september 13–17, 2017

Turmoil in The New Middle East

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy, Dr. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Dr. Cook updated the Forum on developments in the Middle East, examining the forces that shriveled the hopes of democracy after the failed Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Egypt remains an authoritarian state, Syria and Yemen are in the midst of civil wars, Libya has descended into anarchy, and the self-declared Islamic State remains a threat. Turkey, once thought to be a democratizing model for the Arab world, now more closely resembles an autocracy. Iran seeks to regain regional dominance by extending its influence over Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, effectively surrounding and isolating Saudi Arabia, Dr. Cook reported. He analyzed why the old structures of power were never eliminated and the power struggles that have ensued.

“The Middle East is disintegrating and lacks the resources to create democratic societies and free markets,” Dr. Cook observed. Given these unstable situations, he stressed the importance for the US to define its Mideast goals and articulate a clear strategic foreign policy to achieve them.

The New Middle East

The Sweep of Unrest Across the Middle East

Dr. Cook went country by country across the map of the Middle East, pointing out the eruptions occurring in each country that have destabilized the whole region. Starting in the west with Morocco, Dr. Cook reported that local demonstrations in October 2016 led to widespread and unchecked rioting in a country that is a US ally and lies less than 10 miles from Spain. Algeria, the largest gas producer for Europe and a breeding ground for extremists, experienced an unprecedented wave of simultaneous protests and riots, sparked by sudden rises in staple food prices, unemployment, the lack of housing, corruption, restrictions on freedom of speech and poor living conditions. Thousands were killed or imprisoned in the government’s repressive response to the demonstrations. Protests in Tunisia in 2011, which sparked the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising, led to the downfall of the dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime. Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

In Syria, a conflict that started as a peaceful protest, was quickly militarized by the Assad regime, and has become a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, with 400,000 people killed and half of the population displaced to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  Today, the Syrian conflict is a Jihadist proxy war, with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah jockeying for dominance.

Jordan became the country of refuge for millions of Syrians fleeing the Civil War. Today, Jordan’s largest municipality is a refugee camp, Dr. Cook observed.

Turkey has turned to a more authoritarian and repressive government, with 200,000 people jailed or fired for anti-government activities.

Iraq has seen ISIS defeated in some centers but the threat to stability continues there as Kurds fight for their independence. After World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish politics have long sought an independent Kurdish state.

A week after Dr. Cook’s presentation, on September 25, 2017, a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq was put to the vote. The vote is not binding and its legality has been rejected by the federal government of Iraq, but the vote had strong repercussions in the region. While the The Arab League called on Iraqis to renounce their differences and open comprehensive dialogue to avoid clashes, Turkish President Erdogan said he is considering all options ranging from military intervention to economic sanctions against Iraq's Kurdish region. Iraqi troops began joint military exercises with Turkey along the border the two countries share.

Saudi Arabia has control of Islam’s holy places, Mecca and Medea, and ISIS wants the Islamic State to own these places. The risk of terrorist activities to achieve this goal is a destabilizing factor in the country. The Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981 to effect co-ordination, integration, and interconnection in order to achieve unity among the six member countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Sultanate of Oman, was seen as a potentially united front to fight ISIS. However, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar after accusing it of supporting terrorism, an accusation that Qatar denies. This has compromised the effectiveness of the Gulf Council as a stabilizing factor in the region, and fueled additional tensions.

Iran was expected to integrate peacefully into the region following the relaxation of western sanctions in the 2015 Nuclear Deal. In contrast, Iran continues to demonstrate and extend its power, consolidating its influence on the region. Iran is Persian and Shi’a, not Sunni, Dr. Cook reminded the forum. It is a revolutionary power seeking to rewrite the rules of the Middle East to its own benefit. Iran is the most influential actor across the region, Dr. Cook pointed out. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a tool of Iranian power, and Iran has proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Returning to the Middle East map, Dr. Cook pointed out that Iranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

A Summary of Middle East Destabilization

After detailing the destabilization affecting every country in the Middle East, Dr. Cook summarized the situation. The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions, end corruption, increase political participation, and bring about greater economic equity, providing opportunities for people to participate in the benefits of a stronger, globalized economy. But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations who were primed to fill the gaping power vacuum, Dr. Cook said. Insurgents, frustrated with the lack of change, were recruited into ISIS and other radical organizations. Instead of bringing democracy, repressive counterrevolutionary moves across the region followed.  “Resurgent authoritarianism is more oppressive now, than before the Arab Spring,” Dr. Cook reported.

