Conflict in the Middle East Since 1945

Since 1945 the Middle East has arguably been the most volatile region on earth. It has seen more wars, insurgencies, terrorism, and other violent unpleasantries, than anywhere else. However, despite of this, conflict in the region is often misunderstood, or generalized, by people across the world. Biased and one-sided condemnations of European imperialism, American and Russian meddling, Israeli actions and Palestinian and Arab intransigence are typical, and often ignore the complex historical, cultural, economic and sectarian issues in the region. War in the Middle East is anything but simple but there are plenty of trends if one looks closely.

When looking at conflicts in the Middle East it should be noted they are often hard to define considering how varied they can be. Looking at a sample of approximately 50 conflicts in the Middle East Since 1945 the following can be stated. Four of them were colonial wars by France and Britain. Seventeen, as in 1/3rd involved Israel, ten involved the Palestinians, 4 involved the Russians, and 8 involved the Americans. Nine of the wars were mostly conventional wars (armies fighting armies), eleven were generally aerial campaigns conducted by the America, Russia or Israel, and the remaining were mostly asymmetrical conflicts regarding civil wars, insurgencies, or terrorist movements trying to change the status quo. The reason for the qualification of “mostly” in these categories is that much of these conflicts were hybrid conflicts involving aspects of conventional, airpower and asymmetrical warfare. For example, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 involved not only fighting the PLO resistance group but also the Syrian army. Likewise, America’s aerial campaign in Libya in 2011 was coordinated with Libyan resistance movements against Gaddafi’s regime. Needless to say much of these wars overlap with each other.

So what were these wars? The colonial conflicts were Britain’s war to secure Aden, her doomed attempt to keep Palestine after 1945, the combined Franco-British Suez conflict to subvert Egypt in 1956 (also supported by Israel), and France’s dirty war in Algeria.

Israel’s seventeen wars include the six “Arab-Israeli wars,” numerous aerial campaigns, and several asymmetrical conflicts against the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah. The Palestinians had ten wars, under many guises such as the PLO, Hamas, and/or other groups, eight of which were against Israel as well as involvement with the Jordanian and Lebanese civil wars.

Russia’s wars include their support for Syria during the never ending “Syrian Civil War,” the “Soviet-Afghan War” as well as the two Chechen Wars if we include these as part of Middle Eastern conflict (Chechnya technically being part of Europe). America’s eight wars include a UN mission in Somalia, the liberation of Kuwait, “Operation Desert Fox,” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and aerial campaigns in Libya and Syria (and perhaps Kosovo even if it is outside the Middle East).

Finally, there are the asymmetrical conflicts (many, if not all, of which overlap with previously stated conflicts) regarding civil wars, insurgencies and terrorist movements. These include at least seven civil wars; Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Oman, Libya and Afghanistan; Kurdish insurgencies against Turkey and Iraq, Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and ISIS conflicts in the region, and other resistance and/or terrorist movements in the region. This list is far from being exhaustive as there were probably dozens of more conflicts in the region during the same timeframe.

From this we can see a few trends. Nine of the conflicts (less than 20%) were predominately stand up conventional fights (5 of Israel’s wars, the “Gulf War,” the “Iran-Iraq War,” the short war between Jordan and Syria in 1970, and the limited war between Egypt and Libya in 1977. Meanwhile the predominantly aerial campaigns involved American efforts in Kosovo, Libya, Syria and Iraq, Russia’s late efforts in Syria, 3 Israeli actions against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and another 3 against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As already noted the rest are various types of asymmetrical conflicts.

Furthermore we can divide the conflicts between wars involving foreign states (Russia, America, European), Israel, and those waged between Arab and Muslim states/groups. One third of the conflicts involve Israel, foreign states are involved in another third, while inter-regional (not including Israel or outsiders) involves at least 30, or perhaps much more, if you include low grade fighting against Arab and Muslim nations and groups.

What about results, who won these wars? Unfortunately victory and defeat in the Middle East is controversial, not only if we separate military success from political, or even propaganda coups, but also because few wars in the region have involved the complete defeat, or overthrow, of nations or often even resistance groups. Meanwhile the tendencies of Arab states, and resistance groups, claiming victory just because they survive, and the fact that long term results of these conflicts are often mixed further complicates easy determinations of victory and defeat. However, on one hand it is easy to say who has won according to pure military and political terms. Often armies, resistance groups, and terrorist movements has been so smashed that no objective analyst would debate the military result. However, as Clausewitz noted “war is a continuation of politics by other means” and given the usual relatively limited nature of war in the Middle East a nation, or non-state entity, can claim victory if their political goals were accomplished. The third, perhaps most laughable, claim of victory is propaganda victories by nations or groups which claim survival as victory. To make things even more confusing the weird circumstance of the region can result in several sides claiming victory. All of this will be addressed below.

Unsurprisingly military victories are the easiest to show. It is hard for one side to claim they won the battle after a humiliating retreat, losing most of their tanks and planes, and their capital is threatened. In all conventional wars there has been an obvious winner in military terms. Israel decisively beat the Arab armies in all but one or two stand up fights, America dominated the “Gulf War,” Egypt beat Libya and Jordan beat Syria in their respective wars, and even Iraq thoroughly smashed Iran’s army at the end of the “Iran-Iraq War.” The same goes regarding asymmetrical conflicts in general; most insurgent or terrorist groups losing the military struggle. Meanwhile with perhaps one or two exceptions as in Afghanistan in the early 1990s no resistance, or terrorist movement, came to power in the region by physically defeating government forces or overthrowing regimes (at least not without considerable conventional or airpower backing by foreign states). Generally they have been crushed brutally as the Kurdish and Muslim brotherhood insurgencies, or other resistance groups, via harsh Arab despots.

Even in the colonial wars the hated imperialists were never physically defeated but forced to withdraw due to public opinion and political considerations at home. However, in rare cases an army can suffer military defeat at the hands of guerrillas such as during Russia’s first war against Chechnya. In this conflict two of Russia’s columns were mauled during the initial assault on Grozny, she suffered countless ambushes against her convoys, she failed to resolve the “Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis,” and even had her forces trapped and humiliated by Chechen rebels in Grozny at the end of the war. Libya was also ultimately defeated by a guerrilla army of Toyota trucks with anti-tank weapons at the end of the “Chadian-Libyan Conflict.”

Aerial campaigns are more controversial regarding military results considering not only have they usually been against mobile, and lightly armed, guerrillas and terrorists that are hard to track and kill from the air, but that the campaigns themselves have often targeted political will and non-military targets. America’s air efforts are mixed; in Kosovo the Serbian army was not seriously hurt, the operation against Iraq in 1998 was perhaps a half victory in degrading Saddam’s capabilities, her air campaign in Syria hurt ISIS but did not effectively protect her rebel allies on the ground from the Assad Regime or Russia, but her support of the rebels in Libya in 2011 was an unequivocal success regarding the overthrow of Gaddafi by degrading his armed forces. Perhaps Russia’s air campaign in Syria by contrast was exceedingly successful, supporting Assad’s forces while hurting ISIS and punishing America’s allies on the ground. Meanwhile Israel arguably produced poor military results in her three aerial campaigns against Hizbollah in Lebanon but did relatively better in her three against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However military results, especially in limited war and conflicts regarding insurgency and terrorism, are not always decisive and in these cases political considerations are often more important. Whatever impressive military victories America, Israel, Russia and the colonial Powers have accomplished against armies, and insurgents, their political results have rarely proven as beneficial. Israel won every conventional clash against states and armies but only one of them, against Egypt in 1973, resulted in a peace treaty (ironic considering this was the only war Egypt rebuffed Israel several times in battle). Of course Israel won her statehood in 1948, and bought a decade of tranquillity against Egypt after 1956, yet her greatest victory in 1967 burdened her with hostile Palestinian territory in Gaza, and the West Bank, and led to terrible the “War of Attrition,” and later the “Yom Kippur War,” which were more bloody, and demoralizing, for Israel than anything before or since.

Israel’s record in aerial campaigns is also mixed: Unsurprisingly with the considerable anti-Israeli sentiment in the UN, and international opinion, and the fact Israel is now seen as Goliath and the Palestinians as David, Israel has rarely won the battle of public opinion in most of these struggles. Yet in 4 out of 6 of her aerial assaults Israel can claim political victory (oddly enough even in 2006 during perhaps Israel’s worst showing in any conflict). Israel has managed to gain relative peace in the south against Hamas’s rocket, and other attacks, and has not had to end her blockade, recognize Hamas or concede any notable concession to the resistance group. Against Hezbollah Israel’s air campaigns in the 1990s accomplished little political gains but the 2006 campaign, whatever its many failings, seems to have deterred Hezbollah from provoking Israel and the latter has enjoyed over a decade of relative quiet in the north thus far.

America secured her political goals in the “Gulf War,” which was liberating Kuwait at small cost and not overthrowing Saddam Hussein (which was never seriously considered at the time). Regarding two of her air campaigns, Kosovo and Libya the Americans secured their political objectives outright (even if her aerial campaign against Serbia was relatively inept), but her other two against Syria and Iraq can be seen as relative political failures since neither Saddam’s Iraq, or ISIS and Assad’s regime, were decisively defeated, or forced to change their detrimental regional policies. America’s war in Somalia resulted in a political defeat when Bill Clinton pulled its forces out of the country after the “Battle of Mogadishu” in 1993 where the American forces scored a notable tactical victory in killing hundreds of militants but lost 19 servicemen, some of the latter who were dragged through the streets live on TV which obviously shocked America.

