The Changing Security Structure in the Middle East

A Speech to the International Symposium on International Relations and Security at the Turkish War College

There is nothing new about change in the security structure of the Middle East and North Africa, nor is it new that many key changes seemingly come without warning. The challenge today, however, is not to examine the past but to focus on the future, and here I have been asked to give a keynote speech that addresses four different sets of future trends.

  • How changes to the global security system will affect the Middle East,
  • How the changes taking place in terrorism affect security and the regional military balance,
  • The nature of the changes taking place in the structure of terrorist organizations and behavior,
  • And finally, how the impacts of terrorism and new forms of conflict have affected new forms of security problems like the flow of refugees.

A keynote speech should both help set the framework for its conference and be at least mildly provocative. As a result, I am going to try to address these issues in ways that present a challenge to conventional wisdom. I also am going to talk about the Middle East as if Turkey was on its edge of it and not simply part of it. This is to some extent an artificial choice, but it allows me to avoid lecturing Turks on Turkey, and sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

Changes to the Global Security System

Let me begin with the changes to the global security system. There is a tendency to treat these changes in terms of the emergence of China and the reemergence of Russia, and as either a return to the geopolitics of the past or some new form of Cold War. I would suggest that the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China all have security interests in the region, and their respective levels of influence will change over time. These interests, however, are limited: no outside power can dominate the region, and the competing forces within the region will dominate its future – as they do its present.


China is clearly emerging as a major global power and one whose dependence on imported petroleum and the secure flow of trade has already led it to seek more secure ways to move energy and goods through Pakistan, Myanmar, and the South China Sea. China has already played a role in the antipiracy campaign in the Indian Ocean and has acquired limited basing rights on the Red Sea in Djibouti.

China has also made major increases in its military spending, is restructuring and modernizing every element of its military force from power projection to strategic nuclear forces, and is emerging as a great power. It may be a decade away from approaching the capabilities of the United States, but it already is spending far more than Russia. The most recent estimates of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) indicate that China spent at least $155 billion on military forces in 2015, and possibly well over $200 billion. This is far less than the $598 billion spent by the U.S. – which still spent some two to four times more than China – but it compares with $66 billion for Russia – which is roughly 11% of U.S. spending and 43% of Chinese spending.

China has little incentive, however, to project power into the region unless it must do so to protect its economy. If anything, China benefits from the role that the U.S.—and possibly Russia—can play in bringing regional stability. China’s interest in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific are all of far greater strategic importance, and China can gain the most by using its influence selectively.


In spite of the spending gap that I have just discussed, Russia remains the world’s second largest military power. It too is modernizing key elements of its forces, and it too is changing its power projection capabilities. This became all too clear from Russia’s use of cruise missiles, bombers, and precision-guided ordinance during its intervention in Syria, and its deployment of the S400 air and missile defense system after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that entered Turkish air space. Russia then deployed attack helicopters and highly accurate multiple rocket launchers. Russia began building up its naval and air base capabilities in Syria, while simultaneously showing that a combination of its air and land assets could reverse some Arab rebel gains against pro-Assad forces, as well as attack ISIS.

Once again, however, Russia stands to gain the most from selectively using its military power and influence in ways that demonstrate its reemergence as a major active power, giving it leverage in other regions that are of greater strategic interest – such as Russia’s “near abroad” that ranges from Turkey to Scandinavia, and in the region that ranges from Central and South Asia to the Chinese-Russian border.

The United States

As for the United States, it has learned the hard way that military power cannot reshape states like Iraq and Afghanistan, that no military operation can succeed, which does not succeed in both civil and military terms and meet the expectations of the local population, and that the key to success is strategic partnerships.

It is important to note, however, that U.S. strategic plans and defense budgets make it clear that the U.S. has no plans to leave the Middle East or the Gulf. In fact, it now has built up its air presence in six Middle Eastern states, deployed new anti-missile defense ships, and built up its naval strength in the Gulf. It is also introducing major new air attack and air combat capabilities like the F-35. It has regularly made it clear that it is staying in the region, and is committed to its allies, and its military spending data show that U.S. spending cuts have ended.

