The Dismantling of the Middle East State System

by Shireen Hunter

Following the end of World War II, Middle Eastern countries consolidated their state structures. By contrast, over the last two decades, those structures have largely been dismantled.

This process began in 2003 with the US-led invasion of Iraq. Since then, the Iraqi state as a viable institution has nearly disappeared. The country has been plunged into turmoil and civil war. Its Kurdish-inhabited areas nearly became independent, and various proposals have been aired about dividing the country into three different entities based on ethnic and sectarian criteria.

Next, the bombing of Libya by NATO forces in 2008 led to the country’s effective disintegration. Sudan divided into its southern and northern components, and South Sudan remains in the grip of conflict, its economic and humanitarian conditions worsening.

The Syrian crisis of 2011 soon degenerated into civil war. Now, after seven years of conflict and a huge humanitarian tragedy, it is increasingly clear that Syria cannot be put back together. What happens to the country inevitably will have an impact on Lebanon and perhaps even Jordan.

The same has been true of Yemen, the object of a brutal war by Saudi Arabia with the help of the United Arab Emirates. Even if the conflict were to come to an end, it is difficult to see how this country can be put back together in a reasonable time.

Of course, all these states were fragile. Some historians and analysts say that colonial powers created these artificial structures with an eye more to their own interests and rivalries among themselves than to any real concern for these states’ future viability. Political elites also seriously mismanaged the new states’ domestic politics and failed to forge national identities transcending ethnic and sectarian cleavages. The Cold War and waves of excessive nationalism and revolutionary movements further exacerbated these problems.

A hallmark of colonial state-building was the preservation of tensions among ethnic and sectarian minorities as a way of retaining the departing colonial power’s influence by enabling it to manipulate the ex-colonial states should the need arise. This strategy had been perfected outside the Middle East, when Lenin and Stalin incorporated most of the Czarist empire into the USSR. Indeed, many of today’s territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space are the legacy of Stalin’s nationalities policy. In the Middle East, Britain and France built on this strategy through the art of divide and rule.

The latest episodes of outside manipulation of the Kurdish minority in both Iraq and Syria illustrate this age-old imperial practice. The problem, however, is that manipulation of such vulnerabilities does not always yield the desired results. For example, the US use of the Kurds against Syria’s Alawite minority and the government of Bashar al-Assad has only angered Turkey and created a crisis of confidence in Turkish-American relations. Masoud Barzani’s bid for Kurdish independence in Iraq only exacerbated the country’s existing problems.

Yet, as long as the cost of such strategies remains acceptable for the great powers, they will continue to use them to pursue short-term objectives even if they thereby cause long-term problems, including for themselves.

Similar ideas and strategies are now being advanced for dealing with Iran. The idea that Iran is too big for the comfort of the great powers has been around for a long time, even when it was supposedly a Western ally. One way of dealing with this issue in recent decades has been to circulate the notion that Iran is not a nation state but rather an empire made up of different ethnic groups. By this reasoning, there is nothing wrong in breaking Iran up into its various ethnic components or, as some commentators have put it, “reduced to its Persian core.” Usage of the name “Persia” as opposed to “Iran” is part of this strategy. A map showing Persia comprising only Iran’s Fars province visually conveys this idea.

Thus far, Western (primarily US) and other opponents of an integrated Iran have pursued this strategy through the indirect means of encouraging separatist movements. They have also continued to undermine Iran’s economy with sanctions and other pressures, even following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was supposed to end most sanctions. By increasing public dissatisfaction with the central government in Teheran, such pressures would in theory spur separatist movements.

Some of Iran’s regional rivals have been openly supporting such a policy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said that his country will take the fight into Iran. Even those countries that supposedly have non-hostile relations with Iran, such as Turkey and Pakistan, have at various times supported separatist elements in Iran: Turkey in Azerbaijan and Pakistan in Baluchistan, despite its own Baluch problem.

Now, anti-Iran forces both inside the region and in some Western countries are openly talking of a war against Iran that, among other things, could dismember the country. Yet an obvious question is seldom asked: have all the other recent military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa increased either the security of regional states or safeguarded the interests of the great powers? Has Syria’s destruction made Israel more secure? Has Yemen’s war added to Saudi Arabia’s security? Has the Iraq war made Turkey more secure? Have Europe or America benefitted from these wars? Have human rights conditions improved and democracy flourished? After all, the ostensible goal of these adventures was to end dictatorship, spread democracy, and secure the rights of regional peoples.

In each case, the answer is an emphatic “no.” For example, the Syrian war has brought outside forces closer to Israeli borders. Although the Syrian government has not acted recklessly towards Israel for decades, there is no telling what some of the various militias there and elsewhere in the neighborhood would do. Already, Europe is struggling to deal with the flood of refugees, causing the emergence of disquieting political forces long believed to have disappeared and producing what is arguably the European Union’s worst crisis.

In view of the record of the past 15 years, let’s try a different tack: for outsiders to stop either promoting or helping to sustain regional wars and instead focus on building peace and putting back the shattered state structures of the Middle East. The rub is that every party wants peace on its own terms and is unwilling to compromise. Yet without compromise, peace will remain elusive and the prospect of even more devastating wars and destruction will continue to hang over the region. Without such peace, the dream of more democratic systems and respect for human rights will also die.

Photo: Refugees from Iraq and Syria (Wikimedia Commons).

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Ms.Hunter has written an eyeopener article describing plight of population of Middle east.Agreed all games played by British in dividing countries are justified as root cause of present day.I am surprised to see US making same mistake as in Afghanistan(16 Yrs and .75 T) and in Iraq 2.
    I wish at this point Nasser had succeeded in uniting Middle East in 60’s.

  2. How do you compromise with your sworn enemy when getting him out of your country took a whole generation ? On which terms Ms Hunter would want to see Iran and the US the largest military and offense contracting of the world, compromise ?

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