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Arms for Peace in Syria?

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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,[1] 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.[2] 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[3] and obliging the former to act more responsibly.[4] 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.

CONCLUSION

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.[5]

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,[6] 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.”[7]

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.

[1] 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).
[2] See Phillip Smyth, “Even if Assad loses, Iran gains from its support of Shia militias,” The National (Abu Dhabi), August 12, 2013.
[3] 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.”
[4] 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.
[5] 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.
[6] 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.”
[7] “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Remark in testimony to the Pike Committee in 1975.

Middle East

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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Middle East

The Coronavirus and Conflicts in the Middle East

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The question of the political and socioeconomic consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for global development has prompted heated analytical discussions among leading politicians, economists and political scientists. The range of opinions is staggering, varying from “the world will never be the same” (Henry Kissinger) to “the pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” (Richard Haass). Should we, therefore, expect radical shifts in the global leaders’ thinking or will the dangerous inertia of the last two decades ultimately come out on top?

The only thing most people agree on is that the coronavirus has plunged the world into a global, multidimensional crisis. This crisis is made particularly acute and unpredictable by the developments that predated it: the slowdown of global economic growth, the collapse of oil prices, socioeconomic differentiation, the rapid increase in military spending, protracted “unresolvable” conflicts and the growing threat of losing control amid geopolitical rivalry. There are new nuclear missiles, cyber- and biotechnologies, “hybrid wars,” and the consequences of all these trends are not yet entirely clear, which makes this rivalry far more dangerous than the USSR-US confrontation.

Thus far, it is difficult to say confidently what direction these developments will take and whether they will become a turning point. In any case (and here Russian and Western analysts agree), the statesmanship, competency and acumen of all world leaders will be put to the test, as will their ability for reasonable compromise. This “test” will be particularly relevant for those states in the greater Middle East that are involved in various conflicts and for their leaders, whose ambitions are, at this historical juncture, under powerful pressure from both within and without; this test may be even more relevant there than in other parts of the crumbling, yet interconnected world.

“Old” internal conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, new-type protest movements demanding a change of the ruling elites (the “everyone means everyone” slogan) in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict in the Persian Gulf – this chronic instability constantly feeds into mutual enmity, the preference for solutions by force, and overall thinking along the lines of “winner takes all.” Regional wars remain a sore point on the Russia-West global agenda, which is already overburdened with many acute problems. At the same time, it has become apparent that domestic driving forces increasingly trump extra-regional influences such as the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, between Western states (France, Italy, Germany, Greece), including Turkey, as is happening in Libya, between the regional powers themselves (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar) in Yemen, or between all of them in Syria.

The pandemic has affected Libya, Syria and Yemen to a lesser degree than the US and West European states. At the same time, the number of cases is still growing and is gradually approaching the limits of their capacities as these countries are exhausted by protracted wars and external aggressions. In that sense, they have much in common, which causes concern to the UN’s specialised agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental humanitarian organisations. The ICRC has warned in a press release that “it will be nearly impossible to fight COVID-19 in countries already devastated by conflict unless a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is launched immediately.”

Despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General, from Russia, the US, several leading European states and other members of the international community, military hostilities are still raging in the region; they periodically abate and then flare up again. It takes a strong state, suppressing political violence, and a legitimate authority to succeed in combating the consequences of military conflicts in the Middle East in the middle of the pandemic. In the meantime, these three regional conflict centre have still not restored their territorial integrity, the principal criterion of national sovereignty, and the prospects for a final settlement appear quite vague.

The fight for territories continues. Local administrations of those states’ constituent parts largely depend on non-state actors, various militias, including those of a terrorist persuasion. International humanitarian aid is either inaccessible in many areas or is used for political purposes. Healthcare systems have been completely destroyed or significantly undermined, transport and commercial communication lines have been interrupted, while, according to the UN, about 38.4 million people (25 million in Yemen, 11 million in Syria and 2.4 million in Libya) are in need of humanitarian aid. Until recently, the World Health Organisation had no information about Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, including the number of COVID-19 cases. Overcrowded city centres, prisons and camps for refugees and displaced persons are seen as the source of the infection.

Syria is a special case in the general picture of Middle Eastern conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outcome of the internal confrontation will have far-reaching consequences. If compromise solutions are found, a settled Syrian conflict might serve as a precedent for the global community and as a model and a key for resolving other conflicts. Alternatively, if Damascus fails to learn the lessons of 2011, this conflict might become a powder keg under the prospects of Syria’s stable domestic development. Not should we rule out the possibility of the country being split into areas of influence with socioeconomic rehabilitation in each area carried out by external sponsors (mostly with the help of Russia, Iran and China in Damascus-controlled lands, by Turkey in the northwest, and with the support from the US and some Gulf states in the east). The latter variant, though, appears the least probable.

At the extended meeting of the government in early May, President Assad made a powerful statement similar to the one made in the summer of 2015, when the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse, and the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the dearth of domestic military resources, emphasising the need to “preserve useful Syria.”[1]  This time, now that the regime appears to have bolstered its positions thanks primarily to Russia, Assad has again warned the Syrian public and the global community that, if the coronavirus cases spike, Syria would face a “real catastrophe.” The current relatively low level of infection (there were 47 cases at that time), he said, did not mean Syria had avoided the danger. The World Health Organisation lists Syria among high-risk countries.

The President had more than enough reasons to make this statement. In late 2019, only 64% of the country’s hospitals and 52% of its medical outposts were still operating, while about 70% of healthcare workers found themselves among refugees and displaced persons. The geographical distribution of the medical institutions that are working is highly uneven: two-thirds of them are in Damascus, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, while there are none in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east. According to the Brookings Institution, there are 1.4 medical workers per 10,000 people and a grand total of 100 ventilators in Idlib. Immediately after the first coronavirus cases were recorded, food and medication prices went up 20–40% on top of the existing inflation.

Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded on 22 March, Syria’s government has been mobilising its internal capabilities in three areas:

First: preventing the spread of the infection within the area under its control. In Syria’s northeast (Afrin, Idlib), similar measures are being introduced by local authorities that are under the influence of Turkey and several groups that have been declared terrorists, and by the Kurdish administration in inner Syria east of the Euphrates. The announced administrative and legislative measures envisaged even harsher steps than international standards suggested. A curfew was imposed immediately, external borders were closed, control was stepped up over transport between provinces and between the cities within them. This was a vital step for Syria, with its close commercial ties and cross-border contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Iran (Syria has particularly intensive contacts with the latter). As of late April, Iran accounted for 79.1% of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East; Arab states of the Persian Gulf accounted for 12.1%, and other states for 8.8%. Territorial fragmentation, however, stands in the way of coordinating the fight against the coronavirus throughout the country. It is creating serious difficulties in handing out the international aid that is coming into Syria.

Second: mitigating the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, especially because surges in protests have been recorded since last spring, including in regions with predominantly Alawite population. The government imposed state price regulation, primarily for food, medications and essential goods. Fuel subsidies were maintained and bread stamps were introduced for people in particular need. At the same time, a set of solutions was introduced to remove administrative and bureaucratic procedures for import contracts on essential goods. Syrian importers working with such goods were offered preferential currency exchange rates. The government’s emergency decisions also included exempting individual types of business from taxes for April and gradually (since the first ten days of May) lifting restrictions on work in industrial and service sectors.

Third: concentrating the fragmented financial resources within the inner circle of the President’s power. This could mean transitioning to a policy of centralised distribution of the reduced state revenues, which means the authorities intend to be more decisive in fighting corruption and the “shadow economy” (between 2010 and 2017, GDP fell from USD 60.2 bn. to USD 17 bn.). The experience of many states, including European ones, shows that enhanced financial discipline is a must at a time of crisis, especially in collecting taxes and combating illegal economic activities.

Yet, as regards Syria, Arab and Western media focused rather on looking for sensations than on providing a balanced analysis of the situation with a view to helping find ways out of the crisis that had been compounded by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Regrettably, the media show the latest economic steps undertaken by the Syrian government through the lens of the conflict between the President and his cousin, Syria’s wealthiest businessman, multibillionaire Rami Makhlouf.

His business empire does, indeed, span a range of key economic sectors: telecommunications, oil and gas, banking, construction, real estate, commerce, etc. The rise of Rami Makhlouf began soon after Assad came to power, during the short period of liberal economic reforms. During the war, his standing in Syria’s economy was consolidated significantly by the preferences given in exchange for charitable activities and financing militias loyal to the government. Now is the time to pay the bills and some of his assets have been frozen. The conflict peaked when the Syrian oligarch decided to publicise the economic dispute about paying Syriatel’s taxes totaling USD 180 m. He did this at a juncture that was critical for the country. Consequently, the conflict was broadly politicised and resulted in rumourmongering about a split in the presidential elites similar to the late 2017 events in Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had several members of the royal family temporarily detained on allegations of large financial claims against them).

Incidentally or otherwise, precisely in April and May, the western and Arab media were inundated with various speculations concerning Russia-Syria relations. Distorted interpretations were given to those articles in the Russian media and on Russian social networks that contained benign criticism of Damascus’ inflexible policies in political settlement and of the widespread corruption getting in the way of reconstruction and handling the most pressing socio-economic problems. These articles were presented as allegedly reflecting the Russian political elites’ discontent with President Assad personally.

Deliberately fake news affected even the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), whose expert materials always contain objective analysis and verified facts, whether people like it or not. At the instigation of Syrian opposition sources, citing some RIAC paper, fake news was disseminated about Russia, the US and Turkey (with possible participation by Iran) having some plan about removing Assad from power and establishing a “transitional government” consisting of representatives of the “Syrian regime,” the opposition and “Kurdish militias.” Even more regrettable is the excessively emotional response by some “members of the public” in Damascus itself, expressed in the spirit of the ideological rhetoric of the past, of the outdated black-and-white foreign policy notions. They classify members of the Russian expert community (journalists serving purely corporate interests do not count) as “those in favour” and “those against,” into “pro-Western” and “patriotic.” The former naturally strive to “undermine the allied relations” between Russia and Syria.

Meanwhile, despite the many barriers dividing the world, cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, this “common enemy” as Antonio Guterres called it, is being gradually established, but things are far more complicated in the Syrian conflict.

Besides the WHO, the International Red Cross and some other international organisations, real external aid to Syria’s government is provided only by Russia, China and, to a lesser degree, Iran, with limited aid coming from some European and Arab states. With the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Russia launched humanitarian deliveries to Syria, bringing in face masks, coronavirus testing systems, and other medications and medical equipment. Food aid has been no less important for Syrians. In April, Russian grain, which had previously been in short supply on the market, was delivered to the port of Tartus.

Although the European Union expressed its support for the UN Secretary General’s appeal to lift the sanctions off several states, including Syria, so that the needed medical and humanitarian aid could be provided, in practice, Europe’s contribution is doubtful. First, EU member states have no consensus on Syria and, second, European companies are, as in the case of Iran, extremely wary of secondary US sanctions.

The stance of the Trump Administration is, like that on several other foreign political issues, rather ambiguous, not to say hypocritical. On the one hand, they introduce all kinds of “exceptions,” “authorisations” and “special licences” for providing humanitarian aid to Syria and some other states during the fight against COVID-19. This procedure is detailed in a relevant paper by the US Department of the Treasury dated 16 April 2020 (Department of the Treasury, Washington DC, Office of foreign control, Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19). On the other hand, the US is putting “maximum pressure” on Syria, stepping up its verbal threat campaign against President Assad personally and warning those countries, including Arab states, that are willing to provide Syria with the necessary financial and material support, about the consequences. European experts believe that, even if Syria agreed to use the offer of exemptions from the sanctions, this would hardly produce any results because of the large number of duplicate sanctions imposed over the last 20 years and also the “bewildering” bureaucratic procedures.

Many statements made by official US representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey in recent months are just as contradictory and confused. One day, he says the US does not want to overthrow the Syrian regime and supports the launch of the Constitutional Committee; another day, he says that Assad is utterly unacceptable, which can be understood to mean that he is unacceptable even as a presidential candidate at the elections to be held under Resolution 2254. Statements about his contacts with Russian partners and unwillingness to intervene in Russia-Syria relations do not jibe with his words that the purpose of the US is to let Russia get bogged down in Syria. As for jointly fighting international terrorism, there is a certain slyness there, as well, concerning Hay’At Tahrir al-Sham, which apparently cannot really be considered quite terrorist since it has never carried out terror attacks outside Syria and only fights the Assad regime.

The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic caught Syria in the midst of an unsettled conflict and social tensions, a destroyed infrastructure, limited internal reserves and financial resources. We need to understand that in this emergency the way out of the crisis or the simple act of meeting the urgent needs of the people, regardless of their political preferences, is closely linked to the integral progress in several areas: mobilising internal economic resources and creating conditions equally favourable for the work of public-private partnerships and foreign investors; providing a safe environment for refugees to return; creating an atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation; what is required politically is for these efforts to be enshrined through specific steps taken in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, largely spearheaded by Russia.

 [1] See: A. Aksenenok. “The Syrian Crisis: A Thorny Journey from War to Peace” [in Russian] // Valdaiskie zapiski [Valdai Memoranda] No. 104, Valdai Discussion Club. P. 11.

From our partner RIAC

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