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The Middle East Cauldron

Edward “Skip” Gnehm served as Ambassador to Kuwait shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, from 1991 to 1994, and was Director of the State Department’s Kuwait Task Force. Before that, he had worked extensively in the Middle East. He ran the two-man U.S. Interests Section in Damascus during then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria.  As a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at both the State and Defense Departments, he was the Pentagon’s point man on the five-man interagency coordinating committee during the 1987-88 deployment of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf. He has also served with the Foreign Service in Vietnam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia and Nepal. After his assignment to Kuwait, Gnehm served as Ambassador to Australia from 2000 to 2001 and Ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2003. He is now a professor at the George Washington Elliot School of International Affairs.

The  following was presented as part of the Presidential Lecture and Performance Series at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina on September 18, 2014. It is reprinted here with permission. You can also read ADST’s interview with Ambassador Gnehm on recent events in the Middle East.


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A kaleidoscope of disorder, instability, and turmoil

As I begin, let me give you a quick tutorial on the Middle East today.

As the U.S. looks at the region it clearly opposes the Assad regime in Syria and supports the moderate resistance while opposing the radical resistance.

Both of which are fighting the Assad regime.

Iran supports Assad and opposes all Syrian resistance groups including the radicals we oppose.

We are close to the Gulf Arab States that oppose Assad and Iran and that support Syrian resistance groups including some of the radicals that we oppose.

Gulf States also oppose a Shia-dominated Iraq.

But the U.S. supports the Shia-led Iraqi government.

Then there is the flow of private funds from Arab States to resistance groups that even their own governments oppose!

And I have not even mentioned Egypt, Palestinians, Israel, Yemen, Lebanon and Hezbollah or Libya.

Welcome to the Middle East!

Now that you are fully conversant with the region and all its problems, let me try to disaggregate what you have just seen. Obvious to all is how intricately interwoven are the issues and the actors. There are no clear lines of alliances or common interests but complex situations that can often find two actors that are enemies in one situation yet fighting for the same end in another. To make sense of what is going on in the region, we must look at the domestic issues at play and then the broader regional issues, such as the Sunni-Shia cleavage and the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Then how does the U.S. engage?

The Middle East today is a seething cauldron — a kaleidoscope of disorder, instability, and turmoil. From North Africa and the fractured state of Libya, past Egypt under military authority, to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, one finds a collapse of political systems in some cases threatening the existence of states.

2011 and the misnamed Arab Spring

Any understanding of the present requires one to look ba

ck at the historic events of 2011 — the so-called (and, I add, misnamed) Arab Spring.
In 2011 massive popular demonstrations toppled or threatened to topple governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Important factors led to these uprisings. For the first time, the people in the region rose up against their autocratic leaders and repressive governments to demand a better life — an end to the unremitting corruption and brutality that these regimes used on their own people, demanding secular government, justice, accountability, and economic opportunity for all — not just for the elite. Even though events did not necessarily lead to the ends demonstrators were demanding, hopes for change and a better future remain.

But we are far from that point at present. Today there is a new sense of frustration with a system that did not work, with replacement of secular and liberal ideas with politicized religious extremist groups, and with a sense in some cases that they are still bound by authoritarian regimes determined to repeat the patterns of violence, corruption and political coercion practiced by those pre-2011 regimes they had discarded.

Intra-State Turmoil


The popular uprising that began in 2011 led to the resignation of President Mubarak and elections that brought Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Their determination to dominate the political scene, apply their interpretation of religious law and practices to the state as a whole, and exclude other segments of society led to massive counter demonstrations and the ultimate intervention of the Egyptian military. Morsi was deposed and arrested. The military dictated a transition to a new government order that they now dominate. The new government has moved forcefully against the Muslim Brotherhood — designating it a terrorist organization, arresting thousands of supporters, and making grandiose promises of economic development that it cannot sustain. Supreme Commander al-Sisi seems to be making the same mistake that the Muslim Brotherhood made:  failing to build an inclusive government.


Following the popular overthrow of Muamar Qaddafi, there was great hope that a new Libya would arise from the ashes of the dictatorship. Instead there has been a fragmentation of the state as local warlords and tribal militias attempt to dominate various regions. The internecine fighting has undermined every effort thus far to establish a central government capable of ruling the country. The past division between the eastern region and the west is once again in the fore.


