As the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, many advocates of U.S. intervention are claiming that an infusion of Western arms to carefully vetted rebel factions will help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Though hardly the first time that tools of war have been recast as instruments of peace, this curious proposition has gained unprecedented currency across the ideological spectrum, from liberal internationalists to conservative hawks.
Unfortunately, the magic bullets theory doesn’t hold much water. Arming the rebels might bring the war to a close sooner by helping “good” guys kill “bad” guys more efficiently, but there’s no compelling reason to believe it will entice them to stop fighting.
The superficial logic of arms-for-peace is elegant, to be sure, rooted in the classic diplomatic axiom that a political settlement to an armed conflict is possible only when, for all relevant players, the expected utility of a negotiated peace, E[u(p)], is greater than the expected utility of continued war, E[u(w)]. There are several arguments as to how a calibrated infusion of arms into Syria will help produce this rare condition (presumably absent from the large majority of civil wars in the modern era that ended in the military defeat of one side or the other). Let’s take them one at a time.
DECREASING E[u(w)] FOR PRO-REGIME ACTORS
The most common arms-for-peace argument, frequently invoked by Obama administration officials, is that arming the rebels will begin shifting the balance of power away from pro-government forces and signal Western resolve to tip it further, thereby diminishing E[u(w)] for the regime, its domestic supporters, and/or its Russian and Iranian backers. “Altering the balance of power on the ground … is the only way a politically negotiated transition can become possible,” writes Dennis Ross. Negotiations “will amount to little given the current power asymmetry,” concurs Elizabeth O’Bagy.
However, the balance of power is not the only thing influencing E[u(w)] in the Syrian arena. For President Bashar Assad and upper echelon regime elites, Iranian patronage is increasingly a central determinant of E[u(w)], and they have very good reason to believe that Iran will continue financing and resupplying them for the foreseeable future. Even if Damascus falls, they can carry on the fight for quite some time in the coastal heights of northwestern Syria where non-Sunnis constitute a majority of the population, then go into comfortable exile in Tehran if and when continued resistance becomes untenable. Whatever their battlefield setbacks, they will be loathe to abandon Iranian protection at a time of great danger and uncertainty.
For ordinary Syrians who support and fight for the regime (mostly Alawites and other non-Sunni minorities), on the other hand, E[u(w)] is far more dependent on the anticipated outcome and costs of the conflict. However, while American sponsorship of the rebellion may sap their confidence in military victory, the perception that Washington is pulling the strings of the rebels could also raise E[u(w)] for regime supporters if they expect image-conscious American policymakers to balk at green-lighting the horrific violence sure to accompany a successful rebel push on Damascus, or if they assume that Western involvement will mitigate the political consequences of losing the war. In any case, because their E[u(p)] is very low (more on this below) and they have little independent capacity to mobilize, a diminished E[u(w)] is more likely to produce individual defection, desertion, or passivity than concerted bottom-up pressure on their leaders to change course. Lower morale among regime supporters may make it easier to overpower Assad’s forces, but this alone won’t open a path to peace.
A stronger case can be made that tilting the military balance will diminish E[u(w)] for Russia. However, this may not precipitate a major policy change, as Moscow is bearing few of the war’s costs – its economic support for the regime is minimal, while its arms sales would appear to yield a net profit. The reputational expenses of arming murderers loathed throughout the Sunni Islamic world may eventually lead Russia to cut off arms sales to Assad, but Moscow will incur these costs irrespective of whether Washington aids the rebels. In any case, there is little reason to believe that a more enlightened Russian policy will decisively change expected utility calculations for the regime as long as Iran is backing it to the hilt.
Iran, on the other hand, is directly subsidizing pro-regime forces financially (to the tune of 12.6 billion dollars so far, according to one recent estimate) and mobilizing Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites to fight alongside them. A military escalation precipitated by an influx of Western arms will undoubtedly strain its sanctions-riddled economy. But this doesn’t mean, as some interventionists maintain, that it “will most likely back down when faced with the prospect of confrontation with the United States.”
There are many intervening variables that make it difficult to predict E[u(w)] for the Islamic Republic. The intense religiosity of Iranian leaders surely inflates their confidence in ultimate victory. Overt U.S. involvement in the rebel war effort may shift the military balance, but it could also serve to legitimize Iran’s Syria policy as a fight against the Great Satan (or otherwise make abandoning it more politically unpalatable). Though it’s difficult to imagine how continued conflict could turn out well for the Iranian regime in the long run, some commentators have suggested that it can use even a losing war in Syria to expand its influence among Shiites in the region. In any case, if the past is any guide, a major change in Tehran’s disposition is likely to drag far behind the changing realities that drive it. Whatever else it might achieve, an arms-for-peace strategy with this aim in mind won’t produce peace anytime soon.
INCREASING E[u(p)] FOR PRO-REGIME ACTORS
Of course, even a substantial reduction in E[u(w)] for one or more of the above won’t matter if their E[u(p)] is demonstrably lower. For regime elites, E[u(p)] is abysmally low. Rebels have constantly reiterated that Assad and his inner circle must step down and relinquish control of the military-security apparatus at the start of any negotiated political transition. They are unwilling even to negotiate with anyone who has “blood on their hands” let alone offer them a place in the post-war order. Assad and his ilk are being asked to accept a conditional surrender, not a power-sharing arrangement of the kind that brought an end to the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon.
