The ‘new wars’ of the Middle East

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 FEB 08, 2022 – DAILY SABAH


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Illustration by Shutterstock.

Illustration by Shutterstock.

Rapid globalization since the 1980s has changed the main components of conflicts. This new way of war can be observed in Syria, Yemen and Libya today

Globalization – simply put, the process of achieving a world without borders – has brought significant changes internationally, pushing economic, political, social and cultural interdependence to the highest level. However, in a globalized world, wars have the tendency to spread and are harder to end.

Market liberalization, new communication technologies and the rapid movement of capital have made it easier for non-state actors to obtain power and profits when there is a decline in the state authority.

With the Arab Spring, many authoritarian Arab states could not preserve their authority and experienced spurring revolts. This lack of control allowed non-state interest groups like regional warlords or private companies to benefit from war. In addition, high interdependence between state and non-state actors caused other parties to get involved in conflicts.

Egyptian protesters gather to mark the anniversary of the start of the revolt that swept aside former President Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 3, 2012. (AP Photo)
Egyptian protesters gather to mark the anniversary of the start of the revolt that swept aside former President Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 3, 2012. (AP Photo)

A war without the involvement of other state and non-state actors is no longer possible in the Middle East, and these characters are not all local. To put it precisely: A war without the participation of international actors has become impossible in the region.

The term “new wars” should be fully examined in order to understand to what extent contemporary Middle Eastern wars differ from “old wars.”

British academic Mary Kaldor coined the term “new wars” to explain the changing features of the conflicts in the late 1900s and 2000s. According to her theory, recent wars are the result of globalization. She identifies four main differences between old and new wars; namely the actors, goals, methods and financing.

New actors of wars

Firstly, the actors involved in wars have significantly changed over time. Classic wars were fought between different countries by the traditional armies of the states. In new wars, there are many new players. Prussian theorist Gen. Carl von Clausewitz’s famous three principles of war – government, military and people – are not enough to explain the complex characteristics of the wars of today.

The new wars are fought between various state and non-state actors. The armed forces of states, private security contractors, mercenaries, ideological or religious groups, paramilitaries and more are all actors in the new wars.

All of these players can be seen in the Syrian civil war, for instance. In this conflict, there are state actors involved such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Iraq; and non-state actors like Daesh, the PKK/YPG, Hezbollah, paramilitary groups, private contractors from other states and mercenary groups. The makeup of the belligerents of the Yemeni and Libyan civil wars is also similar, involving several state and non-state actors.

Ideologies in decay

The second big difference between old and new wars is in their objectives. The motivation of the old wars was to take control of territories to fulfill geopolitical interests or to spread ideologies like socialism or capitalism (Kaldor states “socialism or democracy.” In her example, however, defining democracy as an ideology is controversial because democracy is a form of government that can show itself in different ideologies).

By the end of the Cold War, the bipolar world order collapsed and liberal institutions were now running the new global system. This development put an end to wars of ideas since there is only one winner. Spreading ideologies is not the primary goal of many post-Cold War conflicts.

Wars needed a new objective, and the principle of identity rushed to help. The Arab Spring started with pro-democracy calls, however, the demand for democracy was a weak reason to sustain political mobilization. Eventually, the Arab Spring revolts’ characteristics changed and became more identity-centered.

The issue of identity was also prominent in old wars, just like the new. The warring sides of new wars are clustered around identities. Following the approach of new wars, mobilizing masses through identity became an aim of contemporary conflicts rather than a tool.

However, identity is still an instrument rather than an aim. While it varies for every warring side, the main objective of wars cannot be oversimplified to identities. The goals of wars are determined by the interaction between identities, ideologies, economic variables and geopolitical expectations.

The ideological goals of war are not common anymore. But identity is still an effective instrument to obtain economic and political power. In new wars, identity politics is the best way to achieve political mobilization in today’s world.

In the Yemeni civil war, groups have been mobilized around their religious identities. Also, there are groups mobilized around ethnic or religious identities in Syria. The justification of the sides evolved and became more identity-centered rather than idea-centered, but the goals of the belligerents remained the same.

However, identity-centered wars are not unique to the post-Cold War era. There is no significant difference between the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and the Syrian or Yemeni civil wars in the context of identities. Also, there were many identity-based revolts in the post-colonial era in the Middle East. In this direction, the “new wars” are not that new for the Middle East.

Methods and forms of finance

The economic benefits of territorial gains decreased with technological improvements and globalization. Controlling geopolitically important territories is still important; however, the way the territories are captured and controlled has changed.

Displacing populations by forcibly removing people of certain identities is far easier and less costly than ensuring territorial control through military means. In the new Middle Eastern wars, population displacement can shatter the balance of power.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 6.7 million Syrians are refugees or asylum-seekers, and 6.6 million are internally displaced. Overall, 13.4 million Syrians have been forcefully displaced, accounting for more than half of the country’s population.

Abeer abo Almajed, 10, sits in front of her family's tent in Babisqa, in the northern countryside of Idlib, Syria, Nov. 29, 2021. (Reuters Photo)
Abeer abo Almajed, 10, sits in front of her family’s tent in Babisqa, in the northern countryside of Idlib, Syria, Nov. 29, 2021. (Reuters Photo)

The ways wars are financed have also changed. States used to be the main financers of conflicts, using taxation or external patrons to fund the old wars. With the involvement of regional and global non-state actors, economies of new wars become a component of a decentralized international economy.

Smuggling, drug trafficking and human trafficking play a significant role in the new wars of the Middle East. In addition, this illegal economy requires the continuation of the war, making new wars likely to dismantle the state rather than help state-building.

Considering their actors, aims, techniques and financing methods, it is not hard to differentiate the Syrian, Yemeni and Libyan civil wars from old wars. They can be referred to as new wars, considering the wars before the 1950s.

During the Cold War, new and old wars coexisted. It is possible to find common features between today’s conflicts in the Middle East and conflicts in the Cold War period.

Today, there are more “new wars” than “old wars” in the world. Outdated strategies that view the contemporary wars in the Middle Eastern as “old wars” are likely to fail. Understanding the effects of globalism on these wars plays a key role in building better policies and helping them end.


International Affairs Graduate Student, Lebanese American University


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