The Middle East is in a mess. Local wars can drag the entire region into conflict. Prophecy indicates that this region will affect the entire world.
When 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, a struggling street vendor who felt harassed by an authoritarian government, set himself alight, little did he know that his protest would set the Middle East on fire.
The continuing repercussions of the Arab Spring
His action first triggered the Jasmine Revolution in his home country, Tunisia, toppling the 23-year rule of the nation’s president in early 2011.
From there, the Arab Spring challenged the authoritarian rule in many Middle East nations. Protests quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Protests in Egypt led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, ending his 30-year rule. In Libya unrest caused the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, ending his 42-year rule and plunging the nation into instability and tribal warfare that continue to this day.
The Arab Spring in Syria did not lead to the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, he tenaciously fought back, plunging Syria into a brutal eight-year civil war that is still ongoing. His government has grappled to regain control from the Syrian rebels, Kurds, Islamic State and many other small groups that have all been vying for power.
To make matters worse, the wider region has been drawn into the Syrian conflict, with Iran backing the government, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have backed various Syrian rebel groups. International powers have also been drawn in, with Russia backing the government and the U.S. backing Syrian rebels.
Similarly, civil war also continues in Yemen. The Houthis in Yemen are backed by Iran, which many see as the instigator of the conflict, leading the U.S., U.K. and France to back Saudi Arabia in the war.
War in the Middle East gets very messy, very fast. The conflicts are very complicated. But what makes these wars so complicated?
Middle East wars are complex because of the many facets involved. All local conflicts in the Middle East must be seen in light of three overarching regional conflicts:
- Israel-Arab conflict: The Arab nations have opposed the nation of Israel from the time it was reborn in 1948. At that time, Israel battled for its existence against Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In spite of being attacked from all sides, Israel miraculously held the Arab armies back and survived. This story was repeated in 1967, when Israel managed to capture the entire city of Jerusalem for the first time since the Jews were expelled by the Romans. Israel was also victorious when they were attacked on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 1973.
- Sunni-Shiite rivalry: What started in the seventh century as a conflict about who was the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad has led to deep divisions and a power struggle in the Middle East between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran. Iran supports Shia states and groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, the Alawites in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, in turn, supports the opposing Sunni groups, intensifying the rivalry between the two Islamic sects.
- Sunni-Sunni power struggle: Turkey and Qatar are vying for supremacy over the Sunni world against Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood and welcomed the Arab Spring that bought them to power in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s rulers see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their power and supported the Egyptian military leaders who have squashed the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shifting alliances and American retreat lead to more chaos
To complicate the Middle East crisis further, nations form alliances with non-state actors that also act independently. This can make accountability for actions difficult to determine. When Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen attack a Saudi oil refinery, who does the world blame—the Houthis or Iran? Of course, Iran denies responsibility.
Also, nations can be allies in one battle and enemies in another.
The impact of big power actions has also complicated things through the centuries. Since the Second World War, the United States has played a major role in the Middle East, but that role has been declining. As Mike Pompeo said in a speech in Cairo in January 2019, “when America retreats, chaos often follows.” Yet America has been retreating from the Middle East as it looks inward.
For example, as the U.S. withdrew from northern Syria in October, Turkey invaded, attacking the Kurds that the U.S. had been supporting. The chaos that ensued led to around 200,000 fleeing the violence, while Russia cemented its position as the new power broker between Syria and Turkey.
The Middle East crisis continues. ... Bible prophecies show that out of this region a power will form that will trigger a chain of events that will lead to Christ’s return.And the frustrations that led to previous popular uprisings are still boiling. Recent uprisings have ousted the leaders of Sudan and Lebanon. Widespread protests continue in these countries and others, with the protestors wanting the elites removed from government.
The Middle East crisis continues. While leaders of nations of the Middle East and North Africa try to cling to power, it seems the region is falling apart and giving way to tribalism. Yet Bible prophecies show that out of this region a power will form that will trigger a chain of events that will lead to Christ’s return.
