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[pane title=”Chapter 1: The Syrian Conflict & the Failure of the West”]

This chapter gives a brief historiographical account of how the Arab revolution caught the world and the west off guard. It explains the origins of civil war in Syria and the emergence of armed opposition to Assad’s regime. The chapter also explains the difficulties faced by the Syrian opposition, both internally and externally, and how lack of timely decision-making by the West led to strengthening of groups like IS. The chapter builds up to the main argument by highlighting key facts such as lack of proactive policy and decision-making in the West, internal division within Syrian opposition, etc. and how these factors have led to further instability and crisis.


[pane title=”Chapter 2: The Return of Putin & the War to End a War”]

This chapter gives a brief overview of how Putin thinks and acts. It describes his rise to power and his attempt to consolidate control and power over Russia. The chapter also outlines how Putin’s Russia sees the world today i.e. NATO encirclement of Russia and why Russia acts or reacts the way it has done in Georgia, Ukraine and in Syria (to break that encirclement). The chapter reflects on Russian internal and external security strategies, its increasing awareness of Chinese presence in Central Asia and its understanding of the world and the global system. By doing so the chapter reflects on one of the main argument of this paper i.e. ‘exterior struggles’. In essence this chapter explains what role Russia has in the exterior struggle in the greater Middle East and why?


[pane title=”Chapter 3: The ‘Not So Grand Chessboard?’ – Global Power Play in the Middle East”]

This chapter discusses the dysfunctionality of the international system and how interest-led politics and a lack of Western strategy making have brought us where we are today. The case of Libya is illuminates the main argument by presenting how the interaction of numerous factors, i.e. internal and external struggles, ineffective global governance, has embroiled the country into a protracted conflict.



[pane title=”Chapter 4: Yemen – A Regional Power Play or Ethnic/Sectarian Divide?”]

This chapter presents a discussion of Yemen’s internal and external struggle. On the one hand, we see a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran played on the Yemeni battlefield. On the other, non-state actors, i.e. Al-Qaeda and IS, are situated to further exacerbate sectarian tensions that have been kindled by the proxy war. This chapter builds on the main argument that problems in the Middle East cannot be confined to singular prisms of conflict, i.e. sectarianism.   


[pane title=”Chapter 5: Islamic State or ‘Non State’ – The Rise of Non State Politics in the Middle East”]

This chapter presents a discussion of violent non-state actors in the Middle East by analysing their rise in prevalence and examining the question of Islamic ‘statehood’.



[pane title=”Chapter 6: Aid, Security & Identity – An Overview of the EU’s Role in the Refugee Crisis”]

This chapter explores the evolution of the refugee crisis from a humanitarian crisis, to a security crisis, and to now a crisis of identity. The first section examines how the collapse of the Syrian regional ‘buffering effect’ fueled a humanitarian crisis in Syrian Neighbouring Nations (SNNs), which motivated more refugees to seek asylum in Europe. In the second section, inadequate EU policy and governance is explored, which resulted in inconsistent EU member state border policy and a broken EU asylum framework. Finally, the securitized nature of the refugee crisis, highlighted by the EU’s inability to sufficiently control its borders, culminated in the EU’s current existential crisis. What began depicted as a ‘Syrian’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ problem has evolved into a European institutional and identity crisis, which has reinforced a stronger conceptual divide between Europe and the Middle East.



[pane title=”Chapter 7: Global ‘Non Governance'”]

This chapter diagnoses the limitations and dysfunction of contemporary global governance. Evaluating the UN’s capacity to ameliorate human insecurities through the lens of recent responses to violence in Syria and Mali, the chapter highlights systemic and structural flaws in desperate need of revision. Compounding internal problems and struggling to balance the disparate interests of its members, global institutions are increasingly unable to effectively enforce the collective policies and humanitarian ethic they claim to champion. The chapter also argues regional organisations have so far failed as a viable substitute, underlining the urgent need to transcend state-centric dynamics, or, at the very least, facilitate greater cooperation between global and regional initiatives to maximise comparative advantages.