Yemen is a country that was hard to govern in a more reasonable time. Its population is well-armed, its politics dominated by tribal, ethnic and sectarian loyalties. The state is threatened on three fronts: an insurrection in the north, a separatist movement in the south and an extensive presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Massive demonstrations at the time of the Arab Spring elsewhere led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for 35 years by patronage, nepotism, and coercion. Efforts by the U.S. and regional states to help Yemeni parties reach a consensus on a national dialogue have failed thus far. The incumbent government is besieged by forces from the north and from outside the country. The government appears unable to control the situation.


Since the U.S. military intervention in Iraq in 2003 Iraqis have struggled in efforts to establish a new political order — a governing system that would maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the state. Simplistically stated, three major segments of the population contest for power in ways that have thwarted progress toward stability: the Shia, the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds (who are Sunni, Shia and Christian). The U.S support for an inclusive, democratically based government inevitably led to Shia dominance of the government as they are the majority of the population. Arab Sunnis who dominated Iraq since Ottoman times remain unreconciled to their new status. The Kurds in the north have lived in an autonomous region protected by the U.S. and the coalition that ended the Kuwait war in 1991 and have no intention of losing their autonomy to any government in Baghdad.

Actions of the Shia-controlled government — particularly under Prime Minister Maliki — exacerbated tensions between the three groups. Maliki’s unabashed Shia sectarianism, his efforts to bring Iraq under stronger federal control, his refusal to honor promises made to the Sunnis on power sharing, and his personal efforts to eliminate Sunni rivals convinced Sunni Arabs that they had no place in Maliki’s new Iraq. In 2005 Sunni Arabs drifted to support al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia efforts to overthrow the government, a pattern many disgruntled and disaffected Sunni Arabs are repeating in joining with the new terrorist threat – ISIS.

The security situation deteriorated badly beginning last December. Sectarian violence in the form of suicide bombings and attacks on Shia and non-Muslim targets increased and by June 2014 ISIS had seized control of nearly one-third of Iraq, mostly in predominantly Sunni Arab areas of northwest and central Iraq. Maliki made no serious moves to stem the ISIS military moves, focusing instead on his personal control even when Mosul fell and the peshmerga militias of the Kurdistan Regional Government moved to occupy provinces disputed with Baghdad rather than confront ISIS. As in Egypt, the parties in power seemed determined to maintain their position even as the state was disintegrating.


In 2011 Syrians took to the streets calling for political reform to include broader participation in government and, in fact, an end to the political dominance of the Allawite regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. The Allawites, a minority loosely identified with Shia Islam, are largely located in the northwest of Syria. They have dominated the country since the current president’s father, Hafiz al-Asad, seized power in a military coup in 1970. The regime’s response to popular calls for change was harsh and bloody. Troops were dispatched to break up opposition activities. This brutal approach and the resulting loss of life and destruction of property turned what had been basically a peaceful movement into an armed rebellion.

The resistance had no central organization or obvious leader. Local fighters organized themselves to defend their villages and territory. This proliferation of groups undermined the opposition’s ability to effectively confront the regime’s forces; but the insurrection was (and remains) so widespread that the government — even with its bigger firepower — has been unable to quash the rebels.

As the fighting continues, outside powers have increasingly involved themselves in support of one faction or another. The Asad regime has received political support and military aid from Russia as well as fighters and assistance from Iran and Hezbollah (a Shia party from Lebanon). Arab Gulf States, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provide weapons and financial support to various rebel factions. International efforts to convince rebel factions to form a central organization that could receive support and better face regime forces failed. The internal situation became even more chaotic when rebel groups in competition with each other for power and influence turned on each other.

Refugees and Displaced Persons

The humanitarian consequences are horrendous. The UN estimates that nearly 200,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil strife. There are over 3m Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, in addition to the 1 million or more Iraqis—Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities—who have fled Iraq. A quarter of the population of Lebanon is Syrian refugees as is 10% of the total population of Jordan. . Even worse, over 40% of the entire population of Syria is displaced internally — meaning 40% are not living in their homes. 500,000 Iraqis fled Mosul, and, when that city fell to ISIS, ISIS was determined to ethnically cleanse Iraq of Shia of any ethnic background, Christians and Yazidis, who are considered to be apostates and deserving of death. Life for these people is extraordinarily difficult as they cope with no education for their children and poor to no medical care. They live in despair not knowing when they may be able, if ever, to return home.

