Experts at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences presented an analysis of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The main causes of these conflicts appear to be deeply divided local societies rather than external factors.

A Libyan revolutionary fighter runs for cover while attacking pro-Gadhafi forces in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 7, 2011. Photo: AP

The article is first published in Russian by the Russian International Affairs Council.

In a collective monograph entitled "Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century", the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences examined the development of conflict situations in the Middle East and North Africa.

The authors looked at the age-old conflicts (the situation in Lebanon and Iraq, the situation around the Western Sahara, the Islamic factor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), as well as the issues behind the formation and evolution of new hotbeds of new tensions, born as a result of the Arab Spring. These latter conflicts include Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, and two sub-regional situations – in the Persian Gulf and the Maghreb countries.

The monograph presents a multi-faceted picture of the Middle East situation after the Arab Spring. This is evidenced by the very logic of the layout of this book composed of three sections – “Regional and Global Picture,” “A New Dimension to Long-Standing Armed Confrontations,” and “Birth of the Arab Spring.”

The study also raises issues related to the economic impact of the Arab Spring and the “archaization” of Middle Eastern and North African societies.

Middle East and North Africa: What is the essence of the conflict?

In comparison with earlier works by the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), this edition not only looks at materials across a longer period of time, but also includes new themes and twists.

The first section analyzes the economic implications of the transformations that have taken place in the Middle East. According to Alexander Filonik, author of the chapter “The Arab Economy: External Threats and Internal Challenges” and leading research fellow at the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, the detonator of the current Middle East conflict was economic imbalances, the economic vulnerability of “capital-deficient countries” (the most striking example is Syria), and only in the last instance – “the provoking of conflicts by outside forces.”

Another idea that seems indisputable is that of Irina Zvyagelskaya, professor and senior research fellow at the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies. In her analysis of the archaization and conflicts in the Middle East she says that the imposing of “rules, which are able to deprive a state of its raison d’être... replacing real goal setting by myths and pseudo-historical nonsense, to fragment any society and lead it to disaster.”

The quality of this monograph rests, in particular, on the analysis of two sub-regional situations, which previously have not been studied in depth. At the same time, demonstrated is both the stability of the monarchical regimes in the Persian Gulf region and the instability generated by the Arab Spring, according to Professor of Oriental Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities Elena Melkumyan. There is also consideration of the reasons for the fundamentally different responses to regional and international challenges in the Maghreb countries – Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as seen from the analysis by Vasily Kuznetsov, director of the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies.

The first section also includes chapters by the Director of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies Vitaly Naumkin (“Islamic Radicalism and External Interference in Deeply Divided Societies of the Middle East”) and chief research fellow at the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies Dina Malysheva (“Conflict in the Middle East, in the Context of the Changing International Political Environment”).

The main thing that should be emphasized is the unity of the group of authors in their efforts to show the internal causes of conflicts and wars. Of course, this does not mean that in the book they ignore external influences as factors that have promoted socio-political conflagrations in the Middle East and North Africa.

Nevertheless, most authors believe that these factors were not the root cause of the Arab Spring, but were only superimposed on the more significant internal circumstances – the deeply divided local societies.

According to Naumkin, “The level of violence during internal conflicts, the extent of radicalization and the potential of the Islamist movement is higher in the Middle East... in those societies that can be considered as deeply divided and had become the objects of... outside interference.” This view is also expressed by Malysheva.

Also read: Russia Direct Report: 'Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East'

Conflicts in countries, conflicts around countries

It would seem that this subject of long-standing conflicts in the regional areas of ​​the Middle East and North Africa by now could be considered as exhausted. The contribution made to the description of these conflicts is actually reduced to the introduction into circulation of new facts confirming their continued state of stagnation.

However, this is at first glance. In reading the monograph by the Institute of Oriental Studies, one learns that some of these conflicts are still insufficiently described by historians. A realistic analysis of the situation in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Western Sahara is offered by the authors of the second section of the book. Also, the topic of the Islamic factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also discussed by Alexander Demchenko, fellow at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies. The expert offers his take on this key element in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is often not analyzed in detail by other researchers.

The third part of the monograph is devoted to the countries where the Arab Spring took place. Accompanied by the analysis of the change in the position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the intra-Libyan conflict after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, the Syrian conflict and the armed Islamist opposition in the Syrian uprising, this section also includes an examination of the conflict between the government and the Islamist opposition in Algeria in the 1990s. 