[pane title=”Conclusions & Policy Recommedations”]

Recommending policy in such fluid and uncertain situation is a challenging task. However, based on a deeper understanding of the region and difference forces at play and by forecasting some of expected developments, immediate to near term policy recommendation can be made. These recommendations are not written with a particular country in mind, but may serve as some general guidelines that both regional and international actors may find useful.






Executive Summary

This Ibn Khaldun paper is part of the annual strategic paper series that has been produced each year by our institute since 2013. Each paper looks at the key strategic development(s) in the Islamic world. This year the focus is on the geopolitics in the greater Middle East. The region is going through seismic changes and what happens in the greater Middle East will establish the emerging global order(s).

Yet, there is a very little understanding of what actually is happening in the region. Simple explanations and ‘quick-fix’ approaches has thus far dominated the media. Whether it’s the refugee crises, the focus on degrading the Islamic state (IS) or European security, little attention is being paid to the enorm complexity to the crises in the region.

This paper seeks to understand these complex issues and challenges, and presents a broad, substantial and accurate understanding of the region.

The paper builds on following main arguments (see the figure below):

  • The issues and problems in the Middle East are very complex.  To view the region superficially (i.e. through the prism of terrorism, refugee crises or interest led politics) does not do justice to our understanding.
  • The region is facing multiple internal and external struggles simultaneously.
  • The dysfunctional international system (i.e. lack of effective global and regional governance, issues and interested led politics by most international player etc.) only adds to the complexities in the Middle East and is a considerable component of the problem.
main argument figure

Main Argument Figure

[pane title=”Interior & Exterior Struggles (Chapters 1-5)”]

These chapters focus on the ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ struggles that are simultaneously taking place in the greater Middle East and discuss their significance in order to understand the conflicts and strategic trends.

Exterior struggles are led by external forces who are using the region to settle their own scores, i.e. the power play between US/NATO and Russia to maintain its foothold on its prized region rather than concentrating on the conflict in itself. The interior struggle is much more complex; actors are state and non-state in nature. The interior struggle is a struggle among Muslim actors themselves. Rivalries exist along multiple lines, i.e. sectarian (between Sunni and Shia), ethnic (Kurdish, Arab), religious (Muslim and non-Muslim), ideological (liberal and Islamists or Jihadists) and so on. To add further complexity, there are ‘rivalries within rivalries’ (i.e. among key Sunni Gulf states or even among Shia states).

These ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ struggles are crucial for understanding the big picture They are also crucial to explain the causes and roots of many conflicts. Furthermore, these struggles will define the future outlook of the greater Middle East.

In the first few chapters, we discuss how ‘exterior’ struggles protracted the conflicts further and destabilise the region, such as in Syria and Libya. The case of Syria is a key example of where Russia intervened primarily to counter the strategy of NATO. Indeed, Russia has key strategic interests in Syria. However, the chapter explains why the Syrian intervention is not just about preserving an ally, fighting IS, or protecting key infrastructural and economic interests. Instead, Russia intervened to secure its motherland. The chapter highlights Russia’s world view and its preoccupation of what it believes to be NATO’s encirclement of its motherland. Syria, therefore, plays a key role for Russia’s strategy of distraction. By intervening in Syria, Russia is distracting NATO from a key strategic conflict: Ukraine. Thus, the Syrian intervention serves Russian interests by keeping NATO distracted and confused towards its wider strategy against NATO. It has also ensured Russia’s global position. Russia’s position as an international power broker, in the Syrian and Libya conflict (and perhaps Yemen in the near future) assures its position as an influential international actor.

