Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: iStock
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: iStock

Relationships between states are usually bound by a certain set of rules and understandings, something political theorists refer to as the “international order.” These rules of the game are today broadly set by the United States and Europe, with most other countries going along with them.

But that agreement is far from unanimous. “Challenger” countries have emerged, refusing to follow the rules and demanding that they are set differently.

In the Middle East, these states are seeking to destabilize other countries, and create a new world order across nations that did not form the old order.

On a global scale, the two main countries are Russia and China, and it is these two countries primarily that a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last week identified as posing the greatest threat to the rules-based order.

China and Russia, writes John Chipman, director general of IISS, are looking to test the tolerance of other states for varying forms of aggression, but without forcing those states to take military action against them. He calls this “tolerance warfare” and identifies cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns as two ways that states such as Russia and China “test” the limits of what European and American governments will accept.

Chipman focuses primarily on those two countries because they most threaten the global US-centered rules-based system. But there are also countries that challenge that order on a regional level – and they are not always the most obvious culprits.

In the Middle East, such countries as Iran and Syria have sought to challenge the old order and interfere in the pro-Western tilt of many Arab states. But they are not alone

In the Middle East, such countries as Iran and Syria have sought to challenge the old order and interfere in the pro-Western tilt of many Arab states. But they are not alone. Even pro-Western countries like Turkey and Israel have also sought to sow divisions among the Arab countries, seeing in the unsettling of their neighbors opportunities for their own statecraft.

The methods these and other states use are unsettlingly similar to those used by larger states – down, indeed, to the way these attacks are conducted to offer plausible deniability to the perpetrators.

Any challenge to the rules-based global order is particularly dangerous for the Middle East, for two reasons. The first is that many Arab countries, particularly the post-Arab Spring countries, but also Lebanon and Iraq, are weak states, which makes it easy to exploit internal divisions. The interference by Iran and Israel in the affairs of their neighbors is well known; both have sought to use tolerance warfare, spreading chaos without provoking military retaliation.

But other countries have done so too. Turkey’s attempts to create enclaves within Syria that it hopes to keep for the long term is a form of tolerance warfare, seeing how far Turkey can push the creation of mini-statelets – in the case of some areas on its border, even connecting them to Turkish water and electricity supplies – without provoking a military response from Damascus.

Syria, too, did much the same thing in its long involvement in Lebanon prior to 2005, where it sought to play out its own politics on Lebanese territory, sowing divisions among different factions, without being so obvious that the Lebanese banded together against Damascus. That strategy came to a crashing end in 2005, when the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri led to widespread demonstrations that ended overt Syrian influence.

But there’s another, greater, reason that tolerance warfare is so dangerous for Middle Eastern states. Not only is establishing rule of law an unfinished business in many of these countries, the social contract is unfinished, too. An essential part of a stable state is a settled social contract, a way of organizing competing societal influences in a way that, broadly, commands public acceptance.

Countries that are in the midst of vast social upheaval – brought about by revolution (Yemen), civil war (Syria), foreign invasion (Iraq) or even internal demographic divisions and endless outside interference (Lebanon) – find it difficult to establish a social compact. Lack of a core idea that different communities can agree upon makes it easier for each to pursue ways to gain leverage over other communities.

One of the reasons outsiders, looking at the upheavals of complex countries like Iraq or indeed Syria, have defaulted to a simplistic notion of partition based on sectarian lines is that there is a clinical appeal to it. Divide the problem. But the clinical approach is also a profoundly anti-human one: Countries become nations because of shared notions of who they are, and these notions continually evolve.

As they evolve, however, flaws or unfinished aspects of the social compact allow a space for outside actors. This search for “uncommon” alliances is often directed beyond their borders. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, the Brotherhood in Egypt and many other groups, all seek allies as a way of gaining some leverage in the continuing, evolving negotiation of a new social contract.

In already weak states, this keeps them in a constantly unsettled condition, while also drawing in foreign powers, a politically flammable situation from which conflicts can easily erupt. Such warfare, therefore, actively hinders countries from being stable states, keeping them from playing by the rules of the game.

In his survey, Chipman suggests that the West needs to band together to face down the threats from Russia and China. In the Middle East, that task of banding together is much harder and remains unfinished, ironically because of the substantial interference and invasions of the Western countries that created the old order. Those who created the old order in their countries have sometimes made it harder to export those rules abroad.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.