Perry Cammack and Michele Dunne

More than any other region in the world, the Middle East is defined not by commercial ties, diplomatic interaction, or regional organizations, but by hard power and military might. This has been the case for the region’s modern history and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But not since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago has the Middle East been so convulsed by regional turbulence and internal conflict.

Amid this crumbling regional order, the ongoing civil wars, especially in Syria and Yemen but also in Libya and Iraq, have become apparently intractable. Regional power struggles, such as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, are widely understood to be complicating factors. But while such rivalries are indeed consequential, broader dynamics have also made these conflicts particularly long and ugly.

Four factors in particular have served to escalate and perpetuate conflicts. First, the regional balance of power has been highly uncertain following the 2011 uprisings as well as the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Second, local disputes have become the stage on which ever-present regional rivalries are playing out in larger, more lethal conflicts. Third, arms imports to the region have skyrocketed—sales for which the United States and its European allies actively compete. And fourth, the Middle East suffers from a notable dearth of norms of warfare and dispute resolution mechanisms in comparison with other regions of the world. The result is a complicated hornet’s nest of military interventions across the region.

Overcoming these factors is a daunting task for regional and international policymakers. Even in optimistic scenarios, progress toward deescalation and stability is likely to be incremental, slow, and uneven. Nonetheless, there are concrete steps that regional and international actors can explore to mitigate the dangers of these conflict escalators.

Beyond these broad factors, the particularities of each conflict as well as the interests of the intervening parties must be considered, and they are treated at the end of this chapter in a series of question-and-answer commentaries with experts from the countries under discussion.

Conflict Escalator 1: Shifting Regional Power Dynamics

Among the casualties of the turbulence following the 2011 Arab Spring was the status quo regional power distribution. Countries formerly seen as regional authoritarian anchors, such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya proved to be brittle shells that succumbed to domestic turmoil or conflict. Scarred by its Middle East forays since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Washington has been unable—or unwilling—to sustain the prevailing regional order. The successive U.S. presidential administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump have played a less vigorous role than their predecessors in attempting to mediate conflicts; they have also pursued policies toward Iran and Israel, respectively, that Arab states have found alarming in various ways.

Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have long proclaimed an “axis of resistance” in opposition to the U.S.-led regional security order and have been united in their animus against Israel. Iran had little direct involvement with the initial turbulence in Syria and Yemen, but it certainly sought to take advantage of the institutional fractures and sectarian cleavages that followed. Alarmed at these developments, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have found their threat perceptions steadily converging in recent years.

Perry Cammack
Perry Cammack was a nonresident fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on long-term regional trends and their implications for American foreign policy.
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But it has been the actions of two global powers—the United States and Russia—that have solidified these nascent alignments into something resembling regional blocs. Russia’s September 2015 military intervention on behalf of the Assad government brought it into a military partnership with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.1 The Obama administration had sought to straddle this regional division—continuing security cooperation with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates while leading negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for Iran’s nuclear program. But the administration’s inability to translate the JCPOA into a new modus vivendi with Iran on its regional activities coupled with the more hawkish Trump administration—including its May 2018 exit from the JCPOA—have further solidified the anti-Iran bloc.

Each of these blocs has its own contradictions. Syria is the fulcrum of Russian-Iranian cooperation. Yet Russia has sought to work through the nominally nonsectarian Syrian military, while Iran employs sectarian militias that undermine the state’s coherence. Moscow’s muted reaction to Israel’s wide-ranging May 2018 airstrikes against Iranian assets inside Syria—compared to its vociferous protests to the United States’ far more limited airstrikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities a month earlier—suggests it is not troubled to see Iranian military capacity in Syria reduced.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led bloc is an inchoate alignment of shared antipathy toward Iran rather than a proper military alliance. Absent a Palestinian state, Israel will continue to lack even basic diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.

There is also cross-fertilization between the blocs. Despite its partnership with Iran in Syria, Russia has maintained serviceable relations with most regional states, including U.S. security partners.2 Turkey remains a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member and a member of the U.S.-led coalition to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But relations between Washington and Ankara have become severely strained, in part because of continued U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish rebels. Turkey has also participated with Russia and Iran in the Astana process, which has supported a series of ceasefire agreements between pro-Assad Syrian forces and rebel groups while allowing Russia to expand its political influence inside Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pursued counterproductive ideological and power struggles with Turkey and Qatar, further pushing these former partners to flirt with Iran.