Causes of the Destabilization

Middle East destabilization is not a result only of the US withdrawal after the Iraq war, nor it is a consequence of the Iran Nuclear Deal, according to Dr. Cook. Rather, it is the result of broader, historical internal issues related to identity. The Middle East is a disruptive amalgam of many identities, religious, cultural, and political identities, leading to instability and violence, he said.

These are factors that the US cannot influence or affect, Dr. Cook contended. The Middle East region has changed. The invasion of Iraq was a destabilizing factor. Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force, he continued. Russia is not interested in benefitting the region, but rather in destabilizing Europe.

What Can the US Do?

Dr. Cook stressed the importance of the US articulating its goals and interests in the Middle East. If the interest is access to oil, then new US oil sources may provide energy independence and obviate this need.  If oil is not so important, should the US withdraw from the region? Is Israeli security the main objective? If so, could the US support Israel through other means? Or is it in the US interests to ensure that no one other than the US dominates the region?

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void. Without a strategy, the US can neither be successful in the region, nor can it withdraw. Furthermore, the larger problem is that world-wide global trade runs on Arab oil.  The international community, including the US, cannot afford to abandon the Middle East, Dr. Cook concluded.

Q&A

Q: Sen. David Long (IN): If the US pulled back from the Middle East, would Saudi Arabia seek to become a nuclear power in order to protect themselves from Iran?

A: Dr. Cook: The Nuclear Deal assumes that, within the agreement’s 15-year span, the Iranian government will change. When Iran signed the Nuclear Deal with the US, they still needed to show the world that they are a revolutionary power with influence in the region. Among the Middle East countries that could go nuclear, Egypt has no nuclear expertise and its infrastructure is falling down, while Turkey lags behind on technology. Saudi Arabia lacks the technology, but has the wealth to buy nuclear weapons, and Saudis are not likely to trust the Pakistanis, who are the most likely source.

Q: Sen. Mary Kay Papen (NM): Some people suspect that Turkish President Erdogan orchestrated the Turkish uprisings himself to create a reason to increase suppression.

A: Dr. Cook: On 15 July 2016, a coup d'état was attempted in Turkey against state institutions, including, but not limited to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The attempt was carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces that organized themselves as the Peace at Home Council, which cited an erosion of secularism, elimination of democratic rule, disregard for human rights, and Turkey's loss of credibility in the international arena as reasons for the coup. The group was defeated by loyalist troops. The Turkish government accused the coup leaders of being linked to the Gülen movement, which is led by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of being behind the coup, and accused the US of harboring him. After the coup attempt, Erdogan imprisoned or dismissed anyone suspected of being loyal to his opponents. The effects have been a destabilization of Turkey, a deepening of divisions among the countries sects, and the Islamization of Turkey, not as a theocracy, but with support for Islamic religious values.

Q: Tom Finneran (Moderator): Turkey has taken in many Syrian refugees, and Italy and Spain have been overwhelmed by refugees. Brexit may have been a response to refugee issues. How is the refugee crisis affecting the region? The EU? And the US?

A: Dr. Cook: The presence of refugees places a burden on host countries to provide support for them. The Turks harbor 3 million refugees in the provinces close to Syria where the people speak Arabic, not Turkish.  In Lebanon, 1 million Syrian refugees comprise a significant percentage of the whole population. And Jordan, which is at the center of Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, hosts 650,000 refugees.

But beyond the Middle East, the Syrian conflict also is destabilizing European politics. The EU stands for democratic norms. But the EU countries disagree about what this means. Does it mean full openness to shelter the refugees? Or is Europe a geography of Christian countries that do not want the Muslim influence? This conflict is empowering right-wing parties and tearing at the fabric of democratic, free market societies. A stable Europe is imperative for the US for global trade and international stability. Therefore, the Syrian refugee crisis extends its effects to the US as well.

