In Washington’s ongoing debate about the cause of the continuing chaos in the Middle East, President George W. Bush stands condemned for the 2003 intervention that pushed Iraq into civil war, while President Obama stands condemned for the nonintervention that worsened Syria’s civil war. In Libya, meanwhile, Washington’s partial intervention also failed to bring peace, while too few Americans are even aware of their country’s role in the conflict afflicting Yemen.
Without trying to defend or absolve U.S. policy, then, it is worth stepping back to ask what shared historical experiences might have left these four countries — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — particularly at risk of violent collapse. The following maps help highlight how, at various points over the past century, historical circumstances conspired, in an often self-reinforcing way, to bolster the stability of some states in the region while undermining that of others.
1. Century-old states are more stable today
Countries whose political or geographic precedents stretch back over a century are more stable today. Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and, to some extent, the ruling dynasties of what are now Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, all, in one form or another, trace their current political structures to the late 19th century, before European colonialism took root in the region. Consequently, they were more likely to have the resources to maintain some independence in the face of European imperialism, or at least negotiate a less disruptive form of colonial rule.
Turkey, most vividly, escaped colonization at the beginning of the 20th century because the already extant Ottoman army defeated a number of would-be colonizers: first during World War I and then after the empire’s dissolution in Turkey’s subsequent war for independence.
Iran, meanwhile, was divided into informal spheres of influence by the British and Russians in the late 19th century but avoided formal colonization and initially kept the Qajar dynasty in power.
And Egypt, a British protectorate for several decades, became the first country in the region to achieve nominal independence in 1922, under the same dynasty that had established the Egyptian state more than a century earlier.
As a result, both Iran and Egypt had ruling institutions predating European colonial influence that subsequently remained in place. In both countries, local politics were, to a greater degree than elsewhere, allowed to continue, subject to external constraint and correction. Meanwhile, the far smaller dynasties of the Persian Gulf became protectorates of the British Empire on mutually beneficial terms, creating symbiotic relationships in which the British provided military support and trade opportunities that left these regimes stronger and wealthier than they were before.
2. Colonial rule led to fragile states
In contrast to these preexisting polities, countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon came into being in the early 20th century complete with new borders and hastily formed governments set up by their colonial rulers. From the outset, these puppet governments lacked the legitimacy or popular support of those indigenous rulers, who, however unwillingly, had come under the influence of colonial powers. Unsurprisingly, all of these countries beside Lebanon soon experienced widespread and violent anti-colonial rebellions.
The consequences of these seminal conflicts persisted through the century. After occupying Libya in 1911, Italy suppressed resistance from local guerrilla fighters only after a decades-long military campaign that employed starvation, mass deportation and concentration camps. Britain, meanwhile, put down Iraq’s 1920 revolt with the help of extensive air power, then dropped poison gas on Kurdish tribes that continued resisting. And in Syria, a massive revolt in 1925 ended with French artillery shelling Damascus.
In each case, colonial powers also triumphed by recruiting local allies along ethnic or tribal lines to fight on their side against the rebels. In Syria, the French drew support from Christian and Alawite communities. In Iraq, key Sunni tribes cooperated with the British against rebels in return for political and financial rewards. As a result, these revolts deepened social divisions within these countries and stripped governing institutions of their legitimacy at the moment of inception.
The consequences of these unstable foundations were often fully felt only in the aftermath of independence. After the Iraqi revolt, the British installed King Faisal I to rule the country on their behalf, hoping he would mitigate nationalist anger toward colonial rule. Faisal’s family maintained its throne with British support until 1958, when Faisal’s grandson was overthrown and executed in a military coup.
3. Instability and regime change
Observers have often noted that the Middle East’s long-standing monarchies appear significantly more stable than its republics. But this reading mistakes cause for effect. Libya and Iraq, along with Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, were all originally monarchies as well, at least until these monarchies proved too unstable to survive. Perhaps, then, it’s more accurate to say that the region’s unstable monarchies fell, while those in more stable countries were the only ones to survive.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the endurance of monarchies in the Middle East was inseparable from Cold War politics. While American officials often had deep reservations about British colonialism, with the start of the Cold War many concluded that maintaining British influence was preferable to the risk of Soviet infiltration. As a result, pro-British rulers like the shah of Iran, Faisal II in Iraq and King Farouk in Egypt became crucial elements of Anglo-American efforts to contain Soviet influence in the region.
When these regimes fell — Iran’s in 1979, Iraq’s in 1958, Egypt’s in 1952 — these countries moved away from their alliances with the West. Libya, too, followed a similar pattern when Moammar Gaddafi toppled King Idris, who, despite his impeccable anti-colonial credentials, was tainted by his pro-Western political orientation. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, by contrast, pro-Western monarchies survived and kept their countries in the Western orbit throughout the Cold War.
4. The shadow of the Cold War
One of the most striking historical correlations is between countries enduring civil war today and those that, to varying degrees, leaned toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But what is the relationship between Iraq, Syria, Libya and at least part of Yemen’s pro-Soviet geopolitics and their current chaos?
First, the political challenges some states faced may have left them predisposed to both instability and siding with the Soviets. To the extent that at the outset of the Cold War countries — both their regimes and their populations — were content with and, therefore, invested in maintaining the status quo, they were more likely to side with the West. Thus, monarchies across the region that benefited from their relationship with the British stayed with the West, while Turkey, having secured its independence, saw Western support as a way to maintain it against the risk of Soviet expansion. Where these regimes maintained the consent, or at least obedience, of the societies they governed, as in Jordan, the gulf states, or Turkey, this orientation remained. Conversely, in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt, widespread popular resentment of the status quo and the regimes that enforced it both increased the likelihood of political instability and the appeal of the Soviet Union as an ally.
At the same time, many countries that stayed within the Western camp experienced follow-on benefits that contributed to their stability, while those that tried to leave often suffered as a result. The United States offered economic and technical aid to its allies far in excess of what the Soviet Union could offer, for example. These allies were also integrated into the global economy, often quite successfully, while those that defied the West, such as Iran or Iraq, ended up hobbled by sanctions.
Western military support played an important role, as well. The British sent troops to prop up the Jordanian monarchy in 1958, while three decades before Operation Desert Storm, British military intervention helped protect Kuwait from Iraqi invasion in 1961. And, again, there could be violently destabilizing consequences for those that sought to escape the Western orbit. Notably, the United States supported coups against governments in both Syria and Iran that Washington feared would take their countries in a pro-Soviet direction.
There is also an ideological dimension to all of this. Washington has long been willing to turn a blind eye toward authoritarian behavior from regimes it has supported in the Middle East. Still, the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Gaddafi regime in Libya, displayed a degree of totalitarian ambition and systematic brutality that set them apart from other regimes in the region. Saddam Hussein demonstrated that, as a source of ideological inspiration, Stalinism is not conducive to stability.
At the outset of the 20th century, then, neither Iraq, Syria, Libya nor Yemen existed as states or governments in their current form. All four then experienced direct colonial rule between World Wars I and II and subsequently overthrew their governing regimes in the postwar period. Finally, these four countries all ended up, to greater or lesser degrees, on the losing side of the Cold War.
But alongside these patterns, readers have almost certainly noticed the equally striking exceptions at every stage along the way. So while it is easy to predict that the violence currently afflicting Iraq, Syria Libya and Yemen will leave a legacy of instability moving forward, exploring the continuities of history can serve as a first step toward escaping from them.
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