The idea seems to be gaining traction that the Middle East is incredibly, incredibly complex – far too complex for Americans to ever understand and far, far too complex to intervene in with any hope of success, be it military strikes on Syria, peace negotiations with Israel and Palestine, or military aid to Egypt. Last week the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher published a chart of Middle East players filled with arrows in every direction — sheer chaos (the chart was from an Egyptian blogger, “the big Pharoah”).
I’ve redrawn the chart – breaking “Syrian rebels” into four constituent groups but otherwise retaining the same actors — and it’s not that complicated. (Sure, a level down from here, on either chart, lies lots of complexity down to individual personalities and cross-cutting ties, but that wasn’t the original chart’s point.)
Fisher comments on his chart: “There are rivals who share mutual enemies, allies who back opposite sides of the same conflict, conflicting interests and very strange bedfellows.” But actually, on my version you see mostly a two-way split between the Russian-backed Shi’ite axis in the upper right and the actors on the left. The main complexity is a rivalry between Qatar (home of al Jazeera TV) and Saudi Arabia (along with the other Gulf states). They back opposing sides of the conflict within Egypt between General Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They both support the Free Syrian Army but favor different factions within it (the Saudi-backed side is dominant now in the Syrian rebel leadership). In the lower right, al Qaeda and the Kurds each control territory in Syria and are more concerned with administering it than bigger ambitions.
There are a few anomalies but not of great significance. For instance, Israel likes the USA, which likes Qatar (where we held military exercises this year), which likes Hamas, but Hamas does not like Israel!
Thirty years ago studying international relations in graduate school, my professor Nazli Choucri taught me that “the Middle East conflict” was actually at least five conflicts layered over each other. Today it’s even less about Israelis versus Arabs than then. But the region is not a swirling cloud of unpredictable and shifting conflicts that no one could ever understand. Journalists at the Washington Post, and elsewhere, should try to understand and explain these conflicts, not throw up their hands. My opinion.
For those of you who would like a map to go with the chart, here you go: