MIDDLE EASTOPINIONPOLITICS

Mapping conflicts in Syria and Yemen

By Amanullah Khan

Power politics is continuing to destroy many countries in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions are living paralyzed lives, and the economic damage is in hundreds of billions of dollars—$202 billion in Syria alone. Besides, the invisible psychological consequences for the victims are unthinkable.

The conflict in the region presents a complex scenario as it is spreading in all directions. Not only, regional countries have got affected and involved (willing or unwillingly) but the temperature is being felt in other continents also. People having sympathies with militants are coming from other parts of the world, i.e., Australia, Europe, Asia, and America, to join terrorist groups in the region.

The initial interpretation of the unrest was that people are depressed from the monarchy in the Arab world and this is a struggle for freedom and democracy. As the uprising entered in new phases of violence with the emergence of Da’esh (ISIS), it became obvious that power politics is underway by the regional and extra-regional players. The picture got clear when two informal alliances were formed—United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey as one bloc (supposedly A), and Russia, Iran, and Lebanon, the other (B).

On Syria, national interests of every regional and extra regional actor (both A and B) merge at a point to either support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or remove him. This convergence of interest in both the cases is the real driving force behind the two informal alliances. However, important to understand is that every state in each group is pursuing different political, economic and strategic agendas vis-à-vis Syria.

From bloc-A, Washington wants to remove Assad as early as possible. It is utilizing every forum at diplomatic level to convince the world that with Assad in power, there cannot be durable peace in Syria. Militarily, US army personnel have been deployed to train rebels, and play advisory role to rebels’ commanders. Saudi Arabia also does not accept Assad’s government as legitimate and thus helping rebel forces in Syria. Turkey initially wanted an end of Assad’s regime; however, its policy towards Syria seems changed after the failed coup in Turkey, followed by many terrorist attacks inside the country, claimed by ISIS and Kurd militants. Turkey’s prime objective has now shifted from removal of Assad to curbing ISIS and Kurds militancy.

In case of the bloc-B, Russia and Iran are the frontline states in their mission to rescue Syrian government headed by Assad. Moscow played a significant role at the United Nations Security Council to prevent Washington from launching Iraq and Afghanistan like wars on Syria. Both Russia and Iran are contributing active part in targeting rebels along with the Syrian government forces. Lebanon’s resistance movement, Hezbollah, is assisting Assad’s army. China also sides with the Syrian government and Russia. Recently, a senior Chinese military officer visited Syria and offered aid and training to Syrian military.

One can notice that every country in both the blocs is fighting to eliminate one common threat from ISIS, but it is still a force with control of territories in Iraq and Syria. This put a question mark on Israel’s role in the regional politics.

Yemen situation could be understood quite differently by looking through different lenses. For a lay person, it looks like that there is a civil war in the country, just like it is in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, etc. Broadly, there is a sectarian war underway, in which regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main actors. However, a big picture shows that beneficiary of the war is neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has done a mistake by launching air strikes in Yemen. Time will tell but it seems that Saudi Arabia would not be able to completely eliminate Houthi’s resistance. Recent reports have shown that despite heavy bombardments by Saudi jets, Houthis are spreading their control to other areas. Iran seems committed to let not Houthis defeated. If Saudi air strikes continue, it would put economic pressure on the already deteriorating Saudi economy, and could create security problems inside Saudi Arabia as the country has Shia population especially in the oil rich areas. A good number of Saudi soldiers have already been killed in attacks by Houthi tribesmen on the border with Yemen.

Overall, the situation is going worse day by day. The task of all insurgent groups seems to spread anarchy and challenge writ of the unwanted governments in the region and eventually overthrow them. Many have already been overthrown; Assad government is being badly targeted, while some more are in the pipeline. The formula for achieving such set objectives varies from country to country. Whether it is Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq, Free Syrian Army in Syria, or TTP in Pakistan, all such armed groups are proxies, having political and economic agendas and therefore cannot be termed as non-state actors.

It is imperative to underscore that Middle East crisis is carrying dire consequences for the international peace at large. Repercussions of the protracted conflict can even engulf Pakistan, which is already fighting terrorism at home. Since all major Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran) are supporting one or the other party in the Middle East, Pakistan position remains neutral so far. However, if Saudi Arabia becomes unstable due to militancy then Pakistan might not be in a position to remain neutral, due to the holy places in Makkah and Madina.

Chances for peace in the region are fading in the foreseeable future because winning over the other has become a difficult task. Both parties/blocs cannot afford to lose; it has become a matter of life and death for them in every sense. It is now a test case of military muscle and patience for the opponents, in other words. The worrisome aspect of the conflict is that innocent citizens are suffering.

Regional organizations like OIC and GCC are powerless entities and lack capacities to deal effectively with the complex issue. Leadership of the major Muslim countries is ethnically so bitterly divided that total destruction of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen has not awakened them. Western world is pursuing its own agenda and to some experts, continued unrest in the region suits their objectives.

United Nations role for maintaining peace, by and large, is less visible in almost all of the international conflicts. The five permanent members of the Security Council have divided approach to the Middle East crisis. US, UK, and France are on one side, while Russia and China on the other. The organization having the supreme mandate to maintain peace in the world is under strong influence of the big powers. Its role is not very different from the League of Nations, according to some political commentators. If there has been no world war since the formation of the international body, it is not by virtue of any great role played by the international organization but because of deterrence and mutual assured destruction phenomena created by the nuclear weapons.

Lastly, it is baseless to assume that removing Assad from power would bring stability in Syria. There are examples of Libya and Iraq where internal security situations have got worsened after Qaddafi and Saddam.

Amanullah Khan is a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan

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