Here’s a standard representation of what’s going on in the Middle East right now: a terrorist group is killing civilians and the nation state that it threatens is struggling to deal with it, so the US and other Western powers feel obliged to intervene. We could be talking about Islamic State and Iraq, but the same words could also be used to sum up the confrontation between Hamas and Israel playing out in Gaza. Yet what both of these cases demonstrate is the inadequacy of these traditional terms. Simply labelling Hamas and Islamic State as terrorist groups does not encourage insightful analysis of these desperate situations. Equally, the very concept of the nation state is being tested to the limit in this turbulent region. We need better, more nuanced conceptions of the major players if we are to respond appropriately to the challenges they pose.
Start with Islamic State. On the surface this is a particularly nasty organisation. Everything we hear about them fills us with dread – beheadings, crucifixions, persecution of minorities, mass executions. But to think of them merely as terrorists is dangerously to underestimate them. They are an army, battle-hardened, well resourced, with strong leadership, great communications and a clear vision that inspires many. Yes, they use terrorist tactics, but so have plenty of western nations and organisations. The British have a long history of horrific executions designed to send a message – think of Indian mutineers strapped over the muzzle of a cannon and blown apart. Heads on stakes and severed hands were commonplace in the Belgian Congo, and let’s not forget the many atrocities ordered by German officers within living memory.
The real test is not the horrendous tactics used by Islamic State to achieve their military goals, but the way they behave once they are firmly in control. Thousands fled Mosul when ISIS, as it then was, rolled into town. But reports from the city suggest that life has almost returned to normal. Residents have been surprised by the moderation shown by their new rulers. The world looked on aghast as Islamic State captured the strategically vital Mosul Dam, but against many expectations they did not blow it up – even when they knew they were about to lose control of it to Kurdish forces. They behaved, one might almost say, responsibly.
This is in no way an apology for Islamic State, whom I sincerely hope will be wiped from the face of the earth before long. My point is that it does us no good to think of them solely as “terrorists”. They are perhaps closer to the Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols or Nazi Germany – a terrifyingly effective military force using extreme methods to subjugate large numbers in a short space of time. Their desire to convert those they subjugate to Sunni Islam does not make them terrorists any more than the British determination to make so many distant people subjects of Queen Victoria.
Hamas is similarly complicated. They are the group the people of Gaza trust most to run their affairs. That is to say, they won a democratic election. They are more than just terrorists. Yet they cannot be said to be a governing party to the same extent as Israel’s Likud, for they have so much less power over the land they govern. They do not control Gaza’s airspace, borders or imports, and they have extremely limited resources. Moreover they lack the financial link most political parties have with the people they represent – the majority of Hamas’ funding comes from other Arab governments and individuals, often with a strong anti-Israel agenda. So Hamas is a democratically-elected paramilitary organisation funded by foreigners that has to operate within very narrow parameters to achieve a goal (Palestinian statehood) that many around the world support. And yes, they target civilians (as the British and American air forces did in World War 2 and Vietnam).
Then there are the nation states, many of which don’t fit our traditional understanding of the term. Iraq’s government no longer controls large swathes of the country; the same is true for Syria: neither one exercises sovereignty over their own people and lands, thereby failing one of the most basic tests of statehood. Meanwhile, an alternative state has emerged in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with a powerful army and a strong sense of its own national identity. Other states such as the US do not recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as a nation state – indeed it has not yet claimed to be one – and yet they are allying with it and treating it very much like a nation state. Israel itself has long been a paradox of a state – a land full of Arabs, run by Jews, with de facto control over large areas of territory that theoretically belong to other countries. Meanwhile, the Palestinian state does not technically exist, even though we have a very clear sense of where it should be and which people should be citizens of it.
The variability in statehood matters enormously both in terms of capability and culpability. A state that cannot control its own cities and armed forces cannot be relied upon to act on international agreements or obligations as other states would. This is particularly true of Syria and Iraq, and also to some degree of Lebanon and Yemen. But equally a state that lacks full control cannot be blamed for some of the things done by its own organisations and people. The state of Israel is highly capable and is consequently fully accountable for the actions of its settlers and armed forces, in a way that the severely constrained Palestinian proto-state cannot be.
The point is that if we do not recognise the exact nature of each entity with a role to play in the Middle East – putting them instead in out-dated boxes labelled “terrorists” or “states” – we cannot possibly work out the best way to approach them, support them, isolate them, negotiate with them or fight them. If the Middle East is a chess board, we need to acknowledge that the pieces are not simply black or white but have a range of characteristics, capabilities and limitations – they are knights and bishops and pawns and queens. Each entity must be viewed and dealt with in a unique way. As US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently said of Islamic State, “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” The reality that will eventually emerge in the Middle East depends critically upon how we choose to describe its constituent parts today.