Russian power plays in the Middle East – as the chapter notes – are not only due to Russia’s assertive actions but also due to the lack of action and strategy-making by the West. Russia exploited the vacuum created by a lack of proactive strategy in the Middle East by the West. The US administration chose not to take any meaningful action, despite the Syrian regime crossing ‘red lines’. Lack of action is an action by itself. The deep internal division within the Syrian political and military opposition also helped in creating the vacuum. This was eventually filled not just by Russia but by non-state actors, such as IS who swept through Syria and Iraq in 2014.

In Libya, the failure to rebuild and the short-sighted policies of the West in post-Qaddafi Libya led not just to instability in Libya itself, but also destabilised the entirety of the Maghreb region. The expansion of ungoverned spaces, strengthening of groups such as IS and of smuggling networks plays a key role in the ongoing refugee crises.

The ‘interior struggle’ is much more complex. On one hand, states vie for power, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is exemplified in the Yemeni conflict. This is demonstrated by the struggle for power between the Iranian-backed Houthi militias and the Saudi-led coalition. Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, is facing humanitarian catastrophe and a near complete meltdown of a state. Syria and Iraq are another playground where regional state actors are vying over power. Extremely dangerous sectarian language is mostly applied in these conflicts. The emergence of neo-Jihadist  groups such as IS, which strategically employs sectarianism and creates another dimension to this matrix. Thus, sectarianism is one of the biggest and foremost challenges faced by the greater Middle East and is often overlooked on the global stage.

Another important dimension of the ‘interior struggle’ is the struggle between non-state actors among themselves and with the state. Both the emergence and the current role of IS is presented in these chapters. The chapter argues that neo-Jihadists group thrive on instability and use the instability, i.e. the overthrow of regimes so they can continue to operate. IS also seeks to create enough instability in order to exploit it for its own purposes.

The IS state model has medieval characteristics and is strikingly similar to early Islamic conquest. It seeks to establish an expanding quasi-state. By virtue of its emphasis on regional control, neo-Jihadism is state-like in nature. Hence, IS seeks regional control but also comprises features of a modern state, such as taxes, welfare system and some boundaries etc.

The rivalry between neo-Jihadi and mainstream Jihadi groups (IS versus Al-Qaeda) will be a key factor of the ‘interior struggle’ which is defining the strategic outlook of the greater Middle East.

[pane title=”The Dysfunctional International System & the Refugee Crisis (Chapters 6 & 7)”]

The refugee crisis in Europe is a clear and foreseeable manifestation of the volatility that has plagued the region in the last decade. The instability in Iraq and Afghanistan which ensued after military interventions, added by popular uprisings (particularly in the Middle East) created a dire situation where human security is at minimum, compelling people to seek refuge elsewhere. In addition global factors, such as change of attitudes towards refugees, a significant lack of humanitarian aid and money have added to the complexities of the problem. People based in countries neighboring conflict zones (Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan for example) no longer feel safe and secure and have felt obliged to move elsewhere. Policy factors also played a key role, i.e. European policy mechanisms have been unable to address the severity of the problem and bureaucratic hurdles played a crucial and detrimental part. In this regard, many governments shifted responsibility by presupposing that the ‘refugee problem’ was someone else’s or that European countries were insulated from being affected; this alone has perhaps been one of the central reasons as to why Europe has been unprepared for the crisis.

The chapters also diagnose the limitations and dysfunctions of contemporary global governance. Evaluating the UN’s capacity to ameliorate human insecurities through the lens of recent responses, such as violence in Syria and Mali, highlight the systemic and structural flaws in the UN, which in desperate need of revision. Compounding internal problems and the struggle to balance disparate interests of its members, global institutions are increasingly unable to effectively enforce the collective policies and humanitarian ethics they claim to champion. The chapters also argue that regional organisations have thus far failed as a viable substitute to global governance, which underlines the urgent need to transcend state-centric dynamics, or, at the very least, to facilitate greater cooperation between global and regional initiatives to maximise comparative advantages.