Against this complicated backdrop, four competitive dyads—Saudi Arabia–Iran, Israel-Iran, U.S.-Iran, and U.S.-Russia—seem especially critical to shaping a new regional security balance. The likelihood of resolving any of these is low. Some of these struggles are viewed in near-existential terms, while leaders in others appear to derive significant political benefits from the rivalries.

While reconciliation among the most contentious of these axes may not be possible for the foreseeable future, there is an urgent need to explore whether these inevitable competitions for influence can be made less lethal. This would spare states such as Syria and Yemen their wholesale destruction, and allow Middle Eastern governments the opportunity to focus on providing for the social and economic well-being of their citizens.

Scholars of international security policy warn of security dilemmas, in which steps taken by one state to increase its security result in countermeasures from an adversary who in turn feels less secure, thus risking a chain reaction leading to conflict.3 This dynamic well describes today’s Middle East. To observers in Israel or Saudi Arabia, it is self-evident that Iran is playing a highly destructive role in places such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Israeli security officials point to the importance of creating credible military deterrence given decades of Iranian hostility.4 From an Iranian perspective, however, such actions are justified as a defensive response to Israeli threats of military strikes and the U.S. military installations in close proximity to Iran’s borders.5

The Trump administration has recently announced efforts to create a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, and Jordan.6 Although the prospects for success seem low given inter-Arab divisions and the track record of previous initiatives, such an alliance could certainly produce tangible security benefits for its members in coordinating counterterrorism efforts and countering Iranian influence. But in so doing it would likely to harden divisions in the Middle East.

In comparison with almost every other geographical region, the Middle East suffers from a lack of both regional dispute resolution mechanisms and diplomatic protocols that might reduce the scope for regional conflict. While the Cold War was defined by the antagonism between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, both sides increasingly felt the need for inclusive institutions and mechanisms to reduce tensions. Every U.S. president during the Cold War, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush, met with his Soviet counterpart. During the tensest moments, high-level U.S.-Soviet channels of communications were especially important. Over time, a number of confidence-building institutions and transparency-enhancing measures were created, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), successive arms control agreements, and later the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows for unarmed surveillance flights over signatory countries to promote military and nuclear weapons openness.

In the Middle East, however, the absence of any similar mechanisms or organizations, particularly amid proliferating military conflicts, feeds security dilemmas across multiple vectors, so that steps justified by one state as necessary to its security—military intervention, arms procurement, alliance formation, and so on—are perceived by its rivals as threatening.

During the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts of the 1990s, there were attempts to build mechanisms for regional communication and cooperation. Participants at the 1991 Madrid Conference set up five multilateral working groups to address regional challenges, each involving Israel and a range of Arab states. The centerpiece was the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group, which marked the first bid to create a formal multilateral framework for regional security issues. Six ACRS plenary sessions, co-hosted by the United States and Russia, were held and a series of regional confidence-building measures were outlined before the working group slowly broke down by 1995 under the weight of regional animosities and implementation challenges. While all of the working groups have long been defunct, one tangible result survives: the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman, created in 1995. The center conducts transboundary water research and development projects, and its membership includes Israel, Jordan, Oman, Palestine, and Qatar as well as several Western nations.

Policy Recommendations

The Middle East is likely to remain unstable so long as internal conflicts continue to rage. Creating trust between Israel or Saudi Arabia and Iran seems impossible at present. But a more feasible objective might be for regional and international actors to support the creation of tangible measures to better manage these animosities, so as to reduce the likelihood of further escalation toward regional conflict, which would benefit no one. Even establishing mechanisms for information exchange can reduce the likelihood of miscalculation and perhaps provide off-ramps to deescalate crises when they occur. Measures to explore might include

