Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Solutions or slide?

Applying internationally sponsored settlements to the region’s crises will depend, in part, on who is elected to the US presidency later this year, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Developments in the Arab world over the past few years “pleased neither enemy nor friend,” as our saying goes. To friends, our region appears hopeless and unsalvageable and they have little to offer us but pity and sympathy. To our enemies, the schadenfreude they had harboured towards this part of the world has gradually begun to fade and be replaced by anxiety and fear of the repercussions. These take the form of, firstly, huge waves of immigration and the spectre of “cultural pollution” in spite of the possible economic need, and secondly terrorism, the brutality of which spares no one.

Many factors indicate that 2015 was the severest and bitterest year for the Arab world, especially if we consider the numbers of victims. Every day of that ill-fated year brought more dead and wounded in the fields of combat, at the hands of suicide bombers and through disease and starvation in areas under siege and closed to the caravans of humanitarian aid. Men were beheaded, women were raped and campaigns of ethnic cleansing swept through areas that fell under the control of terrorist groups and extremist militias. Millions of people were driven from their homes as their regions, cities or neighbourhoods suffered bombardment and destruction. Some roamed the deserts until they died of thirst or hunger. Others drowned in the Mediterranean, their corpses washed up on European beaches. The “lucky” ones found refuge in places near or far that sometimes welcomed them. The refuges were not always safe and rarely did they offer an opportunity for a dignified life or a promising future. Still, despite all this, that grim year did not depart without leaving a candle that, hopefully, will give sufficient light to steer our disaster-ridden Arab world out of its long dark tunnel.

Efforts to produce peaceful settlements to the conflicts raging in several Arab countries have resulted in measures that, until very recently, seemed out of reach. These include:

- The resolution, unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council, providing for the first time since the eruption of the Syrian crisis a roadmap and timeframe for a peaceful settlement. The details and mechanisms of this process are to be formulated through direct negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition under international sponsorship. Negotiations are supposed to begin before the end of this month.

- The conclusion, in Skhirat, of a final agreement for the settlement of the Libyan crisis. The document was signed by the majority of delegates of Libyan factions that took part in the UN-sponsored dialogue, as well as by a broad array of representatives from Libyan society, municipal heads and political party leaders. In accordance with the agreement, participants at Skhirat formed a national unity government and agreed on certain security arrangements. The UN Security Council unanimously resolved to support the national unity government and the security arrangements stipulated in the agreement.

- Official negotiations began in Geneva between parties to the Yemeni conflict. Through these UN-sponsored talks, it is hoped that specific confidence building measures and mechanisms for settling the crisis can be reached, in accordance with the established frames of reference, including the Gulf Initiative, the outputs of the national dialogue conference and UN Security Council Resolution 2216. In spite of the formidable hurdles that lay ahead, all parties appear determined to continue with these negotiations and not to forfeit this available opportunity.

The more optimistic observers try to emphasise the positive aspects of the foregoing inroads, especially with respect to the Syrian crisis. Nevertheless, they realise that these steps, as important as they are, are still very limited if measured against the considerable distance that needs to be covered in order for the proposed settlements to take tangible effect on the ground. Nor are these observers willing to contend for certain that these achievements constitute irreversible breakthroughs. But regardless of considerations connected with optimism or pessimism, I believe that the progress that has been achieved so far reflects a degree of international consensus that has yet to be translated into an equal degree of consensus at the regional or local level.

The consensus that was reached internationally is the product of two chief factors. The first is the unprecedented increase in the danger of international terrorism, especially since Islamic State/Daesh seized control over large swathes of Iraq and Syria. This organisation and other terrorist organisations have managed to stage painful and simultaneous attacks in various parts of the world. Perhaps the gravest were those that were carried out in Paris and that claimed dozens of dead and wounded. In tandem, there has been an unprecedented rise in immigrants from Arab countries and from Syria in particular. As the escalating danger and mounting waves of immigration are a direct product of the raging crises in the Arab world, they generated an additional incentive for the major European powers to intensify efforts to resolve those crises.

The second factor is Russia’s entry, with its military weight, as an immediate party in the Syrian crisis on the side of the ruling regime. Such a move is unprecedented in Moscow’s policy towards the Middle East since its military intervention in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. In addition, Russia has re-engaged politically as a party in the extended conflict over influence in this part of the world. As the US appears in retreat or reluctant to intervene using the same mechanisms, the sudden Russian intervention also formed an additional incentive to intensify the search for common denominators with Russia in the hope of formulating settlements to the region’s crises.

However, these factors have not had a significant effect on regional powers. Turkey is bent on its pursuit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it sees as the most dangerous terrorist organisation, and on preventing the emergence of a unified Kurdish state in the region. It is simultaneously more interested engineering the downfall of Bashar Al-Assad than it is in fighting Daesh, or containing religious extremist organisations in the region. Iran appears more interested in expanding its spheres of influence and supporting its existing spheres of influence in the Arab world than in any other issue. In like manner, Saudi Arabia’s determination to check and contain Iranian expansion in the region overshadows all other concerns. Israel is obsessed with the liquidation of the Palestinian cause and fuelling sectarian strife in the region. At the same time, the rivalry between the three non-Arab states in the region — Turkey, Israel and Iran — is intense as they position themselves to take the greatest share of what is left of the Arab world which seems in its last throes, much as was the case with the Ottoman Empire before and during World War I.

Worse yet, the conflicting political elites in all Arab countries, not just in the ones gripped by civil war and other acute crises, do not seem ready yet to engage in a meaningful dialogue aimed in establishing consensuses over new sets of rules that will enable Arab governments and societies to be managed in ways that will lead to stability and, simultaneously, guarantee the peaceful rotation of authority. In the absence of domestic conditions capable of producing a climate conducive to new sets of rules, it will be difficult to apply the internationally sponsored settlements unless two chief conditions are met:

- The first is for the major powers to impose the proposed settlements by acting on a UN Security Council resolution that invokes the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

- The second is for regional powers to offer political cover that enables the UN Security Council to intervene in order to impose the settlement on warring factions without too great a risk.

As these two conditions appear out of reach at present and for the near future, the international community will probably try to win time and prevent the crises from growing worse until after the election of a new US president at the end of this year. At that point, the region will approach a new crossroads that will either lead to an intensification of efforts aimed at reaching a solution to its crises or to a strategy aimed at wreaking attrition on Russia by miring it in the region’s conflicts. The first would be the one most likely to prevail in the event that a moderate Democrat wins the presidential elections. The second would be the likely result if an extremist Republican becomes president.

The writer is a professor of political science, Cairo University.

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