Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Thoughts on Arab conflicts

The clearest loss in the internationalisation of Arab conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as elsewhere, is the aspirations of the Arab Spring, now all but forgotten,
writes Ahmed Youssef Ahmed

Al-Ahram Weekly

The currently raging Arab conflicts are undergoing developments that are highly significant and merit close attention. At the end of 2015, some analysts held that these conflicts might move toward resolution in 2016. Their contention was not unfounded.

It has become clear that, from the military standpoint, the conflicts have entered a phase of immobility, in the sense that no side is capable of settling the conflict in its favour without extremely heavy costs that it is unable to sustain materially or morally.

In addition, the repercussions of these conflicts on international security in general, and European security in particular, have grown palpably obvious, with the aggravated danger of the Islamic State (IS) group and its sister terrorist organisations, the flood of refugees from these conflicts and the Syria conflict in particular, and the anticipated detrimental impact of these unprecedented waves of refugees.

Nevertheless, I take issue with this contention not because concrete motives to reach solutions do not exist, but because the obstacles they face are too many. As everyone familiar with the complexities of the current crises knows, the divides are not only between opposing sides but also between factions on the same side, as is apparent in the Syrian conflict.

In the closing month of last year, the three fiercest conflicts in this region entered the beginnings of a political process. Talks between the parties to the Yemeni crisis opened in Geneva. There was an agreement on the principle of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, which translated into the recent, albeit indirect, talks in Geneva between the parties to the Syrian conflict. With regard to the Libyan crisis, an agreement was signed between the various factions in Skhirat that called for the creation of a national unity government by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, all these first steps that seemed so encouraging at the time ended in nothing. The Yemeni talks yielded no progress of any sort. Even the release of some prisoners was only accomplished through tribal mediation. The Syrian negotiations stalled even before they began, while efforts to form the Libyan national unity government envisioned in the Skhirat accord ran aground.

Such developments were anticipated because the existence of factors propelling towards a political settlement does not mean that the road leading there will be smooth. The hurdles are innumerable and the interests of the many stakeholders are highly divergent. Yet new developments arose following the obvious failures of the initial steps.

On a number of fronts in the Arab conflicts, government forces have succeeded in making considerable progress (the term “government”, here, is more appropriate as it avoids the dilemma of “legitimacy” and the accompanying debate). The advances achieved by government forces in Syria are the most remarkable. Evidence of this is to be found, firstly, in international press reports by parties biased in favour of the Syrian opposition on the tangible victories; secondly, in the growing stridency of opposition to the Russian intervention: and thirdly, in reports indicating that thousands of terrorist elements are fleeing from Syria to Libya.

In Yemen, government forces have also achieved steady progress, albeit not as clear cut as in the Syrian case. In fact, government advances in both Syria and Yemen may be one of the chief reasons why the first rounds of negotiations failed, as this progress revived hopes in the possibility of a change in the balance of powers that would inevitably tilt the scales in the negotiating processes in favour of the government sides. To the Syrian and Yemeni cases we can add that of Iraq, where the conflict too saw a shift in favour of government forces following the defeat of IS in Ramadi.

The foregoing developments undoubtedly require explanation. The regimes that recently scored such successes against their adversaries are riddled with defects and shortcomings. How could they have achieved such victories? Are we in the phase of the “antithesis”, to use the terms of Marxist analysis, if we take the Arab Spring as the “thesis”? Should we now anticipate “synthesis”?

Unfortunately, the question is much more complex than this. What the three regimes are confronting is no longer, by any standards, a “spring”. The Syrian regime is not up against a popular uprising but a mixture of organisations, the smallest and weakest of which might be called “revolutionary” while the larger, stronger and more effective majority of groups can be easily ranked in the category of terrorist organisations.

Therefore, if the Syrian regime is responsible for the horrors that have been visited on Syria and the Syrian people, its adversaries are equally responsible. In like manner, if the Syrian regime lost its popularity due to its practices, its exclusiveness in catering to the interests of narrow segments of society and its excessive dependency on support from abroad, the majority of its adversaries are equally unpopular because of their deviant ideology and because they are manifestations of outside regional and international interests.

With regard to the Yemeni regime, despite the faults that distance it from the essence of the popular Arab Spring revolution in Yemen, its Houthi adversaries turned against the outputs of the Yemeni dialogue, which had been seen as a successful attempt to codify the results of the Yemeni revolution, and forged a close alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime the revolution had fought to oust.

In addition, the Houthis, regardless of the political manoeuvres that led them to claim “revolutionary” credentials, seek to revive a backward and out-dated imamate system that the Yemeni people had rose up against over half a century ago. In Iraq, there was no “spring” to begin with. There was a loathsome sectarian quota system that is now up against terrorist organisations that also use vile sectarian language that is carried over in deed in their atrocities.

In sum, the Arab conflicts today are no longer a conflict between revolution and its opponents, but conflicts between competing local, regional and international parties and interests that have no relationship whatsoever to the revolutions and their ideals. The true “revolutionaries”, if they exist, have been totally marginalised, their voices are now barely audible, and the principles and aspirations that give revolutions their unbounded energies are nowhere to be found in the Arab scene. Today, might has the upper hand.

In all three cases (Syria, Yemen and Iraq), government forces have received considerable outside backing, which has enhanced their weight in the balances of forces. But we must simultaneously acknowledge that their adversaries have also obtained outside support.

In all events, at this juncture it is impossible to claim that recent advances made by government forces are sustainable and will ultimately lead to victory for these parties. Sadly, the signs are that the Arab revolutions are dead and their aspirations are, at best, put on hold for a while.

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

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