Summary: To gain a perspective to understand the Islamic State, Martin van Creveld looks at the history of the Middle East for its origins. Although written last year it remains as apt today as then (despite the monthly clickbait announcements of turning points in this war).
Van Gogh sees the history of the Middle East
By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 24 September 2014
Here with his generous permission
What went wrong? A brief history of the Arab world.
During the middle ages the Arabs developed a brilliant civilization, or so we are told. Next, at some time during the fifteenth century, things began going wrong. The Arabs missed the invention of print (only in 1775 did the Ottomans, who at that time ruled over most Arabs, allow the first printing shop to be established. They missed humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. They missed the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They missed the French and American Revolutions along with the principles of democracy and human rights; and they also missed the industrial revolution.
As so often, backwardness meant military weakness and invited invasion. By 1919 there was not one Arab country left that was not under European occupation with all the attendant bloodshed, destruction, and humiliation.
The process of liberation started in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Many of the regimes that now took power were republican and secular. They promised to catch up with the modern world, usually by adopting some version of “Arab socialism.” Algeria, Tunisia, Libya (after 1969), Egypt, Syria and Iraq all took this approach.
The situation in the monarchies (Morocco, Saudi, Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf countries) was more problematic. The need to assert themselves in the world drove them, too, toward modernization. However, they were less able to cut loose from their traditions, since doing so would compromise the basis on which their regimes were built.
In our time
Either way, modernization failed. To this day there is no Arab Hyundai, no Arab Toyota or Alibaba. The reasons for this — political instability, extreme poverty, or the kind of oil-based riches that makes it easier to import whatever is needed rather than produce it locally — vary. With the failure to modernize the economy came the kind of regime in which corruption is an integral part of government. The rule of law is unknown, the secret police commits any crime it wants, and whatever elections are held are a farce. Not even the much overrated “Arab Spring” has changed these facts.
Some Arab leaders, notably the Saudis, distinguished themselves by their conservatism and bigotry. Others, notably Libya’s Muammar Khadafy, mixed their brutish despotism with a kind of clownishness. The Arab states’ attempts to assert themselves by force of arms were regularly defeated by Israel, which most Arabs see as a Western stooge, and by the West itself, as in 1991. By the turn of the millennium, so bad had things become that prefacing anything with the word “Arab” automatically marked it as second, third and even fourth rate. The only exception, apparently, is being an “Arab” horse.
The rise of the Islamic State
It was against this background that Daesh, IS as it is known in the West, emerged. The organization originated in Iraq during the U.S occupation when Sunni groups, resenting the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, broke away from Al Qaeda and started fighting both the Americans and the Shiite majority. From there it spread into Syria where civil war broke out in 2011 and where it joined other militias fighting the regime of Basher Assad before again turning its attention to Iraq.
It feeds on a century of near constant humiliation both at the hands of foreigners and at those of various Arab rulers. That accounts for its evident ability to attract volunteers from practically all Arab countries as well as the Arab minorities in the West.
Some of these people are highly educated. Yet they do not condemn the atrocities for which Daesh has become infamous. To the contrary, they see them as one more reason why it deserves their support. Here, they feel, is one organization prepared to adopt real Islam. It will burn its bridges and go to the end of the world fighting both the hated, corrupt Arab governments — whether republican or monarchical — and the overbearing West.
The position of the Arab governments is more problematic. Syria and Iraq barely have any governments left. The rulers of the Gulf States, Qatar in particular, dislike Daesh but are trying to buy them off. The Hashemite monarchy stands in mortal fear of it, and with good reason. Egypt’s military rulers, seeing links between Daesh and the Islamic opposition to their regimes, share the same attitude.
Most interesting is the position of the Saudis. A reborn Caliphate is hardly in the interest of the Saudi royal house whose ancestors used to be governed, albeit very loosely, by the Caliphs in Constantinople. They also dislike the atrocities which are giving Sharia a bad name in the U.S whose support they need against Iran and, perhaps one day, their own people. Yet some Saudis see a parallel between Daesh and themselves before, following the discovery of oil, they were subjected to Western influences. Should the house founded by Ibn Saud during the 1930s be overthrown, this view may well prevail.
Thus the entire, geo-politically critically important, area from the Mediterranean coast and the Persian Gulf stands in danger of being engulfed by a whole series of interrelated wars. So far Sunnis, Shiites, and, here and there, the small Christian minority in the various countries have done the bulk of the killing and the dying. Outside powers are, however, taking a hand. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are all more or less heavily involved. So are Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. As so often the U.S plays, or is trying to play, a critical role. It is mobilizing a broad coalition of allies — including several Arab ones — and bombing, or threatening to bomb, everything in sight.
And the outcome?
Nobody knows. Daesh may or may not defeat Assad and set up some other government in Syria. It may or may not succeed in overrunning Iraq. Jordan, Israel and Lebanon may or may not become even more heavily involved than they already are. Ditto in respect to the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Turks and the Iranians. All we know is that Daesh is but one of several similar and competing organizations all of which want to establish a new Caliphate. It can also be safely said that air strikes will do little to contain the fighting. The one certainty is that a great many people will die and whatever political order exists will be destroyed before another can take its place, if it can.
As the process unfolds, far from giving birth to a new pan-Arab politico-religious order, it may well bring about the Arab world’s terminal decline. The question is, will we allow them to take the rest of us down with them?
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.
The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.
Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. Some of the best known are Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict. He’s written books about the technical aspects of war, such as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.
He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? He’s written some of the most influential books of our generation about war, such as The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.
My favorite is The Culture of War. His magnum opus is the dense about mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.
For More Information
- What’s in a terrorist’s name? A step to understanding the Islamic State. by Hal Kempfer (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Who will find the key to power: America or the Middle East’s jihadists?
- Are we at war with ISIS? Does it make a difference what you call it? by Chet Richards.
- Stratfor: The Islamic State’s Pretense of Strength in Yemen.
- Martin van Creveld asks who will stop the Monster, the Islamic State?
- Stratfor: ISIS & the rise of Warlord Entrepreneurs.