Regional Power Politics

The challenges to domestic and regional security rise because of internal factors but regional political rivalries, especially the war in Syria, are also responsible. Many blame religion – or sectarianism (Sunni vs Shia) as responsible; but most of the turmoil also reflects ethnic identity – Arab vs Persian, Kurd vs Arab. There are two major manifestations of regional power politics: the Sunni-Shia cleavage and Saudi-Iranian competition.

The Sunni-Shia Cleavage

The cleavage centered originally on who was the legitimate successor or caliph to the Prophet Mohammad after his death in 632 CE. On his death the Companions of the Prophet met and “elected” or selected a close friend of the Prophet to be his successor. Others rejected the validity of this selection process believing that the only rightful succession was through the blood line of the Prophet, specifically to Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. Today they are called Shia (followers of Ali).

This cleavage acquired doctrinal and dynastic differences over the subsequent 15 centuries. The Shia continued to reject the validity and authority of the Sunni caliphs, the leaders of the succeeding Islamic empires. Except in Iran, which converted to Shia Islam as the official religion of the state in the 16th century, the Shia were minorities in a majority Sunni political culture, often subjected to economic and social discrimination. Orthodox or extremist Sunni Muslims saw the Shia as deviants dividing the faith in direct contravention of the teachings of the Prophet. They interpreted the Shia rejection of authority as subversive and sought to isolate and discriminate, even eliminate, Shia communities and believers.

The Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia and Sunni Salafi extremists such as ISIS label Shia apostates or non-believers— persons having known the true faith but given it up — therefore subject to death as prescribed in the Koran. Wahhabi extremists twice sacked Karbala and laid siege to Najaf in the early 19th century, slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children. Iraqis, especially the Shia, today remember this. We in America do not have as long a view of history as do people of the Middle East. In Iraq and Iran events that occurred 1500 years ago are described and commemorated as if they happened yesterday.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran added a new and significant dimension to the Sunni-Shia cleavage. Iran’s Supreme Leader regards himself as the leader of the global Shia community (which in 10% of Islam’s 1.8 billion believers) as well as of revolutionary Muslims everywhere. Iran’s clerics often refer to the Shia living outside Iran — especially in Iraq and the Gulf — as communities of sympathizers and supporters of the Islamic revolution, which most are not. This leads Sunni governments to conclude that their Shia populations are ultimately loyal to Iran and are, therefore, fifth columns to be closely monitored and controlled. It is a contestable accusation, since most Shia in the Gulf are Arab, and not Persian, and have lived in these countries for more than 1000 years. Further most Arab Shia, especially in the Gulf, are followers of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, known as a quietist (no clerics in government) and not political ayatollahs as those in Iran.

The Saudi-Iranian Competition

The present competition between Saudi Arabia (leading the Gulf Arab States) and Iran is rooted in history. Arabs and Persians have fought and contended for dominance in the Middle East for millennia. That history lives today. Even as the Supreme Leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, addresses the present, he harkens back to the great Persian Empire and its legacy. He claims Iran’s rightful place in the region as one of power and influence, in short Persian hegemony in the Gulf region and beyond.

Sunni Arab leaders, again with Saudi Arabia in the forefront, interpret Iranian actions in that light. In their view Iran is behind all the unrest in the region and is determined to undermine the Arab States and impose Iranian (meaning Shia) dominance. They see Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, assistance to the Assad regime in Syria, penetrating influence in Iraq, and the fomenting of rebellion in Bahrain — not to mention the unrest in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia — as proof of Iran’s aggressive efforts to build a new Persian empire (or at least an Iranian dominated Middle East).

Add to this deep concern over Iranian power projection the competition for leadership of the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is the protector and custodian of the two most holy places in Islam:  Mecca and Medina. As such, the Saudis have assumed a major role globally in establishing — and dominating —Islamic organizations and spreading its understanding of Islam. Iran, on its side, emphasizes Shia religious and historical interpretation of Islam and its leadership. In organizations like the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) the Iranians now contest Saudi influence and challenge Saudi dominance. They also accuse the Saudis of encouraging Sunni extremists, such as ISIS, in their anti-Shia activities.

