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Story Publication logo August 11, 2016

Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

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Black and white image of children in silhoutte from an IDP camp in Iraq.
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From the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdaus Square to the self-immolation of a Tunisian...

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Border crossing in Ras Jdir near Ben Gardenne. Image by Paolo Pellegrin. Tunisia, 2011.

Scott Anderson's foreword to "Fractured Lands," the August 14, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Read the full issue here.

For our drive into northern Iraq Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed into the traditional dress of a Kurdish Pesh Merga warrior: baggy pantaloon and cummerbund, a tight-fitting short woolen jacket over his shirt. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund; sniper binoculars; and a loaded .45 semi-automatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, his M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the footwell. The doctor shrugged: "It's a bad neighborhood,"

Even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old Azar would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather like he is sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet-black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.

The weaponry also complemented the doctor's personal philosophy, as expressed in a line from one of his favorite movies. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off-guard by a man sent to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, however, the would-be assassin launches into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.

''If you want to shoot, shoot; don't talk,'' Azar quoted from the movie. ''That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.''

None of this was mere posturing on the doctor's part. Our destination that day in May of 2015 was to a place of his greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, the gunmen of ISIS had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi army vastly greater in size, and then turned their attention to the Kurds. Azar divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the rescue, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. "It was obvious," Azar said about that day, "so obvious. But no one wanted to listen." On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy—and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.

Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages, lives forever altered by the upheavals that have swept the Middle East in recent years. Those upheavals began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and failing nations. For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event: For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Souief in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-mans-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaida in Iraq, the moment came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone and she no longer had any choice but to run for her life. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, as he watched an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his "controller," he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Mutashar in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice. As disparate as these moments were, for each of them they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. That, of course, is now also true about their homelands, and about the greater Middle East. By inevitable extension, it is also true for the rest of the world.

History never flows in a predictable way. It is always the result of seemingly-random currents and incidents, the significance of which can only be determined–or, more often, disputed–in hindsight. But even accounting for history's capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia's streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of the nation's strongman president of 22 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and virulence—and then they jumped Tunisia's border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By August, just seven months after Bouazizi's death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled regimes had undergone shake-ups or promised reforms and anti-government demonstrations—some peaceful, others violent—had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.

As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring—indeed, believed they were long overdue. I first traveled through the region as a young boy with my father in the early 1970s, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first—and unsuccessful—foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East.

In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other corner of the globe to rival the utter political stagnation that had held the Arab world in its grip for so long. While the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya set a record for longevity in the area, it was not that different elsewhere; by 2011, any Egyptian under 41—and that was roughly 75 percent of the population—had only ever known two heads of state, while a Syrian of the same age had lived his or her entire life under the control of the father-and-son al-Assad dynasty. Along with political stasis, in many Arab nations most levers of economic power lay in the hands of small oligarchies or aristocratic families; for everyone else, about the only path to financial security meant trying to wrangle a job within fantastically bloated public-sector bureaucracies, government agencies that were often themselves monuments to nepotism and corruption. While the sheer amount of money pouring into oil-rich, sparsely populated nations like Libya or Kuwait might allow for a degree of economic trickle-down prosperity, this was not the case in more populous but resource-poor nations like Egypt or Syria, where poverty and underemployment were endemic and—given the ongoing regional population explosion—ever-worsening problems.

How did these regimes survive so long in such untenable circumstances? Frequently through the zealous efforts of the local internal security forces, or mukhabarat, which in some countries were so brutal and pervasive that a citizen didn't dare voice discontent even to a brother or a wife for fear he might be informed upon. If, by 2011, there was a part of the planet overdue for a popular insurrection, this surely was it.

I was also heartened, in the Arab Spring's early days, by the focus of the people's wrath. One of the Arab world's most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than what they opposed: anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region's dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external ''enemies'' and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn't work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.

Then it all went horribly wrong. By the summer of 2012, two of the ''freed'' nations—Libya and Yemen—had collapsed into anarchy and factionalism, while the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria had descended into vicious civil war. In Egypt the following summer, the nation's first democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, a coup cheered on by many of the same young activists who took to the streets to demand democracy two years earlier. The only truly bright spot among the Arab Spring nations was the place where it started, Tunisia, but even there, terrorist attacks and feuding politicians were a constant threat to a fragile coalition government. Amid the chaos, Osama bin Laden's old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: Islamic State, or ISIS.

But just why did it turn out this way? Why did a movement begun with such high promise go so terribly awry?

The scattershot nature of the Arab Spring makes it hard to provide a single answer. Some nations were utterly transformed by upheaval, even as others right next door were barely touched. Some of the nations in crisis were relatively wealthy (Libya), others crushingly poor (Yemen). Some countries with comparatively benign dictatorships (Tunisia) blew up along with some of the region's most brutal (Syria). The same range of political and economic disparity is seen in the nations that remained stable.

Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, just three have disintegrated so utterly as to preclude hope that they will ever again exist as functioning states: Iraq, Syria and Libya. What these three nations share—along with extreme levels of violence and the focus of the international community's greatest concern—is that they are all members of that small list of Arab countries created from whole cloth by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. So little thought was given to national coherence, much less tribal or sectarian divisions, that many students of the Middle East simply call the resulting entities ''false nations.''