Q: Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (UT): The Muslim countries used to be united against Israel as a single opponent. Lately, the situation in Israel seems quieter. What is happening there?

A: Dr. Cook: 15 years ago the Israeli-Arab conflict was a focus of concern for the world. Today, with such complex disruption affecting the whole Middle East, the Israeli-Arab conflict seems to be important only to Israel and Palestine. Domestic issues have focused Middle Eastern people’s concerns on their own countries.

A second factor is the emergence of Iran. Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region. Most Arab states do not like Iran, which is Persian, not Arabian. They are quietly working with Israel to ensure security against the common Iranian threat, which has become more threatening than the Israel Palestine conflict.

Q: Bill Shepherd (State Farm): It seems that there are a lot of underlying issues contributing to the Middle East conflicts: Sunni vs Shi’a, the haves vs the have-nots. To what extent do these issues complicate the situation?

A: Dr. Cook: The main source of conflict is between big countries who are vying for power and influence in the region. The Sunni vs Shi’a dichotomy was exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq, which created separate Sunni and Shi’a neighborhoods. Politicians used this to consolidate and mobilize their supporters. When leaders cast the regional conflicts as matters of cultural identity, the issues are more emotional and harder to resolve or to calm.

The contrast between haves and have-nots is also a strong factor. Qatar, for example, is a rentier state, meaning it makes its income by selling the oil it sits on to the world. As a result, every citizen of Qatar receives about $120,000 per year from oil revenues. This is in contrast to Tunisia, which also exports oil, but corruption has allowed all the wealth to be controlled by those in power. Fluctuations in oil prices profoundly affect rentier states. For example, 90% of Saudi Arabia’s revenues depend on oil. For Iraq, this is 97%, and Algeria is a one-crop state entirely dependent on oil. Oil prices changes from $100 bb to $50 bb have a profoundly destabilizing effect.

Q: Sen. Robert Stiver (KY): What effect would it have if the US did need not Saudi oil?

A: Dr. Cook: The US is fracking more and gaining independence from Middle Eastern oil. This creates problems for those countries that they are not ready to manage. They have irrational economies. They distribute the “rents” or income from oil around the country and this maintains stability. The International Monetary Fund has advised the oil-producing countries to undertake reforms; however, the leaders are not willing to give up their wealth and resist liberal, democratic market reforms.

Speaker Biography

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Steven A. Cook is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. He is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Steven has published widely in foreign policy journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. He also currently writes the blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Steven was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996). He holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

Shi’a vs Sunni

Iranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions.

But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations .

Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force.

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void.

Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region.

Sen. David Long (IN)

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (NM)

Tom Finneran

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (UT)

Steven A. Cook

CONTACT

Senate Presidents’ Forum

26 Main Street

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

 

Tel: 914-693-1818

Copyright © 2017 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.

september 13–17, 2017

Turmoil in The New Middle East

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy, Dr. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Dr. Cook updated the Forum on developments in the Middle East, examining the forces that shriveled the hopes of democracy after the failed Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Egypt remains an authoritarian state, Syria and Yemen are in the midst of civil wars, Libya has descended into anarchy, and the self-declared Islamic State remains a threat. Turkey, once thought to be a democratizing model for the Arab world, now more closely resembles an autocracy. Iran seeks to regain regional dominance by extending its influence over Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, effectively surrounding and isolating Saudi Arabia, Dr. Cook reported. He analyzed why the old structures of power were never eliminated and the power struggles that have ensued.

“The Middle East is disintegrating and lacks the resources to create democratic societies and free markets,” Dr. Cook observed. Given these unstable situations, he stressed the importance for the US to define its Mideast goals and articulate a clear strategic foreign policy to achieve them.

The New Middle East

The Sweep of Unrest Across the Middle East

Dr. Cook went country by country across the map of the Middle East, pointing out the eruptions occurring in each country that have destabilized the whole region. Starting in the west with Morocco, Dr. Cook reported that local demonstrations in October 2016 led to widespread and unchecked rioting in a country that is a US ally and lies less than 10 miles from Spain. Algeria, the largest gas producer for Europe and a breeding ground for extremists, experienced an unprecedented wave of simultaneous protests and riots, sparked by sudden rises in staple food prices, unemployment, the lack of housing, corruption, restrictions on freedom of speech and poor living conditions. Thousands were killed or imprisoned in the government’s repressive response to the demonstrations. Protests in Tunisia in 2011, which sparked the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising, led to the downfall of the dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime. Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

In Syria, a conflict that started as a peaceful protest, was quickly militarized by the Assad regime, and has become a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, with 400,000 people killed and half of the population displaced to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  Today, the Syrian conflict is a Jihadist proxy war, with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah jockeying for dominance.