Proxy Wars

The competition between Arab Sunni States and Shia Iran has led to their intervention throughout the region in the domestic turmoil that I described above. In Iraq, for example, Iran supports the Shia parties and militias in their assertion of power. The Saudis, who fear Iranian domination of Iraq and thus the loss of Iraq as an ally in regional politics and security, have supported the Sunni tribes. In Yemen Iran is providing support for the northern Houthi rebellion as that group is a branch of Shia Islam. It is also apt to point out that Iran finds it more than exciting that it can support a group that is at odds with Saudi Arabia and located on the Kingdom’s backside! Precisely for that reason and the long-term anxiety that Saudi Arabia has toward threats from Yemen, Riyadh backs the central government.

Syria is a particular case in point. The Allawite domination of Syria, when coupled with the suppression of Sunni Syrians and its alliance with Iran, invariably led to Saudi support for the Syrian resistance. Other Arab States also provide support, but a distinct split has emerged. Qatar and Turkey were willing to support more Islamic and potentially extremist factions. Soon, resistance groups supported by the Saudis and those receiving funds from Qatar were fighting each other for turf and influence. The Arab states’ involvement in Syria is even further complicated as enormous levels of financial support flow from private citizens indiscriminately to any number of the resistance groups.

The split in Arab state ranks is also evident in differences over Egypt. Qatar was supportive of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood when it was in power and it continued to support the Muslim Brotherhood by permitting Brotherhood leadership to operate out of Qatar. Saudi Arabia with considerable support from the UAE was extremely upset with Mubarak’s departure (accusing the U.S. of failing to assist an ally) and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in such an important country as Egypt.

The Saudis and others in the Persian Gulf see the Muslim Brotherhood as threatening their position. Their anger with Qatar’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood actually led three countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha, an extraordinary action. This diplomatic pressure appears to have worked as Qatar announced this week that it had invited some or all Muslim Brotherhood leaders to leave Qatar.

Rise of Radicalization

A significant consequence of the region’s turmoil is the rise of radicalization. Two theaters highlight this phenomenon:  Syria and Iraq. In Syria we have watched the in-fighting among the resistance groups and the steady rise in the influence of Al-Nusra and ISIS (ISIL or IS). While the Islamic fighters were valued because of their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause, concerns grew among more moderate Muslim elements that the Islamic extremists were actually targeting the moderates in an effort to dominate the resistance. An even more troubling phenomenon was the competition among the more radical groups for both recruits and money. This led to more dramatic and even horrifying terrorist actions aimed to prove that the action party was THE party that should get the financial support and, incidentally, that should be the resistance organization of choice for fighters.

Financial support and recruits did in fact pour into these more radical groups. ISIS expanded its presence and authority in eastern Syria and then very dramatically swept into northern Iraq. The declaration of a caliphate and the call to Moslems everywhere to support this “state” heightened concern globally but, importantly, in the region itself. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states as well as Iran saw ISIS as a direct threat. Iran understood its strong anti-Shia focus. Arab states understood that ISIS threatened even the Sunni monarchies and their leadership in the region.

Far more troubling was the number of recruits flowing toward ISIS from among their citizens as well as the volume of financial support that indicated the depth of citizen support for ISIS. These countries fear not only the return of their radicalized citizens but the internal support that the radicals might receive from within their own country. This concern has led Sunni governments to join the coalition of countries that are organizing to confront ISIS. Governments like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have moved to tighten controls on the flow of contributions to ISIS and other radical groups. They have also acted to contain the flow of citizen recruits making it illegal to join such groups.

Key religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have condemned the caliphate and the violent actions it has taken. These are important and positive developments, but it remains to be seen if these actions will have the desired effect, particularly given the grass root support that the Islamic fighters appear to have.

In Iraq radical Islamic groups have increased their presence and power particularly in the Sunni regions of western Iraq. In part these groups benefit from Sunni disaffection toward the Shia dominated government in Baghdad. Several Sunni tribal leaders made clear that they were not proponents of the radical ideology espoused by the Islamic groups; but they were allied with those groups as a means of deposing Maliki in Baghdad. ISIS was able to move so swiftly in its military advance in Iraq due to the support of Iraqi Sunni Arabs; they helped in targeting, fighting and hold important positions in the ISIS hierarchy.
Compounding this disaffection was the central government’s use of primarily Shia forces in that region. Fearing genuine local support for the Sunni Islamic forces, these military units essentially abandoned their posts. Even more alarming was the ISIS advance toward the Kurdish region and the initial losses by Kurdish forces.

