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The Middle East and the Institutionalisation of ‘Least Bad’ Options 8, January 2016

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, The Gulf.
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The following short article was first published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog in January 2015.

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In recent years, after the hope of the Arab Spring, Libya went from a swift revolution to a bitter civil conflict. Syria descended into utter Hobbesian chaos radiating refugees foisting crises on countries near and far. Egypt returned to the status quo ante. Tunisia continues to flirt with a successful political transition but suffers from regular, deadly terrorist attacks. Algeria remains frozen in its autocratic mould. The situation for the Palestinians is dire and hopes for a two state solution are as dim as they have ever been. The situation in Iraq inexorably deteriorates as the medieval fascists in Islamic State continue their rampage. And the Arab Gulf States are increasingly mired in a deep sectarian funk and have engaged in a brutal war in Yemen that will lead the way, as it were, for the downward trajectory to continue.

Yemen remains wracked by fighting. The campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been enormously costly in terms of lives and loss of infrastructure. And the state that was already on the cusp of humanitarian disaster is now resolutely in the midst of complete catastrophe. 82% of the population, some 21.2 million people, are classified as ‘in need’ by the UN, a near-unfathomable number more than those ‘in need’ in Syria. Worse still, when the conflict is over, the Gulf Arab states dealing with low oil prices and domestic budget shortfalls will struggle to rebuild what they have broken. Otherwise, the Houthis – the quasi-Shia group that the Gulf coalition is so eager to crush – though taking a pounding, are employing classic guerrilla warfare tactics, melting into cities, and hunkering down in their tribal and often mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise that became a household name with its attempted attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009, has enjoyed a resurgence without any concerted pressure from a central state. All these factors coalesce to make Yemen a depressingly likely candidate to follow Syria and Iraq down the road of becoming a state in name only that harbours and incubates terrorist groups that pose a grievous security threat to the wider international community.

Searching for positives is an exercise in hope over expectation. One would have to be excessively Pollyanna-like to expect that the cease-fire in Yemen or the peace talks in Libya to make a drastic difference. And one would have to be near-certifiable to expect, for example, the UK’s recent announcement of airstrikes against IS targets in Syria to make any kind of strategic difference. Perhaps a better imagination is needed to conceive of truly positive, important developments in the MENA region in 2016. But the experience of recent years simply does not lend itself to optimism. Instead, policymakers are left with depressing calculations of ‘least bad’ options that seem to worsen as the months go by. The region’s turmoil has to end at some stage, but there are no reasons to expect that this will be in 2016.

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The UK Decision on Syria 6, January 2016

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random, Syria, UK.
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The following article was published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog back in early December 2015.

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An outline of a modus vivendi with Russia is required if there is to be any progress in the fight against Da’esh. Otherwise, the vaunted 70,000 strong ‘moderate’ forces promised by the likes of UK Prime Minister David Cameron to help coalition forces combat Da’esh will continue to be attacked by Russia. Indeed, their bombing campaign to date has been almost exclusively focused on forces other than those of the Da’esh and the Assad regime.

Of equal importance is persuading this 70,000 – or as many of them as possible – that they must concentrate on Da’esh and not the Assad regime. Presently, reports emerging from representatives of these forces claim quite the opposite: that the Assad regime is their primary enemy. As long as this is the case, Russia will continue to attack them and they will be of little use to Cameron and others seeking to primarily attack Da’esh.

On paper, at least, it looks like there is a deal to be done here.

Russia does, in fact, at some stage, want to counter Da’esh. This motley group killed hundreds of its citizens in the Sinai plane attack, and it has released a propaganda video of the execution of a Russian citizen. But Russia wants to guarantee its role in a future Syrian scenario too. This is the primary reason that it is so eagerly fighting the array of extremists and moderates ranged against Assad: it is protecting the Syrian regime.

Similarly, these moderates want Assad to go above all else. They – rightly – see him as the ultimate cause of the Syrian civil war and the one who indirectly founded Da’esh through policies actively stoking extremism. But this will simply not happen as long as Russia supports the Syrian regime. This statement of basic geopolitical fact needs to be relayed to these groups and driven home.

The deal is, therefore, quite obvious. The bulk of the Assad regime remains in place – Russia will not have it any other way – but Assad himself is scheduled to pass on power in a designated timetable. For this concession, Assad is saved from prosecution, Russia gets a say in the future government to guarantee its interests, the 70,000 and those they represent get rid of Assad and can have some (likely minor) say in a future government, and everyone can concentrate on dismantling Da’esh.

Doubtless, an approximation of this bargain is being discussed. But the fundamental problem is the fractured nature of the opposition groups. Persuading the dozens of militias and fronts that make up this 70,000 grouping of relatively moderate fighters to sign up to such a plan will be likely be near-impossibly difficult. In the end, Cameron and his allies will likely have to support and work with far fewer local forces.

The overarching ‘solution’ to this crisis is, then, political and involves a range of distasteful compromises. That British fighter-jets are now attacking targets a few hundred miles west from their current zone of operations in Iraq will not – cannot possibly – make any wider, strategic difference.

But it can, of course, make a tactical difference. Well targeted attacks can slowly degrade Da’esh capabilities. Especially in conjunction with allied support, it is plausible to suggest that the group’s abilities to operate in parts of Syria could be hampered.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this vote and of the resulting campaign depends on what its goals are. Destroying Da’esh is an absurd, impossible aim. It is an insidious franchise that can demonstrate that it has ‘won’ (i.e. not been wiped out) by any individual anywhere on earth with a flag, a camera, and an internet connection, to say nothing of its resilience in the great lawless swathes Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Nigeria.

The hope, then, is that this move by the British government is more important for its symbolic value signalling a new era of concerned international political alignment and pressure, than for its kinetic impact on the ground in Syria.