Why Arab States Have Failed
Syria’s story is similar, to a great extent. Foreign support for anti-Assad forces was critical in pushing out the regime from large parts of the country. But the inability of the externally supported opposition groups, both to deal a death blow to the Assad regime and to create viable state structures in portions of the country they controlled, added to the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of pro-Assad forces, thus clearing the way for the emergence of ISIS and its eventual declaration of a caliphate. The military stalemate in Syria also encouraged the involvement of regional powers—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey—in the conflict in order to advance their own interests. It also drew in Russia and the United States on opposite sides of the civil war, thus exacerbating the anarchy and mayhem in the country. Syria thus became the primary arena for at least two Cold Wars in the Middle East, one between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other between the United States and Russia.
It is true that Syria, Iraq, Libya and several other Arab countries suffered from state fragility and lack of unconditional regime legitimacy prior to foreign military intervention. However, the critical variable that pushed them across the line from state fragility to state collapse was foreign military intrusion. Left to their own devices, the peoples in these countries, I believe, would have over time either succeeded in changing their regimes through a process of autonomous revolt or, more likely, come to terms with the semi-authoritarian regimes that, as the history of western Europe teaches us, are essential during the early stages of state formation.
France would not have been France, and England would not have been England, had the Capetians and the Bourbons in the case of the former, and the Tudors in the case of the latter, not been able to impose order and a significant degree of homogeneity in terms of law, language and even religion on populations that were at least as diverse as, if not more than, the populations of Syria and Iraq. The French and English rulers also succeeded over a period of two or three centuries in erasing to a substantial extent the primordial identities of their subjects. In fact, they succeeded through myth-making and the creation of “historical” memories in convincing most of their populations that they had always been French and English, thus instilling in them a sense of national pride.
Looked at from this perspective, Syria, Iraq, Libya and several other Arab states established after World War I, despite their lack of sectarian and ethnic homogeneity and their colonially crafted borders, do not appear to be very different from their European precursors at the beginning of their state-making odyssey. What is different is the era into which they were born, the lack of sufficient time for state building, and the existence of international norms that constrained their state-building efforts by expecting them to live up to standards of “civilized” behavior toward their populations, which no state in earlier epochs had to meet when at a corresponding stage of state making. One wonders how many European state makers would have succeeded in consolidating state identities and creating nations out of their diverse populations with the UN Human Rights Council and Amnesty International breathing down their necks.
What is critically different today, as compared to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, is that the early European state makers could engage in ruthless strategies of state making without significant danger of external intervention undertaken ostensibly to protect the human rights of their populations, a luxury that the Saddam, Qaddafi and Assad regimes did not possess. That such foreign intervention was primarily responsible for the decimation of the Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian states is now crystal clear. As stated earlier, the destruction of these states spawned the twin phenomena of violent jihadism, now represented by the ISIS, and sectarian militias and inter-sectarian conflicts that appear to be tearing these societies apart.
To reiterate, neither violent jihadism nor sectarian conflicts in their present form owe their origins, as is commonly assumed by many Western observers, to the doctrinal precepts of Islam or to the historical rifts within Islam going back fourteen hundred years. They have their origins in externally induced state failure in the Arab world. ISIS and other forms of violent extremism, as well as the Sunni-Shia conflict, as currently witnessed in the Middle East, are but epiphenomena. State failure induced by foreign intervention lies at the basis of the mayhem and anarchy we now see in the Arab world. ISIS and the sectarian militia are but secondary forces that have taken advantage of the decimation of state structures in the Arab world, thanks largely to foreign intervention for reasons mostly unrelated to the human rights of the Arab peoples, the reason ostensibly put forward for such interventions by major Western powers.