The Middle East’s Endless Wars Part 3

Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda secured their place in infamy with the attacks of 9/11. Within one month U.S. and U.K. forces had invaded Afghanistan. Within two months both the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaderships had been forced into hiding across the border in Pakistan. With the Taliban deposed and Al Qaeda on the run, George W. Bush announced a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Afghanistan, promising substantial assistance for state building and democracy. That promise was soon forgotten, however, amidst the furore of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.   

Step 6: 9/11 and the US Invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq

Shortly after the Bush administration entered office, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a meeting of the National Security Council, ‘Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond.’

Writing in the New York Times magazine a few weeks later, Bush’s speech writer David Frum wrote, ‘An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the replacement of the radical Baathist dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States, would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans.’ [1]

The attacks of September 11 provided the Bush administration with an opportunity to put this grandiose vision into action. Within hours the White House was trying to link 9/11 to Iraq. It eventually put together a case for invasion based on claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had supported Al Qaeda. Neither allegation was true.

In December 2011, the U.S. military formally declared the end of its mission in Iraq in a ceremony in Baghdad. A complete withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan is planned by the end of 2014. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with the fatalities in the spill-over war in Pakistan, are thought, by conservative estimates, to have caused as many 329,000 deaths, so far.

The United States however has not achieved any of the goals it set out to accomplish in its post – 9/11 military campaigns.

Both Afghanistan and Iraq are close to collapse. Both countries are embroiled in ongoing brutal sectarian wars. And in both countries state weakness and widespread violence provide the ideal conditions for the radicalisation and recruitment of militant extremists, the elimination of whom was the U.S.’ main post 9/11 goal.

photo credit: Ron Rothbart via photopin cc

photo credit: Ron Rothbart via photopin cc

Step 7: The Arab Spring and War in Syria

In the early months of 2011 a wave of protests and revolutions swept across the Arab world.

The self-immolation of fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, in protest at police harassment, acted as the trigger for what quickly became known as the Arab Spring. Within months, four of the region’s most entrenched dictators – Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – had been forced from power.

Mohammed Bouazizi’s drastic action took place in a small town in southern Tunisia, a country on the periphery of the Arab world. Tunisia’s protests started and spread for local reasons, but the protestors’ success in driving Ben Ali from power resonated strongly with populations across the region. Within weeks, Egypt’s January 25 revolution had resulted in the peaceful ousting of Hosni Mubarak. At that moment anything seemed possible.

Soon, however, hope turned to violence, as the regions dictators fought back. The week of March 14 was a turning point. In that week, protests in Bahrain were brutally crushed by security forces with the help of Saudi tanks; unarmed protestors in the Syrian town of Deraa were murdered by security forces; in Sanaa more than 40 protestors were killed by Yemeni forces; and in Libya, Qaddafi’s troops began closing in on rebel-held Benghazi. [2]

The scale of the regimes’ violence in Libya and Syria in particular shifted the narrative decisively away from peaceful street protests to civil war and possible international military intervention.

Qaddafi was the first of the Arab leaders to unleash the brutality of his security forces on protestors. As a result of Qaddafi’s actions, the Libyan uprising spread and turned into armed rebellion. By February 20, the rebels had taken control of the eastern city of Benghazi. Qaddafi defiantly pledged to eliminate the opposition, declaring ‘the people who don’t love me don’t deserve to live.’

By March, Qaddafi’s army was advancing on Benghazi. In order to prevent a massacre, the U.N. Security Council authorised the use of ‘all necessary means’ to stop the Libyan army from taking the city.

The NATO intervention proved to be a turning point. In mid-August Qaddafi’s regime collapsed and in October Qaddafi himself was captured and killed.

Events were to take a tragically different course in Syria. Many Syrians were deeply fearful of the consequences of an uprising, having seen years of civil war in their neighbours Lebanon and Iraq. As a result, Syria was quiet for the first few months of the Arab Spring.

When protests did begin, they began, as in Tunisia, for local reasons. Youth activists in the small town of Deraa, angered at the arrest of a student for writing graffiti, began holding candlelight vigils in protest. Had the regime shown restraint at this point, it would probably have easily weathered the challenge from this small local opposition. Instead Assad’s over-the-top response led his country into sectarian warfare.

Assad’s security forces showed no qualms about shooting unarmed civilians. By the end of the summer the death toll had reached 2000 and the opposition had taken up arms. The involvement of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in support of Assad quickly drew in Sunni jihadis set on destroying Assad’s Shia-backed regime.

So far more than 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives and half the Syrian population have been forced to flee their homes.

The opposition forces in Syrian are extremely fragmented, with up to 1000 armed groups estimated to be fighting government forces. Among the rebel groups are Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups intent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Both government and opposition forces have been guilty of gross human rights violations, including kidnap, torture, murder and mass execution.

From within this maelstrom of violence, the Islamic State has emerged, capturing world headlines through the brutality of its actions.


For over thirty five years a brutal sectarian war has been raging across the Middle East – a war within Islam. This war has brought three countries – Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – to the brink of failed state status.

The conflict has involved, so far, six wars – the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, most recently, the war in Syria. It has sparked the rise of violent extremist groups including the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The cost in terms of lives lost has been immense, with conservative estimates of several million dead.

With no end to the spiral of violence in sight, the Middle East today is moving ever closer to total collapse. While many factors are contributing to the impending existential crisis, the primary fault line is the sectarian fault that runs through Islam.

The rise of Islamic State, seen in the context of the last thirty five hopeless years, should be a signal that a new Middle East peace process is urgently needed – a process aimed at healing the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide.

This blog is the third in a series of three. Part one can be read here.


[1] Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom, Arrow Books, 2010, page 287

[2] Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising, Public Affairs, 2012, page 131

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