Finally, there are the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one sense America secured many of her political goals by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, ultimately weakening Al-Qaeda, and installing nascent democracies in these countries. However, the price has been too high regarding American soldiers, the cost to American credibility and prestige, not to mention her finances, and especially regarding the civilian losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile the budding democracies in these countries have not so far proven to be effective at surviving on their own, or preventing the rise of ISIS or the resurgence of other terrorist groups.

Russia has secured her political goals in two of her wars; in the “Second Chechen War” she finally subjugated Chechnya (though it took ten years and terrific casualties) as well as her intervention in Syria which safeguarded Assad’s regime, and weakened both ISIS and America’s Syrian resistance allies. However, Russia withdrew in humiliation after failing to conquer Chechnya in the “First Chechen War” and ultimately her 10 year war in Afghanistan was a failure considering the Mujaheddin were never contained, or defeated, and Russia’s client state in Kabul later fell to the resistance fighters.

Britain and France failed politically in their wars despite often impressive military results. Obviously colonialism was discredited, and dying, after “World War 2,” with ironically the Americans, the Soviet Union and the UN all being united against European imperialism. Meanwhile the colonial powers were weakened in the post war period, and their populaces in no mood to fight conflicts that had little moral or international support. Finally, given that there was almost zero support from the indigenous people for the colonial powers that were occupying their country we see there was no political legitimacy at all for these conflicts. While there were diehards in the political, and military, establishments in London and Paris, there was no international support, little public support, and no indigenous support, for colonial wars.

Looking from the other side we see that resistance groups, and Arab states, have accomplished their political goals much of the time. In the case of the colonial wars public opinion in Britain and France, superpower pressure, and the sheer cost of war have handed victory to the underdogs despite the fact the latter never accomplished significant military reverses on their enemies. Russia has had to admit political defeat in Chechnya (in the first conflict), America withdrew from Somalia, while whatever gains both nations accomplished in Chechnya, Iraq or Afghanistan can probably be described as “pyrrhic victories,” despite not losing in the field.

In Israel’s case she has survived all existential threats but the Palestinians scored a notable victory due to the “First Intifada” via the ensuing the Oslo Accords, while Israel’s 1982 overwhelming victory against Syria in the Bekaa valley, and the PLO in Beirut, ultimately made things worse with the subsequent rise of Hezbollah. Eventually Israel tired so much of the conflict in Southern Lebanon against Hezbollah that she withdrew from Lebanon altogether (which has to be seen as a propaganda victory for Hezbollah at best or a political one at worst).

Meanwhile the Arab states are not proficient at military victory in conventional warfare but they have rarely failed to beat insurgents and terrorists (perhaps partly because they are not as constrained by brutal means, or media considerations like Israel or western democracies are). There is no way Israelis, or Americans, would have been permitted to carpet bomb a city like the Russians did in Grozny, to use gas like the Egyptians in Yemen or the Iraqis against the Kurds, to massacre 30,000 civilians indiscriminately like the Syrians did in Hama in 1982 or to shell Palestinian refugee camps mercilessly as the Jordanians and Syrians did in the 1970s.

Besides outright political victory Arab regimes, and resistance groups, can still be seen as relatively successful when using propaganda to claim they have won conflicts by merely surviving. This should not be dismissed because in general Arab states, and resistance groups, have been far more adept at using propaganda in the Middle East then the well meaning, if naive Americans, and the tactically minded and short term focused Israelis. Israel, and America, are liberal democracies with a relatively free media and much of it is often ran by elements unfavourable to their war efforts whereas the Arab states and resistance groups (and Russia), being non-democratic and far from Liberal, can dominate media and public opinion. Therefore while the military strength of Arab armies, guerrilla and terrorist forces can be beaten by their enemies the former can easily manipulate the media.

Therefore the Arabs claim America did not defeat Saddam Hussein in 1991 but was stopped from taking Iraq. Meanwhile Israel may have taken a lot of Arab territory in 1967 but Cairo, Amman, and Damascus was saved from Zionist occupation. It did not matter if the PLO was kicked out of Jordan in 1970, exiled from Lebanon in 1982 and forced to Tunisia, it still survived. According to Arab propaganda in the Middle East their states, and resistance groups, have won every battle despite the fact Israel is a thriving democracy, America is still present in the Middle East, the Arab states are collapsing, or on the brink or anarchy, or that most of the people in the Middle East are still poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised.

Then there is the odd point that such limited, and unpredictable, warfare in the region can even allow several sides to claim victory. Besides the aforementioned illusions there are plenty of incidents were several sides have actually legitimately won. The “Arab-Israeli wars” are illustrative. Israel survived and beat back the Arab armies in the first conflict but Jordan took the West Bank while even a weakened Egyptian retained the Gaza Strip. In 1956 Israel beat Egypt in the Sinai but Egypt accomplished a decisive political coup in surviving the British, and French, attempt to subjugate her. In 1973 Israel pushed back the Syrians close to Damascus, and crossed the Suez Canal to surround an entire Egyptian army, but there is no doubt that Egypt won the political battle by humiliating the Israeli army in the first few days of the war and allowing Sadat to bring Israel to the peace table. Israel’s lopsided military victory in 1982 destroyed the PLO in Lebanon but Syria was the ultimate beneficiary in the long run. This is not limited to nations as Hezbollah may have had to pull back from the Lebanon border after 2006 but she now has more rockets (in fact ten fold), and is in a vastly superior position ten years later. Meanwhile Israel’s efforts to stop the “First Intifada” were successful overall but the PLO could be satisfied by the results of the Oslo accords.

However, it is one thing to claim political and/or military kudos in limited wars, quite another whether or not it accomplishes nations’, or resistance groups’, long term goals. For it is obvious that since there are so many conflicts, often continuations of previous ones, that few wars in the region have produced overwhelming, longterm, decisive results. The colonial wars were decisive given that it forever broke the power of Britain, and France, to manipulate the region. Perhaps the “Arab-Israelis Wars” can be seen as decisive, at least in military means: Not only has Israel survived in the region, but no nation (s) can realistically threaten her with conventional military power, and since 1982 all of her threats have been from terrorism, and resistance groups. As such of Israel’s two major long term goals; survival and peace she has secured the former completely. However, regarding peace Israel’s wars have only had limited success. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel but otherwise the Arab states, and resistance groups, are still hostile at best, or cold and indifferent at worse.

America gets a lot of censure for her wars in the region but realistically the majority of her long term goals have been secured so far. Israel has survived, America’s military presence in the region is still strong, most of the Arab states are de-facto (if unenthusiastic) American allies, and the access to most of the oil in the region is still open to America, Europe and her allies. American rivals like China and Russia have limited influence in the region, compared to America at least, while her enemies in the region like Iran, Syria, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS are often nuisances, and pose some threats, but are generally contained and mostly in their decline. Meanwhile despite small pinprick successes few terrorist plots have succeeded, let alone killed a lot of Americans, on mainland America since 9/11 and thus technically she is winning the “war on terror.”

However, in two areas American goals have failed. Despite decades of efforts America has never solved the “Israeli-Palestine” conflict which remains a constant source of bitterness, and anger, in the region. Additionally, George Bush Junior’s plan to create a vibrant and stable democracy in Iraq, which would hopefully lead to more Liberalism, and freedom in the region, has also unravelled as seen by the chaos in Iraq, and the dashed hopes of the “Arab Spring.”

Russia gets some points for besting American interests in Syria, bullying Turkey, and her eventual conquest of Chechnya, but realistically these victories are more for show and generally hollow. Given how much power the Soviet Union had in the region at her height Russia’s position there today is very limited. Whereas Russia’s client states used to include Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria now only Syria remains an ally while the others, along with the vast majority of the nations of the Middle East are in America’s camp. The same goes for resistance groups; the PLO, and other Palestinian and terrorist groups, in the region, and Europe, used to be allied with the Russians but now they are either quashed, contained, switched sides or dominated by countries like Iran and Syria. The major oilfields are in countries allied to America, Russian power in most Arab countries is weak, and the prospect of Russia gaining more influence at America’s expense in the region is unfavourable for the foreseeable future.

What about the Arab States, Iran, and resistance groups? In the case of survival, most regimes have admittedly survived wars stand up wars, and insurgencies, trying to overthrow them (Iraq and Afghanistan being notable exceptions). However, their efforts to conquer other territories, or expand their ideologies, have usually been failures: Saddam never kept any Iranian territory and was pushed out of Kuwait, Libya failed to take Chad, Syria ultimately had to withdrew from Lebanon, and the physical borders of the region have barely changed since the postwar period. Meanwhile Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, the Baathist ideology of Iraq and Iran’s fundamentalist template have not successfully transformed the region. Generally the individual Arab states are American client states whether they like it or not and have little power, or even motivation, to challenge America, or Israel’s, main interests in the region.

Perhaps theocratic Iran has done the best to spread her influence and flout America and Israel. She has considerable support, and even militants, in Lebanon and Iraq, and propped up Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah which give terrible head aches to America and Israel. Meanwhile her quest for nuclear weapons has the potential to make her untouchable and give her more regional influence. Yet Iran’s aging theocrats are becoming more out of touch with the Iranian people, more fissures are developing between moderated and fanatics in the regime, western sanctions are eroding Iran’s economy and as such Iran’s future of presenting a major counter-balance to America is far from certain.

Most resistance groups have either been crushed, contained or lost their legitimacy, yet a few of them like Hamas, Hezbollah, and maybe for awhile ISIS are still significant. Hamas cannot expand much but it still has enough foreign connections, and support of the people, to survive almost indefinitely. Hezbollah is still very strong, controls much of Lebanon and enjoys unlimited support from Syria and Iran. It also has more than 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel and is probably the latter’s biggest threat. ISIS still has shock value and seen as a major enemy but its power will probably continue to degrade considering all Arab states, their masses, and the rest of the world is against it (even most hardcore Islamists and terrorist groups think ISIS has gone too far). The Palestinian movement it should be stressed, is no closer to destroying Israel, let alone gaining any notable territory or concessions, after nearly 70 years of conflict. The Kurds, with the exception of northern Iraq, have also failed in their attempts at statehood, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt only briefly, and Al-Qaeda’s vision of establishing a caliphate from Morocco to the Gulf is a mirage.

