Sample Essay on Middle East

What are the religious and historical causes that led to the Syrian conflict?

Historically, Syria is the birthplace of some of the world’s largest religions. Both Judaism and Christianity were born in Syria and Islam, in its birth, found its way into Syria at the early stages of its existence (Samir 2008). The growth and birth of these religions however did not have such an impact in the country, as it has remained a largely secular state. Nevertheless, the coming of Islam in the country had a major impact in the political life of the country, with religion currently playing an important role in the conflict.

Syria as a country is monotheistic, with most of the people in the country having a belief in one deity (Samir 2008). Even in their monotheistic nature, given the birth of most of the religions, the country is multidenominational, with the existence of a number of religions such as Islam and Christianity, Islam being the main one. The genesis of the Syrian conflict, while not entirely religious, has some aspects of religion that go a long way in fueling the conflict. Part of the fuel in religion is individual loyalty to the government. Thus, while some religious factions remain supportive of the government, others are not, and in such context, there is reciprocate suspicion and religious intolerance across the country.

Religion plays an important role in the Syrian conflict, particularly in consideration of the Sunni-Shiite-Alawite divide that now characterizes the conflict (Shlaim 1995). A large majority of the Arab population in Syria belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, while the minorities, and those in power and who have enjoyed decades of the power privileges, belong to the Alawite – an offshoot of Shiite Islam (Samir 2008). In considering the causes of the conflict, therefore, the majority Sunni Muslims feel shortchanged, being led by a minority, which they (Sunnis) do not consider as real Muslims.

Historically, Syrian independence from France brought with it a power vacuum. Knowing their minority status therefore, the Alawi began gravitation towards the Army in Syria and the Ba’ath party. This way, they easily rose to power, with a self-protection mechanism of inviting more of their own in the two institutions (Freeman 2010). The result was the Alawi’s eventual hold of the Syrian political power, which the minority group has held 50 years from the 1966 coup.

After getting their reins on power, the Alawi have had a strong incentive toward shoring their power bases. Through intermarriage, self-enrichment and the repression of the majority, the Alawis have been able to hold on to power for this long. The Alawi hold on power has not been uneventful, involving repression tactics such as the 1982 crushing of the Hama uprising by Al-Asad (an Alawi), an action that led to the death of more than 25,000 people, including civilians, allied to the Sunni majority in the country .

Repression under the Assads and the Syria’s involvement in neighboring countries’ conflict fuelled the dislike within the nation among the Sunni majority. Specifically, Assad’s involvement in foreign policy while leaving its family members to run the country, his support for Egypt against Israel and rising corruption  catalyzed anger and hostility towards the regime (Hokayem 2013). Moreover, with rising dissent, the government in response took an even firmer grip on power, employing dictatorship tactics such as media censoring, opponent and critic silencing as well as denying free speech and political expression (Hokayem 2013). All these therefore work to catalyze the conflict as the majority fights for their freedom from the government.

What caused the Arab Spring and which states stand to gain and lose from the changes it has brought forth?

The Arab world has seen a series of demonstrations and protests from the beginning of 2010. These protests and demonstrations have affected a number of countries beginning in Tunisia and spreading to parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The events of the 2010 incident in Tunisia have so far caused leadership changes in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, in what has become known as the Arab Spring (Douglas et al 2014). The causes of the Arab Spring are varied, and while some countries are still in the process reeling from the conflict, others are still in conflict. Which countries however stand to gain or lose from the conflict?

The Arab world, for more than five centuries, has been under colonial rule. Under the colonial rule were collaborators, who gained from colonization through trade with the colonialists and acceptance of the language and culture of the colonial masters (Douglas et al 2014).  These were largely the urban elites. On the other hand were peasants, who colonization marginalized and therefore fought for independence. With gaining of independence however, the losers became winners, while the collaborators lost. To bring equality therefore, the elites today have to fight, a factor that is fueled by tribal and religious associations and tensions, thus causing the Arab Spring (Douglas et al 2014).

