Machiavellian Middle East: The great losers of geopolitics in the Middle East

By Reza Majd, on 4 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

Photo Source

            As with any protracted conflict, there are the region’s greatest losers, caught in the crossfire of the proxy war, which is principally Syria with its long-standing civil war. Caught not only in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US, Syria has been torn apart and the Syrian people have been the tragic losers in the machinations of geopolitical rivalries. Syria is one battlefield that has gone out of control, with so many outside powers having interests and troops in the mix, from state actors like the US, Russia, Iran, to non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Nusra to states with no official ground presence but with a firm interest in the outcome like Israel and Turkey, and international groups like the EU and the UN. While Syria as whole has lost out in these power games, another group that could well lose out are the Kurds, who aided the US by fighting back ISIS, are viewed by Turkey as a national threat. In the aftermath of the war, they could become one of the bitterest losers of the conflict as Turkey moves in to stifle them.

Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in 2017 and continues on into 2018 thanks to the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade against Houthi rebels against the Saudi-installed government of Hadi. Though not conclusive, it is alleged that the Houthis are backed by Iran. And of course, while not directly affected, the long-suffering Palestinians are neglected by the Arab world as countries in the region focus on their national interests in the proxy war.

Cunning and deceit will every time serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” – Machiavelli, Discourses on Ivy. It would seem that the Saudis and the Iranians, as well as other states, are following his playbook. While the Syrian war appears to be winding down at the time of writing, the proxy wars between the two dominant Middle Eastern powers continue, Lebanon sometimes appears like it could be the next battleground. Alliances may change as states calculate their own interest, and nothing should be taken for granted. The alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is one to watch, with potentially explosive consequences wherever one looks, the stability of Syria is still questionable, and the role of non-state actors, while right now in decline, could soon return. Each turn and twist the Middle East takes is studied by the Realist states, both in the region and outside, as they try to understand how they can manipulate the outcomes to their own benefits. Alliances are fickle, religion is secondary, self-interest above all guides the way.


Region: MENA



The Syrian Conflict: Powers in Play

By Reza Majd, on 26 January 2018

Written by: Leah Roozendaal & Michael Cohen

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Historical Context

The Syrian Civil War is a multi-sided conflict of inordinate complexity. The first step to understanding it requires us to go back to the early 20th century to grasp the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as this conflict explains much of Syria’s Civil War status as a proxy-war. When oil was discovered on Saudi Arabian land, the country immediately became incredibly wealthy, and the United States was quick to establish an ongoing alliance. Iran’s development, stifled for years by foreign intervention, came to embody a conflict between religious/traditional values and Western/secular one. The Iranian Revolution, motivated by Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious vision for Iran’s future, resulted in the deposement of US-installed Reza Shah and the rise of Khomeini as Iran’s populist, Muslim leader. Saudi Arabia was horrified, fearing a similar uprising at home would threaten the government’s hold on power. Suddenly Saudi Arabia’s status as the Muslim State was threatened, and while the Sunni/Shia divide is not itself a substantial catalyst for violence, Iran’s Shia identification also gave Sunni Saudi Arabia pause. The two countries — in opposition over secularism, Westernization, cooperation with Western allies, religious identification, and vision over the future of the Muslim world — have gone on to fight a number of proxy wars throughout the Middle East, much like the United States-Russia proxy wars during the Cold War. Thus an important component to grasping Middle Eastern conflict is the rise of Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers in perpetual conflict over religious history and fundamental values.

The Syrian conflict began in the context of the 2010 revolutionary wave known as the Arab Spring. These uprisings were motivated by an interest in overcoming oppressive authoritarian regimes and replacing them with a democratic political system.  During a set of pro-democracy protests also associated with the arrest and torture of teenage vandals spray-painting revolutionary slogans on a wall, Assad’s security forces opened fire. Demonstrators, already primed by lack of political freedoms, economic struggle, and the success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, joined in further protests, and soon the government and protesters were clashing in bloody conflicts across the country.


Who is Involved?

The conflict has become substantially more complex as fighting in the region has turned increasingly into a series of sectarian conflicts. It is made no simpler by the network of alliances between invested powers. There are then three primary powers at play: Assad’s regime and its allies, ISIL, and the rebels and their allies. How did each power become so complex?