What has been the cost in blood, and refugees, since 1945 in the Middle East? Unfortunately stats regarding war deaths in the region are often unreliable for various reasons. Some of this is due to poor documentation, but also because Arab nations, and resistance groups, do not record their deaths as accurately as westerners and Israelis, partially due to the fact the latter are more casualty sensitive, and partially due to the less organized nature of the former. Meanwhile most belligerents have political, or propaganda, reasons to exaggerate, or downplay casualties. Obviously all sides want to maximize the number of enemy combatants killed, be it Western or Arab soldiers, or resistance personal.

Civilian losses are another matter; obviously Arab states threatened by foreigners and Israel, will exaggerate losses while the latter want to minimize them. Resistance groups will also maximize these no matter who they are fighting. On another level occupiers or armies; Israeli, Americans, Russians, Arabs, etc, will try to exaggerate how many civilians died via resistance, or terror groups, and minimize how many were killed by their own forces.

Then there is the bias of authors who are either too pro-West, Israeli, Arab, Russia, etc, that cherry pick statistics to support their cases. The point being that it is unsurprising that in a region where nothing is certain, and everything is controversial, that there is often no authoritative estimate for casualties. For example estimates of the “Algerian War” put the death toll between 300,000 to 1 million, the “Gulf War” between 10,000 and 100,000, the “Iran-Iraq War” between several hundred thousand and perhaps 1 million, the “Iraq War” from 200,000 to 1 million and the “Soviet-Afghan War” from 500,000 to 2 million. No doubt the maxim regarding the 3 kinds of lies is very relevant for conflict in the Middle East. Thus the author does not pretend all of the statistics he has written are accurate but he has done his best to make educated guesses based on common sense while rejecting the more absurd estimates.

Some of the bloodier wars include the “Iran-Iraq War,” which resulted in at least 400,000 deaths, the “Soviet-Afghan War” which resulted in at least 1 million, the ongoing “Syrian Civil War” which has so far cost 400,000, the French war in Algeria that cost at least 300,000, the “Lebanese Civil War” with 150,000 dead and America’s recent war in Afghanistan which has probably had 100,000 deaths at least. The “Arab-Israeli Wars” by contrast have been relatively tame with most of them costing close to 20,000 dead while the intifadas, Israel’s aerial campaigns, and her smaller wars have all cost less than 5000, most costing under 2000 lives. Russian, and American, aerial campaigns have also not been overly bloody despite the considerable controversy and moral outrage sparked by them, with generally a few thousand deaths.

Other relatively bloody conflicts include the two Russian wars in Chechnya (together costing probably more than 50,000), the “Gulf War,” with its approximately 20,000 deaths, the “Algerian Civil War” with probably at least 100,000, the Kurdish insurgencies in Turkey and Iraq which resulted in at least 100,000-250,000 and the Islamist uprising, mostly the Muslim Brotherhood, in Syria which arguably resulted in 40,000 dead.

After this, at least regarding the examples we have looked at, the death tolls are not so high as they are the result of smaller civil wars, aerial campaigns, or more manageable insurgencies and terrorist campaigns. Most of the aerial campaigns have not killed over a few thousand (soldiers and civilians) and this is also the case with many civil war like those in Oman, or Jordan, as well as most Al-Qaeda (Iraq and Afghanistan being significant exceptions) and Muslim brotherhood insurgencies.

What trends can we deduce from these butcher bills? Perhaps the first is despite the inherent anti-Semitism in the Arab World, along with international opinion being mostly against Israel regarding Middle Eastern issues, is that Israel’s wars, despite their frequency and controversy, has killed a relatively low amount of people killed in the wars in the region for the past 7 decades. Statistics can always be argued over but all of Israel’s wars, aerial adventures, and anti-terrorist campaigns have probably not killed over 150,000 (which is still significant though well short of many wars in the region). Many wars by themselves have killed not only as much, but often several times more (French War in Algeria, the Lebanese, Syrian and Algerian Civil Wars, the war in Iraq, the “Soviet-Afghan War,” and the “Iran-Iraq War).” Furthermore it would be unfair to blame Israel for the outbreak of all of these wars, as well as all the deaths as many of these conflicts were provoked or initiated from the other side (1948, 1967, 1973, 2000) or involved inter-Arab killings which were hardIy Israel’s fault.

Then there is America, who the Ayatollah called the “Greater Satan,” Israel being the “Little Satan.” Five of America’s wars, 4 aerial campaigns and her part in the UN mission in Somalia, did not result in a disproportionate amount of deaths, while the “Gulf War” cost at least 20,000 and her Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tragically more (probably at least 200-300,000 in Iraq and 100,000 in Afghanistan). However, these wars cannot be compared to France’s dirty war in Algeria, Russia’s near genocidal treatment of Afghanistan and Chechnya, nor the World War 1 style of carnage in the “Iran-Iraq War.” No doubt the wars to liberate Kuwait, and respond to 9/11 by going into Afghanistan, were justified (Saddam invaded Kuwait and Al-Qaeda attacked America unprovoked) but the “Iraq War” was clearly unnecessary, and unjustified. However, even in Iraq and Afghanistan it is arguable that the inhabitants killed more of each other than America killed of them. Few people like blackwater, and corporate armies, but American forces did not have death squads like the Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, and were not as blood thirsty and unforgiving as Al-Qaeda in both countries.

Whatever her flaws, and naiveness, America legitimately wanted to created democracy, and freedom, in these countries and wanted to safeguard the rights of marginalized groups (be it Sunni, Shiite and Kurds) whereas most of their enemies would rather have had sectarian, authoritative and Islamic fanatical regimes. However, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and American wars in the Middle East since 2001, while not damaging American long term goals overall, has certainly killed too many people, lost most of the Arab and Muslim populations of the region’s confidence, and damaged her reputation both at home and abroad.

We also have the europeans’ part in these wars; France, Britain and Russia. Ironically Britain, the most powerful colonial power in the world, which not only had the most possessions in the region, but also held the most influence there even before the 20th century until the war in 1956, killed the least amount of people in these conflicts than her fellow europeans, America, Israel and certainly Arabs and others since 1945. Britain’s wars in Aden and Egypt were relatively small, and cheap, affairs versus other struggles while her conduct in Palestine against the Jewish insurgents after WW2 was constrained by international opinion and the fact it was politically unacceptable to be harsh against a people of which many of whom had just survived Nazi concentration camps. As such the cost of these wars were relatively small; 2000 killed in Aden, less than 5000 killed in the “Suez Crisis” and a marginal number fighting the Jewish insurgents in Palestine.

France was only involved directly in two of these conflicts, Suez and Algeria, and indirectly in one, Libya’s wars against Chad, but her dirty war in Algeria had a disproportionate effect in blood and politics. While France’s conduct in Algeria was perhaps not as bad as the worst Arab regimes, one thinks of Saddam against the Kurds and Assad against Hama in 1982, it was worse than American, Israeli and British excesses in their wars. The indiscriminate bombing of cities, widespread practice of torture, summary executions, the use of concentration camps, the insubordination of military leaders and factions that not only defied political authority, but actively tried to overthrow it, were commonplace in France’s war in Algeria but thankfully absent, or at least diminished, in other democratic countries’ conflicts in the region. France, unsurprisingly with these means, crushed the rebellion in Algeria, though not the rebel forces across the border, and certainly did not win the political battle for world opinion, in Algeria and ultimately even among the French people. Not only did France lose her legitimacy to stay in Algeria, but French military leaders in Algeria rebelled against the politicians and even threatened to overthrow the French government leading Charles De Gaulle no choice but to abandon Algeria to prevent a potential civil war in France!

Meanwhile Russia, which has generally escaped the visceral criticism aimed at foreign nations who have waged war in the Middle East, has probably killed more Arabs and Muslims then Britain, France, America and Israel combined. In the “Soviet-Afghan war” alone at least 1 million, some say 2 million, were killed. Russian conduct here was just as bad as the French in Algeria and mass indiscriminate bombing, torture, reprisals and atrocities against civilians were widespread and uncompromising. The same goes for Chechnya in two wars where Grozny was more or less carpet bombed twice and perhaps 50,000 Chechens (in a population barely over a million) were killed. None of this saved the Soviet Client in Kabul or brought prosperity, and democracy, to Chechnya.

Finally, we come to the Arabs, Palestinians, Iranians and other indigenous factions (stage or substate). These states, or groups, are often cast as the victims of imperialist, American and Israeli designs (which unfortunately has too often been true) while their own self serving actions and crimes have usually been dismissed in popular media. While much of the “Arab-Israeli Wars” and Israel’s conflicts, can be blamed on Israel much can also be blamed on the Arabs and Palestinians. Obviously in the case of the colonial, and Russia’s, wars, the Arabs and indigenous people are innocent, but in the case of America’s interventions the record is mixed again. American interventions in Kosovo, Libya, and Somalia were humanitarian missions, Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda were unequivocally the aggressors regarding the “Gulf War” and 9/11, yet the “Iraq War” was unprovoked and a mistake, while her bombing campaigns against Iraq in the 90s, and the current one in Syria, are controversial regarding motives and potential results. Yet the majority of the conflicts in the region have been inter-Arab, and Muslim, conflicts where foreign, and Israeli, influence is a secondary factor or non-existent.

