The New Arab Wars

Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East


By Marc Lynch

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Less than twenty-four months after the hope-filled Arab uprising, the popular movement had morphed into a dystopia of resurgent dictators, failed states, and civil wars. Egypt’s epochal transition to democracy ended in a violent military coup. Yemen and Libya collapsed into civil war, while Bahrain erupted in smothering sectarian repression. Syria proved the greatest victim of all, ripped apart by internationally fueled insurgencies and an externally supported, bloody-minded regime. Amidst the chaos, a virulently militant group declared an Islamic State, seizing vast territories and inspiring terrorism across the globe. What happened?

The New Arab Wars is a profound illumination of the causes of this nightmare. It details the costs of the poor choices made by regional actors, delivers a scathing analysis of Western misreadings of the conflict, and condemns international interference that has stoked the violence. Informed by commentators and analysts from the Arab world, Marc Lynch’s narrative of a vital region’s collapse is both wildly dramatic and likely to prove definitive. Most important, he shows that the region’s upheavals have only just begun — and that the hopes of Arab regimes and Western policy makers to retreat to old habits of authoritarian stability are doomed to fail.


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On September 30, 2015, Russian military forces poured into Syria in response to a formal request for assistance from the government of Bashar al-Asad. The Russian forces immediately began a bombing campaign primarily targeting rebel forces in support of the regime. A regional war became ever more international as Russian aircraft shared operational space with those of the United States and its coalition partners waging an intense bombing campaign against the Islamic State.

Russia had acted to reinforce Asad’s military, which faced pressure from a new well-armed Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish-backed hard-line Islamist coalition that had made significant advances in the north against exhausted regime forces. A few weeks earlier, Turkey and the United States had agreed on the use of a key Turkish airbase, which could potentially be used to create protected safe zones for rebels. Russia’s intervention predictably prompted a counter-escalation in regional support for the rebels. Arab states rushed new weapons to their rebel allies, who quickly rallied to hold their territory. On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian jet that it claimed had violated its airspace. As the dust settled, neither Asad nor the rebels were any closer to victory. Within a few months, the Russian campaign had bogged down, leaving Syria’s grinding civil war no closer to resolution.

Syria’s war was only one of at least three simultaneous destructive military quagmires reshaping the region. On March 26, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen to roll back the seizure of Sanaa and Aden by the Shi’ite Houthi Movement. The Saudis and their Emirati partners sought to restore to power the deposed President Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, who had been elected in 2012 in a one-candidate referendum as the culmination of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s transition plan. Their allies in Yemen included southern regionalists, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah movement, and, implicitly, al-Qaeda. Arrayed against them, with opportunistic Iranian support, were not only the Houthis, but also forces loyal to the deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime Saudi ally.

The architects of the Saudi intervention viewed the Yemeni political collapse primarily through the lens of Iranian regional ambitions. They heralded the Yemen campaign as a new model for joint Arab military action, with the Gulf states acting independently to confront Iran rather than depending on the United States. But long months later, the campaign had accomplished few of its goals. Months of bombardment caused massive humanitarian suffering but produced little political progress. Nor did the introduction of troops, not only Saudi and Emirati, but also Egyptian and Sudanese and even Columbian. The Yemen war, too, bogged down into a grinding campaign with staggering humanitarian costs and no political horizon.

Libya, too, was embroiled in a multiparty civil war involving high levels of international intervention and little prospect for victory. The regional struggle between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, not Iran, dominated this quagmire. Two rival governments claimed authority over post-revolutionary Libya. The Libyan state had largely collapsed, riven by political polarization and outgunned by well-armed militias. The UAE and Egypt threw their weight behind the campaign of General Khalifa Haftar to militarily defeat Islamist and regional forces backed by Turkey and Qatar. Indirect UAE and Egyptian support soon gave way to air strikes, as arms poured in despite a formal United Nations embargo. The growing presence of Islamic State jihadists in Libya added urgency as the United Nations mediators painstakingly tried to assemble an acceptable coalition government to end the fighting.

The emergence of the Islamic State hung over the region as these wars ground on. Its emergence reminded the world that Iraq’s civil war ignited by the American invasion and occupation had never really ended. The June 2014 capture of Mosul and declaration of an Islamic caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had radically refocused the world’s attention. Only a few years earlier, the global jihadist movement had been on the ropes. The May 2011 American killing of Osama bin Laden had been a major symbolic and operational setback for al-Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq had suffered severe losses at the hands of the “Sunni Awakening” and the US-led coalition in the late 2000s. The Arab uprising model of peaceful change had initially badly discredited al-Qaeda’s ideological vision. But by 2015, al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates had surged into prominent positions in Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Sinai, and across North Africa, and their terrorist attacks had become a regular feature of life across the globe.

