The Middle East as a game of “Risk”

Want to think about the Middle East in a whole new way? Check out The War in Gaza and Southern Israel: Ramifications for Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East (website, iTunes), a lecture by Tel Aviv University historian Asher Susser, given at UCLA in February 2009 in the wake of the Gaza war.


Map of the Middle East. Image credit*

Susser describes the Middle East as if it were a version of the classic strategy board game Risk, with major and minor players jockeying for position and influence.

Some insights:

  • Major players in today’s Middle East are Turkey, Iran and Israel, none of them Arab countries. This is a very different strategic world from the Middle East that was once dominated by Arab powers like Egypt and Syria.
  • The secular Arab nationalism of the mid-20th century is a waning force, and Islamism is on the rise. This long-term trend is a major reason behind the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections.
  • The recent Gaza war helped enhance Israel’s deterrent power in the region, despite the damage to Israel’s public image in the international community.
Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.
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3 Responses to The Middle East as a game of “Risk”

  1. Hi Dara,

    It seems you have mixed feelings about this lecture by Susser. I must say, I have mixed feelings about them and expressed them as well in my own review of this podcast episode:

    Many of these strategic talks seem to miss an elementary point that is also very decisively at play in the geopolitics of the Middle East – or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It is worth a discussion what that might be.

    • Dara says:

      Hi Anne,

      Thanks for the reference to your review. I must have missed it back in March.

      I found Susser’s talk illuminating because he tries to be dispassionate and non-ideological and seems to succeed most of the time. In particular I found eye-opening his assertion that Egypt and Syria are no longer heavyweight regional players and that in fact Egypt does not even have full sovereignty in its own territory (e.g. lack of control over the smuggling tunnels into Gaza).

      You make some good points in your review, particularly your question that if moderate Arab regimes would like to see Hamas and Iran humbled, isn’t it better that the Arabs do it themselves?

      Susser did not address that directly, except in the way he portrayed Egypt and Jordan as being weak and timid vis-à-vis Iran. Also, Israel has higher stakes in the game. To the extent that Israel feels an existential threat from Iran, it needs to establish its deterrent credentials more clearly. Could this have been achieved through diplomacy? Again Susser didn’t address that, but he seemed to think the war might succeed in strengthening Egypt’s hand, and ability to stop the arms trafficking.

      What is missing in this kind of “realist” analysis? I guess moral questions can too easily fall by the wayside. If we lacked idealism in the world, we’d still have the African slave trade supplying the American south with laborers.

      • I think your pointing at the moral questions are in a way kin to the element I was thinking of. In my own words it is that of emotion or perception. But certainly a strong emotion at play is that of morality (which eventually is more than an emotion, but certainly is emotionally charged). Another emotionally charged element is that of national pride and sense of identity. Even though the moderate Arabs realistically have more interests in common with Israel, they couldn’t possibly ally with them against their fundamentalist brethren – their own perception of identity and sense of connectedness prevents that. (or at least makes it extremely problematic)
        The nearly unconditional support by the US for Israel, no matter what, is similarly charged with emotion and so much less with interest – this we can learn from the Maersheimer book, even if you disagree with its conclusions or research methods.
        Israelis themselves also are heavily led by emotions. In fact the hole issue of lost faith in the peace as described by Dennis Ross (here: relies on the emotional perception Israelis have of Palestinians. Similarly, I witness the identity politics at play here in Israel everyday.

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