Tags: Least bad options, Middle East in 2016, Tunisia attacks, Yemen war
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The following short article was first published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog in January 2015.
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.