The end of colonization should have brought sweeping changes in the political, social and economic lives of the Arab states. However, most Arab states failed to bring any meaningful changes to the economic, political and social well-being of their population, with corruption kicking in in high gear. Ogbonnaya (2013) asserts, “Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all failed to develop pluralistic and open political systems.” Such regimes were therefore rife with corruption, favoritism and the enrichment of the few political elite, who then used their power and economic wealth to suppress any form of dissent from the citizenry. Moreover, “governments in the region failed at job creation, especially for the young, and the economic policies which formed the basis for inclusive growth after independence started to unravel” (Ogbonnaya 2013). The result was a disgruntled society with marked inequality, even with reforms towards liberal markets and structural adjustments.

Many of the events of the Arab Spring spell doom some countries as much as they bring reforms to other countries. Few of the countries will gain from the events of the spring, as most of the events push the countries into civil war that threatens the very existence of peace. Among the biggest gains made after the start of the uprising are visible in Tunisia, which after the short protest led to the ouster of Ben Ali and institutionalization of democratic government with work on a new constitution ongoing (Ogbonnaya 2013). Syria, Libya and Egypt on the other hand, are among the losers; the Syrian government has maintained its grip on power, Libya has deteriorated into a full-blown civil war, while Egypt has had the military overthrowing a democratically elected president. Moreover, the Christian-Muslim tensions in the country point to a troubled future for the tow religions, a phenomenon that Syria too has to grapple with amid the rising tensions between the Sunni majority and the Alawi minority (Lynch 2012).

How has Obama’s foreign policy toward Iran been influenced by Israel? How has Israel’s policy toward Iran changed over time?

The US and Israel have had a warm relationship over the years. Yet this relationship has also had its share of pitfalls particularly on the disagreements between the two countries on Israeli territorial advancements in Palestine and on the best interest of the country (Israel). Today however, disagreements between the two countries seemto put a strain on their relationship, especially with the US stretching its hand towards Iran in its foreign policy under president Obama (Parsi 2013).

The US foreign policy towards Iran has been one of a great surprise to many (Parsi 2013). Extending an olive branch to Iran has not only angered some people in the US, but also Israel. Even in talks to make a deal with Iran, particularly concerning Iran’s nuclear program, the US remains committed to its relationship with the Israel. Israel remains part of the bigger US strategy in the Middle East, and therefore its cordial relationship with Israel.Moreover, Israel remains an important tool in the US’s Middle East strategy, especially in curbing the Soviet influence in the Middle East (Freeman 2010).

Even in his extension of an olive branch towards Iran, the US foreign policy has had caveats within it that are in fact conditions to Tehran over its nuclear program. Most of these limitations and conditionality are all veiled concerns, which in the real sense are an inclusion of Israeli concerns over Iran. Moreover, the US has pushed for deals between Israel and Palestine. Such agreement for peace is US’s way of weaning off Iran’s supporters in Palestine, marginalizing Iran in such a way that it remains a singular standing state with few or less powerful allies. The idea behind this strategy is to take care of Israeli concern on security over Iran’s nuclear program. Important to note is that while Israel holds a special place in the US, and does influence the US’s foreign policy towards Iran, the US similarly holds some influence over Israel, particularly on its foreign, economic and political policy, even as more voters in the US are pro-Israel.

As a spectator and an active participant in the ongoing US-Iran negotiation on Iran’s nuclear deal, Israel has been a spectator as much as a participant in the discussions. Israel has however remained tough in its foreign policy towards Iran. Specifically, Israel has maintained that a good deal would need to stop Iranian nuclear enrichment (Parsi 2013).  This has been Israel’s stand towards Iran. However, with talks with the US towards a better deal, Israel has so far changed tune, demanding that before the US and Iran reach a deal on the latter’s nuclear program, Iran must be able to accept Israel’s right to exist.

