The Middle East’s Unfinished Wars

James A. Russell

The predictions of doom in the Middle East that are dominating thinking in the foreign policy commentariat of Washington and other capitals over the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could use a little perspective.

An unlikely source of insight transpired the other day when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not known for clear-headed strategic thinking, equated Hamas with ISIS. The suggestion was part of a long-running Israeli narrative that seeks to link its periodic muggings of the Palestinians with the American-led war on Islamic extremists launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Netanyahu’s suggestion, however, is not far off the mark when it comes to framing regional events—though not for the reasons that he would think. The fact is that the Middle East is mired in several overlapping and competing national wars of liberation and state formation by various factions and states that seek a common variable in these wars: political power and authority over a demarcated geographic area. ISIS and Hamas are certainly participants in these wars, as are the Israelis.

None of these wars are in any way remarkable by historical standards—a point worth remembering as the Obama administration faces massive pressure to “do something” about the advances of ISIS. Americans generally suffer from short historic memories and easily forget their role in post-World War II era wars including in China (1949), Vietnam (1950s-60s), and Greece (1948).

Like the United States, Britain and France involved themselves in these wars directly and indirectly—most of which turned out badly for the Western powers. If anything, the involvement of outside powers in these wars prolonged them—much to the detriment of the groups involved in the struggle for political power.

The Middle East’s wars of national liberation and state formation were never really settled—hence the prevalence of the phenomenon today. The longest running is the unfinished war of Israeli independence launched in 1948. It’s unsettled because Israel’s borders are still in question due to its ongoing annexation of territory that presumably one day will become part of the state. It seems clear that the annexation fits within the governing Likud Party’s vision of “greater Israel,” which includes the Palestinian territories (Judea and Samaria) that stretch all the way to Jordan River.

This war is ongoing because Hamas and Likud share the same objective—achieving a state that stretches from Gaza to the Jordan River. Hamas is a classic radical religious nationalist movement that seeks to create its own state and, like Israel, is prepared to use force to achieve its goals. Thrown into this mix is the Palestinian Authority, the group that initially took up arms to achieve Palestinian independence but which as of late has tried in vain to achieve its objectives of state formation at the negotiating table.

We can expect this war to continue for the foreseeable future. The involvement of the United States and the blank check it has given to Israel has prolonged the battle; the Israelis have to take no responsibility for their actions and hence have no real incentive to reach a negotiated settlement until the Likud achieves its objective.

The other main war for national independence and state formation in the Middle East involves the fight for political power and authority in the Mukhabarat States of Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq—where (except in Saudi Arabia) the security sector created during colonization seized political power after the external powers departed. Libya is also engaged in a war of state formation that, like in Syria and Iraq, will likely be bloody and take a number of years.

Egypt’s internal battles between the security sector and the Islamists, which raged for 20+ years before briefly subsiding in the 1990s, look as if they may start up again due to these two group’s opposing and perhaps irreconcilable goals for the shape and identity of the state. For its part, Algeria won its civil war against the Islamists in the 1990s. In Tunisia, there may be a process of peaceful transition away from the Mukhabarat regime of Ben Ali to some form of representational government that involves all political parties.

In Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the national wars of liberation and state formation are currently underway. ISIS must be seen as an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable consequence of the battle for power in Syria, which has seen the Saudi-Gulf State support network funnel arms, people, and money into the fight against the Assad-Mukhabarat regime.

The historic genealogy of ISIS reaches back into US-occupied Iraq and the Saudi-Pakistani-US supported war by the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Its intellectual and religious roots lie within the toxic mix of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics and the Sayyid Qutb-inspired militant Islamic resistance to Nasser in Egypt.

To a limited extent, Hamas can be considered a distant cousin of ISIS; both spring from radical Sunni Islamic political and religious ideology. Importantly, however, they are engaged in fundamentally different wars of liberation that involve different actors with various objectives in the contest for political power and authority.

In Iraq, the 2003 US invasion turned the existing political order on its head and unleashed long-repressed political aspirations that have blossomed, like in Syria, into another national war of liberation and state formation. ISIS now straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border, and one of the casualties of this war may be the Sykes-Picot boundaries that divided up the Ottoman Empire.

Saudi Arabia is noticeably absent, at least for now, in this intra- and transnational discord in part because, like other Gulf States, it has bought off its population with subsidized good living and sent its radicals to blow themselves up elsewhere. The regime’s periodic muggings of the Shia population in its Eastern Province are supported by the majority of the population. One day, however, the radicals that survived will come home just like those who did from the Afghan jihad in the 1990s.

The only good news on this front is that there is no widespread political support for the Sunni extremist ideology espoused by groups like ISIS. These groups tend to have short shelf lives precisely because they alienate the very people they seek to govern. The bad news is that these groups’ struggle for political power will likely be long and bloody—in part because they are not interested in a negotiated settlement and/or in sharing power with other actors. The blood-soaked Algerian Civil War provides a historic example of what can happen when entrenched, committed Islamic extremists take on an established security establishment.

More bad news: developed states have had almost universally poor results with their interventions in these national wars of liberation and state formation. In almost every case, the developed states were forcibly kicked out of their former domains. The British headlong retreat from Aden in 1967, the French defeat in Vietnam and Algeria, and the American defeat in Vietnam all represented important signposts as the wars of national liberation became prominent in the post-World War II era.

Moreover, the attempts to intervene in these disputes were often marked by ill-informed choices in backing local participants. The American backing of Chiang Kai-shek turned out particularly badly as did the backing of Nguyen Van Thieu. Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai must also now be added to the list of bad choices by the United States.

The hysteria sweeping the West today over who’s up and who’s down in the battle for power in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere in the region needs to be placed in this historic context. There is nothing remarkable about these wars. The lessons of past attempts to involve us in these localized struggles suggest that caution should be exercised in committing our militaries to affect the outcomes. A regrettable but perhaps enduring lesson of international politics is that sometimes keeping your powder dry and being patient is just the best option.

Protesters gathered in Ahrar Square, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, on April 3, 2013 against US-backed Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Thank you Mr Russell, for this frank look at the who-what-where, especially the U.S. participation in the failures. One might conclude that in the present sense, are all the Waring factions equally, then let them fight it out. One might also be excused by pointing out the idiocy of the American planners up to today, i.e., Ukraine, Iraq again, Syria also, while trying to provoke Russia, bending over backward or forward as the case may be with Israel, as wolfs in sheep’s clothing, the real time terrorists who threaten the security of the U.S.A.

  2. I look back to 2008 and the near-achievement of peace between Israel and Syria. Which would have included Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. And how tragic, this was not accomplished.

  3. Correction of the word are, should be arming in the second sentence.

  4. Before calling ISIS a was of liberation/Attempt in creating a state, you should look at CIA’s involvement in the creation of ISIS.

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