Equally important, the U.S. fully realizes at the policy level that it is not becoming energy independent. The U.S. has sharply reduced petroleum imports as a percent of total U.S. imports, and net petroleum imports to only 4.6 million barrels per day, only 1.5 million barrels per day of which come from the Gulf. At the same time, however, some 37% to 42% of all U.S. imports come from Asian nations dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas. The U.S. depends on such states for close to a trillion dollars in annual imports, and its dependence on the global economy as a whole is far more critical than its direct dependence on petroleum imports.

The U.S. is not leaving the Gulf anymore than it is leaving Asia or Europe. In fact, for all the past talk of rebalancing its forces to Asia, the FY2017 budget request talks about balancing a joint force for a global spectrum of conflict, and -- while it mentions the emergence of potential rivalry of threats from China and Russia -- it names Iran, ISIS, and North Korea as the key threats U.S. strategic planning must focus on.

The U.S. strategic guidance summarized in the Department of Defense justification of its FY2017 budget request states that the U.S. will, “continue its contributions to the Asia-Pacific rebalance, while remaining committed to the security of allies and partners in the Middle East. The Department will continue to work with allies and partners in Europe to promote regional security, Euro-Atlantic integration, enhanced military capability, and enhanced interoperability. Across the globe, DoD will ensure that the Joint Force is properly manned, trained, and equipped in the event of a crisis.”

At the same time, it is critical to understand the extent to which the U.S. focuses on strategic partnership, on building up local forces, and creating broader form of “jointness” that can establish a stable level of regional deterrence and deal with the threats of extremism and terrorism. As Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen have all made clear, military power has acute limits, cultures and nations assert their own identities. Successful partnerships offer far more benefits than transformational exercises in nation building

It does seem all too likely that the U.S.-Russian competition for status and influence will play out in the Middle East—although to a lesser extent than it will in Europe—and that NATO allies from Turkey to the Baltic states will face a more assertive Russia. At the same time, it is important to look beyond direct military competition. As the U.S. has shown in Syria and Iraq, and Russia has shown in Syria, strategic partnering offers all the major outside powers—China, Russia, and the U.S.—far more advantages than the search for control and major unilateral military engagements.

Changes in the Way that Terrorism Affects Security and the Regional Military Balance

This brings me to the second major issue that I have been asked to address, and here, I will challenge the way the topic has been presented. I would not underestimate terrorism for a moment. I’ve had colleagues killed by terrorists while serving overseas. I live less than a mile from the Pentagon, I was originally scheduled to be there on 9/11, friends of mine were in the areas hit in the attack, and it took a week to begin to establish something approaching a normal pattern of life around the Pentagon.

From Terrorism to Insurgency in “Failed State Wars”

But, we are now dealing with something very different from the threat of “terrorism” per se. Terrorism is now generally only one facet of what might be called ”failed state wars.” The upheavals that began in 2011 were not the result of terrorism, and—if anything—they created patterns of broader civil conflict that made it possible for some non-state actors like ISIS to go from terrorism to insurgency.

World Bank, IMF, and UNDP studies show that the worst governments and economics in the MENA region are some of the most corrupt, poorly performing, and incompetent regimes in the world. They make many of their citizens lose faith in secular alternatives and the rule flaw, and create the base on which revolutions and extremism can feed.

UN and U.S. Census Bureau studies show that they also have populations that are—on an average—more than five times larger than they were in 1950, and will increase by another 50% between 2010 and 2050. CIA studies show that these states have gone from they have gone from largely rural to hyperurbanized with grossly inadequate infrastructure and massive slums, and that most of the population no longer lives anything that resembles a traditional life.