The dysfunctional global governance system, policy factors and protracting conflicts due to ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ struggles induced the contemporary refugee problem.
[pane title=”Conclusions & Policy Recommendations (Chapter 8)”]
[tab title=”Conclusions” start=open]

The interior and exterior struggle will continue in 2016. On the interior level, the situation in Afghanistan will continue to deteriorate amid peace talks. The Syrian conflict will continue and any realistic and sustainable peace agreement will remain out of question. If a transitional government is imposed (without the removal of Assad government) it will fall apart. IS will degrade, but will not be destroyed. Despite the onus on the fight against IS, monitoring of developments in the IS-AQ rivalry and ethnic tensions, in and around Iraq and Syria will be key.

The exterior struggle will also continue. The US election will temporarily pause US involvement in crises in the greater Middle East, however Russia will continue its policy by aiding and abetting its allies, such as the Syrian regime.

The global system and global governance will remain dysfunctional. Due to all of above, the refugee crisis will only worsen and existent conflicts will only further protract.

[tab title=”On Conflict Resolution”]

To resolve multiple crises within the greater Middle East, one must address the emerging, existent and protracting conflicts and attempt to resolve them. There have been very few serious attempts both by regional countries and international players to solve any major conflict in the greater Mid East.

Although the current lull in hostilities in Syria can be seen as a breath of fresh air and expectation of transitional government a positive mood; the resolution of the conflict is far from over. To solve a problem one must understand it. The ongoing dialogues (at the time of writing) do little to address the problem. Rather it is an attempt to put things in a box with a hope that they will remain there while the US and its allies focuses on battling IS. This is currently deemed as the ‘best worst solution’ because it is one of the few feasible options that is perceived to be practical. Yet in Syria, neither the regime nor the opposition actually know what they want in future. There is no grand vision for the country. Each side only has clear ideas of what ‘they do not want’.

Putting things in a box or putting a band-aid on an open wound will do little to resolve the most dangerous conflict. There has to be a serious attempt in understanding by the international community and the regional countries of each spectrum, of what Russia wants out of Syria. This we noted above is much more to do with a broader geopolitics then small scale strategic interests (i.e. protecting bases in the coastal region or fighting IS). The West and regional countries who want stability in the region (including Iran), should have a dialogue mechanism to collaborate on the emerging strategic landscape of the region. Russia can be reassured by lifting some of its sanctions and by normalising. or attempts to normalise, the ever plummeting oil prices. Only then one can address the ‘exterior struggle’ and decrease or contain its fallout on the region.

A durable resolution to conflict emerges either when each side is exhausted or cannot see an end or whether there is some sort of decisive victory by each side. Unfortunately, in key Middle Eastern conflicts this is not the case. On the contrary: some of the hostilities are only just beginning. Syria may be five year’s long conflict but Russia has just entered the theatre. Yemen may be going on for over a year but both sides are well entrenched and are willing to pour manpower, resources and weapons into their goals.

There has been a talk of ‘political settlement’ recently which supposedly overrides the above complexities. However, political solutions do not develop out of thin air. They need serious and durable processes backed by some kind of political vision that each side must be willing to buy in. None of the key conflicts in the greater Middle East have reached that point yet. Instead of investing a lot in so called political solutions, much more needs to be invested in processes and networks, which can be used to build political resolutions or they can themselves become a political resolution. Hasty fixes to conflicts situation in deep ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ struggles will achieve nothing different than what we have experienced recently in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.
[tab title=”On Refugees & Regional/Global Governance”]

The refugee crisis is a direct result of incapable regional and global governance structures. In an ideal world, seismic structural reforms in global governance are needed to fit the contemporary world.

Such reforms should see a reformed Security Council and a thorough investigation into mechanics, benefits, and costs of aid and peacekeeping missions. Regional governance needs to plug into global governance, where it exists, such as Africa. And regional governance in itself needs to reform. Mirroring global governance structures. regional governance has also inherited similar sets of problems.