A confederacy against Israel
Rarely do the Arab nations unite, but the Bible indicates a confederacy of nations forming with a single purpose. Psalm 83 shows a confederacy of mainly Middle Eastern nations coming together to say, “Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more” (verse 4).
Here the psalmist appeals to God to intervene against this overwhelming force threatening the descendants of Israel and to deal with Israel’s enemies as He had done in the days of old (verses 1-3, 9-18). The modern descendants of Israel include more than just the tribe of Judah found in the nation called Israel today (see “Who Are the 12 Tribes of Israel Today?”), but the Jewish nation has certainly faced such danger.
Immediately after the nation of Israel was born in 1948, there were cries from Middle Eastern nations and Islamic organizations to destroy the newly formed nation, a goal shared by both Sunni and Shia Islam.
In 1948 Sheikh Hassan el-Bana, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, said, “If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea.”
The sentiment was echoed in 1967 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who stated he would “drive Israel into the sea.” Instead, he was overrun and humiliated in a war that ended in only six days.
Last year President Erdogan of Turkey wrote “A Call for Urgent Action,” calling for the 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to form an “Army of Islam” to simultaneously attack Israel from all sides.
Last month, Iran’s top general, Hossein Salami, said, “This sinister regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map and this is no longer … a dream [but] it is an achievable goal.” In this he echoed calls by previous leaders of Iran.
The king of the South vs. the king of the North
This anti-Israel rhetoric may play a role in bringing together the end-time king of the South described in the prophecy of Daniel 11. This detailed prophecy outlines a series of wars between the king of the North and the king of the South (so named because of their geographical position from the nation of Israel).
Much of Daniel 11 has been fulfilled and describes a tug-of-war between the ancient Seleucid Empire located in the north (in Syria/Babylon) and the Ptolemaic Empire located in the south (in Egypt). This conflict spanned several hundred years (verses 5-36), with the Roman Empire, which would become the new king of the North, interrupting the conflict in verse 30.
Then suddenly the prophecy fast-forwards to the end times in verse 40, a significant verse indicating the beginning of the “time of the end.” The king of the South reemerges with an aggressive act against the king of the North, a revived Roman (European) empire. This triggers a war in the Middle East that leads to Christ’s return.
- The king of the North comes against the king of the South with an overwhelming force and conquers many nations, including Egypt. Since Egypt is prominently mentioned as falling to the king of the North, it is possibly the tip of the spear of the king of the South alliance. Edom, Moab and Ammon (modern-day Jordan) are mentioned as escaping the king of the North’s retaliation (Daniel 11:41-43).
- The king of the North will enter Israel. We are warned that desolation is approaching when this happens (Daniel 11:41; Luke 21:20-21).
- The king of the North will set up an “abomination of desolation,” something that is detestable to God and is tied to the removal of sacrifices. This shows that sacrifices will be initiated again. In the volatile environment of Jerusalem, perhaps the restarting of sacrifices will be a triggering event that will bring the emergence of the king of the South and those he will lead. Daniel reveals this is related to a countdown to Christ’s return (Daniel 12:11).
- Soon after, the Great Tribulation will begin (Matthew 24:21), a 3.5-year period also described as “a time, and times, and half a time” (Revelation 12:14; Daniel 12:7) and as 42 months or 1,260 days of terrible events leading to Christ’s return (Revelation 11:2-3; 13:5).
- Christ will intervene to prevent total annihilation of all life on earth (Matthew 24:22).
We should note that as these events unfold, they will likely not be precise enough for us to literally project the timing of Christ’s return. As Jesus Himself said in Matthew 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”
Christ will bring real peace to the Middle East
Jesus Christ is returning to this earth to establish the Kingdom of God (Revelation 11:15). When we see these events happening, we will know that the Kingdom is drawing near:
“So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. … Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:31-32, 36).
For an overview of end-time events, download our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.