It is no coincidence that the worst governments of the region’s “failed states” are the ones that faced massive upheavals in 2011. It is no coincidence that states with massive percentage of unemployed youth—or youth that see no future—face instability. And it is no coincidence that failed secularism in the region has lead to religious and ideological extremism. Rule by repression, discrimination against major ethnic groups, repression of religion by sect or faith, gross corruption at the top of government and gross inequalities of income, have their inevitable consequences. They breed revolution and violence.

Failed states do not justify civil violence, a decline into extremism, or terrorist attacks. But it is not terrorism that is the real cause of the current violence in the worst governed states in the region. Many other regional states have good enough governments and economies to marginalize terrorism, but still experience a certain level of sporadic individual attacks.

Consider, for a moment, the worst cases like Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, and Yemen. The military threat is not really terrorism at all. It is insurgency, and violent movements capable of challenging or defeating government military and security forces. It is internal divisions that outside nations and extremist movements can use and exploit, and its is not simply a matter of military force but ideological and political conflict that extends far beyond the most extreme or “terrorist” movement and divides the entire nation on sectarian, ethnic, tribal, regional, and economic lines. It is conflicts where no purely military victory is possible that the civil dimension – the “hearts and minds” – must be won as well as the battle for security.

Changes in the Structure of Terrorist Organizations and Behavior

This brings me to the third topic I’ve been asked to address: changes in the behavior and structure of terrorist organizations. Once again, I’m going to challenge the way in which the topic was presented to me.

I do need to begin by recognizing that the topic it is all too valid if it is considered in its current narrow context. There is no doubt that ISIS, Al Qaida, and other extremist movements are becoming steadily more sophisticated, competent, experienced, and capable. Anyone concerned with the security structure of the region must address a wide range of important changes in terrorist organizations and in their behavior.

These changes include:

  • Steadily improving messaging, use of social networking, use of the Internet, and use of other communications tools.
  • A broadening, and usually partially covert recruiting and indoctrination base.
  • Better organization at every level from “Islamic” teaching to cell structures, suicide attacks, uses of IEDs and booby traps, creation of military unit like structures, governance, and control of volunteers and populations.
  • Combinations of fundraising, exploiting local economies and economic targets, and exploitation of local resources like drug, petroleum, archeological black markets, etc.
  • Creating survivable networks and cells where attacks on leaders or given elements have limited impact, and recovery is quicker and more effective.
  • Improvements in communications discipline, movement patterns, encryption and deception, and cyber operations; as well as understanding of hostile intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability.
  • Use of affiliates, outside support, and foreign volunteers and international mobility.
  • Use of other local non-state actors – religious, political, and paramilitary.
  • Manipulation of casualty and collateral damage data.
  • Techniques for control of local populations.
  • Shifts in patterns of attack and expansion of areas of operation to stress counterterrorism and counterinsurgency forces, as well as create acclimate of fear.
  • Expansion of areas of operation to Europe and outside the MENA region.
  • Improved intelligence and focus on weak enemy combat units, elements of government, and opportunities created by corruption and sectarian and ethnic tension.
  • Better uses of human shields, civilian populations, and conversions of settled and built up areas into “fortress-like” defenses.

These changes, however, are only part of the story. Far too often, if the state involved is weak, divided, lacks unity, and has critical divisions; the problem goes far beyond the terrorists. Sectarian and ethnic divisions, tribal and regional divisions, divided governments and security forces, and outside interference and forces create threats that are as serious as the main terrorist or extremist insurgent threat.

The constantly changing maps of the fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—and the zones of influence that given sects, ethnicities, and tribes control—are clear warnings that religious extremists or “terrorists” are only one part of the conflict, and only one threat to stability which will still be uncertain at best even if the extremist movements are largely defeated. The history of Syria is particularly grim, and it is the Assad regime that ultimately has been the far more serious source of real terrorism than ISIS.

UN and virtually all other casualty reporting shows that the pro-Assad forces have killed and wounded far more civilians than ISIS and the movements tied to Al Qaida. Pro-Assad forces have created far more internally displaced persons and refugees, and have done far more economic damage.

