The state as we know it is vanishing in the Middle East. Strife in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, foreign intrusion from states within the region and outside it, and dreadful rule by self-serving elites have all contributed to the destruction of societies, infrastructure and systems of governance. Nonstate actors of all kinds, most of them armed, are emerging to run their own shows. Generations of mistrust underlie it all.
It is difficult to see how Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again. To be sure, many Middle Eastern states were mostly illegitimate to begin with. They may have been recognized internationally, but their governments exercised authority mostly through repression and sometimes through terror. They relied on a political veneer or constructed narrative to justify the rule of ethnic or sectarian minorities, mafia-like family clans or power-hungry dictators. In most countries, the systems that were built were never intended to create national institutions, so they did not.
The Arab Spring shook some of these societies to the core, precipitating their disintegration. But it was the rise of the Islamic State, and the ease with which it spread through Syria and Iraq, that truly laid bare the incoherence of the existing states.
The Islamic State may prove to be a passing flavor, but its defeat would not bring back the Iraqi or Syrian states as we knew them. Instead, we will probably see the remnants of the organization remain active after burrowing deep into the social fabric of smaller communities, even as other groups — including the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and the Iraqi Shiite militias marshaled to fight it — proliferate.
In many places, geographic boundaries will remain in flux. To the extent they exist, it may mostly be in the imaginations of leaders, cartographers and U.N. organizations. States have lost control in two distinct ways: in practical political and administrative terms and from the perspective of the loyalty and affinity of large segments of their populations. The Iraqi and Syrian states’ traditional objective of collecting taxes and conscripting soldiers on a national scale is clearly unrealizable now. Such states can have no means of effectively monitoring their borders. Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria appear to have more in common with each other than with their fellow nationals. Similarly, Iraq’s Shiite militias would rather fight with Iran’s support than obey the Iraqi government’s edicts. In Lebanon, Shiite Hezbollah, the prototype of an armed extra-legal transnational force, threatened Sunni Saudi Arabia over its intervention against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
If things were not complicated enough, the Kurds have emerged as a major force, too, though they are deeply divided among the four countries whose boundaries they straddle: Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. They will surely influence the shape of things to come. In addition to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the recognized federal entity in Iraq, Turkish Kurds and their insurgent organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, are engaged in difficult peace negotiations with the Turkish government. Then there are the Syrian Kurds, who because of civil war in Syria and support from other Kurds will help determine Syria’s future. With the aid of U.S. airpower, they have not only successfully defended their territory against an Islamic State onslaught but also managed to push the group’s fighters back.
One can get a glimpse of the new Middle East from what the PKK intends to do, as I discovered on a recent trip to meet with its leadership in the mountains of northern Iraq. While serious about ending the armed struggle against Turkey, the PKK has no intention of giving up its weapons. Emboldened by Kurdish successes, it sees itself as a movement with a mission: In the short term, it aims to protect other Kurds, primarily Syrian and Iraqi, from the Islamic State, as well as imperiled minorities such as Christians and the Yazidis. In the medium term, it wants to push for its particular vision of communitarian democracy. Perhaps the most accurate, if oxymoronic, way to describe what the PKK envisages for its role is “armed civil society group.”
Such a vision may seem fanciful, but it’s a good indication of where the Middle East is headed. The future probably offers a chaotic, multipolar arrangement where national boundaries are nominally retained but are crisscrossed by the likes of the PKK, its affiliates in Iran and Syria and Iraqi Kurdish fighters, by Hezbollah, by the Islamic State or its remnants, by other jihadist organizations such as a revitalized Jabhat al-Nusra, by Iraqi Shiite militias and by others. It will not be a pretty sight, but we may have to get used to it.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.