Jordan became the country of refuge for millions of Syrians fleeing the Civil War. Today, Jordan’s largest municipality is a refugee camp, Dr. Cook observed.

Turkey has turned to a more authoritarian and repressive government, with 200,000 people jailed or fired for anti-government activities.

Iraq has seen ISIS defeated in some centers but the threat to stability continues there as Kurds fight for their independence. After World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish politics have long sought an independent Kurdish state.

A week after Dr. Cook’s presentation, on September 25, 2017, a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq was put to the vote. The vote is not binding and its legality has been rejected by the federal government of Iraq, but the vote had strong repercussions in the region. While the The Arab League called on Iraqis to renounce their differences and open comprehensive dialogue to avoid clashes, Turkish President Erdogan said he is considering all options ranging from military intervention to economic sanctions against Iraq's Kurdish region. Iraqi troops began joint military exercises with Turkey along the border the two countries share.

Saudi Arabia has control of Islam’s holy places, Mecca and Medea, and ISIS wants the Islamic State to own these places. The risk of terrorist activities to achieve this goal is a destabilizing factor in the country. The Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981 to effect co-ordination, integration, and interconnection in order to achieve unity among the six member countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Sultanate of Oman, was seen as a potentially united front to fight ISIS. However, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar after accusing it of supporting terrorism, an accusation that Qatar denies. This has compromised the effectiveness of the Gulf Council as a stabilizing factor in the region, and fueled additional tensions.

Iran was expected to integrate peacefully into the region following the relaxation of western sanctions in the 2015 Nuclear Deal. In contrast, Iran continues to demonstrate and extend its power, consolidating its influence on the region. Iran is Persian and Shi’a, not Sunni, Dr. Cook reminded the forum. It is a revolutionary power seeking to rewrite the rules of the Middle East to its own benefit. Iran is the most influential actor across the region, Dr. Cook pointed out. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a tool of Iranian power, and Iran has proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Returning to the Middle East map, Dr. Cook pointed out that Iranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

Shi’a vs SunniIranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

A Summary of Middle East Destabilization

After detailing the destabilization affecting every country in the Middle East, Dr. Cook summarized the situation. The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions, end corruption, increase political participation, and bring about greater economic equity, providing opportunities for people to participate in the benefits of a stronger, globalized economy. But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations who were primed to fill the gaping power vacuum, Dr. Cook said. Insurgents, frustrated with the lack of change, were recruited into ISIS and other radical organizations. Instead of bringing democracy, repressive counterrevolutionary moves across the region followed.  “Resurgent authoritarianism is more oppressive now, than before the Arab Spring,” Dr. Cook reported.

The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions.

But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations .

Causes of the Destabilization

Middle East destabilization is not a result only of the US withdrawal after the Iraq war, nor it is a consequence of the Iran Nuclear Deal, according to Dr. Cook. Rather, it is the result of broader, historical internal issues related to identity. The Middle East is a disruptive amalgam of many identities, religious, cultural, and political identities, leading to instability and violence, he said.

These are factors that the US cannot influence or affect, Dr. Cook contended. The Middle East region has changed. The invasion of Iraq was a destabilizing factor. Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force, he continued. Russia is not interested in benefitting the region, but rather in destabilizing Europe.

Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force.

What Can the US Do?

Dr. Cook stressed the importance of the US articulating its goals and interests in the Middle East. If the interest is access to oil, then new US oil sources may provide energy independence and obviate this need.  If oil is not so important, should the US withdraw from the region? Is Israeli security the main objective? If so, could the US support Israel through other means? Or is it in the US interests to ensure that no one other than the US dominates the region?

