Scripps exclusive: A deeper look at Middle East turmoil

Posted at 10:40 AM, Apr 21, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-14 18:20:24-04

The Middle East, once considered the cradle of civilization, is today a bed of battles, brutal terrorist organizations and collapsed nations.

People in countries such as Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Iraq have taken up arms against their leaders while other nations, including Saudi Arabia and Iran have punished dissent.

Terrorist groups ISIS and al-Qaida have spread chaos and then served as beacons for disillusioned people impacted by those crashing governments.

World powers have sought to create uneasy alliances amid shifting needs.

But how did the Middle East become entrenched in such turmoil, and is there a string capable of unraveling the chaos?


Governments in the Middle East are changing rapidly with regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran working to keep influence while non-state terrorist groups work to upend established regimes.

Houthi rebels tore through Yemen earlier this year and were backed by predominantly Shiite Iran. Saudi Arabia, a mainly Sunni nation, and allies responded with airstrikes.

The move has experts worried about more blood and instability.

“I think what we’re seeing now are the seeds of a broader regional war that’s going to reset the playing field to some extent,” said J.M. Berger, co-author of "ISIS: The State of Terror" and non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution. “Exactly what the Middle East is going to look like at the end of that process is very unclear.”

Animation by Tribune News Service.

The source of tension between the Shiites and Sunnis is mainly political and perpetuated by leaders as opposed to religious disagreements, said James Gelvin, a UCLA history professor who has authored several books on the Middle East.

ISIS and al-Qaida have exploited people in the Middle East who feel forsaken by their respective government. For example, ISIS has targeted Iraq’s majority Shiite population to incite a military response that would inflame the Sunnis and draw them to ISIS’ side.

The feelings have been exacerbated by reports of Shiite militias' abusing of Sunni populations in Iraq, including torching of homes, kidnapping and murder.

For some people, there is no government at all. Libya, Syria and Sudan are in civil wars. In June 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate — a political religious state with geographical boundaries for Muslims — that included portions of Iraq and Syria.

ISIS, also known as Islamic State and ISIL, is an offshoot of al-Qaida that is battling its former group. ISIS started as an al-Qaida offshoot during the Iraq War in 2003, was nearly defeated and then re-emerged in Syria. From there, it spread.

“ISIS managed to produce violent shows and to exploit the misunderstanding and the local circumstances that the region lives, in the absence of true leadership,” said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

While ISIS has boldly showed gruesome beheadings and seeks to establish a physical realm, al-Qaida lurks, secretly building alliances with terrorist groups and choosing strategic targets throughout the world with no short-term vision of ruling.

The strategies of the two groups are very different, wrote Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Valens Group threat analyst Bridget Moreng co-wrote in an op-ed for Politico.

But both terrorist groups thrive off chaos and work to create more chaos. Little is more chaotic than war.

“In these local regions, sometimes having a jihadist group maintaining some kind of order could be more attractive than having no order at all,” Berger said. “A lot of Sunnis do not feel safe under the government (in Iraq) and were willing to try something different.”

And U.S. intervention has not solved the problem.

“It is clearly the case with terrorism compared to many other things that you can make things worse,” said Gary LaFree, the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.


Much of the Middle East has historically been stable compared to other chunks of the world, but recent history has been anything but.

“You have to have a 100-year perspective on this,” said Chris Seiple, the president of the Institute for Global Engagement. “You have a historic geopolitical hard power competition between the Arabs and Persians. There is a Shia-Sunni competition. Then the third lens is you’re dealing with 100 years of failed Arab governance, which leaves a tremendous, sometimes subconscious feeling of humiliation.”

The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 until the end of World War I and stretched over lands in Europe to places now named Syria, Iraq and Palestine among others. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran have historical identities.

After World War I, the empire split into portions of influence between France and Great Britain as the world began to learn the value of oil and its prominence in the Middle East.

European leaders negotiated for pieces as world powers split up the Ottoman Empire.

“Part of the Jordanian frontier with Syria, for example, looks like a line drawn with a ruler because it actually was,” said Carter Findley, a humanities distinguished professor at Ohio State University’s history department. Findley has authored several books on the Middle East.

In the last 100 years, the Middle East has played host to powerful revolutions such as those in Egypt (1952) and Iran (1979) that led to strong governments.

Various governments, including the United States, have sought to bend or even break ruling powers in the Middle East, propped up dictators and engaged in wars.

Complicating the region, Israel declared independence 1948 and almost immediately was attacked by its neighbors.

To people in the Middle East, Israel looked like a bastion of western imperialism, Findley said.

“This is always the central irritant in the politics of the Arab world,” Findley said. “The other governments are not willing to risk unlimited sacrifices over this, but this will never be right as long as this is unsolved.”

Perception of the United States in the Middle East has been complicated by past and current foreign policy decisions, especially the United States’ support of Israel.

The United States also has backed some authoritarian governments in the Middle East with poor track records of human rights, Gelvin said, whereas the United States strongly pushed for democracy in eastern Europe and Cuba.

Geopolitical concerns such as the Cold War and the need for oil have put the United States in uncomfortable diplomatic situations, he said.

