By Richard Falk
Attaching the label ‘Arab Spring’ to the remarkable events of 2011 already seems quaint, if not a complete misnomer.
Looking back five years later, rather than a pathway to a better future, what is unfolding is a darkening of an already quite dismal regional political canvas. Yet whether this darkening is the final outcome rather than a midway point in a process whose outcome cannot now be foreseen lies at the core of interpretative uncertainty.
The Arab Uprisings: Syria, Libya, and Yemen
The same societal longing for change evident in Tunisia and Egypt was experienced elsewhere in the region. This anti-regime political mood led quickly to a further series of popular uprisings in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Unlike the Tunisian achievement of an incremental transition to a more democratic form of governance and in contrast with the Egyptian moves toward democracy generating a counterrevolutionary reaction that restored authoritarian governance, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have each in its own way experienced sustained civil strife that has caused major suffering for the civilian population and led to the collapse of orderly governance.
Although the regional dimensions of state/society relations helps explain the similarity of the challenges mounted against the status quo, the specific situation in each country, especially the contrasting national reactions of the governmental leadership account for the great differences from country to country. One further similarity is the presence of a resolve by the ruler and his immediate entourage to use state police and military power to override the societal demands for drastic reforms.
A significant point of contrast with Tunisia and Egypt concerns the presence and degree of foreign intervention in the conflict arising subsequent to the uprising. It is notable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded primarily in response to the play of internal political forces, although especially in Egypt outside hidden influences, especially on the armed forces and via foreign economic assistance, were exerted to uncertain degrees by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
In the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, all currently beset by severe disorder the magnitude of the political violence following upon a challenge to the established national governing process was greatly increased by direct and indirect forms of foreign intervention emanating from the region and beyond. The unfortunate effect of these interventions, although very different in the three instances, adds to the strong arguments against military intervention, even when it is authorized by the UN as was the case with Libya.
In Syria, the leadership from the initial expressions of protest in the southern city of Daraa, responded violently and the movement of opposition seemed to grow and spread rapidly, assuming the form of an armed insurgency.
The United States and Turkey after a short interval were open in their support of the Syrian rebel forces, as was Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it soon became evident that the opposition to the Damascus regime headed by Bashar al-Assad was very fragmented. At the same time for the first year or so of the insurgency it was widely believed that Assad regime would be quickly overthrown.
Such an expectation turned out to be misguided. The armed forces of the Syrian government were well equipped and trained, possessing advanced anti-aircraft defense systems and other modern weaponry. Furthermore, the Alawite leadership in Damascus had the backing of the Christian and Druze minorities in the country, except for the Kurds, and were largely supported by the urban business community. Beyond this, Russia and Iran were engaged allies, and rendered material and diplomatic assistance, as was Hezbollah, which supplied significant number of combat troops.
The Syrian struggle was bloody from the outset, and casualty totals are now put at over 250,000 killed, and at least half of the total population of an estimated 23 million either internally displaced or refugees.
There have been many international initiatives seeking both ceasefire and a more vigorous Western intervention.
The situation has grown ever more complicated with the rise of ISIS as a leading anti-Assad force and the efforts of Syrian Kurds both to fight on the ground against ISIS and to establish a de facto state of their own on the ground.
These developments have greatly confused the alignments of intervening state and non-state political actors. Priorities for the United States and Europe have shifted to emphasize the struggle against ISIS, minimizing the goal of replacing the Assad leadership, while those of Turkey alternate back and forth between anti-Kurdish and anti-Assad objectives.
What has given the Syrian aftermath of the Arab Spring a particular historical relevance is its character, which seems to epitomize the new shape of warfare in 21st century.
The originality of this terrible civil strife is the extent of extra-national spillover from the struggle in the form of massive flows of refugees and transnational terrorism extending the battlefield beyond Syria to include the foreign sources of intervention including Turkey, Europe, and even the United States; the multi-layered and contradictory mix of state and non-state actors involved pursuing shifting and sometimes inconsistent goals, and the intermixture of regional and global intervening governments and political movements.