The jihadist resurgence was rooted in the failure of the Arab uprisings and the openings created by the region’s new wars. Egypt’s July 2013 military coup had shattered the Muslim Brotherhood, weakening the most powerful competitors to the extremist organizations. The coup had made a mockery of the Brotherhood’s strategy of peaceful democratic participation, vindicating long-standing jihadist arguments for violent struggle. State failure in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen had opened space for jihadist groups to reorganize, acquire weapons, and establish new strongholds. Syria’s war had mobilized massive financial and military support for jihadist movements that had once been shunned, and had galvanized a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Libya’s civil war had opened yet another new front for the renewed jihadist trend.

Less than three years after heralding the arrival of Egyptian democracy and triumphantly withdrawing US troops from Iraq, President Barack Obama found himself accepting a new Egyptian military regime and launching a large-scale bombing campaign against the self-declared Islamic State in eastern Syria and western Iraq. While an air campaign and military assistance mission joined by more than a dozen countries had stopped ISIS from gaining territory and faced growing internal and external pressure, it remained entrenched. As ISIS struggled on its home turf, its model posed a growing regional and global threat as terrorists claiming inspiration or affiliation with the IS carried out horrifying attacks in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and Paris.

The Middle East has rarely seen such a confluence of wars and interventions. A new form of regional politics has taken hold, with transnational networks battling politically and militarily across borders and states struggling to hold themselves together. Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria were only the most fully internationalized hot wars in a region increasingly beset by state failure, terrorism, and insurgency. Egypt faced an escalating insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and, increasingly, in mainland urban centers. Terrorism struck repeatedly at the heart of Tunisia’s tourism industry and against Shi’ite mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Lebanon and Jordan were barely holding together under the weight of refugees and transnational violence. Bahrain simmered with the effects of its brutal campaign of sectarian repression. These battles overlapped and intersected: Islamic State jihadists left Syria to fight in Libya; Libyan jihadists crossed into Tunisia to attack its tourist sites; Saudis and Bahrainis and Kuwaitis traveled to Syria to fight with or against the Islamic State.

Each of the region’s wars and domestic political upheavals is part of a larger story. The failed transitions of the so-called Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, and the various wars that have consumed the Middle East are often treated as discrete events. They are not. Egypt’s transition, Syria’s civil war, Libya’s collapse, the Islamic State’s emergence and Tunisia’s success are all part of a single story. The Arab uprising was a singular event, uniting the entire Arab world within a single, incredibly potent narrative of the possibility of change. The failure of each uprising has often been explained by local conditions. But these struggles for the Arab future never stopped being fully regional in their nature. In surveys conducted over the last five years, nearly 70 percent of Arabs agreed that foreign interference was an obstacle to reform in their country.1 As the leading Saudi pundit Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed put it starkly in April 2015, “the region is one playing field, its wars are tied together.”2 He was right—even if the lessons he drew from this observation were almost exactly wrong.

The Arab uprising and its defeat were each a thoroughly international phenomenon. They were shaped by shifting global and regional power dynamics, a series of intense shocks to a brittle and stagnant regional order, and an extraordinarily rapid and deep change in the media and information environment. Actors moved across multiple arenas, taking both cues and material support from supporters and rivals abroad. Networks of like-minded movements and individuals across borders—whether Islamists or anti-Islamists, Sunnis or Shi’ites, liberals or monarchs—supplanted national narratives. Ideas, techniques, hopes, and fears moved quickly and decisively from one protest movement to another and from one government to another. Embattled regimes learned from both the successes and failures of their peers. Protest movements weighed the efficacy of peaceful and violent actions in part by observing outcomes elsewhere, just as did their would-be supporters.

International forces mattered at every level of the region’s upheavals, from the outbreak of the uprisings to the struggles over transitions to the proxy wars and insurgencies. There is no way to explain why almost every Arab country experienced a popular protest movement at the same time based on their internal qualities. Nor is there any transitional outcome, with the very partial exception of Tunisia’s, which can be explained without reference to external factors. All of the civil wars ripping apart Arab countries have been shaped profoundly by transnational flows of money, information, people, and guns. Protestors and regimes and insurgents all understood their struggles to be part of a unified regional arena—and such perceptions informed political reality. The role of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE have in many cases supplanted even the role of the United States as deeply polarizing issues of contention in regional politics.