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void. Without a strategy, the US can neither be successful in the region, nor can it withdraw. Furthermore, the larger problem is that world-wide global trade runs on Arab oil.  The international community, including the US, cannot afford to abandon the Middle East, Dr. Cook concluded.

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void.

Q&A

Q: Sen. David Long (IN): If the US pulled back from the Middle East, would Saudi Arabia seek to become a nuclear power in order to protect themselves from Iran?

A: Dr. Cook: The Nuclear Deal assumes that, within the agreement’s 15-year span, the Iranian government will change. When Iran signed the Nuclear Deal with the US, they still needed to show the world that they are a revolutionary power with influence in the region. Among the Middle East countries that could go nuclear, Egypt has no nuclear expertise and its infrastructure is falling down, while Turkey lags behind on technology. Saudi Arabia lacks the technology, but has the wealth to buy nuclear weapons, and Saudis are not likely to trust the Pakistanis, who are the most likely source.

Q: Sen. Mary Kay Papen (NM): Some people suspect that Turkish President Erdogan orchestrated the Turkish uprisings himself to create a reason to increase suppression.

A: Dr. Cook: On 15 July 2016, a coup d'état was attempted in Turkey against state institutions, including, but not limited to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The attempt was carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces that organized themselves as the Peace at Home Council, which cited an erosion of secularism, elimination of democratic rule, disregard for human rights, and Turkey's loss of credibility in the international arena as reasons for the coup. The group was defeated by loyalist troops. The Turkish government accused the coup leaders of being linked to the Gülen movement, which is led by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of being behind the coup, and accused the US of harboring him. After the coup attempt, Erdogan imprisoned or dismissed anyone suspected of being loyal to his opponents. The effects have been a destabilization of Turkey, a deepening of divisions among the countries sects, and the Islamization of Turkey, not as a theocracy, but with support for Islamic religious values.

Q: Tom Finneran (Moderator): Turkey has taken in many Syrian refugees, and Italy and Spain have been overwhelmed by refugees. Brexit may have been a response to refugee issues. How is the refugee crisis affecting the region? The EU? And the US?

A: Dr. Cook: The presence of refugees places a burden on host countries to provide support for them. The Turks harbor 3 million refugees in the provinces close to Syria where the people speak Arabic, not Turkish.  In Lebanon, 1 million Syrian refugees comprise a significant percentage of the whole population. And Jordan, which is at the center of Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, hosts 650,000 refugees.

But beyond the Middle East, the Syrian conflict also is destabilizing European politics. The EU stands for democratic norms. But the EU countries disagree about what this means. Does it mean full openness to shelter the refugees? Or is Europe a geography of Christian countries that do not want the Muslim influence? This conflict is empowering right-wing parties and tearing at the fabric of democratic, free market societies. A stable Europe is imperative for the US for global trade and international stability. Therefore, the Syrian refugee crisis extends its effects to the US as well.

Q: Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (UT): The Muslim countries used to be united against Israel as a single opponent. Lately, the situation in Israel seems quieter. What is happening there?

A: Dr. Cook: 15 years ago the Israeli-Arab conflict was a focus of concern for the world. Today, with such complex disruption affecting the whole Middle East, the Israeli-Arab conflict seems to be important only to Israel and Palestine. Domestic issues have focused Middle Eastern people’s concerns on their own countries.

A second factor is the emergence of Iran. Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region. Most Arab states do not like Iran, which is Persian, not Arabian. They are quietly working with Israel to ensure security against the common Iranian threat, which has become more threatening than the Israel Palestine conflict.

Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region.

Q: Bill Shepherd (State Farm): It seems that there are a lot of underlying issues contributing to the Middle East conflicts: Sunni vs Shi’a, the haves vs the have-nots. To what extent do these issues complicate the situation?

A: Dr. Cook: The main source of conflict is between big countries who are vying for power and influence in the region. The Sunni vs Shi’a dichotomy was exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq, which created separate Sunni and Shi’a neighborhoods. Politicians used this to consolidate and mobilize their supporters. When leaders cast the regional conflicts as matters of cultural identity, the issues are more emotional and harder to resolve or to calm.