How does this relate to bloodletting in the region. As stated above it is unfair to blame all deaths in Israeli, American and foreign wars on the the former and say the indigenous forces deserve no blame but it is also obvious that the latter cannot be totally held accountable for the same in their conflicts (which maddeningly enough overlaps with the formers’ wars too often). However, a share in the Arab-Israeli wars, the fact many foreign wars were provoked by Arab states or terror groups, realizing that most civil wars in the region are domestic, and not foreign problems, and remembering that most terrorist elements are also in this category, means that Arabs and Muslims have too many conflicts and problems where they cannot outsource blame.

Let us assume half blame for the “Arab-Israeli Wars” on the Arab side (the Arab states were not provoked by Israel in 1948, certainly provoked Israel in 1967, and bare some partial blame for other conflicts). Meanwhile let us blame half of the conflicts over Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza on them as well since Israel has either withdrawn from these territories at some point to try peace or has been occasionally attacked from them as well. Surely Israel’s policies, and occupations, have not been stellar but Hezbollah could have made peace after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hamas could have tried peace overtures after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the Palestinian authority could have tried harder for peace in the 1990s instead of allowing militant groups to keep attacking Israel. This gives us 60,000 or more deaths for the Arabs here alone.

What about pure indigenous wars and conflicts? The “Iran-Iraq War,” civil wars in Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Oman and Afghanistan, Kurdish, Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and other insurgencies and terrorist campaigns are too numerous to count. It is easy to blame war, and oppression, on foreign and Israeli machinations but in the rest of the globe former colonies and oppressed nations have become more democratic and liberal (like in East Asia) rather than succumb to the vicious cycle of warfare in the Middle East.

So what are the death tolls of these indigenous wars and conflicts? Regarding the more bloody contests there was probably at least 400,000 deaths for the “Iran-Iraq War,” 400,000 in Syria’s Civil War so far, 150,000 in the “Lebanese Civil War,” 100,000 in Algeria’s last civil war, at arguably 250,000 killed between Kurds fighting the Turks and Iraqis, while the North Civil War in Yemen cost at least 100,000. This produces an astounded 1,400,000 deaths in these conflicts at least considering many of these estimates are on the lower side put forth by various sources. Of course while these are the worst cases there are far more indigenous conflicts such as the “Egyptian-Libyan War,” Libya’s multiple wars against Chad, the brief war between Jordan and Syria, the “Jordanian Civil War,” multiple civil wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist campaigns across the region. If we added the deaths from these conflicts as well the death toll would be notably higher.

Yet at 1,400,000 deaths the number is staggering enough. It is nearly ten times the amount of those estimated killed in Israel’s wars and conflicts, more than two or three times the amount of those killed in American-led wars in the region, one million more than the French killed in her few conflicts, and perhaps 100 times as many killed by Britain’s fading colonial wars. Only Russia with at least 1 million killed in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands killed in Chechnya, is close to matching how many people were killed by Arabs, and Muslims, in the Middle East since 1945.

What do these death tolls suggest? Firstly, Arab and Muslim groups, and nations, have killed more people, especially each other, than either America, Israel, Britain or France and even Russia. This should be qualified again because this not only includes the perhaps 1,400,000 killed in inter-Arab, Muslim conflict but a huge percentage in other wars that involve foreign states and Israel. Shiites and Sunnis arguably killed more of each other in Iraq than America during the war in 2003-11, Algerians may have killed more of each other in the “Algerian War” than the French (especially if we consider the fate of France’s Harkis Algerian allies at the end of the conflict), while Arabs, especially the Jordanians and Syrians, killed thousands of Palestinians, and the Palestinian groups themselves have killed thousands of each other rather than firmly unite against Israel.

All of this quashes the idea the the Arab nations and Muslim groups in the region are purely victims of outside, or Israeli influence and war, or that they themselves are inherently peaceful and just want to be left alone. It also questions the idea that their main enemies are America, and Israel, for according to the number of wars they have fought amongst themselves, as well as the lopsided death tolls, the main enemy of Arab and Muslim factions in the Middle East seem to be themselves.

The death tolls also tell us that Israel, despite being the most criticized country in, and outside, the region for conflict in the Middle East, has actually killed the least amount of people (with the exception of Britain). All other foreigner nations, and especially the Arabs, have killed exceedingly more people and Muslims than Israel. American wars in the region would not be prohibitively bloody were in not for the “Iraq War” (which has killed much more than half of all those killed in her wars in the region) but even here the Arabs have probably killed more or each other than America. France had her one very bloody war in Algeria with 300,000 dead and the much less costly joint “Suez Crisis” with Britain, but despite the terrible conduct of French forces in Algeria France’s reputation, and influence, in the region is relatively healthy. Britain gets perhaps less censure in the region than Israel, and America, yet her colonial past, and recent support of American ventures in the region has not done her many favours either. Yet Israel, Britain, France and America have all killed less Arabs, and Muslims, than the Russia has. However, Russia is not nearly as criticized, censured or demonized as much as any of the former, especially Israel and America.

Besides death tolls there has been many refugee crises in the region since 1945. Unsurprisingly the most commonly known is the “Palestinian refugee crisis.” During the “First Arab-Israeli War” perhaps 700,000 Palestinians were kicked out, or fled, from territory which became Israel and went to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or other Arab countries. This was made worse in 1967 when Israel defeated Egypt and Jordan, conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a further 300,000 Palestinians fled again, mostly to Jordan or other Arab countries. Few of these Palestinians were allowed to return and today there is probably 5 million Palestinian refugees if we include descendants of the original refugees from 1948. Today most of these live in poverty in overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries who have rarely tried to integrate them into their societies. Meanwhile countless Palestinians live in terrible conditions in the Israeli de facto occupied West Bank, or under Hamas in the tiny Gaza Strip that is under Israeli blockade and enjoys a poor standing of living.

The Palestinians also had poor luck when the PLO was driven from Jordan after the massacre of “Black September” and then later from Lebanon after Israel’s invasion in 1982. Even little Kuwait was ruthless when after the “Gulf War” she expelled 200,000 Palestinians from the Kingdom, partially out of revenge for the PLO supporting Saddam Hussein. Omar Gaddafi also expelled thousands of Palestinians from Libya in the mid-1990s in reaction to the Oslo Accords.

While everyone knows of the poor, hapless Palestinian refugees few today remember the at least 800,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after the 1948 conflict. This number was higher than the 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled from Israel during this conflict but ironically it actually benefited Israel since she integrated these refugees successfully to make the country stronger. This is in stark contrast to the marginalized Palestinian refugees in Arab countries who are generally poor, enjoy few rights and are cramped into refugee camps even after nearly seven decades.

Another little known refugee crisis involved the European settler community in Algeria in the 1960s; the so called “Pied Noires” who not only had enjoyed more rights, and privileges, than the majority Arab population but generally maltreated and dismissed the latter as well. After the French withdrew from Algeria in lieu of her failed colonial war most of the Pied Noires, perhaps 800,000, fled to France in 1962 with most of the remainder fleeing in later years.

Several million Kurds have become refugees in Europe, and middle eastern countries, thanks to several wars waged by Iraq and Turkey versus Kurdish movements. There are also several hundred thousands of Chechen refugees and while this may seem low compared to other cases it should be noted that this is proportionally devastating considering Chechnya’s population is not much over 1 million today.

For decades Afghanistan had the worst refugee crisis in the world, with up to 6 million during the “Soviet-Afghan War.” After the fall of the Taliban the majority of these returned home but with rising violence in the new American war in Afghanistan there are now probably at least 3 million Afghan refugees.

Israel’s wars in Lebanon have produced many refugees, though most of them are temporary refugees who return home considering most of Israel’s actions were aerial campaigns, or in one case a limited raid. However, many Lebanese would find little solace in this as they have had to flee their homes no less than five times as seen by Israel’s Litani raid in 1978, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the aerial campaigns against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1993 and 1996 and the 34 day “Second Lebanon War” in 2006. As for figures the Litani operation resulted in at least 100,000 refugees, arguably 300,000 in 1993, a similar number or more in 1996, while it has been suggested perhaps 1 million Lebanese, and even several hundred thousands Israelis, were temporarily displaced by the “Second Lebanon War.” Of course this does not even cover the refugees made by Lebanon’s Civil War or Syria’s subsequent involvement in it. Either way, like Chechnya, the numbers are disproportionate as Lebanon’s population was only 4 million in 2006.

America’s war in Iraq caused millions of refugees. While some of this can be blamed on Sunni-Shiite animosity, Al-Qaeda provocations and excesses, as well as Syrian, Iranian, and even Saudi, support for insurgent, and terrorist groups, in Iraq, America must shoulder much of the blame considering many of her war policies were naive and flawed, and none of this would have happened had she not invaded Iraq. As such perhaps 4 million Iraqis became refugees in their own country, or other ones, during the conflict from 2003-2011. Many hoped that after General Petraeus’s successful counterinsurgency strategy in 2007, and the relative peace and cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites in the next few years, would solve the conflict and help the refugee crisis. However, after the American army withdrew the Shiite dominating government in Iraq succumbed to old habits, oppressed the Sunnis, and thus helped create ISIS, further war and more refugees. Several scholars have suggested that Iraq, by being the Arab country that has the proper mix of sufficient people, oil and water should be leading the Arab World but history has not been kind to her.

Finally, we have the current “Syrian Civil War” which has produced a refugee crisis that has surpassed even Afghanistan at her worst. There are perhaps 10 million Syrian refugees, either internally displaced or currently living in Arab countries, Europe and elsewhere, and this represents close to 50% of Syria’s prewar population! This war cannot be blamed on American machinations, or Israeli aggression. Syria is one of the few Arab states in the region that is not an American client and Israel has generally left Syria alone since 1973 despite the fact the latter has supported every resistance, and terrorist, group against her and arguably sabotaged peace between Israel and Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians. Henry Kissinger once said “you can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.”

