The catch-22 of civil wars in the Middle East

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Civil wars in the Middle East, while symptomatic of the failure of states to build legitimacy and inclusive governance, also are emblematic of a fractured and failed region. Despite some attenuation of the civil wars in terms of the levels of violence and the degrees of lethality in 2021, these conflicts held the Middle East in a vice grip of regional dysfunction for most of the year, something that is likely to carry over to 2022.اضافة اعلان

In 2021, active fighting in many of the civil wars largely abated. In Afghanistan, this came about because of the outright victory of the Taliban over the Kabul government and the complete withdrawal of the United States. In Syria, victory was delivered to the Assad government over most, but not all, of the country, but only with Russia and Iran putting their collective thumbs on the scale. In the case of Libya, outside actors played a role in forging agreement between the antagonists and brought the country to the cusp of elections, which, now as I am writing this, seem to be delayed. In Yemen, there have been attempts by outside powers to move the parties toward resolution, but the Houthis, perhaps with Iranian support, have been resistant.

But despite an apparent reduction in the level of overall fighting in several of these conflicts, for much of 2021 they persisted in creating regional dysfunction, and have defied attempts to come up with a permanent resolution that would give comfort to suffering populations.

It is easy to point fingers as to why this happened. Clearly there is no shortage of bad actors who have put their own interests ahead of those of their populations. Focusing on the actors themselves, however, misses a broader structural problem of the “unvirtuous cycle” of regional and international actors feasting on the civil wars, and the civil wars give back by stoking conflicts between the regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran or Israel and Iran.

This structural problem in the Middle East in a Catch-22, whereby resolution of the wars required some form of regional and international cooperation, but the dynamics of the wars created security dilemmas and conflict traps that made the hurdles toward getting to cooperation insuperable, even for actors who might be predisposed to cooperate.

Going into 2022, these dynamics could mean that, notwithstanding signs in 2021 of an easing of tensions between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran, a broader and more lasting rapprochement could prove elusive.

Let us look at the following developments in the civil wars which defined 2021, posed a threat to the lives of people residing in the countries at war, and are likely to carry over to 2022:

Syria remains one of the countries most penetrated by outside powers. In 2021, Russia, Iran, and Turkey became more, not less, entrenched militarily in Syria. Transitioning from where Syria is today to a more stable, inclusive, and demilitarized country free of outside actors seems years, if not decades, away.

Other countries that have transitioned into a post-civil war reality are now at renewed risk of falling back into civil war. Lebanon continued to experience in 2021 the malaise that followed the explosion at Beirut Port in August 2020. This contributed to further state failure, which could pull the country into civil violence. This would likely intensify the already significant involvement of outside regional actors, with Iran being the most likely protagonist and beneficiary.

Iraq, too, is in a precarious state and remained for much of 2021 at risk of falling back into sectarian violence.

While the civil war in Ethiopia is somewhat removed from the broader Middle East, a prolonged conflict could invite meddling of regional actors like Egypt, which already has disagreements with the government in Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It could also add to instability in Sudan, and might invite further involvement from international actors and terrorist organizations as well.

The countries that seem to be in some form of post-civil war state of suspended animation, like Iraq and Afghanistan, have become more, not less, vulnerable to spoilers, such as Daesh and even Al-Qaeda, which could be reinvigorated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In 2021, attempts have so far failed to bring the US back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and Iran back into compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. This has given Iran a greater incentive to double down in the civil war zones instead of working cooperatively with other states to bring the wars to a close.

The Middle East was caught, for all of 2021, in a conflict trap, where civil wars stoked regional tensions and tensions between regional actors made ending the civil wars difficult. While there are several promising signs of a thawing of tensions between regional actors, namely the GCC states and Iran, we need to be cognizant of how the current situation in the civil wars zones of the region could act as a headwind that will slow progress toward ultimate regional security and stability.

The writer is senior fellow and director of research at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. The article first appeared on the MEI website.

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