The absence in this section of a chapter on Tunisia is fully compensated for by the “Tunisian” conclusions, which can be found in the chapter by Kuznetsov. The presence of two Syrian articles is justified by the fact that they deal with different aspects of the crisis, but then again, the inclusion of an Algerian chapter seems rather artificial. We believe that this would have been more appropriate in the first section of the monograph, but only if it were presented in a theoretical context. Moreover, some articles of the third section, like in the preceding one, raise some questions.

Reflections and objections

Formed under the influence of many factors, Russia’s view on the situation in Iraq comes from the fact that the only reason for the continuing violence in the country was the American-led military intervention in March 2003. This view, on the whole, is shared by Ildar Minyazhetdinov, research fellow of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies with expertise on Iraq. Undoubtedly, the entrance of U.S. Armed Forces, and their subsequent actions as the “occupying power,” subsequently destroyed the balance of power that existed in Iraq, opening the possibility for new competition arising between ethnic and religious groups, and their representative parties and movements.

Nevertheless, the author of the article also stresses that at the time of the American invasion (and much earlier), Iraqi society was composed of a diverse ethno-confessional clan and tribal structure, and government bodies were imposed over the traditional clan and tribal system and tribal institutions. In other words, during the existence of the Iraqi state, a unified “national” social bond was never formed in society, and an external force took advantage of this to solve its own problems.

If numerous warring Iraqi elite had been unable to reach consensus on the future of their country, if their actions (even after the withdrawal of U.S. troops) had Balkanized Iraq, if during the period of external control, each of these groups fought for favors of the “occupation administration,” what should be viewed as the root causes of the continuing anarchy and instability? In any case, the cause was not the U.S. invasion, even if the “occupation administration” had really made countless mistakes.

It is worth noting that all of the authors of the third section were only interested in certain aspects of the Arab Spring events, although, of course, these were important. Analysis of their development in various country-specific versions makes no sense. This approach is justified – and works have already been written on Egypt, as well as on Syria, concerning the emergence of local revolutions. However, the question that immediately arises: Do the authors really believe that these events can be considered as revolutions?

Irina Mokhova, independent expert on the problems of political and social transformations in the Middle East, has a positive answer to this question, and the roll back of the revolution to its original point becomes obvious. She writes about the political transformation of Egypt, which, even if it did not return back to the era of the Republic of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak (the fourth President of Egypt from 1981 to 2011), still put an end to the expectations and hopes of 2011.

Moreover, the most important conclusion Mokhova draws is this: “The actions of the Brotherhood and of the military showed there was an absence of ‘political pluralism’ in Egypt, a country that, in comparison with other countries of the Arab world, took almost the longest time to complete the path to modernization.”

The author posed an even more important question: To what extent can the Western model of democracy be applied to non-Western societies with different political cultures, traditions, and worldviews? From this, it follows that the time after 1952, when in Egypt, also as a result of a military coup, the second President of Egypt (1956-1970 in office) Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, was an era of archaism, which radically changed society, its behavior and political leanings.

Neither Aleksey Podtserob nor Boris Dolgov, both research fellows at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, lean towards a positive answer to the question: Can we consider the events in Libya and Syria as revolutions? Podtserob notes that these “Arab Troubles” destroyed “the once prosperous Jamahiriya.” Again, according to Dolgov, even though there are internal problems present in Syria, the main reasons for the continuing crisis are external factors – namely, the “support provided to armed anti-government groups by outside forces that are trying to use the Syrian internal conflict for the realization of their own strategic goals.”

This view is derived from the current Russian position on the situation in Libya and Syria. However, does it correspond to the idea of a deeply divided society? If we consider the interference of external forces as being the main factor in internal conflicts and wars, then why in this connection, for example, we do not consider the role of other external actors in Syria, including Iran and pro-Iranian forces? Why not analyze the Syrian direction of Russia’s foreign policy? However, the bias towards “external forces” is successfully compensated for by the thoughtful analysis of the situation in Syria made by Vladimir Akhmedov, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies of Eastern Problems at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies.

We have to admit that the authors of this study were not fully able to convey the principle of internal factors as being primary in causing the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Now, is the reason behind the actual conflicts themselves? Probably not, because the authors have shown their own, not always coinciding, preferences that determine their views on the issues that they have analyzed.

However, this does not mean that the quality of that monograph is placed into question, especially since unanimity in any scientific work is impossible and even dangerous. On the contrary, the absence of this unanimity makes this new edition worthy for a wide range of readers.

Today, it not only gives the most complete picture of the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, but also makes one think, and challenges the views of its authors on the issues that are of fundamental importance for the whole world.

The article is first published in Russian by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Grigory Kosach is an expert at RIAC.