Rather President Assad of Syria, and his Alawite, Christian and other minority allies in Syria brought the conflict on themselves by marginalizing the larger Sunni population of Syria, by being even more autocratic, backwards and repressive than most Arab states, and by playing with fire by supporting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and other fanatical Islamic groups, against American forces and the Iraqis. For these hard core Islamic groups could hardly be considered bedfellows for Assad’s secular regime in Syria which has routinely imprisoned and repressed Islamic groups.

Unsurprisingly these militant factions, especially ISIS, found it easy to piggyback on the legitimate demands made by Syrian protesters in lieu of the “Arab Spring” and eventually found a key role in the resistance after Assad’s predictable crackdown. Either way great power rivalry, along with regional powers interest in the country, the fact that Europe, the UN, and other entities do not want to address the conflict head on, means this conflict will probably drag on for years without end or a satisfactory conclusion.

What can we make of these refugee statistics? Jews in the region were effected just as badly as the Palestinians in 1948-49 at first and there is little recognition of this or the fact that the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries even happened in much of the world. However, the Palestinians have been poorly treated by not only the Israelis who hurt them in 1948, 1967 and even 1982, but by their supposed Arab friends as well who expelled them in 1970 from Jordan, Kuwait after 1991, and even from Libya after the Oslo accords. We should also remember that Israel successfully helped, and integrated, the Jewish refugees after 1948, although admittedly were not so kind to Palestinians under their occupation, whereas the Arab states in all cases kept the Palestinians poor, disenfranchised, and usually in refugee camps to use as political pawns in their real, or fictitious, battles between Israel, America and amongst themselves.

We should also note that the fate of the Pied Noires in Algeria, the Kurds against Turkey and Iraq, and the Chechen refugees have generally been ignored and forgotten versus other conflicts and people. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the “Algerian War” was along time ago and its consequences were limited, that the Kurds did not have the media savvy of the Palestinians or were not as important to major states as Turkey, or sometimes Iraq, or that no one really cared about Russia crushing a former republic that no one knew about. Maybe it was because none of these conflicts involved Israel or America, the usual suspects of blame, or maybe the conflicts themselves had less geopolitical relevance than others in the region, who knows.

Sadly even the aerial campaigns Israel unleashed against Lebanon, which generally resulted in temporary, versus permanent, refugees and killed a fraction of people versus other refugee crises, are by contrast well known, often broached and vehemently condemned (with some justification).

Finally, the numerous conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have by far produced the worst refugee crises, at least by numbers. In Iraq and Afghanistan much of this can be blamed on Russians and Americans, although it should be noted that both Iraq and Afghanistan had plenty of issues regarding refugees before American interventions in 2001 and 2003. As for Syria the refugee issue is all but the Assad’s regime fault.

By now it should be obvious that nothing in the Middle East, especially war and terrorism, is simple. Americans, and Israelis, are not simple victims of terrorism who have never provoked conflict. Arab States, and Muslim groups, are not innocent actors who have never started wars against others. Russia is not a neutral state with no blood on her hands, and France and Britain had their colonial wars but have been mostly absent from conflict in the region for the past few decades. All of these entities have started wars and conflicts, backed shady groups, killed civilians, produced refugees, and subverted democratic, and liberal movements, to further their own selfish national, or substate, goals. No factions in the Middle East, foreign or domestic, are innocent.

Having said that there are unequivocal trends in the region, which are often forgotten and ignored, as well as countless myths that are perpetrated which do more harm than good. For one thing Arab, and Muslim groups, have killed more of each other than have been killed by Israelis and foreigners. They have also caused more refugees than the latter as well. Whatever wrongs Israel, and foreign countries, have done to Arabs and Muslims, and there are many, there are clearly many problems the Arab and Muslim groups in the region have to address among themselves.

Regarding conventional wars foreign, and Israeli, arms have always triumphed against Arab and Muslim ones (though Jordan fought Israel to a stalemate in 1948 and Egypt had notable victories in 1973). Meanwhile aerial campaigns have produced mixed results; most military goals failing, but sometimes producing political goals in spite of this (aerial power has been more successful when backed by guerrillas or soldiers on the ground). Either way the allure of airpower to policymakers in Israel, and the West, is an illusionary one; it cannot occupy territory, effectively stop rocket attacks, coerce enemies to change policies, let alone defeat armies and insurgents, on its own.

On the other side despite Israeli shortsightedness in policy, American naiveness, and the decadence and incompetence of Arab regimes, the vast majority of insurgent, and terrorist, movements in the region fail, usually decisively (the colonial wars being notable exceptions). Against Chechen rebel victory in the mid-1990s, the collapse of the Soviet client state in Afghanistan during the same period, the PLO’s temporary victory via the OSLO accords, and the Chadian resistance groups against Libya there are dozens, arguably more than a hundred, of examples of failures like all Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda campaigns, most Palestinian and Kurdish efforts, Shiite and Sunni militias in Iraq, ISIS, etc.

However, between outright victories and defeats there are too many instances in the region when the result is not clear cut, or the defeated party can claim victory (or avoiding defeat) due to propaganda or merely surviving. In the case of insurgencies this is less the case because most of them have been brutally suppressed but when we remember that most wars in the region have not led to the overthrow of countries and regimes this makes more sense. None of the “Arab-Israeli Wars” toppled another regime, no aerial campaign broke the enemy side, and American, and foreign, won battles have not resulted in their political goals being realized as much as they would like. As such Nasser, King Hussein and Assad survived Israel’s wars, Hamas, Hezbollah and Saddam survived bombing campaigns, and Arab insurgents have often survived the worst Britain, France, and America, and sometimes Russia, have thrown against them because political, or other circumstances, have intervened.

Finally, we can look at long term goals of the participants, which should be a good gauge considering most wars in the region are limited, and due to the fact that so many of the conflicts are continuations of previous ones. The colonial powers (Britain and France) lost their struggle to dominate their colonies and control the fate of the Middle East without question. Russia failed to uphold her proxy in Afghanistan, ultimately succeeded in reconquering Chechnya, and has hurt America in Syria, yet has never regained the power, and influence, in the region she used to enjoy (having many powers and resistance groups threatening Israel, America and western powers) and if Syria collapsed Russian influence in the region would be marginal. Russia only has Syria as a client state in the region while America has dozens.

While America has been hurt, economically and diplomatically, in the region her long term goals have held: Most Arab states are her clients, Israel is safe, the access to oil fields are open to her, and her friends, and terrorism against America is extremely limited. Israel, who has won most battles, not so many wars, and frankly sucks at winning international opinion, has generally secured her goals as well: Survival, peace or relative peace, few casualties or disruption to her society, etc. Israel has secured herself against conventional threats from her neighbours, and neutralized threats against resistance groups from Gaza and the West Bank. However, Israel still faces a potential long term nuclear threat from Iran, and a direct threat from Hezbollah, who has at least 100,000 rockets in Lebanon. Thus Israel is either the most secure she has ever been, or approaching the most turbulent time in her history.

As for Arab States, Iran, or irregular groups the future is uncertain. Despite the naiveness that outsiders regarded the “Arab Spring” the despots, princes and other leaders in Arab regimes and Iran have held onto power. Resistance groups like ISIS, who are at war with everyone, and other ones that have alienated too many Arabs or enjoy little foreign backing, will probably be crushed or marginalized. Others like Hamas and Hezbollah, who enjoy local, and foreign, backing will probably be around for a long time. Even militia groups like the Sunni, and Shiite, ones in Iraq will not go away so long as Iraq remains a fractured, corrupt, and sectarian divided state. Iran has done a very good job at staying out of wars, while fomenting wars and terrorism abroad, and it is unlikely American, and Israeli, pressure or sanctions will stop her from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons. However, it is anyone’s guess if the theocratic regime in Tehran can remain in power indefinitely given the growing split between those who support the Mullahs and those who want reform and democracy.

Finally, the Arab regimes are often terrible at war, and cannot seem to reform or really build a future for their peoples, but they are remarkably good at staying in power. Tools such as controlling the media, fomenting violence against external threats, blaming every issues on America, Israel or the West, and suggesting that real democracy will only bring violent Islamic zealots to power are but a few of those utilized by Arab regimes to prolong their rotten rule. Besides which America, the West, and often Israel, generally back most of these regimes, openly or tactically, reluctantly or enthusiastically, for a variety of reasons; some of them pragmatic, some naive, and even some that do not make the slightest sense.

One thing is certain. As long as the Middle East is full of backwards nations, fanatical terrorist groups and oil, and as long as America, the West, and Israel care more about their short term interests than helping the Arabs and Muslims help themselves reform politically, culturally and economically, there will be no shortage of conflicts. While it is hard to see the next seventy years being as bloody as the previous seventy it is not impossible.


Alexander, Martin and J Keiger. France and the Algerian War: Strategy, Operations and Diplomacy. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002.

Beckett, Ian. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their opponents since 1750. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2013.

Boyne, Walter.  The Two O’Clock War.  New York:  Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.

Bregman, Ahron.  Israel’s Wars:  A History since 1947.  London:  Routledge, 2002.

DiMarco, Louis. Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq. Oxford: Osprey, 2012.

Eilam, Ehud. Israel’s Way of War: A Strategic and Operational Analysis,1948-2014. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2016.

Galeotti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009. Oxford: Osprey, 2014.

Harel, Amos and Avi Issacharoff.  34 Days:  Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Herzog, Chaim.  The Arab-Israeli Wars:  War and Peace in the Middle East.  London:  Green Hill Books, 2005.

