CAIRO, FEB. 9 -- President Bush sees the Persian Gulf War as the opening chapter of a new world order. But to many in the Middle East, the conflict looks like the latest in a long, grim procession of wars that have plagued the region for decades.

Some part of the Arab world has been at war virtually constantly since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. There have been five wars involving Israel and its Arab neighbors; civil wars in Oman, Lebanon, Sudan, Jordan and what were North and South Yemen before unification; and conflicts between Morocco and Algeria and between Libya and four of its neighbors. Iraq fought Iran, a non-Arab country, for eight years before it invaded neighboring Kuwait last August.

Syria alone has been involved in 26 international disputes involving the threat or use of force, according to Middle East specialist David Pryce-Jones. It has also waged war on its own citizens, killing thousands of civilians in suppressing Islamic fundamentalists in Hama in 1982. Iraq has used similar military force and chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians.

"In a sense it's all been part of the same long war," said Iraqi author Samir Khalil. "We've seen countries and cities destroyed in the most brutal way imaginable. It's like 17th-century Europe during the Thirty Years' War."

The Bush administration is hoping the gulf conflict will result in a more stable, peaceful region and has begun exploring ideas for a new security structure after the war ends.

But analysts warn that Middle East wars tend to produce unexpected results and delayed reactions that undermine the best of intentions.

Each conflict, with the possible exception of the 1956 Suez war and the 1973 war against Israel, has compounded the Arab sense of weakness, anger and humiliation, and all have exacerbated tensions with the West.

The price of defeat is often assassination and internal turmoil; the failure of the Arab countries to conquer the newly born state of Israel in 1948 led over a period of 10 years to the overthrow of three Arab governments and to the assassination of Jordan's King Abdullah.

Yet even the victors frequently turn into losers with the passage of time. Israel's triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War led to deep internal conflicts that still divide Israelis. The 1973 war launched against Israel was a military defeat for the Arabs but a psychological triumph for Egypt and Syria. Still, it led directly to the collapse of Lebanon into chaos.

Just as those wars ended unpredictably, Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian specialist on international relations at Oxford University, warned, "There will be no neat outcome or solution after this {gulf} war ends. A lot depends on how long it lasts and how it ends.

"It's possible the present Arab states will manage to avoid upheaval, prop each other up and survive, but it's equally possible we'll see some real instability and a protracted conflict with the West. Either way, it's certain to be a very messy situation and it will take a long time to percolate."

What makes Middle East wars different from most other conflicts is that they are often not merely about boundary disputes or rulers but about the very right of a country to exist.

"The Middle East is the region of the world in which wars of national survival are still being fought with some frequency," historian David Fromkin wrote in his book, "A Peace to End All Peace."

"There is no sense of legitimacy -- no agreement on rules of the game -- and no belief, universally shared in the region, that within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such," he wrote.

Fromkin and other scholars trace back this sense of illegitimacy to the 1922 agreement among Britain, France and Turkey to carve up the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire into modern nation-states and spheres of influence. Militarily triumphant yet politically and morally exhausted after World War I, London and Paris created states, chose rulers and drew boundary lines, but failed to support the systems they created or to make those systems self-sustaining.

The continuing formal refusal of most Arab states to recognize Israel's existence is the best-known example of what Fromkin is talking about. But there are many others from within the Arab world.

When Palestinian guerrillas challenged Jordanian King Hussein in 1970, they were not only seeking to overthrow him but to establish a new state of Palestine that ultimately would have erased the British-drawn mandatory lines and included Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Syria has long considered much of neighboring Lebanon a part of its own state, just as some Iraqis have long believed Kuwait should belong to them. Iraq itself is an artificially drawn state consisting of three ethnically distinct former provinces of the Ottoman Empire -- Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

Each major Middle East war has held up a mirror to one or more of these artificial, politically fragile societies and to the Western powers that helped create them.

The 1948 defeat exposed the weaknesses of European-allied regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and led to coups that replaced them with a younger, anti-Western elite of military officers. The Suez campaign was the final eclipse of the imperial power of Britain and France.

The 1967 war revealed that the new Arab ruling elites were just as hollow at their core as the ones they had replaced. One of the conflict's most ardent students was a young Iraqi politician named Saddam Hussein, who later built a war strategy based on surviving the same sort of heavy first blows by the enemy that had destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces.

The 1973 war, in which Egyptian and Syrian forces caught Israel by surprise and inflicted serious damage before being defeated, seemed more of a political success for the Arab side.

Yet the war's aftermath ultimately "proved more difficult to control, more difficult to live with" for the Arabs, according to Fouad Ajami, director of Mideast studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Using oil as a weapon, the Arab world appeared to assert its power against the West and the Palestinian cause rose to prominence. But Ajami in his landmark book, "The Arab Predicament," contended that the war ultimately proved a triumph for the most conservative and pro-American factions within the Middle East.

The internal contradictions between the wealthy and the dispossessed and between the Palestinian cause and the established Arab states led finally to the nightmare of Lebanon, he concluded.

The Middle East wars could hold many valuable lessons for the U.S.-led allied coalition against Iraq, analysts say.

One such lesson is about the dangers of occupation: Should allied forces enter Iraq as conquering heroes, they could quickly find themselves a focus of popular resentment and resistance, as happened to the Israeli army when it occupied southern Lebanon after its 1982 invasion.

Another lesson is about the difficulties of ending a war of national survival: Iran by 1982 had regained almost all of the territory conquered by invading Iraq, yet that war dragged on in a stalemate for six more years.

One certain lesson, analysts say, is that whatever the results of the fighting, more Middle East wars are inevitable. What they may lead to, however, is disputed.

Author Khalil said the gulf war could prove the most pivotal event in the region since the collapse of the Ottomans and could, like that historic event, hold the hope of a new beginning.

"This is an extraordinary moment in Arab history," he said. "We are walking into the unknown. But think of Europe after 30 years of religious wars. Out of that came new ideas and new systems of democratic governments and secular tolerance. It's possible the same thing could happen to us."

Others are more fatalistic. Historian Fromkin believes a more apt analogy is with 5th-century Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

"It took Europe . . . nearly 1,000 years to settle on the nation-state form of political organization, and nearly 500 years more to determine which nations were entitled to be states," he wrote.

"The allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the {Middle East} in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it."