Iran’s E[u(p)] is also very low. The predominantly Sunni rebels’ overt sectarian discourse and frequent denunciations of the Shiite theocratic republic – even before the large influx of foreign Shiite fighters in the first half of this year – leave little doubt that Iran will lose out in any peace settlement that produces a stable post-war majoritarian government. Significantly, both the rebels and Western governments have thus far refused to allow Iranian representatives to attend prospective peace talks in Geneva. While Russia can hope to win some American-guaranteed concessions in post-war Syria in exchange for leaning on Assad (like keeping its naval base at Tartus), Iran will be left squarely in the cold.
Ordinary regime supporters are more amenable to a negotiated settlement than their leaders and foreign benefactors, but they also have deep reservations about majoritarian rule. Though Alawites have dominated Syria’s Baathist state for over four decades, they and other sectarian minorities previously endured centuries of socio-political exclusion and impoverishment at the hands of Sunni rulers. Given the pronounced Islamist character of the rebellion, many understandably fear that they will be made to pay for the Assad regime’s crimes. Insofar as regime supporters have the capacity to project influence over their leaders, it will not be to support a transition process that leaves them at the mercy of their adversaries.
A second family of arms-for-peace arguments hold that Western patronage of the rebels will increase E[u(p)] for the regime and/or its supporters (particularly lower echelon security personnel and civil servants). One strand of this reasoning holds that American sponsorship of the rebellion will alleviate their fears of Sunni domination and retribution by strengthening moderate rebels vis-à-vis extremists and obliging the former to act more responsibly. A second strand holds that equipping and supplying the rebels will unify their ranks so that they can make credible commitments to possible pro-regime interlocutors (at present, no one has the power to ensure that disparate rebel forces comply with anything).
However, it’s doubtful that U.S. patronage will produce these effects in sufficient measure to generate much constituent pressure on regime leaders to stand down. While those who receive the weapons will surely pay lip service to American ideals, any Lebanese ex-warlord can tell you that building proxy forces on the basis of patronage doesn’t create a culture of civic responsibility. The U.S. experience in Iraq underscores how fleeting are the returns of distributing money and power to Middle Eastern supplicants.
An influx of American arms may increase cohesion among those groups who receive them, but it will surely come at the expense of deepening antagonism between pro-Western and jihadist rebels. This would raise E[u(w)] for pro-regime actors by giving them hope that their adversaries will turn on each other if they keep up the fight long enough.
So long as the rebels have a surrender-or-die attitude toward peace with their adversaries, it’s unlikely that they will find many takers. After witnessing the collapse of an eerily similar minoritarian autocracy and its violent aftermath next door in Iraq, regime supporters have little faith that an American-managed transition can protect their core interests. They will not agree to disband (or relinquish to civilian authority) their military forces until the transition process is near completion (if then), a condition that no rebel commander is today prepared to accept.
INCREASING E[u(p)] FOR PRO-REBEL ACTORS
A third arms-for-peace argument posits that Western military aid will raise E[u(p)] for the rebels by giving them the strength and confidence to risk negotiating with an enemy they do not trust. The rebels are unwilling to negotiate at present “because they think that they will be bargaining from a position of relative weakness,” writes Bilal Y. Saab. “We are trying to get the opposition to get involved in a negotiation with people they really don’t want to negotiate with … They need an incentive,” explains Reza Afshar, head of the Syria team at Britain’s Foreign Office.
Far from encouraging rebels to negotiate in good faith, however, the Obama administration’s decision in June to begin directly providing them with arms appears to have done the opposite. In late July, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) added new preconditions for talks, such as an advance commitment by Assad to step down and the withdrawal of foreign Shiite fighters from Syria. SNC President Ahmed Jarba now even balks at granting Assad and his family safe exit from Syria if the president gives up power.
The problem is not that the rebels lack confidence. Whatever their current circumstances, most are quite certain of prevailing over the regime in the long run, and for good reason. Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, which overwhelmingly supports the rebels, is five times larger than minority Alawites who comprise the bulk of pro-regime forces. Moreover, outside powers that dwarf Russia and Iran financially and militarily are steadily increasing their support for the cause. Add to that the strong belief of most rebels that God is on their side and it appears likely that more arms will only further embolden them not to compromise.
While the Obama administration officially maintains that its paramount goal in Syria is to bring about a “political solution that ends the violence,” its steadily expanding role in arming combatants isn’t likely to create conditions conducive to a negotiated peace. Indeed, it could make the pursuit of peace more difficult by bolstering rebel confidence in absolute victory, deepening intra-rebel antagonisms, encouraging Iran to double down, and myriad other ways discussed above. As Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed recently reminded us, external intervention in civil wars serves, on average, to prolong their duration.
Unfortunately, there is very little the United States can do to bring about a negotiated settlement of the Syria conflict until all of the major players are willing to forgo many of their wartime objectives in favor of a compromise that salvages what is left of Syria’s state institutions and economic infrastructure. If that day should ever come, the Syrian people will need a powerful neutral arbiter, not a war-weary external partisan, to provide the necessary guarantees for combatants to make credible commitments to one another.
Of course, that day may never come. All signs indicate that the burgeoning jihadist factions of the rebel alliance will stop at nothing to bring about the kind of oppressive postwar order that many regime supporters will stop at nothing to prevent – as long as that’s the case, moderates will be powerless to bridge the gap. Like the large majority of civil wars in history, the conflict in Syria appears destined to endure until someone wins.