Jaco, Charles. The Gulf War. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002.

Keegan, John. The Iraq War. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2004.

Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam. Holy War and Unholy Terror. Toronto: Random House, 2004.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

National Geographic Atlas of the Middle East. Washington D.C: 2003.

Oren, Michael.  Six Days of War:  June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2003.

Pollack, Kenneth. Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Ross, Stewart.  The Middle East since 1945.  London:  Teach Yourself, 2004.

Rubin, Barry. Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Rubin, Barry.  The Truth About Syria.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Shlaim, Avi. War and Peace in the Middle East. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Van Creveld, Martin. The Age of Airpower. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.
Windrow, Martin. The Algerian War 1954-62. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.


An In-Depth Review of “Arabs at War”

“Arabs at War” is among the great books on conflict and history regarding the modern Middle East. In this work Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, sets out to answer a simple question; “why have Arab armies since 1948 generally performed so poorly in warfare compared to Western, Israeli, and even Iranian and African armies?” He studies the performance of Six Arab armies (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria) in countless conflicts over the last 5 decades and tries to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using traditional theories as to why Arab armies are generally ineffective he breaks down Arab combat effectiveness according to certain criteria. These include generalship, tactical leadership, unit cohesion, cowardice, morale, information management, technical skills and weapons handling, logistics and maintenance of weapons, and training. Analyzing these military conflicts to see how these factors influence Arab combat effectiveness, or lack of it, is how Pollack tries to answer “why Arab armies fight so poorly?”

The result is a brilliant, informative, and enlightening work that effectively answers what it sets out to and also doubles as an authoritative, if brief, military history of the Middle East since 1948. Being a former CIA analyst Pollack is skilled at delving into the most important details as well as coming back to the bigger picture when needed. Yet whereas some would perhaps criticize this work as overly academic and dry his arguments and points are simple enough for anyone with basic knowledge of military matters and the Middle East. While admittedly it is not the easiest, or shortest, of reads, anyone with a mediocre level of patience can navigate through it. If the campaigns and battles can sometimes seem confusing Pollack compensates by listing the main points at the end of each conflict as well as relating them to the criteria he uses to assess Arab military effectiveness.

As for the case studies themselves they include a menagerie of well known and lesser well known conflicts, and combat ranging from conventional wars, to counter-insurgency, to low scale skirmishes and aerial combat. The “Arab-Israeli Wars” the “Iran-Iraq War” and the “Gulf War” are all here while more forgotten conflicts such as the “Chadian-Libyan Conflict,” Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and Jordan’s suppression of the PLO in 1970-71 are covered as well. Aerial combat has not been neglected either; the surprise attack that crippled the Egyptian Airforce in 1967, the slaughter of the Syrian Airforce over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and the hopeless plight of the Iraqi Airforce during the “Gulf War” are all vividly detailed.

Pollack does a great job of showing how the Arab armies learned, or didn’t, from their mistakes and the methods they used that increased, or once again didn’t, their military efficiency. Obvious methods included switching the primary task of the armed forces from regime protection (often the preference for illegitimate authoritarian governments) to focus on fighting actual wars, to selecting officers and generals on the basis of merit and competency instead of political loyalty, and to encourage initiative, flexibility and innovation among the junior officers in their armies. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, these and other reforms usually resulted in only marginal improvements in Arab military effectiveness.

While it is never directly stated, and thus remains one of the main faults of the book, it is implied that certain cultural or organization factors in Arab society somehow prevents Arab military leaders, despite their best efforts, to create and maintain effective armed forces. Whether or not this is due to the lack of separation of Church and State (or at-least downplaying the former’s role in society) in the Arab world, the inherent mistrust among differing levels of society that precludes harmonious working in organizations, the result of poor education systems, the supposed Arab psyche to save face and avoid confrontations or competition, or all of these and more in combination we are not told. While the author suggests that he was originally going to write a book that included such insights and factors he claims that such a book was not allowed to be written due to how long it would have been (more than twice as long as the 600 page book that “Arabs at War” became).

Perhaps this is reasonable enough in itself; certainly a book of over 1200 pages is a real trial for even the most dedicated reader, and arguably unbearable for such a complicated work that would include such seemingly diametrically opposing fields as military matters and sociology. However, are we to believe that in a 600 page work the author could not have devoted a single chapter, or even 5 pages to the supposedly crucial cultural or organizational factors in Arab societies that arguably are responsible for the poor showing regarding the criteria he sets out to prove how Arab armies have performed so poorly in combat? More likely commenting critically on such hot topics as Arab culture and Islam would have been met with being labelled as politically incorrect at best, or having Pollack threatened with violence at worst. Given how even a cartoon in a Danish newspaper can inflame the masses in the Middle East and lead to bloodshed this consideration should not be discounted.

Anyway, putting this aside Pollack does a great job narrowing down which of the criteria he initially selected is primarily responsible for the poor showing of Arab arms since 1948. While not always universal in all Arab armies, and it varied at certain times, the following could reasonably be stated:

Regarding unit cohesion, logistics and cowardice the Arab armies rarely suffered from such issues. Generally their units held together despite considerable pressure, being flanked or even surrounded. There were countless examples from the Egyptians in the Falluja pocket to the Jordanians at Ammunition Hill of Arabs fighting and dying instead of retreating, or surrendering, despite hopeless odds. Additionally, Arab logistics were almost always outstanding. Egyptian forces fighting in the hostile Negev or Sinai deserts rarely suffered shortages while the Libyans adequately supplied their forces not only more than 2000 kilometres away from Tripoli to the interior of Chad, but as far away as Uganda! Finally most Arab forces could never be considered cowardly; few forces would have continued to advance to certain suicide as Iraqi tanks did on the Golan Heights in 1973 or few pilots would have kept coming as the Syrians did in 1982 when the Israelis slaughtered their jets so brutally that they lost nearly 100 planes to none against the Israeli Air Force.

Regarding morale, training and generalship Pollack suggests that the Arabs were generally mediocre in these categories; being quite capable sometimes and very poor at others. Morale is difficult to gauge but certainly the Arab armies fluctuated from intense optimism to fatalistic defeatism. In 1948 the Arabs were enthusiastic in their goal of eradicating the nascent Jewish state, and in 1973 the Egyptians and Syrians were well motivated after intense training and preparations for war. Yet there were just as many low points for the common Arab soldier such as the tired, and confused, Egyptian soldiers being constantly moved around the Sinai in 1967 before the “Six Day War” to no apparent purpose, or the thoroughly demoralized Shiite conscripts of Saddam’s army in 1991 that had being abused by the Sunnis in power, bloodied by the Iranians in the recent “Iran-Iraq War” and psychologically devastated by the Coalition air campaign.

Training was generally the same story, with the Jordanian army in particular being praised. Apparently the average Jordanian soldier, tank crew and pilot were often as good as their Israeli counterpart. Factors which influenced the quality of training generally included if the political leadership wanted the army to focus on regime protection or fighting real wars, whether the officer and generals were more selected due to competency than political loyalty, if the soldiers were allowed to train in large groups with live ammunition (Arab regimes were afraid these forces could overthrow them), how often and how thorough the soldiers were trained in a particular task, etc. When these conditions were met Arab training could produce above average results.

Certainly Jordanian units consistently inflicted more casualties proportionately on Israeli forces than other Arab forces in 1948 and 1967 as well as in other smaller skirmishes. Likewise the constant Egyptian training leading up to the “Yom Kippur War” lead to perhaps the greatest tactical reverses the Israeli army has ever received in battle. Finally, improved Iraqi training late in the “Iran-Iraq War” helped their army inflict quick and decisive victories in 1988 which broke the stalemate and ended the conflict.

Yet Arab training has been just as often, or more often, atrocious and poor. Regarding the overly politicized army the Egyptians sent to the Sinai and their comprehensive defeat in 1967 Egyptian General Zaki remarked “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.” The Syrian army on the Golan heights in the same war had been so decimated by years of coups, of its officer corp being purged repeatedly and of its lower formation being neglected and forgotten that few soldiers had any idea of what war was supposed to be like. Libyan forces were probably the worse off with Gaddafi refusing to allow live fire training exercises or establishing formations larger than brigades. How else could you explain his considerable army of tanks, planes and half-tracks being defeated by Chadian rebels with Toyota pick up trucks, a few anti-tank weapons and no air force in the late 1980s?

The Arabs have also had an uneven track record with generalship. Yet again much of this had to do whether or not they were chosen due to competency or political loyalty. Another factor was whether or not competent generals were given leeway to do their jobs versus being subject to unnecessary political constraints, and at least as was often the case in the Iraqi or Syrian armies, the fear of summarily execution. While they never produced any Alexanders, Napoleons or Rommels the Arabs surprisingly had a decent amount of competent, and sometimes brilliant, generals. Egypt’s generals arguably would have won the “Yom Kippur War” had they not being overruled by Sadat to overreach themselves and get clobbered by the Israelis in the open Sinai desert. The Iraqi generals, once freed from Saddam’s paranoia, also performed well in first stopping the Iranian offensives in the middle part of the “Iran-Iraq War” and then leading Iraq to victory at the end of the conflict. Even in such a lost cause as the “Six Day War” the Jordanian leadership was competent, correctly identifying the Israeli axes of attack as well as the enemy’s intentions.

As for bad Arab generalship the poorly planned and dismissive way the Egyptian generals fought Yemeni rebels, the Iraqis generals fought the Kurds, and Jordanian generals initially attacked the PLO in 1970 all make America’s conduct in Vietnam appear credible. Iraq’s initial strategic conduct of the “Iran-Iraq War” was also subpar, being excessively slow, not focusing on any critical objectives, and not effectively using the various numerical and material advantages the Iraqi army possessed. Not surprisingly the worst showing, given that the Egyptians had significant advantages in both the quantity and quality of equipment, and could concentrate against Israeli whereas the latter was forced to watch 3 fronts, was probably the Egyptian generals during the “Six Day War.”