This new political reality is readily apparent from the Arab media and the rhetoric of policy elites. Many ordinary Arabs saw it that way as well. In the spring of 2012, the Gallup Organizations asked Arabs from across the region whether the uprisings were mostly caused by domestic desire for change or by foreign influence.3 The results were striking; publics in the revolutionary countries generally thought that domestic factors were at the root of the uprisings: the foreign role was highlighted by only 7 percent of Libyans, 9 percent of Tunisians, 11 percent of Egyptians, and 19 percent of Yemenis. But publics in countries with less protest activity were more likely to point to foreign factors: 29 percent of Iraqis, 37 percent of Algerians, 32 percent of Jordanians, and 31 percent of Palestinians. Roughly 20 percent of the publics in the revolutionary countries said both mattered, compared with approximately 50 percent in the non-uprising countries.

A year later, at the cusp between transitions and their failure, the Arab Barometer asked Arabs in a dozen countries about the influence of neighboring countries on the development of democracy in their country.4 Across the whole region, only 34 percent overall thought that neighbors had played a very or somewhat positive role. In Tunisia, the first of the Arab uprisings’ countries, only 21 percent saw a positive role for neighboring countries, while 55.8 percent deemed external demands for reform unacceptable. In Egypt, 34 percent saw a positive role for the neighbors in developing democracy and 36 percent a negative one—with only 16.6 percent saying “neither positive nor negative”—while 45 percent of Egyptians saw external pressure for reforms as unacceptable. Those two pivotal Arab uprisings’ cases do not suggest a warm welcome for regional involvement. But in Yemen, 41.3 percent gave a positive answer on their neighbors and 48.2 percent considered external pressure legitimate. Libyans, liberated by foreign intervention and living through a profound crisis of state incapacity, were even more receptive: 54.3 percent saw a positive role and only 17 percent a negative one, while 56.6 percent welcomed external pressure for reform.

For all the importance of local factors, it is striking how similarly trends unfolded across enormously different local arenas. The interconnection of the Arab uprisings was obvious to those living through them. Events frequently tore through the entire region at once, rather than originating or being contained in any single country. The uprisings themselves were a famously transnational moment. Leadership transitions, from the departure of Hosni Mubarak and the killing of Moammar Qaddafi to the Egyptian military coup, resonated through the wildly diverse national politics. Failed states and wars spilled over to affect neighbors, as in Syria’s galvanizing effects on Iraqi Sunni politics or Libya’s disruptive impact on Mali. Global moments played out simultaneously in multiple arenas, such as the September 2012 protests over the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims, which spanned dozens of countries. Major diplomatic initiatives, such as the drive towards a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear program or the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks, shaped all levels of political dynamics throughout the region.

The uprising initially promised change in societies liberated from decades of predatory domination by despotic regimes. Beginning in Tunisia, spreading through Egypt, and then erupting across virtually every Arab country, this uprising brought millions into the streets demanding political, social, and economic change. For all their local particularities, those uprisings shared common themes, slogans, modes of action, expectations, and hopes. They crossed ideological lines, preached nonviolent resistance, and rejected traditional sectarian and religious lines of division. Beholden to no government or singular movement and empowered by ubiquitous communications technology, these movements violated the long-standing experiences of Arab politics.

Regimes responded to this unprecedented challenge by fighting back to protect themselves from the contagion of popular uprisings. This should not be surprising. Every Arab regime had been built around the singular imperative of ensuring its own grip on power at any cost. Those efforts paid off as they faced down the regional popular surge. Egypt’s once-proud Tahrir Square revolution ended in a military coup, intense violence, the restoration of the old order, and a suffocating wave of repression and neo-populism. Yemen and Libya collapsed into civil war. Bahrain was suffocated by the forces of its Gulf allies. Syria’s grim, horrifying stalemate was disrupted by the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which united with its Iraqi ancestors to seize territory and declare a farcical caliphate. The Arabs who had joined the uprisings, often at great personal risk and cost, felt betrayed.

That is not to say that the uprising or its aftermath can be explained by some sinister conspiracy or that events unfolded according to some master plan. Nor is it to deny the importance of national context, or remove the agency of local players. Quite the contrary. The competition between states, social forces, and political movements unleashed forces far beyond their ability to control. Proxies failed to deliver or went rogue. Plans consistently went awry. No actor ever had quite the power to shape events that had been imagined in the royal palaces or peddled in state-controlled media. Local actors in every country careened wildly in the face of extreme uncertainty and a seemingly bottomless well of external support for their local ambitions. Guns poured into unstable conditions tended to produce violence, chaos, and radicalism rather than influence. Revolutionaries failed to translate their mobilizational capacity into enduring political parties. Militias seized local power with little regard for the national good. Islamists overreached in their bid for a stake in the emergent systems. Liberals opted disastrously for renewed alliances with militaries and Gulf monarchs in defense against the Islamists. The failures of the Arab uprising are a catalog of unintended consequences and misjudged strategies.

Efforts to control events in these transitional countries, whether by the United States or by regional powers, have followed a predictable trajectory. Almost all proxy interventions by regional powers have failed to achieve their objectives, and have usually made things significantly worse at great cost. Iran’s support for Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq had strengthened its hand militarily, but consistently sparked sectarian backlash. Arab and Turkish regime efforts fared even worse. Their intense efforts in Syria had failed to overthrow Bashar al-Asad. The transition plan for Yemen they had overseen had collapsed in ignominious failure. Libya following international intervention against Qaddafi had collapsed into a deeply divided, failed state. The Egyptian military regime they had helped reinstall seemed unable to restore stability or come to terms with its economic and governance catastrophe despite billions of dollars in assistance. And the sudden rise of the Islamic State had revitalized a jihadist movement that they had thought was under control, and that seemed to appeal dangerously to their own people. Again and again, these regimes found their plans going awry, their control over their proxies wanting, and their assumptions overturned.

The resurgence of autocratic regimes, rampant militarization, and proxy warfare, and the explosion of virulent new jihadist movements was not how the Arab uprisings were supposed to go. None of the participants in the great Arab uprising in early 2011 called for the expansion of monarchical power, more violently repressive autocratic regimes, or greater military intervention in their domestic struggles. Nor did they call for jihad towards a new caliphate, sectarian polarization, or the violent repression of mainstream Islamists. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the dominant voices within the major protest movements rejected every one of those things. But events spun out of the control of their makers.

The Arab uprising’s impact on regional order intersected with that of the international push towards agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon had been the primary focus of American and international diplomacy for more than a decade. Israel had long taken the lead in warning of the devastating consequences of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. But for most regional actors, the nuclear issue was only one manifestation of a deeper struggle with Iran over regional power. The nuclear program might help to justify the elaborate web of sanctions against Tehran and proxy battles against Iranian surrogates across the region, but it was not the primary concern. The nuclear deal, no matter how effective at countering proliferation, threatened Arab regimes because it removed the foundation of a regional order built around countering Iran’s role.

The simultaneous disruptions of regional order posed by the Arab uprising and the Iran nuclear deal powerfully intensified the new Middle Eastern proxy wars. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf regimes projected an aura of confidence that belied their profound feelings of insecurity. Gulf leaders in 2015 boasted of a new model of military and political campaign breaking with decades of dependence on the West and regional timidity. Their assertive language could barely mask the profound insecurity behind their swagger. As they flexed muscles across the region, these regimes seemed to believe that they had beaten back the wave of popular protest and taken the lead in reshaping the region. But their military efforts had failed to achieve the desired results in Syria or Yemen, their diplomacy had failed to prevent the Iran nuclear deal, their critical alliance with Washington had been badly strained, and the plummeting price of oil had threatened the very foundation of their domestic stability.

The new Arab wars were driven by the frantic efforts of the old order to sustain itself against these inexorable changes. The effects of those interventions had proven catastrophic. Egypt’s coup installed an unstable, violent, and unpredictable military regime that promises years of turmoil. Regionwide repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has discredited strategies of peaceful participation and removed a major obstacle to the spread of extreme jihadist ideas and organizations. External involvement in the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen has destroyed those states, caused untold human suffering, and fueled the rise of ISIS. The Saudi-Iranian competition has unleashed virulent new forms of sectarianism. In the end, the determined refusal by entrenched elites to allow for progressive change has likely doomed the region to something far worse—not just the Islamic State, but the much more significant forces that will emerge in its wake.


The Arab uprising, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, erupted at a distinctive moment in regional history. When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he enjoyed broad public and international support for his promise to turn the page on a decade of war. Obama focused on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, extricating American troops from Iraq, and reframing relations with the Muslim world.

Obama’s hope for change directly challenged the regional order that had consolidated following the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. Regional politics were locked in an enduring divide between two blocs, a “Resistance Bloc,” led by Iran, and a “Moderation Bloc” of Sunni autocrats, led by Saudi Arabia. The two blocs fought their proxy wars across multiple arenas, including Iraq under occupation, Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine. The region’s autocratic regimes, while seemingly firmly in control, were struggling with mounting economic problems and novel forms of political protest.

Despite the deep unpopularity of the Bush administration’s policies, the Middle East of the 2000s was a profoundly American regional order. The region’s vast oil reserves and strategic location had always made it an area of disproportionate interest to the superpowers during the Cold War. The United States was further drawn into the region by its unique relationship with Israel. For decades following the second World War, superpower competition, access to oil, and the Arab-Israeli competition structured the region’s politics.

That changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. The removal of Soviet global competition allowed the United States to establish a new structural order in the Middle East, one in which all roads led through Washington. The formation of an Arab coalition in support of the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1990 decisively marked the passage from the Cold War order to an American-dominated regional system. Operation Desert Storm united traditional American allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia with adversaries such as Syria and (quietly) Israel. The absence of any meaningful alternative to the United States forced regional players to choose between inclusion in the American-dominated international system or isolation as rogue states. Public opinion largely defined itself against this American-led regional order, leading to occasional hand-wringing in Washington about the problem of “anti-Americanism.” This popular hostility rarely affected the foreign policy of the autocratic regimes, though, which felt secure in ignoring public hostility.

America’s leadership of this unwieldy coalition required constant maintenance. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, America led endless but inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace talks, which kept Washington at the center of ongoing diplomacy. It maintained “dual containment” against Iraq and Iran, which required a significant increase in its regular military presence in the Gulf. Permanent American bases took root in the small Gulf states after popular antipathy led to their removal from Saudi Arabia. The enforcement of the no-fly zones and sanctions against Iraq required a near-constant level of military attention, and provoked an endless series of political crises at the United Nations and across the region. The mounting humanitarian toll of the sanctions against Iraq, blamed primarily on the United States, became a major popular issue across broad sectors of the Arab public. Mounting public hostility to the United States only helped Arab dictators to justify their repressive ways, and Washington generally proved willing to look the other way.

America’s approach to this dominant structural position differed profoundly between the 1990s and the 2000s. In the 1990s, the US worked with its autocratic allies to sustain the status quo. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against Washington, DC and New York provoked the Bush administration into adopting an aggressive new revisionist strategy in the region. The autocratic status quo, which had been deemed acceptable for decades, was now seen as an incubator of extremism and violence that required drastic change. The administration and its supporters viewed the toppling of Saddam Hussein as the single most crucial catalyst for such regional transformation. In this at least they were right, though not in the ways they had intended.

The invasion of Iraq, the highly intrusive global war on terror, and the “Freedom Agenda” to promote democratic change altered the regional balance of power in ways that could only be sustained at an unprecedented cost to the United States. Saddam’s fall significantly increased Iran’s regional power, removing its primary military rival and allowing Iranian proxies to seize commanding positions in the politics of the new Iraq. Frightened Gulf states escalated their efforts to combat Iranian influence, seeking ever greater American security assurances and moving ever closer to alignment with Israel as the only power capable of balancing a rising Iran. Hundreds of thousands of American troops took up seemingly permanent residence in Iraq and Afghanistan while the archipelago of military bases across the Gulf region expanded dramatically in both size and function. The global War on Terror expanded American intrusion into Arab lives, politics, the economy, legal system, judiciary, educational system, media, and formal religious sector. All of this coincided with staunch US support for Israel despite the absence of any serious peace process and highly contentious wars with Palestinians and Hezbollah. It is no coincidence that this was a decade of both radically increased American interventionism and dramatically intensified anti-Americanism.


On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
304 pages

Marc Lynch

About the Author

Marc Lynch is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a contributing editor at the Monkey Cage blog for the Washington Post. He is the codirector of the Blogs and Bullets project at the US Institute of Peace. He formerly launched and edited the Middle East Channel on

His book, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, was called “the most illuminating and, for policymakers, the most challenging” book yet written on the topic by the Economist. His other books include Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book, and State Interests and Public Spheres: The International Politics of Jordan’s Identity. Follow him on Twitter @abuaardvark.

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