Bad, worse, and worst in the Middle East
Last year I wrote about how I thought that the conflict in Yemen held out more promise for a solution than other conflicts in the region. Unlike the other conflicts in the region, the Yemen conflict is mainly between two relatively unified factions – the “Houthis,” who are mostly Zaydis, a minority denomination within Shia Islam, and the largely Sunni-supported forces who support Abd Rabbuh Mansar Hadi, who was ousted from the capital in late 2014. Al Qaeda-allied forces have taken significant territory, including the country’s fifth largest city, and ISIS has made some in-roads as well. Meanwhile, with logistical support from the US, the Saudi government has conducted a bombing campaign on behalf of Hadi supporters, killing thousands of civilians in the process . . .
. . . and yet Yemen represents the Middle East’s version of a simple conflict. That is why, although Yemen’s conflict is bad, it is also the most readily-resolvable regional armed conflict. One reason is that the Houthis represent more of a traditional aggrieved minority than a hate-spewing death cult, like Al Qaeda and ISIS. In addition, since the two main sides are largely locked in a stalemate, negotiations seem like the only way forward for the parties in Yemen. Currently the two sides are indeed currently negotiating in Kuwait, and, while getting-to-demobilization will not be easy, it is at least conceivable. Of course that wouldn’t be the end of fighting in Yemen; but one thing both sides have in common is a desire to take on Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The conflict in Libya, on the other hand, is a lot more intractable situation. The situation is similar to that in Yemen in that there are two big players, Libya Dawn, a religiously conservative political movement that ousted the democratically-elected Parliament from the capital in 2014, and those who support the government’s continuing “Operation Dignity” operations against them.
Although there are parallels with the situation in Yemen, Libya is a more chaotic place – typified by the fact that an Al-Qaeda affiliated group successfully captured the coastal city of Derna from ISIS while Libya Dawn claimed credit. Unlike Yemen, the opposing sides lack unity and there exists a myriad of well-organized third parties fighting with and against one side or another. Negotiations held at the end of 2015 were an abysmal failure.
Possibly the biggest obstacle to peace between the two major sides in Libya is the attitude held by the government’s leader general, Khalifa Haftar, as well as many other government supporters, who, like General Sisi of Egypt, equate conservative Islamist religious parties with groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Such a view makes negotiations more difficult and fails to recognize that such political groups actually represent one of the best bulwarks against jihadist groups who reject all politics in favor of violence.
While the situation in Libya is worse than that in Yemen, the situation in Syria remains the worst of all. Whereas in Yemen and Libya there are at least two major discernable actors, in Syria the Assad government, ISIS, and a hodgepodge of “opposition” militia groups fight with a variety of political goals in mind. Outside intervention complicates the situation, with the US, Russia, Saudis, Turks, Iran, and other states supporting their own factions and agendas in the country.
The biggest problem in achieving a negotiated peace between opposition groups and the government in Syria lies with the role played the Al-Qaeda allied fighters of al-Nusra. Unlike ISIS, al-Nusra forces have willingly cooperated with other opposition factions, who regard them as a capable ally. Given their goals and affiliation, however, Russia, the US, and the Syrian government understandably regard negotiations with the group as inconceivable . Since al-Nusra forces are often interspersed with other opposition groups, government and Russian bombing campaigns often target both moderate and radical alike in retaliation for al-Nusra attacks. This renders successful negotiations more difficult than they already are and explains a lot of the difficulties in UN-brokered peace talks.
As to what the US and other countries should do to support the peace processes in these countries – well, we’ve tried the gambit of options in the Middle East. Invasion in Iraq, “leading from behind” in Libya, modest support of militia groups in Syria – none of it has yielded outcomes making us safer. Perhaps the best approach we can take is the one we have taken with Israel and its neighbors; namely, be ready to often lots of money to the various parties as an incentive to keep a future peace. Dollar for dollar such aid might represent a much better investment in future security than our futile search for military solutions and represents a much better idea than simply ignoring these countries once their troubles leave the front page.