Despite the fact they were poor at maneuver warfare they deployed their forces in areas with poor static defences and concentrated far too close to the Israeli border which meant that once the Israelis broke through the Egyptians would have to retreat and fight the kind of war they were ill-disposed at. They also decided to retreat too early and did so in such a poor fashion that it quickly turned into a rout. Perhaps most unforgivable is how many of their generals simply abandoned their troops and were the first to flea across the Sinai.

Finally, regarding maintenance of weapons, technical skills and weapons handling, information management, and tactical leadership Arab armies more often than not did poorly. Arab maintenance of sophisticated weapons such as tanks and warplanes were so bad that such units generally operated at 50-67% operational readiness levels, which were considerably lower than in Western, or Israeli, forces. While once again Jordan was an exception and her weapons generally well maintained, the other Arab countries not only neglected such maintenance but often relied on foreign contingents, such as Cubans and East Europeans to do what they considered dirty and demeaning tasks.

Technical skills and weapons handling were also generally subpar. American and Western military advisors noted that Arab soldiers, tank crews and pilots took much longer to familiarize, or master (if they ever did) their equipment versus Western or even third world soldiers in other armies. Additionally, much of the time Arab soldiers used their weaponry inefficiently. Marksmanship and accuracy seems to have been generally poor even when they had better tanks such as Jordan’s Pattons in 1967 or superior artillery as some as Iraq’s were in 1991. In aircraft most Arab pilots were notoriously poor at close air support and aerial combat. According to many sources during the “Arab-Israeli Wars” the Israelis shot down at least 20 warplanes for every 1 they lost in dog fights (which doesn’t even count the 100s of Arab planes that the Israelis destroyed on the ground). Artillery was also a constant problem for Arab forces; while it did well if they had considerable time to pre-register their targets, as in 1973, it was hopeless whenever it had to fight a fluid and unscripted battle.

Regarding information management the Arabs misuse of information has been sometimes laughable and other times tragic. Such misuse has included the lack of sharing, or even gathering, intelligence, exaggerating the strength of enemy forces, and down right lying.

Arab forces have generally proven reluctant to gather intelligence by patrolling on the ground while their airforces have proven unable, or unwilling, to gather much from aerial reconnaissance. Sharing information is also difficult as knowledge is often seen as power by higher officials and due to the often complicated communications networks set up by Arab leaders to keep their armed forces fragmented and easy to control. This can be contrasted by the American practice in network centric warfare where information is shared among rank and file and allowed to move quickly wherever needed in order to facilitate quicker decision making on the battlefield. Decisions that could be made quickly, and on the spot, by lower officers in Western or Israeli forces were usually made at the highest level in Arab Armies after they had first been passed all the way up and then later pushed all the way down in a process that often lasted hours. How could this ever be an effective way to wage war?

The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly new in military history, but the Arab armies in the last few decades arguably perfected the art. Nearly every time units fled or were defeated in battle they said they had been grossly outnumbered, which is amusing considering most of the time Arab enemies such as the Israelis, Chadians, or even the Iranians, were usually the ones who were outnumbered.

Yet nothing is more comedic than when Arab leaders have lied to each other with disastrous results. Instead of admitting that the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the first day of the war in 1967 Nasser told the Jordanians and Syrians that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed and this fooled them into joining the war and sharing Egypt’s defeat. The Egyptians lied again during the run up to the 1973 War telling the Syrians they would advance deep into the Sinai when they merely intended to occupy a small part of the East Bank of the Suez Canal. They even made fake plans and showed them to the Syrians in order to get the latter to attack Israel. The Syrians also lied during the 1967 war when they claimed that the city of Quneitra had fallen which caused their forces in the Golan Heights to flee and allowed the Israelis to secure the heights before the ceasefire.

Yet according to the author it was the poor showing of Arab armies at the tactical level more than any other factor which explains why they did so poorly in warfare. In general Arab NCO’s were poor regarding initiative, innovation, using maneuver in warfare, executing combined arms operations, and found it nearly impossible to adapt to unforeseen circumstances on the battlefield. As such the strategic leadership of Arab armies could not rely on their smaller tactical formations to gain them success in order to accomplish their goals during warfare.

Typical occurrences included a tendency to conduct costly frontal assaults (such as the Iraqi tanks on the Golan Heights or Syrian tanks in Jordan in 1970), to fight off attacks from fixed positions even when launching a counterattack was the best option (such as the Syrians on the Golan heights in 1967 and the Jordanians fighting around Jerusalem during the same war), and an inability to effectively coordinate tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower as a team (often tanks and infantry would fight separately while artillery and air support would be notoriously inaccurate).

However, this was not always the case. The Jordanian Arab Legion had brilliant tactical leadership during the 1948-49 war and stopped the Israelis from conquering the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yet Pollack shows us that this was actually the result of the Arab Legion having seasoned British officers and that once these officers had been kicked out of Jordan in 1956 Jordanian forces slowly degenerated and suffered from the same tactical handicaps as other Arab armies.

These key flaws, especially lack of effectiveness in tactical leadership have proven so detrimental that it has caused the Arab armies to lose many battles and wars despite having considerable advantages in numbers and quality of equipment. In the Sinai in 1967 the Egyptians had 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks and 450 planes vs. Israel’s 70,000, 700 and 200 respectively. Regarding quality the Egyptians also generally had better tanks, APCs (armoured personnel carriers), artillery and even infantry weapons. Yet during the war Egypt lost perhaps 15,000 casualties and 500 tanks while the Israelis lost 1400 and 60.

Likewise during the same conflict the Syrians on the Golan Heights outnumbered the Israelis at least 2-1 in troops, and the same in tanks. Additionally they had formidable defences built into the excellent terrain of the heights as well (and the Israelis had no other option than to launch a frontal assault). Regarding quality the Syrian tanks were also more modern than the Israeli ones. Yet the Israelis took the the heights in a mere 2 days and inflicted a 10-1 casualty ratio on the Syrians.

Iraq also failed to make significant gains against Iran in 1980 despite the chaotic state of the latter country after the Iranian revolution and enjoying a 5-1 advantage in tanks, a 4-1 advantage in artillery, and 3-1 advantage in aircraft. The Iranians also had significant problems with personnel and equipment as many of their soldiers and pilots had been arrested and embargoes by Western powers denied Iran crucial supplies for their weaponry. Yet Iraqi forces were slow, indecisive and failed to secure any notable objectives in the first year of the war and were eventually thrown out of Iran by mostly ill-equipped Iranian forces of fanatical soldiers who enjoyed few modern weapons.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is in describing how certain Arab leaders recognized the flaws of their officers and soldiers and developed plans and means that led to some improvement in their tactical prowess, and thus more success in war.

The first step, as constantly noted above, was a gradual de-politicization of the armed forces, where generals began to be selected more by merit than by political loyalty. This worked better in Egypt and Iraq than in Syria. This allowed better generals to take command and formulate war plans that took into account the inherent flaws of the NCOs and soldiers in their armies. The main problems according to the generals was that the lower officers were unskilled in combined arms operations, had little initiative and flexibility, were atrocious at managing information (as in they constantly lied or exaggerated) and poor at maneuver or fluid battles where they had to adapt quickly to unseen difficulties.

It is fascinating how Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian generals found ways to compensate for these flaws. In essence they micromanaged set piece assaults that were suppose to be quick, decisive, and last no longer than a few days. The battle plans, the preparations and even the most tedious and small tactical movements to be executed by privates were planned down to the lowest details. The generals did their best to plan combined arms operations and maneuver into the NCOs’ and soldiers’ orders to compensate for their inefficiency in these matters. The obvious flaw in this was that as Moltke the Elder said “A battle plan never survives contact with the enemy.” In other words in a fluid and unpredictable endeavour such as warfare it is nearly impossible to plan for everything and unforeseen circumstances will always unravel the best preparations.

Yet the Arab generals understood this and they tried to compensate using a few stratagems. To them the keys were establishing complete surprise, attacking in overwhelming numbers and to launch and finish their operations in a short time. Obviously the former two considerations would keep the Arab’s enemies off balance and on the defensive while the latter one would hopefully deny the enemy the chance to regroup and regain the initiative.

They also realized that given how poorly their lower formations collected intelligence that they needed to make a sincere and collective effort at the higher end to do so in order to be able to have enough information on the enemy’s strength and disposition, and the battlefield to plan quick, local and decisive attacks.

The best examples of such attempts by Arab generals to win wars by compensating for the inefficient tactical leadership of their lower officers were demonstrated by the Egyptians, and to a lesser extent the Syrians, during the 1973 war and the Iraqis during the final stages of the “Iran-Iraq War.”

These campaigns featured the best means by which Arab forces found a relatively effective way to wage conventional warfare in modern times.

This included:

-the micromanagement of lower formations to guarantee they could accomplish basic tactical procedures with an acceptable degree of competency
-constant and thorough training of troops down to the lowest level regarding even the simplest of task in order to guarantee they could execute their tasks by familiarization and memorization
-quick, limited and decisive operations to allow their forces the best chance of success before the enemy had time to regroup and attack and because longer offensives were simply too unrealistic to plan given the limited means of Arab tactical leadership
-robust intelligence gathering to allow adequate planning
-establishing strategic surprise and attacking with overwhelming numbers so that the enemy was kept off balance and had little chance to upset the delicate micromanagement of the Arab war effort

The first instance, that of the Egyptians in the 1973, is perhaps the best known and the most celebrated, especially by the Arabs. Not only did the Egyptians quickly seize the East Bank of the Suez Canal, but they also thoroughly bloodied the Israeli army during the latter’s initial inept counterattacks as well as bringing the Israeli Air Force close to the red line by shooting down and damaging a disproportionate amount of their planes. As stated above the Egyptians probably could have held onto their initial gains and won the war if Sadat had not ordered the army to overreach themselves and get slaughtered in the open desert.

