As the Iraqi army plans for a battle to retake the war-torn city of Fallujah, they’ve announced to city residents to evacuate, or, if not possible, to raise white flags above their houses in a sign of mercy. The gesture, while well-intentioned is disheartening. It’s a signal that the war between ISIS and the army of the failed Iraqi state continues to wage on, and a sign that the civilians caught in the middle of it have no choice to flee yet again, leaving behind a city barely recognizable at this point. It’s also a signal of the situation that’s been forming in the region for the last 5 years, the last 50 years, and the last 500 years. Nation-state against nation-state, tribe against tribe, religious sect against religious sect, a cycle that keeps repeating, and leaving outsiders to wonder how there are even people left to continue fighting. Even to those who understand the Middle East and its nuances and complexities, the reality that persists in the region today begs a question with a difficult answer, if any: how did we end up this way?
The moral code that rules the West (or the Global North, First World Countries — whatever lingo you choose) is one that’s built on centuries of social and political philosophy. From the Greeks to the Romans to the Enlightenment thinkers, we’ve tended towards democracy, toward equality, toward liberty, and all that these tenets of humanity bring with them. The Middle East — among other places in the world — has stuck largely to its traditions. While they might be seen as backwards, primitive, and unjust by the West/ North/ First World, they’re what make up the rules of the Middle East: lead with authoritarianism, and lead with loyalty. With this in mind, everything else seems to fall in line. The tribal mentality in the Middle East is one of the strongest cultural forces, and, aside from Middle East transplants elsewhere in the world, is somewhat of a foreign concept. It can be the force that binds groups together to create the strength of a nation — and without it, that nation is hopeless.
Think of the Kingdom of Jordan, circa 1970. Black September will undoubtedly be the first thing to come to mind. In this civil-war-tribal-insurrection, the Jordanian kingdom was threatened by Palestinians who sought to overthrow the only Arab government that had offered them citizenship. Jordan — a country that has historically struggled to identify its own national identity — had absorbed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who in the decades after Israel’s independence, had become disgruntled with Jordanian leadership. Jordan’s monarchy has strong tribal ties, which the Palestinians were unable to break, or to break into. What ensued was a civil war that ended with the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan to Lebanon, where they continued to wreak havoc.
Think of Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq: his tribal ties, and his unrelenting vicious treatment of another tribal/ cultural/ religious/ linguistic group – the Kurds. In the late stages of the Iran-Iraq War, with agitations from his Shi’ite neighbors, as well as much of the rest of the world, Hussein’s response to Kurdish agitations for independence was a chemical weapons attack to silence the Kurds into submission.
The list goes on — from the system of the Lebanese government as a confessionalist republic set on amplifying sectarian tensions, to the various military dictatorships that have ravaged Egypt, to the current civil war tearing apart Yemen. Even Israel, the state that stands out as a democracy in the region isn’t exempt: early and modern leaders alike have been relentless power mongers, from Begin to Sharon — and perhaps Liberman in his (yet-to-be confirmed) new position.
The situation in Syria and Iraq today is only yet another scene from the Middle East playbook. Syria, with the authoritarian leader, Iraq with none: these failed states, home to splintered tribal groups with powerful loyalties, have become the ultimate breeding ground for the typical Middle Eastern conflict. The answer isn’t to implement a Western solution, but a Middle Eastern solution perhaps doesn’t exist, or is much more difficult to prescribe. Supporting one tribe, religious group, or nation-state against another will only provide the fuel needed for the next blow-up, especially in a region where revenge seems to be a dish served daily.
For now, we sit in the comfort of our First World-ness, hoping that the next battle of Fallujah doesn’t cost the lives of civilians, that those who preach evil will meet their fates, and that quiet and stability — if not peace — return, at some point. Hopefully some point soon.