The first takeaway from Gilles Kepel’s new book Away from Chaos is the immense complexity of Middle East politics. The second is the receding but still formidable danger of the region’s Islamists. The third is the relative decline in importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict amidst the intensifying Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the region. And the final takeaway, though Kepel likely would disagree, is the declining geopolitical importance of the region to the United States, if not the West as a whole.
Kepel, chair of the Middle East and Mediterranean studies at the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres, is steeped in the region’s history. Away from Chaos begins with the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, proceeds through the rise to power of political Islam with the mullahs’ victory in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the consequent spread of Islamist terror groups throughout the region and globally, and culminates in the hopeful (to the West) Arab Spring of 2010-2011 and its disappointing (to the West) results throughout the second decade of the 21st century.
As oil prices soared in the wake of the 1973 war with OPEC’s increasing control of the market, Islam gradually superseded Arab nationalism as the driving force in Middle East politics. The war and US shuttle diplomacy enhanced American influence while reducing Soviet influence in the region. While US and Western diplomats focused on a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the region underwent what Kepel calls “the Islamization of the political order”, culminating in the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran. Iran’s revolutionary Shiite regime posed a threat to the region’s monarchs, above all the Saudi Kingdom’s Sunni rulers who attempted to placate their subjects by funding Wahhabi imams, some of whom also preached global jihad. Kepel writes that 1979 was “the year Pandora’s Box opened, unleashing the global Islamic terrorism plaguing us to this day.”
Jihadis from throughout the region flocked to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in late 1979, and thereby played a role (with US and Saudi support) in ending the Cold War. When in 1990-91, US forces used Saudi Arabia—home to Islam’s holiest sites—as a base from which to wage war against Iraq, Islamists in the region (some of them former US allies against the Soviets in Afghanistan) declared war against the US, beginning what Norman Podhoretz called “World War IV” (World War III being the Cold War). Throughout the 1990s, Islamists led by al-Qaeda, launched a series of strikes against the West, culminating in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. The US declared a “War on Terror”, and attacked jihadists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, then waged war against Iraq—becoming bogged down in both countries.
In the Levant (as Kepel refers to it), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) “kept losing ground to an up-and-coming Hamas”, while Hezbollah gained ground in Lebanon. Islamist terror organizations metastasized throughout the region, using various names and receiving funding from both Sunni and Shiite supporters. Intifadas were launched against Israel. The Levant played host to a dizzying number of terror groups and networks—and Kepel does a remarkable job of explaining each group’s genesis, evolution, and leadership.
The Middle East’s geopolitics became dominated by the Sunni-Shiite divide and a struggle for power between Saudi Arabia (and its smaller Gulf allies) and Iran. In the midst of this struggle, the upheavals known collectively as the “Arab Spring” overthrew despots in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and threatened regimes in Iraq and Syria. Islamist terror also spread to Europe. The Arab Spring coincided with US efforts to “democratize” the region begun by President George W Bush and continued by President Obama. Obama also reached out to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in a futile effort to enlist their support in bringing stability to the region. Anyone who reads Kepel’s book will appreciate just how fanciful were those Bush and Obama policies. “Not only did [Western leaders] fail to analyze the transformations of the Muslim world”, writes Kepel, “but they were unprepared for the onslaught on their home ground that left [their] societies vulnerable to jihadist violence.”
Kepel details the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and its efforts to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region in preparation for global conversion and/or conquest. Syria and Iraq became key battlefields in this struggle, and Kepel details the horrific brutality of ISIS warriors who crucified and beheaded their enemies and sold women and children into slavery. In one especially gruesome incident, a captured Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a cage. The ISIS caliphate, fortunately, lasted a little less than three years. But the call to jihad lives on in the region.
Kepel’s France, indeed all of Western Europe, has more at stake in the Middle East than does the United States.
The book’s final chapter discusses the “global stakes in the fight for the Levant”. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US, and China are to varying degrees involved in the region’s geopolitics. Kepel notes that Russia’s return to the region is due in part to a US pullback from the region begun under President Obama and continued under President Trump. Kepel decries the American retrenchment, but it was probably inevitable after the explosion of the shale and natural gas industry in the US, which transformed that country into the world’s leading energy producer.
Kepel’s France, indeed all of Western Europe, has more at stake in the Middle East than does the United States. Kepel’s concluding vision of a multinational-supported post-ISIS renaissance in the Levant designed to help the region “emerge from chaos” is most likely a mirage.