Why are there never-ending wars in the Middle East?


War seems to be a normal daily routine in the Middle East, the war in Iraq, Syria... Why are these countries not normal? Or is it due to external powers keeping those countries at constant wars in order to keep themselves stable and safe? Are those wars considered as civil wars?


Posted 2019-10-12T14:11:35.570

Reputation: 868

2I don't think you're alone in having asked yourself this over the years. I'm not so sure that "Duh, Oil!" can explain everything so easily. Good question, but probably not on-topic anywhere because of the "Why". – pipe – 2019-10-12T14:34:58.283

1@27620 Your comment is very interesting! Could you answer with some collaborative facts? – user36339 – 2019-10-12T14:40:17.970

4There is a book called “What Went Wrong” that explores the cultural decline of the Middle East; it used to be the top of the world, culturally. – Wildcard – 2019-10-13T04:25:51.100

Per the West Wing, "because it's incredibly hot and there's no water" – Valorum – 2019-10-13T07:58:16.537

3@pipe Duh,Oil! doesn't explain why the "promised land" is one of the few areas in the Middle East that doesn't contain oil. – doneal24 – 2019-10-13T16:15:11.573


I don't think it differs much with what Europe went through: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Europe.

– Oldfart – 2019-10-13T18:21:33.263

14“Why are these countries not normal?”  Frame challenge: many areas of the world have had long-lasting, complex conflicts.  It's depressing to have to ask this, but why is that not ‘normal’? – gidds – 2019-10-13T21:35:11.513

2Because those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica – 2019-10-13T22:40:45.573

1Israel was, and still is, at war and suffering casualties so the presumption that Israel alone is behind the instability at the middle east doesn't make sense. – Rsf – 2019-10-14T08:42:32.887

15Middle East, Balkans, Africa, Donbas, Northern Ireland - they are 100% normal. It's peace that's something abnormal, fragile and temporary. We've achieved it only recently and may lose it any time if we merely stop putting in the effort. In fact, with the increasingly hostile rhetoric in EU and USA, we're already heading toward violence. – Agent_L – 2019-10-14T08:43:37.863

@Oldfart that's kind of the whole point, it's what Europe went through but is not going through anymore - so it's a relevant question to ask about what's similar between ME now and Europe a hundred years ago but different between ME now and Europe now. – Peteris – 2019-10-14T17:46:43.323



This is both a pretty broad question and the answers (even from experts) are going to be opinion based to a good extent, so my answer is going to be a rather trite listicle of reasons that have been offered:

  • Ethnic and religious divisions (including sectarian ones within Islam), plus a dominance/intolerance aspect thereof. E.g. one 2005 study found using a regression model

What about Islam’s “bloody innards”? Our modified variable—ethnic dominance, Islam (which takes account of the distinction between Shia and Sunni)—displays approximately the same values as the original one. This reinforces the conclusion that any dominant ethnic group increases the risk for conflict, but Islamic dominance no more so than other cases of dominance.

  • Some of this is indeed on the backdrop of colonially inherited borders, but that is probably an insufficient explanation, by itself.

  • Related to dominance, there's authoritarianism. The effect of this on conflicts has been more intensely debated. In some models there's curvilinear relationship, i.e. enough authoritarianism suppresses conflicts. But then you have the so-called boilover effect in which a seemingly stable authoritarian regime suddenly erupts when enough critical mass is attained by the accumulated discontent, relative to the regime's ability to suppress it. Alas emergent democracies are not terribly stable or violence-free either, especially on the background of the ethnic/religious issues from the previous bullet(s). We saw both of these aspects in action with the Arab Spring.

  • Foreign intervention, both from regional and world powers no doubt plays a role too. It's been debated to what extent this is exacerbating or moderating conflicts. E.g. peace plans vs arming/supporting one side with the obvious internationalization of conflicts. Foreign intervention probably has both effects depending on the time, place and mode of intervention, so the overall effect seems disputed.