The failure of the Arab Spring: arming for peace

By Shuting Xia, on 2 December 2016

Written by Zeidon Alkinani

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

One always wonders whether the Arab Spring was more of a period of lessons or achievements? It only took one angry and poor Tunisian man committing suicide as a retain of dignity from authoritarianism, to awaken people against the inequality they were living in. The revolutionary determination was regionally present, due to the autocratic regimes that offered nothing but social, political and economic inequality through corruption, low living standards and restricting freedom of expression. Although I am not implying that the Arab Spring was a failure, it is important to highlight the mistakes, which weakened the democratic progress or at least the reduction of corruption in Arab states.

There is no doubt that the Libyan NTC (National Transitional Council) would have struggled to face Muammar Gaddafi’s bloody response towards the Libyan protests since February 2011, if it was not for its international influence and massive support via media coverage, legitimate political bodies and the militarisation of Libyan rebel groups. The NATO-backed NTC was Libya’s de facto government during and after its war for almost a year. Despite the Tunisian and Egyptian achievements, crises such as the ones in Libya and Syria leave the ‘success’ of the Arab Spring open to question. Was removing Gaddafi all that mattered? What about the territorial division and disputes that occurred after the war? Does the NTC or the new upcoming Libyan government, who is most likely to be post anti-Gaddafi, have enough experience and tools to rebuild a state and restructure its institutions and constitution after demolishing them? These concerns are still active today, and Libya has witnessed no successful progress since the events happened. In fact, Libya has turned from an authoritarian regime to a country which seeks a disarmament programme from the overwhelming number of armed groups who have been violently monopolising their self-interests across the country since 2011.


New security threat: Young Western nationals fighting in Syria

By Claire McNear, on 19 December 2013

By Aydan Sarikaya

The threat of terrorists on the home front has become increasingly worrisome. News agencies are reporting a surge of individuals that have traveled from the United Kingdom to Syria to fight. The New York Times, the BBC, and The Telegraph estimate that roughly 1000 Western passport-holders are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, of which 200 to 300 are British nationals.

It is relatively easy to travel to and from Syria. Most of the fighters who are entering Syria from the West do so through Turkey, and often return to the West by the same route. Intelligence officials are concerned with the potential ties these individuals may develop with terrorist groups abroad. Once back in the West, these guerilla fighters may continue to operate and communicate with terrorists. Needless to say, these individuals pose a national security threat when they return to the countries of their citizenship, which has prompted Home Secretary Theresa May to propose rescinding the passports of convicted UK terrorists. When asked by the BBC what he thought of May’s proposal, a Bangladeshi-British fighter in Syria stated that he had no desire to return to the UK, regardless of what regulations were to be imposed.

Most Western nationals fighting in Syria are young. And most of the jihadists from the UK are university-educated Muslims of Pakistani origin in their 20s, according to the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. An interesting case of Europeans traveling to Syria is that of the two Somali-Norwegian teenage sisters (16 and 19) who, according to their father, “ran away” from their home in Norway in October, telling their family that they wanted to help the Syrian rebels. The sisters have only just been located by Norway with the help of Interpol, and it is said that one of the sisters is recuperating from a bullet wound. Recently, the most publicized example of homegrown terrorists from the UK is that of the “white widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, the British wife of one of the 7/7 London bombers. Lewthwaite has become powerful within al-Shabaab, the infamous Somali terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda operating in East Africa. The 2013 Nairobi mall shooting may have been orchestrated by Lewthwaite. It is speculated that an individual exists within the Syrian context with power comparable to that of Lewthwaite.

The threat that these individuals pose when they return to the country of their citizenship is very real. However, the question remains of what criteria are to be imposed when monitoring these individuals and when assessing what makes an individual a threat. Should their passports be rescinded? What would happen were these individuals to become stateless? Would stateless individuals add to further instability in places like Syria? Is this an issue of immigration for Western countries? Should immigration policies be changed, and if so, how? What I would urge governments to keep in mind when addressing these national security issues is that any policy changes will inevitably create unintended consequences, which, in turn, will alter the very landscape of national security itself.