Foreign influence and authoritarianism in the Middle East

Case studies: Syria and Iraq

Term Paper, 2020

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Research Method and Definitions

3 Iraq

4 Syria

5 Conclusion


Internet Sources

1 Introduction

Democracy and the Middle East. Throughout history, those two meanings were not compatible at all. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is something that is associated with the Middle East. Since their independence, only two countries have experienced democracy for a more extended period, Israel and Turkey. (only Lebanon had a short period of democratic stability) The democracy index shows that the Middle East is the most authoritarian region with 3.5 points. ( The euphoria during the Arab Spring was as big as the disappointment and the disillusion afterward. Except for Tunisia, the situation in the Middle East did not change but got even worse. Yet, the question about the middle eastern susceptibility towards authoritarianism remains. Many variables, such as pre-colonial state structures, patriarchy, ethnicities, level of poverty, or the colonial legacy, could answer this question. The following research paper will focus mainly on the variable of foreign influence in the middle east. The Paper's thesis statement is: Authoritarian systems in the Middle East are most likely to persist with a nation's foreign power. This variable gained, especially during the Arab Spring, new attention. The western countries (USA, EU) and Russia interfered, with sanctions, military, monetary or political support for or against the regime, into the Middle Eastern nations' internal struggle.

The Paper is structure into four paragraphs (introduction not included). The first paragraph will describe the research method. It also has a definition of the variable foreign influence and the used resources for the Paper. The second paragraph will analyze the first country, Iraq. The third paragraph will take a look at the second country, Syria. In the fourth and final paragraph, a quick summary will be given, and then a conclusion regarding the thesis statement will be made.

2 Research Method and Definitions

The research paper focuses on the variable foreign influence. In this Paper, foreign influence will be understood as follows: “A foreign power (a state or a non-state actor) seeks to affect a policy outcome in a (possibly less powerful) target country that is de jure outside of its jurisdiction.” (S. Aidt, Toke, et al. 2019, p.9) In addition to the definition, it should be mentioned, that the foreign influence does not necessarily always aims to change the outcome of policy but rather to maintain it.

The Paper will consider different instruments an external power can use for the case studies, such as military (weapon supplies, soldiers/mercenaries, military intervention), economic (monetary aid, sanctions) or political (veto/resolution in the security council, acknowledging the government/counter government) instruments. The primary sources will be data/statistics provided by the Syrian and Iraqi government as well as the US government, World Bank, World Value Survey, and the Arab Barometer. In addition to those primary sources, secondary literature, and news articles about Syria and Iraq's case studies will be consulted.

3 Iraq

Between 1979 and 2003, Iraq was ruled by the Baath party and by its leader Saddam Hussein. Even after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the transition of the political system to a de jure democracy, the country was de facto still an authoritarian system. In the democracy index, Iraq gets 4.06 points, and it is 0.06 points away from being classified as a rigid system (

Saddam Hussein was already supported by British and American intelligence in early 1959. In 1963 the US and British also helped the Baath party to seize power. During the Saddam regime, the western forces supported the Iraqi government substantially during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1980 Iraq launched a full-scale invasion of Iran to reclaim the Shatt-al Arab river. Until 1981 it looked like the Iraqi army would overwhelm the forces of Iran. But at the end of 1981, the offensive stalled. In 1982 the Iranian forces managed to throw Iraqi troops out of the country and invade Iraq. If Saddam Hussein agreed to a cease-fire at that point, his political career would have been over. Realizing that Iraq was about to lose, the USA, UK, France, and the Arab Gulf nations increased their support for Saddam Hussein. Weapons, such as tanks, missiles, and combat weapons were delivered. A total of 130 billion dollars in loans were given to Iraq's government to finance the war. US warships were protecting Iraqi oil tankers. The US military also helped the Iraqi army with logistics and military intelligence on Iran. Without the help of the external forces, Iraq would have lost the war, and Saddam Hussein would not have been able to keep his position. Not to mention that the Baath Party would have had more difficulties in seizing power in the first place, without the help of the CIA and MI-6. (Friedmann 1993)

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, Sadam Hussein lost all his supporters from the previous war against Iran. He was now faced with external influence against his government. After the defeat of Iraq against the US's allied forces, heavy sanctions were put on Iraq by the international community. The sanctions were so significant that the GDP fell by 15%. The sanctions devastated the country and supposedly led to over 500.000 dead children. The government of Saddam Hussein faked those numbers. He used those faked statistics and the country's misery and blamed the international community for consolidating his power even more. At the end of 2003, when the sanctions were lifted, Iraq had a total debt of 1000% of its GDP. A country with no economic foundation is not expected to make a successful transition into a democratic system. (Scherer 2014)

