There are few winners in the wars for the Middle East

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Middle East

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Middle East has become an arena for fierce, often violent competition among great powers, regional actors and militant groups.

Lebanese protesters carry Hizbollah flags in Beirut.
Lebanese protesters carry Hizbollah flags in Beirut. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Battleground: Ten Conflicts that Explain the New Middle East, Christopher Phillips, Yale University Press, £18.99

The modern Middle East has been shaped by insecurity. From the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the wars that followed the Arab Spring, crisis and conflict have been enduring hallmarks of the region’s politics, heavily influencing its relations with much of the world. In striving to make sense of the turbulence, academics, journalists, and observers of various sorts have put forward an impressive array of arguments identifying this or that factor as the Middle East’s main problem. Such monocausal explanations can provide valuable insight and be attractive in their simplicity; however, they also gloss over the region’s unavoidable complexity.

In his excellent new book, Battleground: Ten Conflicts that Explain the Middle East, Christopher Phillips makes a case for why the region’s complexity matters. Aimed as a starting point for general audiences interested in the region’s geopolitics, this well-written and thoughtfully structured book provides a broad introduction to the many issues underlying conflict and politics in the Middle East.

As a matter of full disclosure, I have also written a new book that seeks to make sense of the Middle East, and while it puts forward a very different thesis, some of its ancillary arguments correspond with those put forward in Battleground. And while it is common practice to criticise a work on the basis of how it differs from one’s own, I’d like to instead concentrate on what Phillips’s book does rather than on what it doesn’t.

As Phillips explains, multiple factors underlie politics and policy in the Middle East. He distils those factors into four key ‘shifts’ that have contributed to the region’s instability, and to the growth of conflict following the Arab Spring. First, the changing role played by the United States; second, the increased activism of regional states; third, the expansion of arenas where regional powers could clash; and, finally, the rise of non-state actors, such as militias and terrorist groups.

To illustrate how these shifts have shaped the ebb and flow of crisis, Phillips organises the region into ten conflicts: Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Kurdistan, Egypt, the Gulf, the Horn of Africa, and Palestine. Each ‘conflict’ – a term Phillips uses loosely to describe a variety of matters such as contentious politics, economic deterioration, and war – comprises an individual chapter and, within each one, a short space highlights the role of one of the conflict’s external players, either local or foreign. Those chapters are intended to operate independently as individual essays, but when combined with the book’s brief introduction and conclusion, they collectively explore how conflicts have arisen and why they have persisted across the Middle East since 2011. Some of these essays discuss well-known wars – such as those in Syria and Libya – while others investigate comparatively lesser considered crises, including those permeating Kurdish climes and the Horn of Africa. The latter is a notable inclusion, in that it both expands usual conceptions of the Middle East, and considers how regional players have become involved in extra-regional affairs.

By this approach, the book presents a variety of case studies, each of which demonstrate how conflict not only pervades much of the region, but is also exacerbated by political elites. There is no better example of that than the chapter on Lebanon.

In its modern history, Lebanon has witnessed periods of intense warfare and relative peace. In the 1970s, civil war plunged the country into an existential struggle, which intensified its communalist divide and attracted the involvement of neighbouring states and foreign powers. The 1989 Taif Accord ended the 15-year conflict and brought a measure of stability to the country. Yet, many of the same systemic challenges that had underpinned the country’s fracturing remained in the postwar period, while new problems also emerged. Among the most significant was the empowerment of Hizbollah, which benefitted from the backing of Iran and Syria, and was one of the only militias to retain heavy armaments after Taif. Similarly, the country’s elite remained fixed in a system that continued to reaffirm religious difference as the primary driver of political life. Enduring military occupations by Syria, which dominated the country’s politics, and Israel, which maintained control of the southern border region, also stymied Lebanon’s development.

After Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and Western pressure compelled Syria to abandon the country five years later, hopes for the country’s democratic future were raised. That optimism soon faded after Hizbollah led the country into a six-week war with Israel in 2006. Hizbollah’s growing power and independence undermined the autonomy of the Lebanese state. Combined with the inability and unwillingness of the country’s ruling class to reform, Lebanon’s government became enfeebled and the country declined into an economic and political mess.

As Phillips explains, Lebanon’s morass has been the product of both foreign interference and a corrupt elite. From the French imperialist design of the Lebanese state to the occupations of Syria and Israel, Lebanon’s development has been hamstrung by interventions from outside. More recently, Iran’s patronage of Hizbollah has transformed the sectarian organisation into the country’s most powerful military actor, and enabled it to operate a virtual state within a state. Iran’s financial support has helped keep Hizbollah solvent, and its provision of weapons has allowed the group to threaten Israel with advanced drones and missiles – an aggressive posture that has kept Lebanon on the precipice of another conflagration. While Iran’s role in Lebanon has deeply enmeshed the country in conflict, the outside player that Phillips spotlights in this chapter is instead the European Union, whose routine bailouts and funding packages, he argues, have encouraged graft and corruption in Lebanese officialdom and helped perpetuate the country’s ruinous political system. It is an interesting choice, but also one that expands the conversation and reinforces how Western involvement in the Middle East, even when well-meaning, can have unintended consequences.

Lebanon’s case is unique in its particulars, but the general dynamic of outside forces conspiring or competing with domestic actors to perpetuate a tenuous status quo or participate in conflict, is an experience shared across much of the Middle East. The chapters on Libya, Syria, and Iraq especially, showcase how intervening outside powers have contributed to the outbreak and expansion of war in the region. Differing agendas drove external participation in those conflicts, wherein each actor sought to advance their interests through proxies or direct military involvement. Despite the extensive resources devoted to fighting these conflicts, and the immense destruction and suffering they have caused, there have been few recognisable victories. Even though Iran and Russia helped Bashar al-Assad mostly overcome the rebellion in Syria, and Turkey and Qatar helped fend off a challenge posed by an Emirati and Egyptian-backed warlord in Libya, the conflicts in both countries are far from settled. Likewise, the war in Yemen is ongoing, even if the Iran-backed Houthis have mostly outlasted the Saudis and Emiratis, and Iraq remains unstable and blighted by corruption and violence.

With so many of these conflicts unsettled, have any of the Middle East’s main players benefitted from their activism? As Phillips argues, the results are mixed. ‘For regional powers,’ he writes, ‘all have gained in some ways but lost in others.’ Although the United Arab Emirates largely failed to achieve its goals in Yemen and Libya, and lost out to regional rivals in both conflicts, Phillips identifies it as one of the region’s two most successful actors. The reasons for this are not detailed, and its setbacks in Yemen and Libya are not considered in that assessment, but Phillips finds that, overall, the UAE ‘greatly expanded its regional influence’ and boosted ‘its regional and global diplomatic clout’. The UAE has encountered criticism for its interventionist behaviour, too, but, on balance, Phillips seems to view Emirati foreign policy as having produced better results than that of other regional players. Israel is noted as the other relative winner due to the Abraham Accords, and because those diplomatic pacts with Arab countries did not require compromise on the Palestinian issue. Given Israel’s current predicaments, and the UAE’s record of failed interventions, that these are considered the two success stories of the Middle East’s recent turbulent era is a grim assessment indeed – and one that reflects how little anyone has gained from the region’s wars.


Afshon Ostovar