggles that extend from the Persian Gulf to Europe’s Mediterranean shores. This is a toxic brew of issues that does not lend itself to peace and security for Libyans.


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