  • The economic/development aspect has also been debated. The region is not as poor as Africa, nor is oil as easy to loot as other conflict-fueling resources like diamonds because of the infrastructure needed to exploit oil. This is probably what gives conflict in the Middle East a more state-based aspect.

Regarding these last two points, the following quote, albeit from a US perspective, is probably helpful nonetheless:

The interests that have long kept the United States involved in the Middle East are fairly clear. Coming out of World War II, American strategists resolved that the United States must prevent any hostile force from dominating a region of critical geopolitical or geo-economic significance. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves, certainly fit that description. True, America never got a particularly large portion of its oil from Middle Eastern sources. But its allies did: “The Marshall Plan for Europe,” noted Truman’s first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, “could not succeed without access to the Middle East oil.” Moreover, the fact that oil was traded on a global market meant that a disruption of price or supply in one region would cause disruption on a far larger scale. [...]

The situation in the Middle East, Dean Acheson once commented, “might have been devised by Karl Marx himself.” A combination of stunted development, stifling socio-political conditions, and resentment of foreign influence made the region ripe for radicalism and inherently difficult for outside powers to manage. [...] The result has been a perpetual tension: The Middle East might require American attention and management, but it was also a source of dangers and distractions that most U.S. officials would have been just as happy to avoid. [...]

The 9/11 attacks offered evidence that the Middle East’s problems could reach out and touch the United States in disastrous ways. The George W. Bush administration responded with the massive projection of American power into the region, focused on defeating al-Qaeda, toppling hostile governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, birthing stable democracies, and thereby transforming the region for the better. When that project proved vastly more costly and difficult than expected, the Obama administration sought to limit U.S. engagement in the region as a way of husbanding resources, avoiding blowback, and “pivoting” to more promising areas. Yet even Obama, so skeptical of American intervention in the region, was unable to get out entirely [...] Today, the Trump administration is manifesting the same ambivalence [...] There are [however] concerns that American retrenchment would open the door for hostile actors—Iran and Russia—to exert dominant influence in a region that still matters.


Posted 2019-10-12T14:11:35.570

Reputation: 76 605

1While good points I honestly wonder why it wouldn't be solved by splitting up the countries into etnic group sized countries. Just like in europe (with most recent example former yugoslavia, which used to be dubbed the powder keg of europe, yet after splitting the countries and enforcing people to live with etnic groups it slowly stabilizing). – paul23 – 2019-10-13T22:11:34.603

1Great answer, I would add the notorious corruption and lack of democracy are centripetal forces. – K Dog – 2019-10-14T05:00:18.203

5@paul23 well, someone would first need to do the splitting. And along which lines exactly they'd do it would be a reason for further conflicts to come. And then the currently dominant group would fear reprisal for (real or imagined) oppression from the newly-empowered split off group. I'll use just one example, one where the impact is probably the most immediately obvious: Israel and Palestine. Splitting those into ethnic group sized countries has long been the goal of international politics (though the US seems to have abandoned it now) - studying that case should give you an idea ;) – Syndic – 2019-10-14T07:45:08.370

5While this answer covers most of it, in my opinion it's missing the emphasis on the proxy war between the US and Russia (i.e. Soviet Union) in the cold war era. During that time both sides tried to secure access to the area without causing a direct, potentially nuclear war by funding, arming and training militia groups to fight the opponents funded, armed and trained militia groups. We're still seeing the fallout as most of the groups currently fighting can be traced back to that time. Throwing lots of weapons into an already unstable area didn't really help stabilize it. – Morfildur – 2019-10-14T07:54:42.320

1@paul23 that was only at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and the destruction of a few World Heritage sites. That's not really a solution. – pjc50 – 2019-10-14T09:49:57.633

1@pjc50 to be fair, that cost also describes the consequences already suffered to date in the Middle East in its various conflicts. If emulating the history of Yugoslavia could bring relative stability to the Middle East in the space of a decade with a similar human toll, this would probably be relatively appealing compared to what the next decade likely looks like. My very uninformed impression is that the real problem is the geopolitical stakes in the Middle East are higher both for the parties themselves and their respective global allies. – Will – 2019-10-14T13:13:25.163