The Iranian agreement requires the country to get rid of a bulk of its centrifuges and the stoppage of any form of uranium enrichment at Fordow in Iran for at least 15 years changing the facility into a research center. While changing its tune from total annihilation, Israel wants the deal changed before signing, to include closure of the Furdow facility, acceptance of independent nuclear inspectors into the country (Iran) as well as the shipment of the uranium out of Iran for safety. Israel additionally wants the deal to include stoppage of research into advanced centrifuges in Iran. All these, Israel is lobbying to  be included in the Iranian deal before its signing, which will see the bulk of the sanctions against Iran lifted, most of which have plunged the country (Iran) into economic constrain.



What is the relationship between Islam, US foreign policy, and terrorism in Saudi Arabia?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is among the strongest allies of the US in a region that has many anti-US sentiments, stemming from what most of these countries see as US’s interference with their affairs. Part of the drive towards the US and Saudi Arabia partnership is the late King Abdullah’s move into responsive and transparent concern towards the citizen’s concerns, an action that was absent in the other kings who ruled the Kingdom. As an Islamic state, Saudi Arabia has been instrumental in helping the US against terrorism, thus the close ties between the two (Blanchard 2015). Concerns are however rife over the change in leadership in Saudi Arabia, particularly on whether King Salman will maintain this cordial relationship with the US.

Saudi Arabia, as an Islamic state, sits at the very center of US relations with the Middle East, as well as the center of the Wahhabi Muslims known to be at the center of terrorism in the world. The US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia has however remained favorable, even as constrains to the relationship between the two states have occurred in the past. The Kingdom has had relative calm, in comparison with its neighboring states (Hegghammer 2010). Part of the reason for the relative calm is the lack of socio-economic grievances in the country, a factor that is a norm in most of the countries in the Middle East. The danger with such calm however manifested itself in 2003 following the al-Qaida on the Arabian Penisula as a show of growing pan-Islamism in the country.

Perhaps the death of the Islamist extremists in Saudi Arabia after the 2003 attacks due to lack of popular support did push the favorable US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia views the Al Qaeda and similar organizations as threats to its national security, and has thus “taken increased action since 2014 to prevent Saudis from travelling abroad in support of extremist groups or otherwise supporting armed extremists” (Blanchard 2015). The threat of Islamist terrorism therefore is a gaping threat to Saudi Arabia, and thus its close relationship with the US towards eliminating terrorism. The US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia has therefore been one of mutual benefit, with Saudi leaders seeking regional and the US support in the confrontation of Iranian militants’ efforts towards the destabilization of Yemen (Blanchard 2015).

In battling Islamic extremists at its backyard, Saudi Arabia has become one of the US close allies in the Middle East, with the US foreign policy showing its stance on the Arab country. The Obama Administration has so far requested appropriations for Saudi military and education, as well as discounts on the Foreign Military Sales program that Saudi Arabia has purchased from the US in the past (Blanchard 2015). This move is aimed at improving Saudi military expertise and preparedness against the Islamic extremists in the Saudi backyard and within the Kingdom’s borders.


Blanchard, Christopher, M. 2015. Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations.Congressional Research Service.

Douglas, Crystal et al. 2014. “The Arab Uprisings: Causes, Consequences, and Perspectives An Extended Summary of a Panel Discussion with Rami Khouri.” Working Paper Series # 1. International Conflict Analysis and Transformation

Freeman, Chas Jr. 2010. America’s Misadventures in the Middle East. Just World Books

Hegghammer, Thomas. 2010. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979.Cambridge University Press. 9780521732369.

Hokayem, Emile. 2013. Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant. Routledge

Marc Lynch. 2012. The Arab Uprising: the Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. Public Affairs

Ogbonnaya, Ufiem, M. 2013. “Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya: A Comparative Analysis of Causes and Determinants.” Turkish Journal of International Relations 11(3).

Parsi, Trita. 2012. A Single Role of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. Yale University Press

Samir Khalil Samir. 2008. 111 Questions on Islam. Ignatius Press.

Shlaim, Avi. 1995. War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History, Penguin