The Syrian struggle exhibits also a distinctive form of hybridity, mixing a conflict between the state and a mobilized domestic opposition with both a struggle to contain a terrorist actor that controls substantial territory, sectarian alignments, and involving an armed effort by the Syrian Kurdish minority to achieve de facto statehood.
As well, the intervening actors have their own diverse goals that are often at cross-purposes and confused by shifting and contradictory priorities: anti-Assad at first, then anti-Russian and anti-Iranian, then pro- and anti-ISIS as well as pro- and anti-Kurdish, and not to be overlooked, pro- and anti- Islamist, pro- and anti-Sunni.
It is hardly an exaggeration to contend that there has never been such a multi-dimensional and hybrid war in all of history. It is also evident that geopolitical standoffs and the limits of interventionary leverage make it dangerous and imprudent to act coercively to shape the political outcome of the conflict.
Libya, at first, seemed to follow closely the pattern established by Tunisia and Egypt. A popular uprising against an abusive dictatorial leadership under Qaddafi who ruled the country for decades, managing to suppress the ethnic and tribal tensions that defied national cohesion and sustained by abundant energy resources.
The uprising quickly turned violent, abetted by the involvement of European foreign advisors, and Qaddafi responded violently, refusing to give ground, and raising global concerns by condemning opposition forces with hysterical rhetoric that had a genocidal edge.
Several Western countries expressed humanitarian concern, convened the UN Security Council, and despite skepticism achieved a mandate to establish a No Fly Zone to protect the imminently threatened civilian population of Benghazi.
The limits embedded in the Security Council mandate, which was a weak endorsement of military force in view of abstentions from five important countries, were ignored from the outset of the military operation carried out under NATO auspices. Instead of protecting the beleaguered Benghazi population from advancing government troops, Tripoli was bombed, and a regime-changing undertaking was implemented, ending with a grisly execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.
What ensued in Libya has been a series of failed state-building undertakings that have left the society in chaotic turmoil, dominated by local militias and tribal rivalries, lacking an effective central government.
The political disorder has also created a situation in which ISIS has been able to establish a strong presence, posing a threat to local and Western security interests that had not existed during the Qaddafi period. Libya’s instability seems likely to persist, and contrasts with the kind of repressive stability (except in the Sinai) achieved in Sisi’s Egypt and the sort of fragile constitutionalism that has so far survived in Tunisia.
The Libyan aftermath is distinctive in several respects. Above all, as with Iraq, it suggests that from a Western perspective and in terms of domestic public order, military intervention does not deliver on its promise to produce a more humane form of governance even when it succeeds in toppling the authoritarian regime and encouraging the emergence of a constitutional order.
In Libya as in Iraq the abuses of the old political order seem far less destructive than the violence, devastation, and displacement caused by a heavy handed foreign intervention. Instead of ‘democracy promotion’ what took place in Libya, as earlier in Iraq, is best described as ‘chaos promotion,’ and as the region is now constituted, this also opens the door to political extremism that can flourish in ways that were never possible in the old order.
The Libyan intervention was costly in other ways, as well. The manipulation of the Security Council by understating the goals and nature of the contemplated intervention completely undermined the trust that had led the five skeptical members to abstain rather than cast negative votes, which in the case of Russia and China would have nullified any UN authorization due to their right of veto. As it turned out, these memories of institutional manipulation from Libya impeded a possibly more constructive role for the UN in response to the strife in Syria.
Of course, there are relevant questions raised about why intervention in one country but not in others. Is the oil dimension part of the explanation of large-scale interventions in Iraq, and then later after the Arab Spring, in Libya, but not to anything like to the same degree in Syria or Yemen, which lacked oil and did not offer lucrative prospects for construction arrangements to repair the damage wrought by the ‘shock and awe’ tactics relied upon by foreign interventions from the air.
As elsewhere, the popular uprising in Yemen was at first directed at the hated, corrupt, and abusive ruler, Ali Abdellah Salah, producing a raging state/society struggle that remains inconclusive. The challenge to the established order also revived geographic and ethnic tensions involving the Houthi minority in the north, and introduced a regional proxy dimension to the internal conflict.
The Houthi were Shi’a and perceived by the Gulf monarchies as an extension of Iran’s influence, which induced Saudi Arabia to side with the challenged regime, eventually producing a large-scale intervention taking the form of punishing air attacks, causing widespread devastation and considerable civilian loss of life, and yet not managing so far to control the political destiny of the country.
The outcome in Yemen hangs in the balance, remains in doubt, but once more reinforces the impression that external intervention to control the political dynamics of a country in the wake of the Arab Spring is likely to produce negative results, and make the old order, as objectionable as it was, seem less damaging to the society than the counterrevolutionary effort to defeat the societal forces seeking change.
Several conclusions emerge:
(1) the original uprising in Yemen was a further regional indication that the authoritarian political order was deeply resented by significant portions of the citizenry;
(2) unlike Egypt and Tunisia, but in manner resembling Syria and Libya, the challenged regime fought back rather than gave way to the popular movement;
(3) as with Syria, the internal balance led to a prolonged struggle that remains unresolved, with no transition to a new normalcy in the offing;
(4) Yemen’s difficulties were compounded to the extent that the internal struggle was also perceived as containing sectarian implications, prompting a ferocious Saudi intervention, but unlike the anti-regime intervention in Libya, the intervention in Yemen was pro-regime.
The Arab Spring phenomenon had clear reverberations in the main monarchies in the MENA region, especially Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. Protest demonstrations occurred in these countries but were quickly contained, often accompanied by royal pledges of economic and political reforms that promised the citizenry greater economic equity and more meaningful participation in the governing process.
As with secular governments, the monarchies had their own distinctive national characteristics that explain some differences in the response of governments and regional actors.
For instance, Bahrain, partly because of its Shi’a majority and the presence of a major American naval base was perceived as the most vulnerable to a credible internal insurrectionary challenge.
To forestall such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia intervened with ground forces and helped the kingdom restore stability by suppressing the opposition, and imprisoning civil society leaders, including advocates of human rights.
Jordan and Morocco, both having strong internal security forces, met opposition activity with police discipline and some royal gestures of accommodation. In Morocco and especially Saudi Arabia the relationship between Islam and the state contributed to the stability and legitimacy of the prevailing political order, although in Saudi Arabia these conditions were reinforced by a pervasive set of oppressive constraints, which included human rights outrages that rivaled the behavior of ISIS in their disregard of standards of civilized law enforcement, especially with respect to women and the Shi’a minority.
The case of Saudi Arabia is particularly illustrative of the interplay between the Arab Spring and geopolitics. Because of the special relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia like Israel enjoys unconditional support from Washington.
This included turning a blind eye to beheadings and public displays of severed heads of dissidents and more incredibly, overlooking Saudi support for jihadi terrorism throughout the region, including evidence of start-up funding of ISIS.
This special relationship was initially based on the importance of positive relations for the West with Gulf oil production and reserves, seen as a vital strategic interest ever since the end of World War II, but it has persisted in recent years despite the falling price of oil and the diminished dependence on Gulf reserves due to the development of other energy sources.
There are other developments in the five years since the Arab Spring that help explain the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, the other monarchies. Principal among these are the combined search for regional stability, positive connectivity to the neoliberal world economy, and the encouragement of convergent interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This latter development became especially evident in Saudi tacit support for Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014. The rationale for convergence was the supposed links between Hamas and Iran, as well as the perception of Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
As is evident both Hamas and the MB are Sunni in orientation, making it clear that the overriding Saudi priority is the insulation of its royalist regime from hostile forces regardless of whether Sunni or Shi’a. In this regard, the sectarian card is played pragmatically to oppose the regional ambitions of Iran in several national settings, but sectarianism does not explain Saudi hostility to MB grassroots Islamic movements, which are seen as possibly encouraging to anti-royalist social movements throughout the region and hence treated as threatening.