“We go up to (former Egyptian president) Hosni Mubarak and we say, human rights, free elections,” Gelvin said. “He says, ‘OK, I have a treaty with Israel. Do you want that treaty in Israel to be maintained? Then I have to have power.’ And we back down immediately.

“The same thing with the Saudis. Do you want that oil spigot to be turned off? Well, that’s a possibility if, for example, opponents to selling oil to the United States take power. And we back down immediately.”

The 2003 U.S. war in Iraq ended Saddam Hussein’s regime, but left a void that has been filled in parts by ISIS. The 9/11 attacks initially put the world in the United States’ corner, Berger said, but the invasion of Iraq stripped the U.S. of some of its sympathy.

That really re-energized this movement, in addition to creating a giant region of instability that these movements tend to thrive in,” Berger said.

Leaving Iraq in 2011 perpetuated the problem, Seiple said.

“We just washed our hands of Iraq after 2011 because it was perceived that all we cared about was getting our troops home,” he said.


The Middle East has a demographic issue — a lot of unemployed young people.

More than half of the Middle East and North Africa’s population is under 25 years old, and more than 25 percent of the region’s young people are unemployed, according to an October report by the World Economic Forum.

Gelvin said the Middle East economy would need a 7.5 percent growth rate just to employ all of the new job market entrants every year, while the region has experienced only a 3 percent growth rate.

“There’s a great deal of dissatisfaction because the Middle East economy has not been growing substantially,” said Gelvin, who has authored several books on the Middle East.

Gelvin said people in the Middle East consider middle class to be more of a group of those who are educated as opposed to an economic standard.

“Unemployment is extraordinarily high among these people,” he said. “In Syria, it’s been estimated that before the outbreak of the protests, that it took the average college graduate four years to find employment and that’s usually underemployment.”

Add in a lot of children who are either out of school or at risk at leaving.

One-fourth of children and young adolescents — 21 million people — in the Middle East and North Africa are either out of school or at risk of dropping out, according to a joint report from UNICEF and UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

The numbers include about 3 million children in Syria and Iraq where fighting has destroyed educational infrastructure.

Famed billionaire investor Warren Buffett wrote about winning what he called the “Ovarian Lottery” by being born in the United States in his autobiography, “The Snowball.”

“I don’t think people in the Middle East wake up feeling like they won the lottery whether it’s in economic terms or in terms of how the world treats them,” Findley said. “I don’t see how they could.”

Terrorist organizations exploit these situations of personal chaos to recruit, and the terrorist attacks often are designed to inflame differences in groups such as Sunni and Shiite muslims.

Politicians worried about retaining power sometimes push sectarian differences for self preservation.

“As soon as the uprising in Syria broke out, the Assad regime sectarianized it immediately,” Gelvin said.

Young westerners, meanwhile, have been drawn toward ISIS for different reasons, including feelings of marginalization, said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs for the Heritage Foundation.

“This is psychologically a chance for them to get in touch with their roots as they see it,” he said. “They want to go to back to a utopian time that never really existed.”

Radicalization has impacted young people in different societies throughout history, Phillips said.

“It does appeal to young Muslims the same way at one point communism appealed to young westerners,” he said.


Many experts believe ISIS will lose control of its territory. Terrorist organizations thrive on anonymity, secrecy and guerrilla warfare.

ISIS planted a flag for all to see and is challenging foreign territories to come and take it.

But a new leader here or a victorious battle there have not proven to provide any more stability for the Middle East. Crushing ISIS is not itself a solution, experts say.  

“The short term goal is … defeat ISIS militarily,” Awad said. “But the long term and more important term is to defeat and remove the circumstances that gave birth to ISIS — the local circumstances, the lack of democracy, the lack of opportunity, high unemployment, the occupation, the dictatorships.

“Today if we get rid of ISIS and these circumstances prevail, we’re going to have the likes of ISIS in the future.”

There are few beacons of hope for those pushing for democracy, human rights and peace, and picking sides has been problematic. Progress toward democracy could take time for nations with a history of authoritarian rule, Phillips said.

“It was unrealistic to expect those countries to make a rapid change,” Phillips said. “To me, it will be amazing if they can do it in one generation.”

Fighting terrorists in Syria further empowers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of launching chemical attacks against his own people. Fighting terrorists in Iraq helps give Iran a larger foothold. Backing Saudi Arabia in Yemen could push the Middle East closer to an all-out war.

Seiple said he would like to see a rapid reaction force led by the Muslim world that could respond to ISIS as the terrorist group implodes.

“At the end of the day all of this comes from poor governance that therefore allows an exacerbation of an inability to deal with our deepest differences,” he said. “That can be addressed but it’s going to take a very intentional approach, village by village, as trust is renewed.”

But there are some reasons for optimism, LaFree said.

“If recent history is a model, I suspect it won’t last forever. Beneath it all, humans don’t like to be in hyper-violent situations,” LaFree said. “They eventually get fed up with it. No one likes to live that way forever.”

If the governments could do more to tend to the needs of its people through economies, education and infrastructure, the impacts could be substantial.

“If they had that, then I think there would be every reasonable expectation that something looking like stability would return to the region,” Findley said.

Eric Pfahler and Gavin Stern are national digital producers for the Scripps National Desk.