After the Iraq War and the fall of Saddam Hussein, another foreign power managed to gain influence in Iraq. The Iranian government used the population's grievance and the diversion between Sunnis and Shia created by Saddam to influence the country. They were successful. Several powerful Shia militias were trained and build by the revolutionary guard. Many influential Shia politicians who spent their exile in Iran gained power. During the Saddam regime, the Schia population had to suffer sectarian violence. With the new Iran friendly government, the Sunni community had to suffer sectarian violence from several powerful Shia militias. (Costel 2008)

US and British influence made it possible for the dictator Saddam Hussein to gain power. US, British, and other foreign actors kept Saddam in power. The same external forces used their influence and ability to remove him and also devastated the country. That was an invitation for Iran to gain leverage in Iraq, strengthen the diversion between Sunni and Shia, and ensured an Iran friendly authoritarian government. Due to the constant interference of foreign powers, Iraq is in a situation where it is not ready for a democratic system. This opinion I also shared by the population of Iraq. 50% of people think the country is not prepared for democracy. (

4 Syria

The Baath party rules Syria since 1963. The Assad family is leading the country since 1970 when Hafez-al Assad seized power. His son Baschar-al Assad is the president of Syria since 2000.

Syria was one of the few countries in the region that could resist foreign influence since it gained its independence. The only foreign power worth mentioning is the USSR/Russia. Since 1970 Russia maintains a naval base in Tartus and ensures a stable presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. But even Russia did not interfere much with Syrian politics. (Breslauer 1990)

All this changed with the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011 more and more different actors approach the Syrian stage. The opposition is supported by the USA, France, UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Quarter, and the UAE. The government is backed by Russia and Iran, as well as Hezbollah. Until 2015 the Rebels occupied most of Syria. That would not have been possible without the help of the external powers. But in 2015, Russia stepped into the military conflict, and the Syrian army managed to regain the upper hand. By 2019 Assad gained back most of the lost territory. Until 2015 the international community, including the USA, demanded that Assad step down as president. By now, even the USA realized that there is no solution without Assad. With the support of foreign powers for the rebels, Assad also legitimizes his position by claiming that those rebels are not fighting for Syria but external interests. The civil war dragged on for so long because of the interference of foreign powers. The rebels would not have been able to corner the regime without the help of the western nations and the Arab allies. The Assad regime would not have been able to maintain control over the country without Iran and Russia. The outcome of civil war is evident. Assad will remain the president. The economy of Syria is devastated, and a democratic system is unimaginable. The influence of those powers on the civil war is negative. (Lesch 2012)

The Syrian refugees also share this opinion in Jordan and Lebanon (there is no data for the people in Syria or the refugees in Turkey or Europe). Just 12.9% of the Refugees think the USA's influence is very favorable or somewhat optimistic about the civil war. The remaining 87.1% think it is neither positive nor negative; it is slightly negative, it is very negative, or they do not know—the same results with the European Union. Just 18.1% of the Refugees think the European Union's influence is very positive or somewhat positive on the civil war. The remaining 81.9% think it is neither positive nor negative; it is slightly negative, it is very negative, or they do not know. The influence of the neighboring countries is seen as a little bit better but not by much. Just 26% of the Refugees think the neighboring countries' impact is extraordinarily positive or somewhat positive on the civil war. The remaining 76% think it is neither positive nor negative; it is slightly negative, it is very negative, or they do not know. Russia is regarded as the worst influence. Just 11.3% of the Refugees think Russia's effect is very favorable or somewhat optimistic about the civil war. The remaining 88.7% think it is neither positive nor negative; it is slightly negative, it is very negative, or they do not know. On the Question “What policy do you think would be the most positive thing that the US could do in your country?” the most chosen answer was “The US should not get involved” with 43.5%. On top of that, 50% of the Syrian refugees think that the external demands for reform are unacceptable. ( Even the refugees' opinion is evident that foreign powers should not interfere with Syrian affairs. It is most likely that the refugees in the European Union and Turkey and Syria people share this opinion.

5 Conclusion

The research paper proved that any kind of foreign influence is most likely to be supportive of authoritarian systems. Even external power aiming to overthrow the government will most likely achieve the opposite in the long term. As shown in Iraq and Syria, external forces either tried to beat or support the government. By doing so, the country itself ended up in a terrible position. In Iraq, the USA and other western nations opened up Iran's gate to gain his foothold. Because of this interference, an authoritarian system is most likely to be the case in Iraq for many years to come. The same outcome can be seen in Syria. External powers interfered in the civil war and made it almost impossible to transition to a democratic system. Instead, it is most likely that the Assad family will rule the country for another century.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


Foreign influence and authoritarianism in the Middle East
Case studies: Syria and Iraq
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Foreign Influence, War, Saddam, Assad, Baath
Quote paper
Hüseyin Ugur Sagkal (Author), 2020, Foreign influence and authoritarianism in the Middle East, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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