2@Morfildur : This argument would be stronger if we could not easily find historical records, dating back to Roman times, that the conflict in the region has existed, with various intensities, for millennia preceding the Cold War. A historian friend once related his realization that he was currently observing conflict at the same place (i.e., within 100 meters) as the conflict reported in a letter home by a Roman, dated in the first century BCE. – Eric Towers – 2019-10-14T14:33:21.283

@EricTowers That's not entirely fair. If there is a big "literate" empire in the Americas in the first century we certainly can find lots of war records here too – jean – 2019-10-14T16:47:30.317

@jean : This has what to do with Morfildur's claim that the Cold War was the proximate cause of war in the Middle East? or with my claim that war in the Middle East extends back for at least two millennia prior to the Cold War? – Eric Towers – 2019-10-14T16:50:49.343

1@EricTowers From the old Egypt to just a few decades back, pretty much the whole world was constantly at war with their neighbors. War was essentially the default state, peace was the exception. The question is not "Was there always war in the middle east?", because until just a few decades ago there was also always war in Europe, Asia and anywhere else enough people lived to form two groups. The question is instead "Why did the rest of the world calm down and the middle east got worse?" – Morfildur – 2019-10-15T06:21:21.377


The Mideast does not have an especially high number of wars when compared to other non-European regions. The largest war in the Mideast was the Iran-Iraq war, which killed 2 million people. The Chinese civil war, the Vietnam war, and other conflicts in Asia killed a lot more. If you are talking about the present day, there is plenty of violence in India, Thailand, Myanmar, and Uighur provinces, it's just less apparent and not emphasized in the media.

Also, the Mideast has a lot of smaller countries. India, China, and Bangladesh have a lot of violence, but because the countries are big and isolated, it's not counted as a war.

African governments are too weak to fight each other. There is also lots of violence in Africa, it just isn't able to take on a state form.

So it's basically due to the Mideast having relatively small and functioning governments more than anything else. Wars are almost a semantic thing: there are lots of countries that have long periods of prolonged homicide which are not counted as "wars".


Posted 2019-10-12T14:11:35.570


4I think this question is referring to more recent times, not to the 1950s or even the 70s. It's also talking about "never ending wars" rather than the total number of victims. China hasn't really been at war for decades, unless you want to count the more limited civil strife like Tiananmen. (Likewise for Vietnam.) So your answer is providing a false equivalence given the question's framing, which refers to the duration of conflict, not necessarily its intensity. – Fizz – 2019-10-13T07:26:09.387


"But since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, civil wars have declined sharply in most parts of the globe — although less so in Muslim countries. Many of the civil wars that ended after the end of the Cold War were stimulated by rivalry between the two superpowers." https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/are-muslim-countries-more-violent/

– Fizz – 2019-10-13T07:44:35.887

4@Fizz "Never ending wars" is fundamentally the wrong framing for the question,I think, as it's too sweeping on very recent history and dismissive of other conflicts. Rome was at war for decades at a time, and centuries of Roman history were dominated by warfare. The Koreas are still at war, half a century later. To look at active conflicts so brief, relative to other wars, over so small a span of time, and say that the region is uniquely subject to "never ending" wars is a distortion. Why wars there have been so common lately, and why they've unfolded as they have, is a better question. – Upper_Case – 2019-10-14T16:10:42.797


In addition to what everyone else mentioned, another possible cause of the current situation in the Middle East can have roots in the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Usually, after the collapse of a big empire the countries created after are not very stable for decades. For example, after the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe was in wars for a thousand years! I read this in a book called "A Peace to End All Peace" which is about World War I.