The reaction was swift. The U.S. announced it would undertake air action to protect Americans located in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and also to provide humanitarian assistance to minorities that were fleeing ISIS atrocities. U.S. actions coupled with Kurdish forces and Shia militia on the ground led to the recovery of several towns and territory around two major dams that are vital to Baghdad. Not receiving much attention, however, is the friction that has occurred between the Kurdish forces and the Shia militia — friction that underscores the ongoing divisions in Iraq.

Further the rapid and significant international commitments to assist the Kurds to enhance their capabilities to fight ISIS also strengthen the Kurdish ability to resist central government efforts to maintain its authority throughout the state. For example, during the fighting Kurdish forces occupied Kirkuk, a city long claimed by the Kurds but held until now by the central government. It is key to the oil resources in that region. It is unlikely that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will vacate its gains — a significant longer-term problem. In short the Kurds will be in a far better position now than before should they decide to move toward independence — though there are other factors that come into play.

The U.S. Factor

Americans are weary of war and entanglement in just the kind of morass we find in the Middle East region today. Yet America has vital interests in the region and cannot shirk its role as global power with influence without consequences. We need to be clear from the beginning, as we approach the regional problems, just what the U.S. can do and cannot do. Shibley Telhami in his book, The Stakes, says it this way:  “The U.S. has the power to reshuffle the deck in the Middle East but not to determine how the cards will fall.” Telhami is recognizing what many American officials and politicians fail to appreciate:  The U.S has enormous resources and capabilities to affect and influence regional developments, but it does not control all factors and actors on the ground — and never will. Hence, it becomes crucial that, if we wish to advance our interests, we must work with the governments and peoples in the region. (Photo: Denver Post)

That is challenging. Not only do we need to understand the region’s history, politics, and culture, but we must comprehend how we are viewed in the region. A recent Washington Post story highlighted the mistrust of American policies in the region. The article quoted Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai: “We have reached a low point in trust in this Administration. We think in time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin.” These are harsh words for us to hear, but what lies behind them.

The same article notes that such a view is rooted in three years of increased American disengagement — a distancing from the turmoil engendered by the Arab Spring. The author explained that different countries are suspicious for different reasons; but all feel betrayed in some way. Some cite Obama’s warning of military action against Syria if it used chemical weapons. Yet he backed off when they did. Others point to U.S. failure to supply moderate Syrian resistance with arms after promising repeatedly to do so. These persons even argue that this failure created the conditions that enabled ISIS to thrive. A prevalent view in Iran is that we actually created ISIS. Sunni leaders point to continued U.S. support for Maliki in Iraq even after his partisan approach seemed to be tearing Iraq apart — arguing that this fueled the ascent of militants in Iraq.

What Should the U.S. Do?

Foremost the U.S. must act in its national interest. U.S. interests in the region remain significant including the unhindered movement of oil and gas from the region to world markets, the security of Israel, the containment of radical terrorist groups that could endanger the U.S., and the survival of moderate friendly countries.

Secondly, the U.S. must lead. It cannot be absent or passive; yet it need not resort to war. As the global superpower, the U.S. can lead in building a coalition that, in turn, can bring to bear a variety of tools and assets to confront the immediate threat from ISIS. BUT we must move with regional states.

Fortunately, there is global and, importantly, regional support for action. The U.S. can provide certain assets as we are doing now with air support, but regional states must provide the ground forces and take the hard political decisions domestically that undercut radical Islamic groups from gleaning local public support.

This means that a government in Iraq or Egypt must work toward an inclusive political environment, one that does not alienate or exclude a large segment of its population. It means that other regional states with financial assets must support moderate governments with the resources they need to provide for the welfare of their citizens. It means that governments in the region must take difficult decisions domestically to curtail local support both for recruitment and financial support for radical groups.

While the situation appears grim today, there are reasons to see a better future. Regional states appear ready to act together with outside support to confront the radicalization that has taken place. The new government in Baghdad has an opportunity—perhaps its last—to rebuild a national consensus. The U.S., if it remains steadfast and attentive to regional sensitivities, can be an important catalyst in the global effort to address the ISIS and radical Islamic threat.


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