In view of this unfortunate reality, the use of American patronage to buy influence and equity in the Syrian arena may be justified. Whatever the strategic merits of aiding and abetting Syria’s rebel alliance, however, we shouldn’t call it peacemaking or pretend that it isn’t going to be a dirty business. No matter how carefully Washington vets potential recipients, it is very likely that rebel groups receiving American arms will commit egregious human rights violations before (and probably after) the smoke clears. When the co-directors of the New York-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy, ostensibly devoted to promoting a “progressive and non-militaristic U.S. foreign policy,” obliquely endorse the Obama administration’s arming of Syrian rebels, something has gone very wrong in the public debate in this country. Proxy warfare, as Henry Kissinger famously said of covert action, “should not be confused with missionary work.”
Gary C. Gambill is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, The National Interest, The National Post, and FPRI E-Notes. Formerly editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and Mideast Monitor, Gambill is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.
 Although Western media reports often allude to Russia’s “deep financial support” for Assad and there have been some statements by Syrian officials implying as much for public relations purposes, there is little evidence of Russian economic assistance aside from small amounts of humanitarian aid (ostensibly raised through religious charities) and preferential barter agreements (mainly crude oil for fuel).
 See Phillip Smyth, “Even if Assad loses, Iran gains from its support of Shia militias,” The National (Abu Dhabi), August 12, 2013.
 For an eloquent elaboration of this point, see Frederic Hof, “Syria’s Time Is Running Out,” Foreign Policy, December 19, 2012. Hof argues that arming the rebels will ensure “that weapons go to those advocating a non-sectarian, decent political system for Syria and are denied to those seeking a sectarian outcome.”
 Emile Hokayem, “Arm Syrian rebels to make a political solution possible,” The National (Abu Dhabi), October 31, 2012. Michael Bröning, “Time to Back the Syrian National Coalition,” Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2012.
 See Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed, “Arming Syrian rebels may make peace elusive,” The Baltimore Sun, July 11, 2013; David E. Cunningham, “Blocking Resolution: How External States Can Prolong Civil Wars,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 47 no. 2 (March 2010), pp. 115-127; Ibrahim A. Elbadawi and Nicholas Sambanis, “External Interventions and the Duration of Civil Wars,” paper presented at the World Bank’s Development Economic Research Group (DECRG) conference on “The Economics and Politics of Civil Conflicts,” Princeton University, March 18-19, 2000.
 Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy, “Syria’s fate must not be decided by foreign powers or forces,” Green Left Weekly, July 9, 2013. They write that they “strongly oppose” any outside diplomatic initiative that “prevents the Syrian people from overthrowing the Assad regime,” and that “the democratic opponents of the Assad dictatorship have the right to get guns where they can,” while bemoaning “all attempts by those who provide arms to acquire political and military influence in return.”
 “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Remark in testimony to the Pike Committee in 1975.
Growing Political Instability in Middle East: A Case Study of Yemen
Yemen’s full-blown war was the consequence of a series of events that succeeded one after the other. Violence escalated during the second half of 2014, when citizens grew massively discontent with the political instability of Yemen’s transitional government. Once violence became the norm, parties to the dispute quickly polarized, and as violence ramped up, polarization accelerated.
This violence more intensified because Yemen has fragile transitional government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and was further debilitated when Houthi rebels captured Sanaa in September 2014. The president’s Peace and National Partnership Agreement had emerged as a kernel of hope for an early resolution to the violence, but it did not fulfil and produce its promised. Therefore, faced severe outcome and Boasted by their early success in capturing Sanaa, the Houthis had their militias take control over key institutions in the city. They installed their own people within major institutions and media outlets, and in other cases ‘puppeteer’ members of the government whose members were ultimately put under house arrest. All hopes for the Peace and National Partnership Agreement were lost in January 2015, when Hadi resigned shortly after his escape from house arrest in Sanaa. Following a brief residence in the city of Aden, he took refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Out of immediate danger, Hadi decided to revoke his resignation and continue his presidency from abroad. At the same time the Houthis decided to promote their own version of a national constitution and create their own government bodies. In the meantime, the Houthi insurgency continued, pushing all of Yemen into a civil war. Yemen’s current multipolar political landscape is nothing new. The country’s population has never—after its 1944 civil war, or since unification in 1990—taken on a single national identity. During the 2011 Arab Spring, group differences were exacerbated, but at the outset of the revolutions relative balance of power in the country was able to bring parties together, making possible negotiations at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).
This is no longer the case, and three important developments explain the changes post NDC. First, Yemen’s political scene became radicalized and at the same time was polarized. This made any links between the groups, whether based on historical ties or cultural similarities, impossible. Second, the changing balance of power and enduring resilience of the conflicted sides has inspired optimism within each group that and would prevail and achieve dominance over others. This reduces prospects for negotiating a settlement. For example, as the Houthis consolidated their power on the eve of their complete capture of Sanaa, rejecting calls for negotiations seemed easy, and group officials seemed unfazed by the UN resolution urging them to withdraw and reverse their course. Third, the people in Yemen have no faith in a central government, and even less faith in any political process as a solution to their problems; largely due to disappointment over a long negotiating process and an ineffective transitional government. In addition, there is no leader who inspires hope, or can rally Yemenis under one flag, or for a common purpose. While President Hadi enjoys international support, at home he is unable to ensure unity amongst even his allies, let alone the whole country.
While Yemen faces an internal quagmire, regional actors, in particular the GCC states, have been increasingly engaged in the conflict. A Saudi-led military campaign, Operation Decisive Storm’ began in March 2015, based on a coalition of forces originally supported—according to Saudis officials and public statements from countries in the wider MENA region—by more than ten countries. The UAE has been a strong supporter of the military action, contributing air support that has removed any ballistic threat for the region within the first 25 days of the operation. Other GCC states and MENA countries have also positively responded to Saudi Arabia’s move for military solutions.
Civil War in Yemen
Nations of the region have pledged military support and have become engaged in the second phase of the operation, titled ‘Restoring Hope.’ One of the strategic objectives of this operation is the disabling of the Houthi insurgency and the reinstatement of Hadi as the President of Yemen. For that purpose, large groups of pro-Hadi Yemeni fighters have been provided with weapons, equipment, and necessary military training. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more recently delivered large quantities of heavy weapons (tanks), armored vehicles, and ammunition to the pro-Hadi fighters through the newly liberated areas in Aden. Troops from the Arab countries have been involved in training. Hadi’s army, which lacks expertise in operating for much of the weaponry and equipment being supplied. Some of the foreign troops, however, are reported to be involved in military operations themselves, and not simply working in a training capacity. Operation Restoring Hope also has a humanitarian component, and its first aid planes and ships have already arrived in Aden. The United States is also providing some assistance through intelligence, aerial refueling for fighter jets, and has indicated that it would provide possible assistance in rescuing of downed pilots. The thus empowered pro-Hadi army will be the much needed ‘boots on the ground’ to complement the Saudi air campaign. If the Southern Resistance answers Hadi’s call for a united anti-Houthi front positively, and thus integrates with Hadi’s army, a quicker advancement towards Sanaa may follow. Meanwhile, the UN is still at the forefront of the negotiations in Yemen. Negotiations are not a number one priority, however, since the UN’s reputation was significantly damaged following months of less than effective diplomacy engagement in Yemen. That is not to say that UN’s efforts are futile. Anyways, UN special envoys encourage Saudi government and Yemeni government to collaborate of sign a pact, aiming to end fight between government and separatist allies in the south. UN wants to political solution of Yemeni crisis.
Except Oman, which is not part of the campaign and it is offering a venue for negotiation and are in the strong support for President Hadi. Time may prove that the UN’s ongoing shuttle diplomacy is the best way to a ceasefire, followed by peace agreement. When taking stock of the current Civil war in Yemen, it is imperative to have a holistic view of the complex conflict, and especially when seeking to find a way out of the turmoil. As things stand, a clear path towards quick conflict resolution seems impossible. The murkiness of the actual support by the Yemeni people for current leaders, ongoing shifting political dynamics, and the mixed results of militarily operations makes any conflict resolution strategy difficult to argue. This, in turn, renders many of the policy recommendations focusing on just one or another approach risky to follow.
Understanding the Conflict’s Dynamics
Yemen’s conflict is saturated with different groups, and each have unique interests. Antagonism amongst the various Yemeni groups and the process of ‘othering’ between the Zaydis from the north and the Shaga is from the central and southern parts of Yemen has been obliterating memories of coexistence and making any reconciliation unforeseeable. The current conflict has even blurred the actual differences between theZaydis branch of Shia (Fivers) and those in Iran (Twelvers). This blurring is exacerbated when the Houthis’ religion is equated with the one of the Persian belief structures and used as an argument to link the two. A March Briefing report by the International Crisis Group observed this in action, noting that the “previously absent Shiite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight,” primarily through the labels used by the Houthis and the Sunni Islamist party Islah.
In a way, increased use of sectarian rhetoric by the group has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While domestically the Houthis managed to maintain control over a large part of Yemen, including the capital, this has not translated into commensurate international recognition. The group is aware that UN resolutions are clear that Hadi’s government is the only authority in Yemen. Attempts to make inroads in the international community have thus been carried out through economic ties, those aimed at Russia (which remains unresponsive) and China, which has an interest in the Yemeni oil industry. While these efforts indicate some determination to reach out to whole the international community, the Houthis have shown no state-building acumen and political alliances are made from convenience.
With little regard for other political parties, the Zaydi Shia militias have forged an unholy alliance with former president Aki Abdullah Saleh. The deal was made without regard to the two groups’ hostile history, which includes fighting in multiple wars against each other. For now, they seem to have been able to put most of their differences aside and unite against Hadi and his supporters. This alliance means the Houthis benefit from Saleh’s powerful friends in the Yemeni army, something that has contributed greatly to the Houthis’ early rise to power. The group may yet be aided by Saleh’s diplomatic skills. For his part, Saleh is on a quest to regain his lost authority.
The politically savvy former president of Yemen hopes to extend his influence through his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), this can be read as a move against current President Hadi, who had been a member of GPC until November 2014, when he was kicked out. His ouster was the result of a travel.
International Crisis Group, “Yemen at War’
It is important to note that Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress has rejected the Houthi constitutional announcement from January 2015. This is just one example of their uneasy relationship. Ban and asset freeze imposed by the UN Security Council on Saleh and a few other leaders from the Houthi side. Hadi’s rivalry with Saleh and his break with the party only further speak to his inability to become a gravitational center in Yemeni politics.
At best, Hadi was able to become a rival of Saleh, use decrees to make new appointments and reassignments to reduce Saleh’s influence in the governing structures and military. Overtime, these moves have been able to attract defectors from Saleh’s faction, but without building a real base of his own. While having defectors on side is extremely useful when defections and declarations of support of Hadi from key GPC members provide a much-needed boost to the legitimacy of the current President, his overall legitimacy remains low. This is not least because of his moves to divide forces to steer against the Houthis.
His allies, the Southern (Popular) Resistance, are a secessionist movement with strong support in the South and do not share Hadi’s vision of a post-conflict Yemen. Influence also comes from Yemen’s immediate neighbors, who are generally strongly pro-Hadi. The political positions of regional actors and their interests in the different sides would indicate that regionalization of the Yemen conflict was inevitable. Saudi Arabia’s actions, however, are also in response to wider regional trends. Intervention in Yemen has a great deal to do with curbing Iranian foreign policy on at least two big issues – the Iranian nuclear deal and their role in Iraq. With the nuclear deal recently concluded without any direct input from the Saudis, and Iraq set to be an even bigger challenge in near future, Saudi involvement in the Yemen sphere seemed inevitable. Where Teheran’s involvement in Iraq is welcomed by the Western powers, and with there-engagement of Iran in the international community their role could be strengthen, Saudi Arabia does not share the West’s enthusiasm. But the situation in Yemen is different. The level of support from Iran, as secretive as it may be, is not the same as Iran’s support for the Shia militias in Iraq, the government of Syria’s Assad, or Hezbollah in Lebanon. While hesitation to become further embroiled may be very much connected to a fear of possible overstretching in the region and the fact that the Houthis are not under Iran’s direct control, It may also be the cane that Teheran has calculated the likelihood of a strong and determined response by Saudi Arabia if it were to step up involvement. Iran’s public declarations call for ceasefire, though they know the balance of power on the ground in Yemen matters a lot since it will transfer to the make-up of any negotiations table. Iran leaves little up to luck. Iranian Revolutionary guards are on the ground in Yemen, Iranian money and aid has been shipped to the Houthis. It should not be a surprise if more money were to be poured in, especially given the funds that will be made available in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal and an unfreezing of assets. Even though weapons may be much more needed than cash, the Houthis will still be more effective in maintaining control and popularity if they have no huge financial challenges.
Saudi Arabia Role
For the leadership in Riyadh, Yemen continues to be a foreign policy priority. The Kingdom acted as patron to Yemen’s government from the 1980s onwards, and it never accepted foreign influence in the country. In the 1960s Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to expand his Pan-Arab revolution to Yemen, only to see his efforts neutralized by the Saudis. This time around, as Iran employs their ‘revolution export ‘strategy, similar determination exists in the House of Saud and its key allies to thwart it. No accounting of the current conflict in Yemen would be complete, however, without accounting for terrorist groups. The best way to look at this issue is to understand the historical role of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its relatively recent branch of Daesh (The Arabic acronym for the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIL). AQAP is considered the most powerful of al-Qaeda’s branches after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Moreover, a terrorist group with a long legacy in Yemen. Many men who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan at the end of the last century came back to Yemen and to found AQAP. Indeed, since 1990, leaders of the largest Islamic military groups in this country have claimed ties to Bin Laden.6 With the creation of AQAP, allegiance to Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri was declared, and has been reasserted repeatedly since. The newly appointed leader of the AQAP Qasm al-Rimi, who assumed his position after the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June2015, made the same oath of allegiance when he took power. With such strong roots in Yemen, it would be difficult for ISIL to take over as a leader in the jihadist movement in the country. Further dividing ISIL and the AQAP is the firm policy of the latter for the gradual establishment of a caliphate when the ‘right conditions’ are met. This is already underway in Yemen and is not an ideology that is shared by the now rival terror group. As far back as 2009, the AQAP issued a recruitment call to aid in establishing an Islamic caliphate in Yemen.
The call anticipated the departure of Saleh from power, and the opportunity was taken at his departure to create new institutions in Yemen toward the goal of the caliphate. Further distinguishing the two groups, AQAP maintains that consultation with respectable scholars and influential leaders in the Ummah are a sine qua non for the establishment of a supranational entity. For AQAP, this serves as a source of unity and legitimacy. It is also cited in the attempts to challenge the authority.
Iran is seeking of wider legitimacy speaks to the priority of alliances for AQAP, which has indeed demonstrated success in gathering more allies amongst tribal leaders in Yemen than ISIL. These alliances are largely based on a common interest to deter any advancement of the Houthis, rather than any shared ideals for the future political reorganization of Yemen. Therefore, it is difficult to assess how long these alliances may endure, but, without a better alternative, it is likely the tribes’ current cooperation with AQAP will remain in place as long as Houthi movement provides a need for it. This means AQAP is well positioned to expand its governing territory, at least for the duration of the Yemeni crisis. ISIL may also expand their influence in Yemen, but they are unlikely to be a major player in the crisis.
While the group loyal to al-Baghdadi is increasingly popular in the media, it has had limited success in Yemen. The group will need to be accounted for, however, in the aftermath of the war and during a possible peacemaking process. Both AQAP and ISIL have declared that the Houthis deserve to be killed, however, ISIL has far more extreme methods and are prone to terrorist acts, which deepen the sectarian rift.Each of these parties is operating, moreover, in a country with limited economic prospects. In addition to high unemployment, water and food shortages, oil exports are failing to produce enough revenue for the government, due to the fall in oil prices and declining oil production because of the conflict. This means that the nation is not and will not be economically self-sufficient in the near future. The crisis in Yemen has all of the necessary conditions of a conflict that will continue for many years to come. Pro-Hadi forces have had a few recent successes securing territory in the south, which has further boosted their capabilities, allowing an increase of weapons shipments, as well as military and humanitarian aid in the south.
Conflict’s Unclear Future
The mercurial dynamics of the Yemini conflict and the multiple possible pathways upon which it might develop make planning unclear. Various scenarios explore multiple probable trajectories, and the many stakeholders – both domestic and regional – prefer diverse and conflicting outcomes. What does seem unlikely is that an outcome will be left to the will and capabilities of any one party to determine the outcome alone.
The four scenarios below represent the four poles of possible outcomes that current stakeholders may have to accommodate in any possible solution. The scenarios are fluid and represent a spectrum of possible outcomes. The X-axis represents the stability of Yemen, with outcomes ranging between its two extremes: war and peace. The war extreme examines the possibility of protracted conflict, where the war in Yemen continues at its current level, or even worse, at a heightened level of violence. At the other end of the spectrum is a peaceful solution, which assumes a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While obviously the peaceful solution is desirable, it is important to note that a resolution does not assume positive peace or an imminent reconciliation.
On the contrary, considering that this is a near-term analysis, certain ungoverned territories or sporadic violence should be expected even in the most optimistic future. The Y-axis tackles the issue of integrity. It assumes a possible return to the process of solidifying a unified Yemen, on the one hand, or dividing the territory into two separates entities on the other. ‘Integration’ marks the preservation of the country’s existing borders, regardless of its level(s) of decentralization (e.g. federation), where the opposite extreme reflects the endemic lack of national cohesion and thus represents the possibility of dividing the country in two separate states/territories. Such a scenario includes the possibility of reverting back to the pre-1990 borders, or even an alternative re-drawing of the map.
Stability and integration are key factors for the future of the country. Stability as a criterion is an overarching theme, vital for enabling further discussion on political, economic, and social issues. In other words, depending on the stability of the country and whether there is war or peace in Yemen, different policies should be applied. Integration on the other hand, provides a lens through which to examine key political developments that are equally unpredictable. Ultimately, having one or two countries on Yemen’s current territory would completely change the political landscape, and consequently, the strategies employed to reach a peaceful resolution. Understanding how these two factors combine helps complete the possible pictures of Yemen over the next few years.
Fluid Control and Power
A first scenario, based on Yemen’s current dynamics, plots a possible future for the country along the ‘development’ of the status quo. In this scenario, the country remains undivided as a political unit, but the war is unceasing and offensive operations are continuously being launched. Consequently, different parties gain or lose control of territory based on successful military/insurgent advances. This makes a map of territorial control one that constantly morphs, even within short time intervals. Such a future remains very much like today’s Yemen, where ongoing lashes between the Houthis and pro-Hadi insurgents in large cities like Aden and Taiz have given mixed results for each side. Earlier in the year the Houthis had managed to quickly gain a large territory in their quest to capture Aden, and it was then that they also overtook the al-Anad Air Base in Lahij. With the recent success of the popular resistance troops and Hadi’s supporters in retaking much of that same area, it is also possible that a further Houthi retreat may follow. A similar situation is seen in the battle for Taiz, the battle over which could go on for any length of time.
Warring Territories of Yemen
A second scenario posits that a certain level of war fatigue on the ground will result in a divided Yemeni territory, to be controlled by different groups. War-weariness may not be enough for the warring parties to conclude a peace process and may instead only serve to limit the conflict to the frontlines. A war-weary end to hostilities would simply entrench parties in their positions and focus each on defending areas under their control. The Houthis would then likely control the northern part of current-day Yemen, while the forces loyal to the regime in exile (which would likely return to Yemen under these conditions) could successfully defend the southern and central areas of the country.
Although still divided on how the future political map of Yemen should look, Hadi loyalists and the Southern Resistance (Hirak) are likely to keep a fragile and to a degree united front in the fight against their common enemy. Small areas of ungoverned territory may also exist in the current al-Qaeda controlled areas, with neither party willing or able to conquer the other territories. Under this outcome, the conflict would be expected to manifest through clashes alongthe frontlines, but sporadic terrorist attacks beyond these areas could not be ruled out. Military operations from regional state actors would also likely continue. However, without the ground support of Hadi’s loyalists, the air campaign would likely produce limited results.So far, success in regaining control of territory from the Houthis has been in areas in the south where the Houthi movement does not have massive support. It will be increasingly difficult to repeat these territorial gains in the north, which are areas of Houthi strongholds. This is, why the battle may be limited to the frontlines and over time a de facto disintegrated country could be created, as no institution has authority over the full territory.
If violence is halted, the future of Yemen will be decided by the largest and most relevant parties in the country, in conjunction with help from the international community. One possible outcome in this direction would be for the negotiators to acknowledge that a Westphalian nation-state is impossible on this territory, and instead conclude an agreement to divide Yemen. This will not be a quick or easy process, but it has significant support in the county, especially in the south. The Popular Committees in the south and Hadi’s army fighting against the Zaidi Shia Islamist group there neither belong to a single tribe nor share a common strategic objective – just a common enemy. Clashes in mid-July – when control over Aden was claimed back from the Houthis – represented for some fighters the liberation of the nation’s second largest city. For the members of the region’s separatist movement, it was a liberation of their old (and possibly future) capital. For Saudi Arabia, this means having in what would become Northern Yemen, a neighbor that is no friend of theirs, and another, Southern Yemen, which will inherit the AQAP problem.
Reconciliation and Coexistence
While currently ineffective, peace negotiations may eventually lead toward a permanent cease-fire and a deal that will preserve the unity of Yemen. This could come to pass in one of two ways. First, as the result of an effective and creative diplomacy, or second, because of the success of Operation Restoring Hope, which seeks to put President Hadiin charge of Yemen and the surrender of the Houthi movement and Saleh’s forces. Whatever means peace talks may emerge, however, the years to follow are sure to be difficult.
One way the road to stability could be eased, is through a possible rebirth of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, or PNPA 2.0. This agreement, or a new form following similar lines, could revive internal political dialogue in the country. A successful agreement would mean that post conflict institutions would have to be agreed upon, and integration of different demographic groups would be expected to take place at various levels in the government. While a clear step forward, a PNPA 2.0 would merely begin the process of reconciliation and give hope for a prolonged stability. An international peacekeeping mission might also be necessary to keep the terms of any agreement in its in initial phases, as a united and relatively stable Yemen could slowly rebuild as a federal system.
However, since the terrorist organizations operating in the country will certainly not be part of the negotiations process, and not seen as a possible actor that could be integrated into the reconstructed national institutions, they will likely remain a problem for the next government of Yemen as well as the international sponsors of the peace process.
Thwarting Iranian Influence is Key to Iraq’s Security
The mass uprisings in Iraq over the past several months have many factors in common, the most salient of which include ordinary citizens decrying economic hardship and rampant corruption among the ruling elite. With that agenda in mind, protesters seek to weaken the grip of the Iranian regime that has entrenched itself in Baghdad’s political and economic affairs.
How Far is Iran’s Reach in Iraq?
While the 2011 Arab Spring reacted to similar events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, recent uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq are distinguished by Iran’s dominance over economic and political relations there.
As Iran’s closest Arab neighbor and home to the Arab world’s largest Shi’a population, no country in the “Shi’a crescent” feels Iran’s influence more profoundly than Iraq. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, then Iran’s main rival in the region, Tehran has sought to exploit the years of marginalization felt by Iraqi Shi’a’s in order to empower them. Many exiled Iraqi’s who sought refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule returned after his fall to take up positions of authority in light of the power vacuum left by the US invasion.
Many of these Iraqis, once in exile, have become the leading power brokers in Iraq, many of whom have expressed a keen willingness to follow the political roadmap laid out by their former benefactors and protectors in Tehran.
Nonetheless, the overbearing weight of these Iranian backed actors in Iraq has led to economic ruin in the country. Faced with high youth unemployment, high inflation, and a lack of essential services, Iraqi are growing tired of Tehran calling the shots in their country. To add insult to injury these Iranian proxies have relentlessly employed harsh crackdowns to retain their influence, wealth, and control within both private and public spheres. This authoritarian dominance also prevents the Gulf States, Iran’s regional rival, from providing Iraq with crucial investment opportunities.
Iranian Influence Supersedes Ethnicity and Religion In Iraq
In Iraq, a fragile balance of power has seen institutions parceled out to various corrupt ethnic and religious elites.
This endless and brazen cycle of placing Iran-backed politicians in power to represent the Iraqi people is holding Iraq back from progress and prosperity. In this realm, it isn’t religion, ethnicity, or background that bring Iranian puppets together. It’s their mutual understanding that they need each other and Tehran’s backing if they want to continue to gain wealth and maintain the status quo they have built.
The converse is also true. Opposition to Iran is not drawn on sectarian lines, but rather, large swathes of the country’s Sunni and Shi’a population are taking to the streets to call for an end to Iranian interference.
How can Iraq Reclaim its Sovereignty
Protesters in Iraq have only recently transcended fault lines to form a united front. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social background, protesters are united to overturn their country’s Iranian backed elites that have been siphoning out money and resources, while placing an inexorable toll on the economy in the process.
In response to these massive protests, Iranian-back proxies in Iraq have cracked down mercilessly against protesters, with up to 600 demonstrators being killed since the movements began.
Moreover, the death of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most senior military commander and al-Muhandis, the head of the powerful pro-Iran Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces, has been a big blow to Iranian operations in Iraq.
With the loss of its two most prominent actors in the Iraqi theatre, Iran’s puppeteers are scrambling to fill the power vacuum. Though they have decided to confer their confidence in Muqtada Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri Hadi temporarily, Tehran’s influence is beginning to show cracks as attempts to unite a fractured support network are proving futile.
In tune with protestors’ calls to reject Iran, Iraq’s pro-sovereignty opposition groups are growing in popularity. Anti-Iranian and nationalist messaging from groups like the National Wisdom Movement and the National Independent Iraqi Front resonate strongly with demonstrators who decry the economic stagnation caused by Iran’s impact on their country’s politics.
Taking advantage of the blow dealt with Iran through Sulemani’s death to end the confessional system in Iraq will be crucial for the success of the Iraqi protest movement. Though it is too early to tell if these protesters can flush out Iran’s deep-rooted influence in Iraq entirely, supporting genuine pro-sovereignty Iraqi leaders will leverage their initiatives. These leaders, and the protests movements they represent, are exposing cracks in Iraq’s circles of power as they stand resilient in the face of increasingly violent crackdowns.
The Wider Geopolitical Repercussions of Enforcing a One-Sided Peace onto the Middle East
Of all the varying reactions from the rest of the world following the White House’s latest Mid-East Peace Plan, none as such have come as a surprise considering the last few years’ trajectory of inter-state relations within the Middle Eastern region. The ‘peace’ plan which was announced by President Trump alongside a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu was already contentious enough in its one-sidedness considering it was developed without any consultations with Palestinian representatives. What’s more, the presence of the Bahraini, Emirati and Omani ambassadors at the unveiling of this plan at the White House marked sort of a tacit endorsement from key Arab countries, a lot of whom have been steadily normalizing their relations with Israel. Add to that the encouragement voiced by the Egyptian and Saudi governments on how the plan represents an important starting point, and what one’ s left with is the bitter yet glaring confirmation of the US and its regional allies’ increasingly gratuitous tilt towards Israel.
This tilt is further evident in the recent trajectory this ‘peace process’ has taken particularly under the Trump presidency. Controversially spearheaded by Jared Kushner, the US President’s son-in-law, the entire process has been characterized as the ‘deal of the century’ in an almost business-like manner. As a result, Mr. Kushner and his family’s long-held business ties within Israel, along with his willingness to cultivate a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia in the form of one of the biggest arms deals in recent history, have carried with them the unsavory appearance of Mr. Kushner’s mixing business with government. What this has led to is even further imbuing the White House with Mr. Trump’s characteristic way of cultivating diplomatic goodwill amongst other world leaders in an almost transactional like manner. Something that remains characteristically reminiscent of his past reputation as a wheeling and dealing New York real estate mogul, as well as the basis for his recent impeachment.
Yet, accompanying the Trump dynasty’s overly pragmatic and rent-seeking approach to diplomacy, there is an overpowering sense of indifference to the complex history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not to mention President Trump’s almost habitual compulsion to pay homage to some of the region’s most controversial strongmen ranging from autocratic royals, to former military and intelligence moguls. Especially in the case of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his consistent strong-arming of the Palestinian cause, President Trump’s Peace Plan for the Middle East simply legitimizes the systematic encroachment and encirclement of Palestinian lands within an already brutal and repressive police state. In fact, he has undone whatever little credibility past US presidents had painstakingly developed in the form of projecting the US as still a somewhat trustworthy mediator.
Instead, by simply echoing Israeli hardliners he has used the Iranian threat to the region as a rallying cry for shoring up Arab support in favor of Israel. As a result, even though the Palestinian cause still resonates strongly with the predominantly Muslim population of the region, it has been reduced to nothing more than mere lip service and symbolism at the state level. This holds particularly true in the case of the Arab Kingdoms of Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia, where economic and security ties with the US centered on the Iranian threat have increasingly led to a growing sense of indifference to the Palestinian cause.This was clear as day even in the OIC’s recent condemnation of this plan, which while aimed at presenting a unified opposition to the Palestinian position, rang hollow considering how the same summit was used by host Saudi Arabia to once again politicize its enmity with Iran. Hence, while the summit which was held at the request of Palestine presented a swift and unified retort by rejecting the US plan on the surface of things, the OIC as a whole is finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the rifts that continue to divide its members along some of their most deep-seeded historical and religio-political fault-lines.
It is thus no wonder that this vision or rather responsibility of uniting the Muslim Ummah – which ironically once lay at the heart of why the OIC was set up – is being carefully revived by states outside the region. These include Muslim majority countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and even to a certain extent Malaysia which while not directly involved in the Middle East’s conflicts still face serious economic and security issues that emanate directly from this region. As economic and/or military powers in their own right, these states have the geo-strategic advantage of being at the periphery of this volatile region, while still being able to exert considerable diplomatic influence both within as well as with outside power brokers such as the US, China and Russia.
The geo-politics behind the recently held Kuala Lumpur summit at which Pakistan has been at the center presents the perfect example. It is exactly this challenge which OIC members are faced with when setting up an objective, impartial and yet effective international forum along the lines of the UN or SCO while still staying true to the very concept of a unified Pan-Islamic Muslim Ummah. Yet, as exemplified by the precarious position Pakistan has found itself in between the overtures of the Saudi dominated OIC at one end, and the growing assertiveness from the likes of Turkey and Malaysia at the other, any challenges to the prevailing status-quo must be undertaken with the utmost delicacy and diplomatic finesse.
This holds especially true when the most immediate need is to balance vital economic and security interests against the more principled stances required in defending the Palestinian (and even Kashmiri) cause. A definite tragedy considering that despite all its destructive interventions, it was once the United States that stood for championing the importance of equality, freedom and justice within global politics as timeless ideals over brute pragmatism. With its latest Mid-East Peace Plan, it appears that the US has even stopped pretending let alone actually caring for such idealistic virtues – leaving Palestine along with the rest of world none the better.
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