Posted 2019-10-12T14:11:35.570

Reputation: 189

True, but there's no violence in central Europe, when the borders were imposed at the same time as they were in much of the Middle East, that is, in 1918-1920 time rainge, following the collapse of big empires. Some borders were re-arranged after 1945 (Germany, Poland, Israel-Palestine) but most were left untouched and dates from WW1. – Bregalad – 2019-10-13T20:13:45.330

1Can you elaborate a bit more on this answer? Preferably with some references, I'm sure this question has been studied a lot by journalists and academics as well. – JJJ – 2019-10-13T20:14:40.863

1@Bregalad, the central European empires were not long-lived on a scale of the Roman Empire (600-2000 years) or the Ottoman Empire (~600 years). The Austro-Hungarian Empire lasted 51 years, the German Empire lasted 47, and even the long-lived Russian Empire lasted only 196 (and didn't control any of Central Europe for many of those years). – Mark – 2019-10-14T05:22:06.477

1@Bregalad, I'll give you the Austrian Empire, but the Holy Roman Empire "was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire". It had less internal cohesion than the modern European Union, much less something like the Ottoman or Roman Empires. And the Austrian Empire was only a successor state in the sense that the Habsburgs managed to get elected Holy Roman Emperor often enough that it was effectively a hereditary position. – Mark – 2019-10-14T06:58:41.900

3@Mark Right, but that's exactly why the HRE was so stable for so long. It allowed lots of autonomy, but it also had rules for international conduct etc. It didn't have any one strong member that dominated everyone else, but it still had the cohesion to deal with "outside" enemies pretty well. It wasn't a top-down hierarchy, but then neither was the Roman Empire for much of its existence. If anything, empires have shown that the top-down approach doesn't work very well. Many relatively stable empires (and states) were those that allowed the people inside to flourish and cooperate. – Luaan – 2019-10-14T08:32:54.767

@Mark OK I messed up, let me restart : The Austro-Hungarian Empire was just a refounding of Habsburg's Austria and Kingdom of Hungary, which dates back both from longer than the Ottoman Empire. For much of central Europe, the collapse of Austria-Hungary was not just a return to a statu quo ante, but a real collapse of a situation that had been there for centuries. – Bregalad – 2019-10-14T13:38:00.707

A big difference between ME and Central Europe is in how the borders were drawn after the collapse. Sykes-Picot and such created inherently unstable entities with internal ethnic strife as the artificial boundaries divide common ethnicities and "unite" communities very different in cultural and religious terms; Central and Eastern Europe independence movements placed the borders mostly along ethnic/cultural/religious lines; and any deviations from that caused further conflicts in 1940s and 1990s. – Peteris – 2019-10-14T17:52:07.303


There are really just two big wars in the middle east, plus a unique combination of post-colonial "strongman" leaders sitting on top of oil wealth who occasionally get dragged into conflicts or trigger US reprisals.

The two big ones are "Israel vs the Arab World" and "Iran vs US & Saudi Arabia". The state of Israel was acquired by a mixture of political action before WW2 (Balfour Declaration) and military/terrorist action afterwards. From the inception of Israel in 1948 it has been attacked by its Arab neighbours, while also driving out Arabs previously resident in some areas of the disputed region into an increasingly tiny "Palestine". Both sides have factions in their domestic politics that benefit from continuing the fighting, and both have the ability to provoke escalation from the other.

The Iran/Saudi conflict is driven both by the religious conflict (Sunni/Shia Islam and control over Mecca) and by their status as business competitors in oil export. The risk that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons has also been a factor in escalation.

The two are linked by the widespread use of proxy forces and deniable terrorism, including such organizations as Hezbollah. The US's involvement with the region due to oil has led to it being used as a "proxy force" in essentially local conflicts by whichever leaders can make the most convincing case that some other country is a threat.

Most countries had strongmen leaders after independence or revolution in the mid-20th century, and this facilitated escalation as in a non-democratic country it's hard to protest against more war. This description covers Saudi Arabia (non-democratic monarchy), Libya (Ghaddafi), Iraq (Saddam), Iran (Khomeni), Syria (Assad) etc.

At one point there was a "pan-Arabism" movement intended to unify the region and reduce conflict. This also functioned as an anti-Israel alliance. It was not successful.

As a "worked example", the Lebanese civil war shows how all the other factions got involved, including Israel, Syria, and Iran via Hezbollah.


Posted 2019-10-12T14:11:35.570

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