The Syrians also managed a better than average showing of Arab arms in 1973 when they nearly succeeded in re-conquering the Golan Heights. While they did not show the same tactical prowess or thoroughness of the Egyptians they did manage to achieve strategic surprise and overwhelming numerical supremacy at the point of attack. In fact the Israelis managed only stem a Syrian breakthrough into Northern Israel by incredible bravery, brilliant tactical leadership and luck.

Finally, the Iraqis managed to end the 8 year “Iran-Iraq War” by a series of well planned and executed set piece assaults. These offensives were designed to be local, just over the Iranian border, to last a matter of days, and to focus on destroying what remained of the heavy equipment of the Iranian army. Iraqi intelligence and staff work was impeccable and the Iraqi forces followed the detailed instructions from their generals to the letter and routed the Iranians forces time and again until the latter, being war wearied, low on weapons and internationally isolated, agreed to a ceasefire.

This was the best that Arab arms, with the aforementioned exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948-49, ever accomplished. There were to be no brilliant Blitzkriegs like the “Battle of France in 1940,” no spectacular coups such as “Inchon” in 1950, or innovative ad-hoc efforts such as the British re-conquest of the Falklands in 1982. Arab military performance from 1948-91 (the period Pollack covers in his work) in general was below average with a few notable instances of slightly above mediocre results.

If I can be forgiven for going off topic and going beyond Pollack’s work for a while events in the 21st Century would suggest that Arab armies have continued to stagnate. Syria and Iraq, arguably the two Arab countries with the most experience of warfare, are currently on the brink of collapsing to a menagerie of Al-Qaeda diehards, ISIS zealots and other terrorist or guerrilla groups all with different motives and capabilities. Despite Syria’s experience with crushing internal dissent and insurgencies, most notably the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Hama in 1982, her army seems destined to lose the war in the end. Iraq’s situation is more shocking given all the money, aid, weapons and training (in billions of dollars)
given to it by the United States. Apparently most of this was for naught considering a very small force of ISIS fighters has repeatedly beaten Iraqi forces who have had massive advantages in numbers, weapons and firepowers. It cannot help but make any rational person wonder what all the American money, blood and effort in Iraq was for?

Given the poor showing of Arab armies it is not surprisingly that there has been a transition from confronting Israeli, American or even Arab regimes with conventional warfare to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. While such groups have rarely succeeded in winning militarily they have scored several political victories such as briefly establishing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, forcing the Israelis to withdraw from Southern Lebanon in 2000 due to public fatigue, and have arguably brought the regimes in Iraq and Syria to the brink as of 2015.

Yet it is doubtful whether this switch to reliance on unconventional means will ever yield decisive results for the Arab states or insurgent or terrorist groups. Their best accomplishments are in fact far behind them as Arab rebels in Algeria, Aden, and Lebanon forced colonial or western nations with little political capital for their Middle Eastern adventures to pack up and leave but unfortunately for guerrilla fighters and terrorists across the region the Arab regimes and Israel have no where to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender to them. As Norvell B. DeAtkine noted in a smart piece about Arab insurgencies “while the success of Arab insurgents against Western armies or those assisted by Western powers has been minimal, the success rate against their own governments has been zero.” This follows the logic that insurgents and terrorists rarely win, especially against domestic regimes (such as the Arab ones) or prosperous democracies (like Israel), that their victories are usually the result of a foreign occupier losing political will, and that it is extremely rare that they physically overthrow their oppressive government by military means.

This last point is especially true if the government has considerable foreign backing. Indeed South Vietnam and the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan were never close to collapse as long as the superpowers supported them but quickly did once they stopped doing so. Given that the Russians are still propping up Assad and the Americans are still supporting the small minded politicians in Baghdad there is no reason that ISIS should triumph any time soon.

However, and while all of this has nothing to do with Pollack’s work (though he suggested near the end of his book that “someone else will have to write the long history of Arab unconventional forces in combat since 1948”) there is little doubt that Arab insurgents and terrorists have shown much more success in warfare than their conventional brethren; generally prolonging conflicts, eroding Western, Israeli and even Arab political will, and costing their enemies more money, blood and effort than the best Arab armies managed to.

Certainly even the traumatic experiences of “Israel’s War of Independence” and the “Yom Kippur War” have not been as divisive or caused as much soul searching for the Israelis as their long occupations of Lebanon and the Palestinians territories along with all the terrorism, counter-terrorism and questionable methods that have come with it. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of all battles” in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was quick, cost America less than 500 deaths, resounded in an outstanding victory and was not economically ruinous for the United States. Yet the proceeding “Iraq War” was much longer, much more costly in financial and human terms and so far the overall results would seem to be… less than satisfactory. Finally, it is obvious that Arab leaders have always been more afraid of their own people and subversive groups than being toppled by the Israelis or Americans considering whereas the only time any of them were overthrown by the latter was in 2003 whereas there have been too many revolutions, popular uprisings and coups in the Arab world to count on even 20 pairs of hands.

“Arabs at War” is a key book to understanding the modern Middle East. Besides the obvious way in which it shows why the Arab armies have consistently failed to beat American, Israeli or other armed forces it also raises important questions as to the legitimacy of Arab leaders and governments given the underlying problems that plague the Arab world which prevent it from attaining political, economic or societal success (though this is done mostly indirectly). While the Arab world enjoys mocking Americans and Westerners for failing to learn from history Pollack shows the reader convincingly that given how Arab armies have consistently and irredeemably made the same mistakes since 1948 that the Arab World doesn’t exactly merit an A+ in history itself.

Yet despite the brilliant way Pollack uses his case studies and criteria to analyze Arab military effectiveness, no matter how accurate and damning are his conclusions, and no matter how vital his work is there are some notable flaws.

The most blatant, as noted above, was the failure, or reluctance to either thoroughly, or even cursory articulate the underlying cultural or organization factors in Arab society which facilitates the poor showing of their armed forces. This has already been explained but it is a significant hurdle nonetheless.

Perhaps a more annoying flaw of the book is its repetitiveness. While military history buffs will find the back to back case studies fascinating the casual reader could be forgiven if they quickly got bored of the same formula in each chapter of describing war after war and battle after battle and then describing how things more often than not went wrong for the perennially hapless Arab soldiers.

More amusing is that it is obvious halfway through the second chapter (regarding Iraq) not only what the main constraints on Arab military effectiveness probably are but that these will also be (and they are) the same in each country for the subsequent chapters. Chapter 3, regarding Jordan, is a bit of an exception as the Jordanian forces were generally more competent than their peers, but in the end Pollack reminds us that Jordanian’s better performance was ultimately not decisively better vs. the Arab average.

Frankly some readers will get so tired of the Arabs being beaten again and again that they will begin cheering for them to beat the more qualified Israelis and Americans at least once. There is something inherently perverse of wanting to see illegitimate, backwards and non-democratically regimes triumphing in wars that more often than not they provoked, or started for reasons of grandeur and vanity, instead of self-defence or legitimate grievances. No one likes America or Israel more than myself but at certain points in reading the book even I wanted the Arabs to win an outstanding victory and humiliate their enemies. Surely this is not what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he wrote this book.

One personal pet peeve I have is Pollack’s portrayal of General Sa’d ad-Din Shazli, the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces during the 1973 war. Whereas most Western and Arab accounts of the war generally credit him as one of the key architects of the planning and execution of Egypt’s war effort that nearly defeated Israel Pollack diminishes him ruthlessly. Instead of being one of the few Egyptian generals who acquitted himself well in 1967 he apparently was among the first to run. Instead of being a good strategist and a methodical planner he was actually picked to be Chief of Staff due to his charisma. Instead of opposing Sadat’s I’ll-fated offensive into the Sinai in 1973 he supposedly endorsed it. While I would never suggest that after having read a few dozen books on Middle Eastern Military History that I am in a better position to make a judgement on a key commander during one of the conflicts versus an ex-CIA analyst such as Pollack it is confusing that that his is the only book, indeed the only source, I have read that has questioned General Shazli’s competency.

Yet all of these flaws are minor compared to the considerable strengths of the book. Ultimately his main arguments are unchallengeable, his criteria and minute details are exhaustingly thorough and his case studies are both simple and illuminating. This work, along with Michael Oren’s “Six Days of War,” are arguably among the top 5 most important books on modern Middle Eastern conflicts to be written in the last 15 years.

“Arabs at War” is vital towards understanding the armed forces of the Arab nations in the Middle East. It proves, almost singlehandedly, that for all the significant numbers and quality of their soldiers, equipment and weapons platforms, for all the money and effort spent on training and maintaining their armies, and even with the almost unparalleled experience these forces have had in warfare, that in the end the Arab conventional military threat towards America, the West, Israel, and often even among themselves, is ultimately small and negligible. As Mao would say, Arab armies are like a “paper tiger.”

One can only imagine how different things could have been if they had decided to invest in education, healthcare, social programs and stable, inclusive and democratic institutions instead of waging pointless and debilitating wars that inevitable ended in defeat. After “World War 2” several former colonial possessions in the Far East, later nicknamed the “Four Asian Tigers,” did this and in 2 generations generally caught up to the West in regards to democracy, economic prosperity and standard of living instead of relying on incessant warfare and unnecessary confrontation. It is obvious which method of statecraft is superior.