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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Stuck in Motion: Reexamining the Roots of Sustained Crisis in the Middle East

What does it mean to be living-in-crisis and with constant insecurity?  How do people imagine their futures when they’re trying to survive the present? Northwestern University in Qatar Associate Professor of Anthropology and Acting Liberal Arts Program Director Sami Hermez and Villanova University Associate Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies Samer Abboud discussed these questions and more this week in a Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar on “Ecologies of Crisis and the Proliferation of Violence.” Hermez and Abboud highlighted how lasting, transformative change is limited by forms of regional and international intervention that perpetuate, rather than alleviate, insecurity.  Here are six key takeaways from the discussion:

Crises are produced and sustained through competing visions of regional order: Competing visions and definitions of security perpetuate violence in the Middle East, Abboud said. The region lacks “a normative framework as a reference point for transitioning away from persistent conflict. Liberal principles such as negotiation, resource distribution, and power sharing are absent from the conversation.”

The absence of a framework for deescalating conflict, coupled with external stressors such as climate change, economic collapse or, more recently, COVID-19, “graft onto the regional order and subject people to a never-ending series of conflicts,” he added.

Syria is a center of crisis in the Middle East: “The Syrian conflict sits at the epicenter of the region’s crises,” Abboud said. “And both the Syrian regime and external actors play a role in the Syrian conflict’s perpetuation.” The Syrian regime has enacted new laws that broadly define terrorism as any action perceived as disloyal to the regime, leaving Syrians divided, suspicious of one another and “with virtually no outlet to escape the conflict and insecurity,” he added.

At the same time, countries such as Russia, Turkey and Iran attempt to intervene in the crisis, but advance competing battlefield agreements and approaches to conflict resolution, which serve to perpetuate crisis rather than promote peace.    

As the roots of crisis go unresolved, citizens remain stuck in motion: While there have been moments of hope, such as 2019’s October 17 uprising in Lebanon, little material change has been achieved, Hermez said. “This is surely a function of the corruption of the government and banking system, as well as a function of international politics, international donor structures and U.S. sanctions on Syria and Hezbollah,” among other external conflict multipliers, he said.

War is often disguised as peace: War and peace should be viewed as entanglements rather than opposites, Hermez said. “Peace agreements often bracket war as an event of the past without considering its long-term structural effects on society,” he said. In practice, this often means that the roots of conflict remain unresolved long after a war has officially ended and perpetuate violence. “We need only ask native peoples from America to Palestine to understand that there is a very real world in which war is peace—in which a time period marked by peace is really a proliferation of violence by other means,” he added.

International intervention fuels regional insecurity: “The history of colonialism shows us that the peace process is typically wrapped in the proliferation of violence, rather than its absence,” Hermez said. Indeed, “there are hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are dependent on forms of international intervention,” Abboud added. “That sustains life in some ways, but what kind of life is being sustained? Those lives are subjected to a form of slow social death. What’s on the horizon for these lives that are sustained? Even forms of intervention that help sustain life need to be much more productive and positive than they are. Military interventions are completely detrimental to people’s lives. They’re brutal. And sanctions are brutal… they don’t do what we think they do.”

Hope can emerge from despair: “I’m seeing despair very much entangled with hope,” Hermez said.When crisis is imagined as a temporary phenomenon versus chronic, it becomes a source of security in insecure times. It’s a way for people living in chronic crisis to steal each day.”

This webinar is part of Northwestern Buffett’s "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series. This series will focus on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter, beginning with UN SDG #16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. These talks examine how existing infrastructures uphold and promote violence, with the aim of exploring what we must do to build more effective and accountable institutions.