Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East

By Marc Lynch

In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets. Popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms.



In this new regional order, power itself operates in a different way. The uprisings created new fears about regime survival, even among the most successful players.

At the same time, failed states and civil wars have presented countries with new opportunities to expand their influence. The unification of the Arab political space through the intense experience of the uprisings made states view every event in the region as both an index of power and a potential threat: no state could afford to opt out.

Whether out of a desire to spread power or a defensive interest in preventing rivals from doing the same, almost every regime has found itself drawn into civil wars and other power games.

If Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated the risks of popular uprisings to leaders who had grown too confident in their ability to prevent challenges to their rule, Libya offered the first template for taking advantage of these upheavals.

When the Arab uprisings reached Libya, three Gulf states—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—along with Turkey, leaped at the opportunity to move against the despised Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The Gulf countries used their media empires to bring attention to Libya’s atrocities (while ignoring simultaneous violence in Bahrain). And they passed an Arab League resolution to help push the United States and the United Nations into supporting a humanitarian intervention.

They also funneled huge quantities of weapons and money to their preferred local militias fighting the regime.

These indirect interventions had long-lasting, negative effects. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates both supported the opposition to Qaddafi, but they backed different local proxies.

After the regime fell, those forces retained both their weapons and their external patrons, thus impeding the consolidation of a functional Libyan state and enabling the country’s subsequent descent into civil war.

Even today, Egyptian and Emirati military support for the commander Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity, whose forces control much of eastern Libya, is accelerating and intensifying the fighting. 

But the devastating fallout of external involvement was not immediately apparent. In the heady days of 2011, the Gulf states and Turkey (like the United States) viewed their intervention in Libya as a success story: they realized the benefits of supporting local proxies and learned that they could secure U.S., European, and UN support for interventions against their rivals.

With their eyes opened to new possibilities, they saw the popular uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as an opportunity to pry Syria away from Iran and revise the regional balance of power decisively in their favor.

When it became apparent in early 2012 that they could not replicate their success in Libya by gaining UN Security Council support for an intervention against Assad, the Gulf states and Turkey instead moved to arm the Syrian insurgency.

Even if this failed to bring down Assad, they saw an opportunity to bloody an Iranian ally and take the fight to the turf of a key rival.

This external support to the Syrian rebels produced catastrophic results, accelerating the violence without offering any plausible road to resolution.

Although the Assad regime bears the most responsibility for the conflict’s systematic atrocities and brutality, the external backers of the insurgency also helped intensify the war despite the obvious costs.

The structure of the region’s new politics dictated failure. Each time the rebels made inroads, competing external actors—Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia—intervened on the side of Assad.

Each advance generated an inevitable countermove, which only escalated the level of human suffering. In one of the most decisive examples of this dynamic, in 2015, after radical externally backed insurgent groups gained ground in northern Syria, Russia brutally intervened in Aleppo.

The competing forces in Syria did not prove equally skilled at proxy warfare. The forces backing Assad focused like a laser on supporting the regime.

The Iranians, in particular, have mastered the art of sponsoring local militias, often with the direct guidance and support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, on the other hand, viewed one another as rivals as much as allies, and their competitive and uncoordinated efforts consistently backfired. (The United Arab Emirates took a back seat in Syria.)

Although the United States attempted to force cooperation among the Qatari-, Saudi-, and Turkish-backed factions, it failed to overcome the infighting among their sponsors or to impose a coherent strategy.

These problems were magnified by the privatization of the flow of arms and money to insurgent groups in the decisive days of late 2012 and early 2013, as Salafi networks in the Gulf poured money into the insurgency.

This generated even more tension and pulled the insurgency’s center of gravity toward the jihadist end of the spectrum. As the war ground on, the Gulf states and Turkey shifted their support to increasingly radical Islamist coalitions in the search for effective fighters.

ISIS emerged from this environment, not as a proxy of any state but as an insurgent force that was well adapted to what Syria had become. 

After years of attempting to simultaneously arm, restrain, and shape the opposition from a distance, the United States ultimately intervened in Syria to fight not Assad but ISIS.

This intervention succeeded on its own terms, destroying ISIS as a state-like entity in both Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the campaign’s limited scope and mandate prevented the United States from becoming entrapped in a wider conflict with Assad and Russia.

But the complexities of managing even this limited intervention against ISIS proved daunting and generated unintended new commitments.

The last several years have been characterized by U.S. and Russian efforts to manage their competition in Syria. Meanwhile, the Iranian- and Russian-backed regime has relentlessly recaptured territory from the steeply declining, externally backed insurgency.

But even the collapse of ISIS and the Assad regime’s significant territorial gains have not brought the conflict closer to a conclusion.

Syria’s failed state continues to exercise a magnetic pull on other countries in the region. The campaign against ISIS, for example, ultimately led to greater Turkish involvement.

In 2015, in desperate need of local proxies to fight ISIS, the United States settled on the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units, or ypg, which it armed, along with other militias, under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or sdf.

The success of these forces triggered Turkish fears of Kurdish separatism, which in 2017 led Turkey to undertake its own escalating military interventions in several key areas in northern Syria.

At the same time, Israel began increasing its air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets across Syria. Both the opposition to the regime and the campaign against ISIS now seem to be winding down, but the Syrian war is more internationalized than ever.

Although Syria is the most cataclysmic case, the regional powers have created enormous human and political damage elsewhere, too, in their quest for influence and prestige. Their efforts have even destabilized countries that were not embroiled in civil war.

The worst example of this is Egypt. In 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup, which overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Qatar.

But despite tens of billions of dollars in Gulf aid, Sisi’s brutally repressive regime has failed to restore normalcy or stability in Egypt.

Even in Tunisia, which has been relatively successful, competition between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates has driven instability. 

The large-scale injection of foreign cash and political support for local allies has polluted the country’s nascent democratic politics.


MARC LYNCH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East


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