Three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East: the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics; the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts, which is measured in decades; and the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation, or what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Understanding each is essential to craft an effective strategy in the region.
The first timeline certainly receives the most attention. The media report relentlessly on the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; ongoing opposition activity and political repression in Egypt and Bahrain; and the slaughter and humanitarian tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq.
But political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline. Indeed, it is impossible to grasp the region’s contemporary history and politics without understanding the emergence of the regional state system after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
For example, there are the constant reminders that external powers – most notably, the United Kingdom and France – established the existing borders. Resistance against the so-called Sykes-Picot order nurtured the founding myths of many states and political movements in the region.
That order has remained largely intact for almost a century, enabling the emergence of separate, though not necessarily exclusive, political identities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and, to varying degrees, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. It has dictated the political parameters for 4-5 generations in the Arab world, including today’s main protagonists, who have battled over it, adapted to it, and attempted to manipulate it.
But the system may finally be unraveling. The border between Iraq and Syria is evaporating, as the Sunni militants of the Islamic State capture a widening swath of territory. And the rise of Kurdish military forces against them raises the possibility that a full-fledged Kurdish state will eventually emerge.
Meanwhile, the tenuous status quo in Israel and Palestine is crumbling. With a two-state solution less likely than ever, the area is likely to experience the creeping consolidation of a one-state reality.
In the Persian Gulf, ongoing international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are but the latest chapter in a struggle over strategic hegemony, security, and economic interests. And, though the world’s appetite for energy resources from the Gulf will not diminish anytime soon, the structure of influence may be set to change again.
When it comes to external power brokers, the United States plays the largest role, having replaced Great Britain by the 1970s. It now must learn to cope with the growing influence of India and China, as well.
But it is the leading regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – that have the greatest potential to transform the Middle East. The question is whether they will continue their competition for regional dominance, regardless of its destabilizing impact, or become pillars of a new regional security structure.
Such a structure has become all the more important as the major external powers’ appetite for sustained involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts wanes. Having learned the hard way that they cannot dictate regional political outcomes, Western powers – as well as Russia, China, and India – will likely limit their involvement to protecting their direct interests and, if necessary, containing regional threats.
Wherever the political and socioeconomic conditions of the short- and medium-term timelines fail to provide order and stability, the confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities that emerged over the longue durée gain prominence. The extent to which identities are invented matters little, as long as their invocation helps to appropriate elements of history and harness them to current political goals.
Episodes from this timeline thus become as relevant as recent events. The conflict over the succession of religious leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago is the origin of the split between Sunni and Shia Islam. The battles between the Fatimids and the Abbasids, the Crusades, the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman conquest, and, of course, Western imperialism all serve as points of reference for today’s struggles.
But these events provide more than explanation; they often provoke powerful responses. Consider the Islamic State’s recent declaration of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. Most Sunnis are outraged by the brutal behavior of the Islamic State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and consider his claim that he will eventually “conquer Rome” ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the symbols and “memories” from the longue durée that Baghdadi uses – such as the black flag of the Abbasids and the glorious stories of a time when the caliphate constituted a great power and a lodestar for all Sunnis – have an enduring impact. Of course, these ideas would amount to little were they not backed by modern weaponry, and had the countries whose territory the Islamic State is seizing not failed to create inclusive social contracts. But they imbue the Islamic State’s project with a powerful historical narrative that cannot be dismissed.
Navigating this narrative can be tricky for external actors. They must neither ignore the longue durée nor believe misleading claims that the struggle is really over the legitimacy of opposing interpretations of the faith.
More generally, these actors’ actions in the region must never be shaped by the delusion that the Sunnis, Shia, or any other ethnic or religious minority is on their side. One lesson common to all of the Middle Eastern timelines is that all local actors are on their own side – and more than willing to draw foreigners into their wars if doing so fortifies them against their enemies.