The most striking conclusion is to appreciate that from the perspective of 2016, the counterrevolutionary reaction to the Arab Spring seems far more durable than the challenges posed by the 2011 uprisings, none of which created an enduring discontinuity with the authoritarian antecedents.
Tunisia came closest, but it preserved relative stability after the uprising, despite being punctuated by Islamic extremist challenges and secularist anxieties. The political leadership maintained continuity in both the governmental bureaucracy and among the privileged elite. It did permanently rid the country of the authoritarian leader, as did Egypt, but with the latter, authoritarianism returned to govern in an even more oppressive form.
In many ways, the Egyptian and Syrian stories are the most influential and pronounced legacies of the Arab Spring.
Egypt is the keystone state of the Arab World with the secretariat of the Arab League located in Cairo. The Egyptian uprising seemed to express the highest hopes of the Arab Spring through the remarkable upsurge of peaceful oppositional gatherings in Tahrir Square. Yet two years later the uprising and its reformist hopes were completely erased, and replaced by the restoration of the old order, astonishingly with the blessings of the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people. Mass disillusionment with the post-Tahrir political process had resulted from the failure of electoral democracy to bring either improvement in material circumstances or respect for the new political leadership.
In contrast to Egypt, Syria is emblematic of what can ensue when the inspirational encouragement of the Arab Spring challenges a regime that is determined to prevail even at the cost of unleashing virtually unlimited warfare against its own people and destroy its own cities.
The Syrian experience is illustrative of the tragedies that befall an insurrectionary challenge that cannot shift the balance of forces against the status quo.
Syria also illustrates the regional stakes of such a national struggle, as well as sectarian rivalry that produced a regional proxy war, with Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government and Saudi Arabia siding with the rebel forces. Additionally, Russia with its only warm water naval base in Syria, a circumstance similar to that of the United States in Bahrain, not surprisingly allied with Damascus, while an opposing geopolitics led the United States to support anti-Assad so-called moderate forces.
What seems evident in retrospect is that none of the movements that followed the Tunisian uprising were sufficiently revolutionary to create the intended discontinuity in terms of freedoms, constitutional governance, and economic growth and equity.
Again the Egyptian case is most illustrative. The very qualities of mounting a nonviolent challenge against Mubarak based on stirring displays of religious and societal unity, with an avoidance of program or leadership produced a political vacuum filled on the one side by the Muslim Brotherhood and on the opposite side by adherents of the established order.
When a showdown came, as might be expected the armed forces, relied upon to manage the political transition, mounted a counterrevolutionary coup and suppressed the MB. It completed a dynamic featuring a triumphant and popular counterrevolution following upon a fractured series of failures to create societal progress in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Finally, what we learn from these developments in the Middle East that have occurred during the past five years is the close links between national, regional, and global confrontations and differential priorities.
Such strong interconnectedness gives alignments and military interventions of varying degrees of overtness, with the Libyan experience being at one end of the spectrum and Egypt at the other end due to its apparent relative national autonomy. Syria, above all, has been grossly victimized during the past five years by seeming to invite struggles for ascendancy by an array of external state and non-state political actors compounding the state/society strife occasioned by the Arab Spring.
As this time, the only future that can be discerned is seen through a glass darkly, meaning persisting chaos or oppressive authoritarian governance. 
There are no trustworthy bright spots, although the fragile polities of Tunisia and Lebanon seem at least for the present to have avoided the worst of the counterrevolutionary storm, but neither has much assurance that future developments could bring chaos and internal strife.
Richard Anderson Falk is an American professor emeritus of international law at Princeton Universit
On humanitarian intervention see Fabian Klose, ed., The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention; Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention; Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution
For a range of views see Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel, eds., The Syria Dilemma
What has ensued in Syria goes far beyond Mary Kaldor’s innovative analysis of new wars in Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 3rd ed..
For text see Security Council Res. 1973 (2011), including its provocatively ambiguous phrase authorizing ‘all necessary measures’ to enforce the No Fly Zone.
See citations Note 4.
For varied assessments see Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East; Richard Javad Heydarian, How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings; Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution.