In America’s Wake: Turbulence and Insecurity in the Middle East

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Waleed Hazbun, University of Alabama

Since the Arab Uprisings, Middle East geopolitics has transformed from a system organized around and against a US-managed security architecture into a multipolar system lacking norms, institutions, or balancing mechanisms to constrain conflict and the use of force. This shift is a product of repeated US efforts to order the region through coercive force but also shaped by the emerging multipolar system at the global level. With regional Middle East states lacking a shared understanding of threats, US post-9/11 interventions failed to establish a stable regional security architecture. Instead, they generated intense insecurity for both rival and allied states while witnessing the proliferation of armed non-state actors. As the regional system has become more complex and multipolar, continued US reliance on coercion, rather than accommodation and compromise, has only intensified the forces of regional instability.

That structural realism cannot adequately map the Middle East regional system is not news. Transnational movements and ideologies have long been recognized as important in defining threats to regime security. Moreover, the relative levels of state consolidation, the permeability between domestic, regional, and global levels, and the disjuncture between regime, state, and social understandings of security have been critical to the development of distinct approaches to the study of the Middle East IR. Most recently, the rise of non-state actors is recognized as critical to understanding recent changes in the Middle East regional system.

Building from these insights, I suggest the current Middle East regional system is best understood as a model of “turbulence.” By turbulence I mean a system with a proliferation of heterogenous actors below and above the state level with expanded capabilities that complicate the dynamics of the regional politics. States remain the most powerful actors, but the definition of their interests and their capacity to achieve desired goals is diminished as these states must negotiate a multidimensional geography of rival forces and actors within the context of increasingly multipolar global politics. The inefficiency of balancing, breakdown of regulatory norms, and increased capacities for self-organization by armed non-state actors all help sustain the regional environment of turbulence. The result is a turbulent regional system in which state interests are often hard to discern and shift in complex ways. Such an environment fostered the emergence of ISIS and complicates regional politics as states have to navigate a hyper-polar environment that gives greater leverage to smaller actors and makes the alignment of interests between states more contingent and fragile.

After (failed) hegemony

The rise of turbulence in the Middle East not a result of the retreat of the US or a consequence of a so-called “power vacuum,” but a product of repeated American deployments of military force and its failure to engage in the necessary accommodations to promote balancing between regional rivalries. Many of the dynamics of turbulence emerged in the 1990s as countercurrents to increasing US power projection in the region and with the instituting of socially destructive neoliberal economic policies.

The post-World War II Middle East regional system has long been unstable, fraught with tendencies towards inter-state conflict and rivalry, but local and external actors often sought to balance against threats, limit escalation, and restrain revisionist actors including at times their own allies. In contrast, over the past two decades we have witnessed the erosion of mechanisms that mitigate and limit conflict. For a decade after the end of the Cold War, the major external powers seemed to prefer conflict management, balancing, and geopolitical stability. Since 2001, they have instead become agents of instability as they recklessly engage in intervention, regime change, and the arming of proxies.

The Middle East system was most radically transformed by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the US strategy of regional transformation, and more broadly its “global war on terror.” In addition to leading to state breakdown in Iraq as well as the rise of a domestic insurgency and the mobilization of transnational jihadists, the massive US military presence in the region and its disregard for norms of use of force and state sovereignty generated heighten insecurity among US rivals, such as Iran and Syria, as well as loosened normative restraints on the aggressive behavior of regional states and external powers. Iran and other US rivals sought new techniques to challenge American power by supporting armed militias, insurgent networks, and acquiring new military capabilities through local manufacturing and imports.

Following the US invasion of Iraq, processes of state erosion and territorial fragmentation, previously found in northern Iraq and southern Lebanon, spread across the region.[1] New networks of resistance were mobilized by armed militias, transnational terrorist groups, and underground insurgencies. The spread of the ability of non-state actors to buy or manufacture low-tech weapons, the diffusion of military expertise, and increased access to networks of communication, transportation, and trade enabled even the smallest militant groups and insurgencies to challenge state authorities and “secure” their local communities.[2] After 2010, these dynamics and support from regional and external powers enabled the rapid militarization of several uprisings and the outbreak of multiple civil wars leading to the fragmentation of territorial control in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

Amidst this regional turmoil, the “American era” in the region came to a close. Middle East states no longer look to the US, with its declining regional influence, to provide security or order. With each regional power seeking to reshape the regional system in their own interest, the result has been a failure to effectively balance against common threats or support allies aligned on opposing sides in regional “cold wars.” Rather, these states have excessively deployed military force and armed non-state militias leading to the fragmentation of centralized states and territorial control.

By 2011 a regional security architecture which had been based on progress towards Arab-Israeli peace, the containment of Iran, and diplomatic, economic, and military support for the security of US allied regimes was in disarray. The security interests of allied states began to diverge from that of the US and the immediate interests of each regime took priory over supporting US policy preferences. Meanwhile, the emergence of multipolarity at the global level— with Russia and lesser degree China seeking to gain leverage in the Middle East[3]— and the rise of multiple regional Middle East powers with rival goals, meant that the Middle East regional system was no longer either a unipolar system organized around the US or a bipolar system defined by Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Under Obama the US downsized the quest for regional order due to its declining political leverage and the rise of new sources of regional instability. As the US could no longer manage regional order though balancing and deterrence, longstanding ideas about what constituted American core interests became highly contested. While the security of Israel and Saudi Arabia had long been central to US regional strategy, at times these states became obstacles to US policy initiatives to contain Iran, promote an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or limit the regional proliferation of arms. Meanwhile, regional actors, both US allies and rivals, came to feel more insecure and regional power rivalry and conflict increased leading to widescale intervention and deployment of military force in the “new Arab wars.”[4]

Even with the regional turmoil, during his second term, Obama could suggest that the US did not face pressing security threats from the Middle East. While “terrorism” and Iran’s regional role could be viewed as strategic challenges, these concerns failed to offer a guide for broader regional strategy.[5] But rather than helping to establish balance between rival state powers, beyond the Iran deal regarding its nuclear program, the US only encouraged regional conflict by tolerating repressive regimes, offering arms and military support to allies, deploying coercive sanctions against rivals, and failing to engage mechanisms to address regional conflicts. Most striking was the contradiction between the continuing deployment of military force against ISIS and the threat of “violent extremism,” while in the process failing to mitigate ongoing geopolitical and civil conflicts involving Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

Meanwhile, like other states in the region, the US sought new tools and techniques to wield influence over, or else to contain, newly emerged networks of non-state actors. US special forces developed networked forms of warfare and counter-terrorism, while intelligence services backed both non-state militias and specially-trained local counter-terrorism units fostering the flows of arms and intelligence needed to sustain them.[6]

Regional powers and the production of insecurity

Without the US structuring the region’s alliances, rival regional powers have increasingly taken their own initiative. The Middle East regional system has become shaped by how rival states across the region’s multiple geopolitical divides each seek to influence and control state and non-state actors, with the result being a turbulent regional system in which state interests are often hard to discern and shift in complex ways.

A major feature of the evolution of the regional system from 2010 has been the relative marginalization of traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Due to the domestic instability caused by uprisings and wars, these states have been constrained from projecting power and instead became subject to external influence. Meanwhile, other states– including Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and Bahrain– have become politically fragmented and subject to geopolitical competition by regional and external powers.

In the process, a set of rival regional powers– Iran, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia– emerged seeking, to different degrees, to project power beyond their proximate neighbors and offer an alternative set of norms and visions for regional order.[7] The efforts of each of these newly assertive powers generally failed to recognize or accommodate the security interests of rival regional states and their societies. The expansion of regional states eventually resulted in power rivalries that led to a new level of destructive civil wars, weapons proliferation, state fragmentation and humanitarian crises.

A major feature of the new regional dynamics has been the expansion of Iran’s regional leverage by promoting an alliance of state and non-state actors across Syria, Iraq and Lebanon largely in opposition to the influence and posture of the US. At the same time, Iran has sought to suggest norms for regional order based the legitimization and institutionalization of its relative power in regional politics while seeking to delegitimize the role of the US and Israel. Iran’s expanded influence meanwhile has generated insecurity on the part of its regional rivals, in particular the Arab Gulf States. These states have failed to effectively balance Iran due to their own rival interests nor accommodate Iran through a “grand bargain” that might stabilize the regional order.

In the late 2000s, the large, militarily capable state of Turkey and the small, wealthy state of Qatar began to use their diverse ties to states across the emerging regional divides to play a larger diplomatic role and promote conflict management. Turkey emphasized open borders and regional economic integration while Qatar used diplomatic inventions and pan-Arab media to project influence at the regional level. The political turmoil resulting from the Arab Uprisings and the confused US reaction to them opened another opportunity for regional powers. Qatar and Turkey sought to promote generally compatible efforts to suggest a new basis for regional order drawing together newly elected governments and emerging Islamist political forces. Their more activist policies, however, soon entangled them in regional conflicts. Qatar supported military intervention in Libya while Turkey encouraged armed opposition in Syria. Rather than transforming the political landscape these actions contributed to political breakdown and territorial fragmentation. Their efforts collapsed in the face of the 2013 military coup in Egypt. More broadly, a Saudi-led counter-revolution sought to shore up authoritarian governments, expand domestic divisions along sectarian lines, and foster of civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. As Qatar scaled back its regional interventions, Turkey found its interests reorganized as the increasing autonomy of Kurdish actors, some backed by the US in an effort to contain ISIS, became its most pressing concern.

While aligned with the US and benefiting from the US security umbrella anchored by its bases around the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have attempted to organize the region through aggressive diplomatic and military interventions as well as financial support to allied regimes and proxies. Saudi Arabia has long sought to project regional influence, but its flows of cash, intelligence cooperation, and diplomacy have previously only had a marginal impact reshaping regional order. With the US under Obama no longer providing regional leadership, it’s policies diverged from Saudi priorities, such as allowing the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia (with UAE support) then sought to act as a regional hegemon though without the needed regional power and consent. They backed rebel factions in Syria and escalated the conflict. After their effort to manage the post-Uprising transition in Yemen failed, they launched, with US support, an ineffective war against the Houthi rebels, which has resulted in a humanitarian disaster.

The Trump administration aligned itself more enthusiastically with the Saudi-UAE axis. Saudi efforts, despite this American support, have done little to establish a new regional order or contain Iranian influence. Rather than embracing Qatar’s post-2013 shift away from an activist regional policy and attempt to rebuild GCC consensus policymaking, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly sought to coerce Qatar into accepting a subservient role, resulting in the total fragmentation of the GCC as a regional organization. In past decades the US often sought to restrain Israel’s most aggressive actions and/or worked to re-stabilize regional politics in their aftermath. Closer Saudi strategic alignment with Israel and backing by US president Trump has resulted in less restraint on regional actions. This posture sets up a context for continuing instability and a greater likelihood of conflict and escalation.

The current uncertainty and shifting regional political dynamics have set up complex rivalries and diverging interests between regional powers. While Iran, Turkey and Qatar have all sought to promote new, but differing, norms for regional politics, seeking to develop an order based around their interests, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have advanced a revisionist agenda built from a growing capacity and willingness to project power and intervene militarily across the region. These efforts by multiple regional and global powers to assert their own narrow strategic interests in the context of the post-uprisings Arab world has led to increased disarray in the region, including the fragmentation of Syria and Yemen, and massive humanitarian crises as a consequence of the conflicts there. This disarray opened up new opportunities for external intervention in the region, as seen in the NATO campaign in Libya, Russian intervention in support of the regime in Syria, and the US-led anti-ISIS military campaigns in Syria and Iraq during 2016 and 2017. Drawing on the notion of turbulence offers guidance to explain how and why the capacities of states in the region, even as they become more ruthlessly authoritarian and deploy more deadly military power, are less able to constrain threats to their security and balance rivals.


[1] Mark LeVine, “Chaos, Globalization, and the Public Sphere: Political Struggle in Iraq and Palestine,” Middle East Journal Vol. 60, No. 3 (Summer 2006): 467-492.

[2] Barry R. Posen, “Emerging Multipolarity: Why Should We Care?” Current History Vol. 108, No. 721 (November 2009), p. 351.

[3] Mehran Kamrava, “Multipolarity and Instability in the Middle East,” Orbis, Fall 2018, pp. 602-4.

[4] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (PublicAffairs, 2017).

[5] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016.

[6] Steve Niva, “Disappearing Violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of Networked Warfare,” Security Dialogue Vol. 44, No. 3 (2013): 185-202.

[7] Waleed Hazbun, “Regional Powers and the Production of Insecurity in the Middle East,” Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture (MENARA) Working Papers No. 11, September 2018.