It’s easy to look around the Middle East right now and see nothing but conflict. A quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria over the past four and a half years as a result of the civil war in that country; close to 4,000 people have died in the midst of an ongoing civil war in Yemen; and 1,132 Iraqis were killed in acts of terrorism and violence in the month of July alone. These numbers don’t even take into account the millions of innocent civilians that have been displaced from their homes or forced to flee their own country since the hopeful Arab Spring movements first erupted in 2011. Nor do they touch upon the vast swaths of the Arab world, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, that are largely ungovernable or under the domain of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State.
The region, in short, is in the middle of a dramatic transformation that is challenging the concept of the strong nation-state and the very idea of permanent borders. In many cases, terrorist groups that are trying to upend the status-quo to their own benefit (the Islamic State first and foremost) have contributed to the disarray and terrible humanitarian situation that families are experiencing throughout the Middle East. But traditional armies are just as responsible in certain instances for the deaths of innocent civilians and the destruction of national infrastructure.
These are the five Middle Eastern militaries that are the most active in the region today — activity that more often than not produces unnecessary and unfortunate deaths and injuries among civilians caught in the middle of a war zone.
While the United States and its partners in Europe are fixated on the Islamic State’s brutality and deprivations in the Levant, the Syrian Arab Army remains the principal cause of killings in that country. Indeed, ever since hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in the spring of 2011 to demand peaceful reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed a systematic campaign of collective punishment on anyone who dares question its authority. Frederic Hof, the former Obama administration's point man at the State Department for the Syria transition, appropriately calls it a “mass homicide strategy” perpetrated by the Syrian army on its very own people.
Of all of the conflicts present in the Middle East today, none is as vicious and inhumane as the civil war in Syria — a conflict that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population. These horrific figures would be nowhere near as high were it not for the Assad regime’s war strategy: bombing neighborhoods packed with civilians with unguided, indiscriminate barrel bombs; arresting and torturing to death political activists and rebel fighters caught in the government’s net; closing off and subjecting entire suburban areas of its own capital to a debilitating siege; preventing food and medicine into rebel-held areas; and completely disregarding international humanitarian law in its pursuit of a total-war victory.
“Indiscriminate bombardment of civilian populated areas has been a major component of the Syrian State forces strategy in the on-going conflict,” wrote Paulo Sergio Pinhiero, the Chairman of the U.N.’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. In short: conducting war crimes is the bedrock of the Syrian army’s strategy.
2. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia historically tries to keep its men in uniform within the Kingdom’s borders. When Riyadh seeks to project power in the region, it usually opts for more covert means: writing checks to allies in order to sway their opinion, bankrolling governments that are having trouble paying their bills, and sending cash and weapons to proxy forces in order to ensure that the Saudis have skin in the game. However, that technique changed as soon as the Houthi militia seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and attempted an assault on the southern port of Aden, where the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was on its last legs.
Since last March, Saudi Arabia has assembled a coalition of Sunni Arab states to claw back territory from the Houthis. Riyadh has also led that coalition with thousands upon thousands of airstrikes on Houthi positions across Yemeni territory. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely Saudi-led airstrikes have slammed into populated areas and decimated civilian structures. According to the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, Saudi aircraft killed approximately 65 civilians in Taiz last week when the bombs that were released hit homes and other buildings that are not considered legitimate targets in a time of war. Just as damaging as the air strikes to the civilian population is the blockade of Yemen’s coastline that aims to intercept or prevent Iranian weapons shipments to the Houthi militants. Unfortunately, that same blockade has had the effect of slowing down the flow of humanitarian equipment to a country desperately in need of fuel, food, medicine, and medical professionals: 80 percent of Yemen’s population is now in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
In terms of pure military spending and conventional capability, the Iranian military is not particularly impressive. Hemmed in by a United Nations Security Council arms embargo that prohibits Iran from importing or exporting weapons of all kinds (this embargo is scheduled to be lifted in 5 years pending IAEA certification that Iran is living up to the nuclear agreement), Iranian military leaders have been unable to catch up with their rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council — especially Saudi Arabia, which has increased its weapons buying every year since 2002. Tehran spends less than $20 billion on military equipment, whereas the GCC spends a collective $115 billion: a ratio of nearly 6:1.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, has an incredibly effective network of proxies throughout the Middle East that gives Tehran the ability to project its influence in an Arab world dominated by governments that are largely hostile or resistant to Iranian meddling. Iran’s conventional military hardware is nothing compared to the asymmetric network of terrorist proxies that it has managed to build and cultivate over the last three decades: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, several Shia militias in Iraq, and some segments of the Taliban in Afghanistan. At least 500 U.S. soldiers have been killed by weapons that have been provided by the Iranians to Shia militia groups in Iraq, and countless others have lost their lives in Afghanistan due in part to Tehran’s transactional relationship with the Taliban. But the biggest victims of Iran’s intervention have been Syrians, where thousands of people die every month by a regime that would have disappeared years ago absent Iranian support.
The Egyptian military is commonly regarded as the biggest and most capable in the entire Middle Eastern region. Cairo’s defense relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense is long and deep, with the United States providing Egypt with $76 billion in foreign aid since 1948 and an annual $1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian military since 1987—a price tag that is only second to Israel. Egyptian officers train in U.S. service academies every single year, and Egypt is a prime consumer of U.S.-manufactured F-16’s and M1A1 tanks.
With all of that equipment, you could reasonably assume that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was preparing for a major conflagration with a neighboring state. Yet Egypt hasn’t been at war with another country since 1973, when it fought Israel in order to reclaim land in the Sinai Peninsula that was lost six years prior. Instead, the military has directed much of its firepower on its own citizens when they get out of line — most notably against any political grouping with an Islamist affiliation. One of the most consequential engagements in Egypt’s peacetime history was the military’s incursion into Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares on August 14, 2013. On that day, tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters demonstrating against the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi’s government were cleared from the area in what can only be described as a scorched-earth campaign. Human Rights Watch referred to the August 14 operation as the “worst mass killing in [the] country’s modern history,” with over 600 demonstrators killed and most of the public square in ruins. The event was a vivid example of what could happen when the Egyptian army is pushed into a corner and is forced to respond to a situation that the brass leadership considers a national security crisis.
If there is any army that is on a constant state of alert and is prepared to respond to threats on a moment’s notice, it is the Israel Defense Forces. The State of Israel has been involved in four wars (one with Hezbollah, three with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip) in the past nine years—all of which have caused civilian deaths, the destruction of property, and a surge in resentment between Israelis on the one hand and Arabs on the other.