How the Impact of Terrorism and New Forms of Conflict have Affected New Forms of Security Problems like the Flow of Refugees

Let my close by touching on the last topic I’ve been asked to address: How the impact of terrorism and new forms of conflict have affected new forms of security problems like the flow of refugees, and how these security problems have altered relations between states in ways like the Turkish agreement with the EU. I understand how important these issues are to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe. And, while the U.S. is the largest aid donor to Syria, I am also ashamed as an American that we have not accepted more Syrian refugees.

Security and the Impact of Islam

But, important as the refugee problem now is, it is scarcely the key issue affecting the future security structure of Syria – much less the Middle East. First, the current refugee crisis is only part of a far broader shift in both regional and global demographics that will make future relations between Muslims and non-Muslims an even more critical aspect of security.

Work by the Pew Trust, one of the most respected analytic centers in the world studying the shifts in global opinion and populations, shows that Muslims are increasing far more quickly as a share of the global population than other religions – projections that are supported by both UN and U.S. population estimates.

In global terms, the Pew Trust estimated that the number of Muslims would increase from 1.6 billion to 2.79 billion between 2010 are 2015. Islam’s share of the world’s religious population would grow from 23% to 31%. The only other two religions that will experience major increases—Christianity and Hinduism—will increase only to the level where their share of the global population remains roughly constant at 31% and 15% respectively. [1]

If one looks at the projections for the MENA region, the number of Muslims is estimated to remain roughly 93% of the total population, but the total number of Muslims will increase by over 74% -- from 317 million to 552 million.

Other surveys consistently show that Muslims in the region put a strong emphasis on living by Sharia and their faith, and that political legitimacy, stability, and security all require their government to take this into account. These surveys also show that effective governance, rising above corruption and the narrow self-interest at the top of government is critical to maintaining popular support.[2]

The security problem is not today’s refugee crisis; the real security problem is to both build far stronger bridges across the gaps between different faiths, and for Middle Eastern governments to take the beliefs of their peoples fully into account.

How Can These Wars End?

Syria is the case that makes this all too clear. The UN and other sources recognize that the population of Syria has dropped from over 22 million people to less than 18 million. There are over four million Syrian refugees, many already in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. There also, however, are well over seven million Syrians in Syria that have lost their homes, jobs, and businesses. There are over 300,000 civilians dead and far more wounded. The Syrian economy—one of the least developed in the region in terms of per capita income in 2011—is now probably under one third of its 2011 level.

No war can really end that does not address an issue far more critical than the EU-Turkish refugee bargain. This question is: How does Syria rebuild? How does any temporary form of unity or civil-political settlement turn into a lasting, functional settlement? How do you go from the tactical to the strategic to the grand strategic with any lasting effect? How do you address the spillover of the Kurdish issue, the role of Iran and Hezbollah, or the tensions among Sunni, Shi’ites and Alawites that affect Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and the entire region?

Grand Strategy Requires Civil as Well as Military Victory

How do you shape the matching security and civil dimensions of a grand strategy that can offer real hope of a lasting form of conflict resolution in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen? How do you shape an outcome that is as resistant as possible to the rebirth of terrorism, extremism, and sectarian and ethnic violence? What is the role of outside military and security forces?

In wars where victory is defined largely in terms of healing the impact of civil conflicts, forging new concept of unity, and transforming failed states into effective governance and development; the answer has to be a new civil order. Military and security efforts will ultimately only be successful to the extent that they create the conditions that make this possible. There cannot be stability without security, but the upheavals of 2011 also teach that there cannot be lasting security and stability through the use of force and repression.

Clausewitz famously warned in his book On War that,

War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the Art of War in general and the Commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.

If we are to establish a future security structure that meets our common values, we must never lose sight of the grand strategic objective even if it may take decades to achieve. More than that we are talking about four existing wars in nations with over 80 million people. Walls, security zones, and rejection are not an ethical or valid solution to even the temporary aspects of the human dimension of war.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy