The collapse of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia in January 2011, soon followed by Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, had a profound impact across the Arab world. There was an eruption of protest in Oman, Libya and Bahrain, while an incident in the town of Deraa in southern Syria sparked demonstrations that grew and spread into regular events involving thousands of young people.
Almost from the start, Bashar al-Assad’s regime was determined to maintain power, with severe repression of demonstrations leading to violence, injury and death. As non-violent demonstrations escalated into rebellion, the regime’s response was to use greater force while insisting that the stability of the state itself was being threatened by terrorists.
For almost a year this mantra was pushed insistently. By late 2012 it had become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: dedicated young jihadists had formed some of the most cohesive elements of the rebellion, attracting recruits from across the middle east and beyond.
Yet the regime both survived and then became more secure, confounding the expectations of most analysts and of western governments. It has even had the confidence to switch tactics by, for example, using force selectively against the rebels. This can mean, as in many instances, targeting non-Islamist rebels while they were fighting Islamist paramilitaries such as ISIL – weakening the secular elements and further strengthening the Islamists. The regime can thus now sell the idea of a terrorist threat more effectively, even though it has deliberately enhanced this threat by its own actions.
Damascus’s core purpose is to gain external support on the grounds that it alone stands between stability and Syria’s dominance by an al-Qaida-linked movement. The strategy is working, in that many western states – while declaring their wish for an end to the regime – follow an actual policy of seeking to prevent that very outcome.
The western motivation is, at root, fear. This has two aspects. First, of control of Syrian territory by Islamists, which the west now calculates that only a strong regime can ensure. The alternative way would have been foreign military intervention, but the experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya has made this deeply problematic.
Second, of the increasing flow of young men from western diasporas to fight with the Islamists in Syria. The worry here is of the return to the west of a radicalised cohort, similar to its predecessors who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. The numbers going to Syria from western Europe probably number close to 1,000 (though some estimates are much higher), as well as over a hundred from the United States (see Tom Rogan, “A terrorist storm is heading for the West, and the brutal ISIS is behind it”, Telegraph, 21 May 2014).
The Fallujah frame
Across the increasingly porous border in Iraq, the Baghdad government’s armed forces are facing well-armed and determined Islamists who maintain control of parts of the country and are able to target others with impunity. Their powerful presence in the city of Fallujah, for example, has led to preparations by the Iraqi army for an assault; around 40,000 troops have gathered, and as many as 300,000 civilians have fled the city in anticipation of an escalation of violence (see Patrick Cockburn, “The battle for Fallujah: Fighting returns to Iraqi city as al-Qa’ida-linked rebels gain stronghold“, Independent, 18 May 2014)
The Iraqi army is poorly trained; 6,000 troops have been killed and 12,000 have deserted over the past year. In Fallujah, it is likely to eschew house-to-house fighting for the use of heavy artillery and even barrel-bombs. Such a scorched-earth policy may eventually force the ISIL fighters out of the city, though that could take many months and carry the cost of destroying much of the city and killing many of the remaining civilians. The result of such government action, in light of past experience, could well be to increase support for the rebels – the very opposite of what is intended.
The broken system
Taking the region as a whole into account, some far-sighted analysts said at the start of the upheavals of 2011 that if citizen action worked and democratic governance became the norm, it would be disastrous for the al-Qaida idea which sought the violent termination of regimes followed by the imposition of rigid Islamist rule that was the antithesis of popular democracy.
That is still the case, but for now across much of the region the evolution of better governance is still in its early stages and radical Islamist propagandists are all too ready to point to its inadequacy.
In the ordinary way this argument might not have much traction, but the key reason why those apparently secure regimes fell in January 2011 gave it an extra charge. Much of the anger that led to the citizen uprisings stemmed from opposition to autocracy and elitism; but even more focused on the sheer lack of life-chances and prospects. This was especially true with regard to the burgeoning population under the age of 25 (see “Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil“, 24 January 2011).
One of the best journalists covering the region for a United States outlet, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, writes a thoughtful analysis of the current mood in Tunisia where progress towards democratic governance is underway but those in power have little chance of meeting expectations. Tunisia has perhaps 30% of its young people unemployed, and they have virtually no prospect of getting work any time soon. In Algeria the figure is 21%, in Egypt it is 25%, and even in relatively stable Morocco it is 18% (see Carlotta Gall, “In Tunisia, the anger has only deepened”, New York Times, 14 May 2014).
There is a palpable anger, bitterness and frustration, even in countries where representation is improving. This alone is a stark reminder of the fundamental problem of an economic system that is simply not working.
The underlying reality
It may be that the current rise of radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq – and in other areas of growing conflict such as Libya, Kenya and especially Nigeria – may be curbed by stronger policing and law-enforcement. The prospects for that, however, are poor. Even were it to happen, the longer-term problem of large-scale marginalisation and the increased risk of “revolts from the margins” will persist (see “A world on the margin“, 21 May 2010).
The latter cannot be addressed by military control and repression, but only by attention to the underlying economic issues. Moreover, the crises that will result from marginalisation are unlikely to be a problem for the Middle East alone, as (for example) the Naxalite rebellion in India shows (see “The thinning world: Mali, Nigeria, India“, 12 July 2012).
In that sense It is even possible that al-Qaida will be seen in a couple of decades time as just one kind of revolt from the margins, an early manifestation of a phenomenon that was to become much more widespread. This particular movement might be motivated by a warped and radicalised version of one of the world’s main religious, but it is also nourished by a fundamental economic reality. Only when this is recognised will an urgently needed new approach become possible.