The contrast between haves and have-nots is also a strong factor. Qatar, for example, is a rentier state, meaning it makes its income by selling the oil it sits on to the world. As a result, every citizen of Qatar receives about $120,000 per year from oil revenues. This is in contrast to Tunisia, which also exports oil, but corruption has allowed all the wealth to be controlled by those in power. Fluctuations in oil prices profoundly affect rentier states. For example, 90% of Saudi Arabia’s revenues depend on oil. For Iraq, this is 97%, and Algeria is a one-crop state entirely dependent on oil. Oil prices changes from $100 bb to $50 bb have a profoundly destabilizing effect.

Q: Sen. Robert Stiver (KY): What effect would it have if the US did need not Saudi oil?

A: Dr. Cook: The US is fracking more and gaining independence from Middle Eastern oil. This creates problems for those countries that they are not ready to manage. They have irrational economies. They distribute the “rents” or income from oil around the country and this maintains stability. The International Monetary Fund has advised the oil-producing countries to undertake reforms; however, the leaders are not willing to give up their wealth and resist liberal, democratic market reforms.

Speaker Biography

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Steven A. Cook is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. He is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Steven has published widely in foreign policy journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. He also currently writes the blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Steven was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996). He holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

september 13–17, 2017

Turmoil in The New Middle East

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy, Dr. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Dr. Cook updated the Forum on developments in the Middle East, examining the forces that shriveled the hopes of democracy after the failed Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Egypt remains an authoritarian state, Syria and Yemen are in the midst of civil wars, Libya has descended into anarchy, and the self-declared Islamic State remains a threat. Turkey, once thought to be a democratizing model for the Arab world, now more closely resembles an autocracy. Iran seeks to regain regional dominance by extending its influence over Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, effectively surrounding and isolating Saudi Arabia, Dr. Cook reported. He analyzed why the old structures of power were never eliminated and the power struggles that have ensued.

“The Middle East is disintegrating and lacks the resources to create democratic societies and free markets,” Dr. Cook observed. Given these unstable situations, he stressed the importance for the US to define its Mideast goals and articulate a clear strategic foreign policy to achieve them.

The New Middle East

The Sweep of Unrest Across the Middle East

Dr. Cook went country by country across the map of the Middle East, pointing out the eruptions occurring in each country that have destabilized the whole region. Starting in the west with Morocco, Dr. Cook reported that local demonstrations in October 2016 led to widespread and unchecked rioting in a country that is a US ally and lies less than 10 miles from Spain. Algeria, the largest gas producer for Europe and a breeding ground for extremists, experienced an unprecedented wave of simultaneous protests and riots, sparked by sudden rises in staple food prices, unemployment, the lack of housing, corruption, restrictions on freedom of speech and poor living conditions. Thousands were killed or imprisoned in the government’s repressive response to the demonstrations. Protests in Tunisia in 2011, which sparked the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising, led to the downfall of the dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime. Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

Since the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

In Syria, a conflict that started as a peaceful protest, was quickly militarized by the Assad regime, and has become a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, with 400,000 people killed and half of the population displaced to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  Today, the Syrian conflict is a Jihadist proxy war, with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah jockeying for dominance.

Jordan became the country of refuge for millions of Syrians fleeing the Civil War. Today, Jordan’s largest municipality is a refugee camp, Dr. Cook observed.

Turkey has turned to a more authoritarian and repressive government, with 200,000 people jailed or fired for anti-government activities.

Iraq has seen ISIS defeated in some centers but the threat to stability continues there as Kurds fight for their independence. After World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish politics have long sought an independent Kurdish state.

A week after Dr. Cook’s presentation, on September 25, 2017, a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq was put to the vote. The vote is not binding and its legality has been rejected by the federal government of Iraq, but the vote had strong repercussions in the region. While the The Arab League called on Iraqis to renounce their differences and open comprehensive dialogue to avoid clashes, Turkish President Erdogan said he is considering all options ranging from military intervention to economic sanctions against Iraq's Kurdish region. Iraqi troops began joint military exercises with Turkey along the border the two countries share.