The process of creating them began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds. To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of ''greater Syria'' into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump-state of Syria— essentially the nation that exists today—and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Trans-Jordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan, respectively. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the two ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and called it Italian Libya.

To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, secure in the knowledge that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority. In Iraq, the British established a Sunni monarchy to rule over the majority Shia, while in Syria the French turned to a Shiite splinter sect, the Alawites, to rule the majority Sunni. In Libya, the Italians contrived a rather more bizarre arrangement; given the historical rivalry between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, they made the two kingdoms' largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya's alternating capital.

This was only the most overt level of the Europeans' divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these ''nations'' there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations' principal source of identification and allegiance. Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors—weapons or food or sinecures—to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.

Seen in this light, the 2011 suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi seems less the catalyst for the Arab Spring than a culmination of tensions and contradictions that had been simmering under the surface of Arab society for a long time. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, residents are far more likely to point to a different event, one that occurred eight years before Bouazizi's death, as the moment when the process of disintegration began: the American invasion of Iraq.

Many even point to a singular image that embodied that upheaval. It came midmorning on April 9, 2003, in the Firdoz Square of downtown Baghdad, when, with the help of a winch and an American M88 armored recovery vehicle, a 40-foot statue of Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was pulled to the ground.

While today that image is remembered in the Arab world with resentment—the symbolism of this latest Western intervention in their region was quite inescapable—at the time it spurred something far more nuanced. For the first time in their lives, what Syrians and Libyans and other Arabs just as much as Iraqis saw was that a figure as seemingly immovable as Saddam Hussein could be cast to the curb, that the political and social paralysis that had so long held their collective lands might actually be broken. Not nearly so apparent was that these strongmen had actually exerted considerable energy to bind up their false nations, and in their absence the ancient forces of tribalism and sectarianism would begin to exert their own centrifugal pull. Even less apparent was how these forces would both attract and repel the United States, damaging its power and prestige in the region to an extent from which it might never recover.

But at least one man saw this quite clearly. For much of 2002, the Bush administration had laid the groundwork for the Iraq invasion by accusing Saddam Hussein of pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program and obliquely linking him to the Sept. 11 attacks of Osama bin Laden. In October 2002, six months before Firdoz Square, I'd had a long interview with Muammar el-Qaddafi, and I had asked him who would benefit if the Iraq invasion actually occurred. The Libyan dictator had a habit of theatrically pondering before answering my questions, but his reply to that one had been instantaneous. ''Bin Laden,'' he said. ''There is no doubt about that. And Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad.''

Beginning in April 2015, the photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I embarked on a series of extended trips to the Middle East. Both separately and as a writer-photographer team, we had covered an array of conflicts in the region over the previous 20 years, and our hope on this new set of journeys was to gain a greater understanding of the so-called Arab Spring and its generally grim aftermath. As the situation continued to deteriorate through 2015 and 2016, so did our travels expand: to those islands in Greece bearing the brunt of the migrant exodus from Iraq and Syria, to the front line trenches in northern Iraq where the battle against ISIS was being most vigorously waged.

We have presented the results of this 16-month project in the form of six individual narratives. But just as these six people cannot possibly represent the breadth of experiences that have been lived across the Middle East in recent years, this article cannot pretend to be a comprehensive history of the Arab Spring. Instead, we have chosen to focus on those places most profoundly affected by the continuing turmoil—Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as Egypt and the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq—and to highlight tensions in these societies often obscured by the flood of daily news, that have helped stoke the chaos.

Along with introducing several of our primary subjects, in Part 1, I focus on three historical factors that I feel are crucial to understanding the current crisis: the inherent instability of the Middle East's false nations; the precarious position in which U.S.-allied Arab governments have found themselves when compelled to pursue policies bitterly opposed by their own people; and American acquiescence to the de facto partitioning of Iraq 25 years ago, an event little remarked upon at the time—and barely more so since—that helped call into question the very legitimacy of the modern Arab nation-state. Part 2 is primarily devoted to the American invasion of Iraq, and to how it played the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. Part 3 looks at the explosive nature of those revolts as they occurred in Egypt, Libya and Syria, while Part 4 tracks the rise of ISIS and Part 5 tracks the resulting exodus and current outlook for the region.

I have tried to tell a human story, one that has its share of heroes, even some glimmers of hope. But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning. Today, the tragedy and violence of the Middle East has spilled from its banks, with nearly a million Syrians and Iraqis flooding into Europe to escape the wars in their homelands, and terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Paris and beyond. With the ISIS cause being invoked by mass murderers in San Bernardino and Orlando, the issues of immigration and terrorism have now become conjoined in many Americans' minds, forming a key political flash point in the coming presidential election. In some sense, it is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a deep-rooted regional crisis that has come quickly and widely—with little seeming reason or logic—to influence events at every corner of the globe. In short, this is a story about the squandered opportunities, the colossal misjudgments that have come to shape all of our lives, and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.

Read the full issue here.

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