Until and unless such reforms take place, which looks very unlikely in the current setting; there is an urgent need for some alternative and out of the box thinking. As global governance continues to fail to adequately address global conflicts and other issues, regional governance should be empowered and enhanced. In regions where regional governance structures are yet to develop, such as Middle East and South Asia; temporary structures need to be introduced. These ad hoc structures should be built upon the local and regional needs rather than structured around existent models.

Such independent and organic regional structures will in return strengthen global governance. They can fill in the gap in addressing key humanitarian, governance and developmental issues.

On the refugee crises, as we noted above in the paper, quick fixes will not suffice. The recent deal with Turkey, sealing of borders within Europe or shifting the focus on countries already struggling i.e. via Special Economic Zones, will not create viable solution even in the near term, let alone mid or long term.

At IISA, we have previously proposed ‘Protected Refugee Zones’ (PRZs) across the globe which are backed by regional governance structures and are not located in countries that are already struggling to cope with the amount of Refugees.

PRZs will be economic zones providing not only human security but education, economic opportunities, education and healthcare. They would be flexible structure ready to cope with existing, ongoing or upcoming refugees and humanitarian situations. PRZs do not stop the movement of people and their search for safety but it structures the phenomenon into a more practical framework.
[tab title=”On Reducing Sectarian/Ethnic Tensions”]

The sectarian violence in the greater Middle East is one of the most alarming developments that needs to be seriously countered. Sunni-Shia violence can spill to countries beyond the Middle East and can open a Pandora’s box. To date there has not been serious and concerted effort by the international community and/or the regional countries to address this problem. There is however a greater realisation by almost every side that sectarian issue is getting out of hand and needs addressing.

It can be argued that the sectarian issues aren’t really sectarian nature, but that these divides are along regional rivalries and power struggles (which we called internal struggle). However, sectarianism and identity politics is used by both state and non-state actors, without due considerations to its fallouts. The immediate fallouts are clearly visible in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The near to mid-term future fallouts can be expected in peripheral countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, some Maghreb countries and some countries in West African region.

Due to a very divergent set of interests and policies, it may not be possible for state actors to play a reasonable role in addressing the issue. Global governance is already struggling to cope with multiple issues and the international community, particularly the Western focus, is aimed at addressing the refugee crisis. Therefore, it is up to societies and non-governmental networks to address this issue. The key aspect of this should be to challenge the poisonous sectarian narrative that is currently being promoted in the Middle East. Time and effort needs to be invested on these processes and in establishing and building these networks. There needs to be a recognition and commitment to achieving dialogue on a person-to-person level.

Identity and language politics should be generally discouraged. The greater Middle East region is rife with differing ethnicities, tribes, linguistic cultures and societies. If a precedent is set to back one ‘ethnic’ group, then other groups will expect the same.

Together sectarianism and ethnic/identity politics is challenging the nature and demography of the Middle East. This evolving trend will seriously imbalance regional security agendas and ultimately impact on global security.


[tab title=”On Jihadism”]

Neo-Jihadist groups are currently locked in a struggle with traditional Jihadists groups for the soul and legitimacy of Jihad. Many in the West believe that no serious efforts are needed to combat this struggle in hope that both groups finish each other off. The Islamic World, too, has no idea on how address this phenomenon. The regional governments and societies have not even begun to attempt addressing basic questions i.e. What is the role of Jihad in Muslim politics and societies? Who ‘owns’ Jihad? Is Jihad still relevant as a ‘theory of war’ in Islamic countries, and if not what is or should be the Islamic ‘theory of war’?

Distinguishing Jihadism from militancy and terrorism (which is and can be ethnic and linguistic) is a first practical step. Muslim societies, polities and scholars need to be empowered to discuss such issues and bottom up formulas are urgently needed. Serious and concerted efforts in resolving conflicts and providing transitional governance in non-governed places will automatically reduce the appeal and causes of Jihadism.




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