Saudi Arabia has control of Islam’s holy places, Mecca and Medea, and ISIS wants the Islamic State to own these places. The risk of terrorist activities to achieve this goal is a destabilizing factor in the country. The Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981 to effect co-ordination, integration, and interconnection in order to achieve unity among the six member countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Sultanate of Oman, was seen as a potentially united front to fight ISIS. However, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar after accusing it of supporting terrorism, an accusation that Qatar denies. This has compromised the effectiveness of the Gulf Council as a stabilizing factor in the region, and fueled additional tensions.

Iran was expected to integrate peacefully into the region following the relaxation of western sanctions in the 2015 Nuclear Deal. In contrast, Iran continues to demonstrate and extend its power, consolidating its influence on the region. Iran is Persian and Shi’a, not Sunni, Dr. Cook reminded the forum. It is a revolutionary power seeking to rewrite the rules of the Middle East to its own benefit. Iran is the most influential actor across the region, Dr. Cook pointed out. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a tool of Iranian power, and Iran has proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Returning to the Middle East map, Dr. Cook pointed out that Iranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

Shi’a vs SunniIranian power and influence is beginning to surround Saudi Arabia.

A Summary of Middle East Destabilization

After detailing the destabilization affecting every country in the Middle East, Dr. Cook summarized the situation. The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions, end corruption, increase political participation, and bring about greater economic equity, providing opportunities for people to participate in the benefits of a stronger, globalized economy. But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations who were primed to fill the gaping power vacuum, Dr. Cook said. Insurgents, frustrated with the lack of change, were recruited into ISIS and other radical organizations. Instead of bringing democracy, repressive counterrevolutionary moves across the region followed.  “Resurgent authoritarianism is more oppressive now, than before the Arab Spring,” Dr. Cook reported.

The Arab Spring demonstrations sought to depose dictatorships and bring about more democratic and modern institutions.

But the democratic aspirations were hi-jacked by well-organized radical Islamic organizations .

Causes of the Destabilization

Middle East destabilization is not a result only of the US withdrawal after the Iraq war, nor it is a consequence of the Iran Nuclear Deal, according to Dr. Cook. Rather, it is the result of broader, historical internal issues related to identity. The Middle East is a disruptive amalgam of many identities, religious, cultural, and political identities, leading to instability and violence, he said.

These are factors that the US cannot influence or affect, Dr. Cook contended. The Middle East region has changed. The invasion of Iraq was a destabilizing factor. Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force, he continued. Russia is not interested in benefitting the region, but rather in destabilizing Europe.

Russia is back in the Middle East as a power and influence, with Iran as an ally, and Hezbollah as an expeditionary force.

What Can the US Do?

Dr. Cook stressed the importance of the US articulating its goals and interests in the Middle East. If the interest is access to oil, then new US oil sources may provide energy independence and obviate this need.  If oil is not so important, should the US withdraw from the region? Is Israeli security the main objective? If so, could the US support Israel through other means? Or is it in the US interests to ensure that no one other than the US dominates the region?

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void. Without a strategy, the US can neither be successful in the region, nor can it withdraw. Furthermore, the larger problem is that world-wide global trade runs on Arab oil.  The international community, including the US, cannot afford to abandon the Middle East, Dr. Cook concluded.

The Middle East is disintegrating and its countries have no resources to create democratic free markets. It is a perfect opportunity for strong-arm governments to fill that void.

Q&A

Q: Sen. David Long (IN): If the US pulled back from the Middle East, would Saudi Arabia seek to become a nuclear power in order to protect themselves from Iran?

A: Dr. Cook: The Nuclear Deal assumes that, within the agreement’s 15-year span, the Iranian government will change. When Iran signed the Nuclear Deal with the US, they still needed to show the world that they are a revolutionary power with influence in the region. Among the Middle East countries that could go nuclear, Egypt has no nuclear expertise and its infrastructure is falling down, while Turkey lags behind on technology. Saudi Arabia lacks the technology, but has the wealth to buy nuclear weapons, and Saudis are not likely to trust the Pakistanis, who are the most likely source.

Q: Sen. Mary Kay Papen (NM): Some people suspect that Turkish President Erdogan orchestrated the Turkish uprisings himself to create a reason to increase suppression.

A: Dr. Cook: On 15 July 2016, a coup d'état was attempted in Turkey against state institutions, including, but not limited to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The attempt was carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces that organized themselves as the Peace at Home Council, which cited an erosion of secularism, elimination of democratic rule, disregard for human rights, and Turkey's loss of credibility in the international arena as reasons for the coup. The group was defeated by loyalist troops. The Turkish government accused the coup leaders of being linked to the Gülen movement, which is led by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of being behind the coup, and accused the US of harboring him. After the coup attempt, Erdogan imprisoned or dismissed anyone suspected of being loyal to his opponents. The effects have been a destabilization of Turkey, a deepening of divisions among the countries sects, and the Islamization of Turkey, not as a theocracy, but with support for Islamic religious values.

Q: Tom Finneran (Moderator): Turkey has taken in many Syrian refugees, and Italy and Spain have been overwhelmed by refugees. Brexit may have been a response to refugee issues. How is the refugee crisis affecting the region? The EU? And the US?

A: Dr. Cook: The presence of refugees places a burden on host countries to provide support for them. The Turks harbor 3 million refugees in the provinces close to Syria where the people speak Arabic, not Turkish.  In Lebanon, 1 million Syrian refugees comprise a significant percentage of the whole population. And Jordan, which is at the center of Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, hosts 650,000 refugees.

But beyond the Middle East, the Syrian conflict also is destabilizing European politics. The EU stands for democratic norms. But the EU countries disagree about what this means. Does it mean full openness to shelter the refugees? Or is Europe a geography of Christian countries that do not want the Muslim influence? This conflict is empowering right-wing parties and tearing at the fabric of democratic, free market societies. A stable Europe is imperative for the US for global trade and international stability. Therefore, the Syrian refugee crisis extends its effects to the US as well.

Q: Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (UT): The Muslim countries used to be united against Israel as a single opponent. Lately, the situation in Israel seems quieter. What is happening there?

A: Dr. Cook: 15 years ago the Israeli-Arab conflict was a focus of concern for the world. Today, with such complex disruption affecting the whole Middle East, the Israeli-Arab conflict seems to be important only to Israel and Palestine. Domestic issues have focused Middle Eastern people’s concerns on their own countries.

A second factor is the emergence of Iran. Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region. Most Arab states do not like Iran, which is Persian, not Arabian. They are quietly working with Israel to ensure security against the common Iranian threat, which has become more threatening than the Israel Palestine conflict.

Iran is a revolutionary country determined to rewrite the rules of the region to assure it a more prominent role in the region.

Q: Bill Shepherd (State Farm): It seems that there are a lot of underlying issues contributing to the Middle East conflicts: Sunni vs Shi’a, the haves vs the have-nots. To what extent do these issues complicate the situation?

A: Dr. Cook: The main source of conflict is between big countries who are vying for power and influence in the region. The Sunni vs Shi’a dichotomy was exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq, which created separate Sunni and Shi’a neighborhoods. Politicians used this to consolidate and mobilize their supporters. When leaders cast the regional conflicts as matters of cultural identity, the issues are more emotional and harder to resolve or to calm.

The contrast between haves and have-nots is also a strong factor. Qatar, for example, is a rentier state, meaning it makes its income by selling the oil it sits on to the world. As a result, every citizen of Qatar receives about $120,000 per year from oil revenues. This is in contrast to Tunisia, which also exports oil, but corruption has allowed all the wealth to be controlled by those in power. Fluctuations in oil prices profoundly affect rentier states. For example, 90% of Saudi Arabia’s revenues depend on oil. For Iraq, this is 97%, and Algeria is a one-crop state entirely dependent on oil. Oil prices changes from $100 bb to $50 bb have a profoundly destabilizing effect.

Q: Sen. Robert Stiver (KY): What effect would it have if the US did need not Saudi oil?

A: Dr. Cook: The US is fracking more and gaining independence from Middle Eastern oil. This creates problems for those countries that they are not ready to manage. They have irrational economies. They distribute the “rents” or income from oil around the country and this maintains stability. The International Monetary Fund has advised the oil-producing countries to undertake reforms; however, the leaders are not willing to give up their wealth and resist liberal, democratic market reforms.

Speaker Biography

Steven A. Cook, PhD

Steven A. Cook is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. He is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Steven has published widely in foreign policy journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. He also currently writes the blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Steven was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996). He holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.