  • Bilateral measures: Diplomatic outreach is sometimes caricatured in the public perception as a sign of weakness. But if routine diplomatic engagement with partners is important, diplomatic exchanges with adversaries can be even more so. The prevalent bias against engagement among rivals in the Middle East is terribly counterproductive; reversing it may be an important ingredient in creating a less turbulent regional environment. Policymakers could explore many possibilities—restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran; allowing Arab diplomats from countries not recognizing Israel to quietly meet with their Israeli counterparts in neutral countries; and reestablishing diplomatic channels, created during the Obama administration, between the United States and Iran. While such openings would not likely lead to quick breakthroughs, they might reduce the scope for further escalation at moments of crisis.
  • Multilateral measures: Even as the Trump administration pursues the MESA initiative, the United States and other regional and international actors should consider a parallel effort to expand the mechanisms and forums for dialogue on pressing regional issues. Eventually, a Middle East organization might be created to play the role that the OSCE played in Europe during the Cold War, increasing transparency on nonproliferation and military issues. However, the ACRS track record highlights the impediments to success. A less ambitious multilateral measure might follow the model set by the Middle East Desalination Research Center, focusing on pressing nonsecurity challenges such as climate change, pandemic preparedness, or seismology. Given that national-level responses to such problems are far more effective with increased international coordination, governments might have incentives to create venues for professionals—such as epidemiologists, seismologists, or first responders—to exchange information, experiences, or best practices.
  • Supporting neutral states: Certain governments—notably Kuwait, Oman, Tunisia, the Palestinian Authority, and more recently Iraq—have sought to chart independent courses amid the regional turbulence of recent years. But the pressure to take sides is mounting as conflicts have internationalized and regional blocs have hardened. Saudi Arabia has put significant pressure on smaller Arab states to support its policies on Yemen and Qatar, while Iran has pressured Iraq to support its policies on Syria. Yet neutrality serves a potentially important role in the region, both as a hedge against geostrategic pressure and as a possible vector for future mediation. International and regional actors would be wise to support the independence of such states.
  • Track 2: Track 2 diplomacy (which involves backchannel engagement between private citizens acting in unofficial capacities) has a long history in the Middle East. While the results can be uneven, diplomatic breakthroughs—such as the 1995 Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians and the 2015 JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States, plus Germany)—are often built on extensive experiences of informal contacts and unofficial negotiations. Particularly at a moment when the prospects for formal diplomacy seem limited, international actors should support track 2 efforts across all lines of Middle East conflict to allow influential participants to explore alternative futures. Given the rising levels of sectarianism and radicalization, more religious leaders and younger participants should also be included.

Conflict Escalator 2: Spreading External Interventions

Three of the region’s four ongoing civil wars—Libya, Syria, and Yemen—have local origins dating to 2011, while the Iraqi civil war is inextricably bound to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But while the particulars of each conflict are unique, certain ingredients are common across all four: collapsing socioeconomic orders, corrupt rentierism, and predatory authoritarianism (please see separate chapters of this report on the political economy and governance of Arab states). Over time, each conflict metastasized, becoming both regionalized and internationalized.

Regardless of whether U.S. disengagement from the Middle East in recent years marks a blunder, a rectification, or a financial necessity, regional and global powers have sought to fill the ensuing power vacuums. Across the region, states are intervening in neighbors’ affairs at an unprecedented rate—politically, economically, and militarily. Partners and rivals of the United States alike have asserted greater roles.

The Libya, Syria, and Yemen conflicts continue because local leaders as well as their regional and international partners believe that they can achieve their strategic objectives through zero-sum military victories. The fifteen-year U.S. struggle in Iraq, however, suggests they might be mistaken. In the spring of 2003, the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power in just three weeks. But the resounding U.S. military victory soon gave way to a nearly decade-long military occupation and a popular shift among U.S. voters against such interventions, marking the gradual end of Pax Americana in the Middle East. Although the United States remains the unquestioned preeminent military power in the region, Washington has struggled to advance—and sometimes even to define—its interests in recent years and has been frustrated in its attempts to leverage its military strength into durable political and diplomatic achievements in the Middle East.

The early evidence suggests that those countries currently intervening in regional conflicts, particularly when pursuing broad political goals rather than limited defensive ends, may experience similar results. Iran has protected, and even advanced, its security interests in Syria through a brutal military intervention, in conjunction with Russia, that helped secure the Assad government’s grip on power at a terrifying human cost. Iran has also maintained its land bridge to Hezbollah and pushed its zone of influence to Israel’s doorstep in the Golan. But Syria may now be fractured beyond repair. There is also increased dissent inside Iran, whose public does not appear to view its experience more favorably than did the U.S. public a decade ago. A consistent theme of the sustained public unrest that has gripped Iran since December 2017 is rising displeasure at the perhaps $20 billion spent supporting Assad both militarily and economically.7 That total does not include lesser expenditures on the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various terrorist groups in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, rampant inflation and high unemployment have caused significant economic dislocation at home.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the Saudi-led military coalition has achieved slow tactical gains against Houthi rebels since 2015. But decisive victory remains elusive. Several cities, including Aden, Mocha, Mukalla, and Taiz, have been nominally restored to governmental authority, but pro-government forces have subsequently struggled to exert control. The result is a slow-motion fragmentation of Yemen that has coincided with a catastrophic decline in humanitarian conditions. Almost four years into the campaign, it is difficult to see an end in sight. Saudi Arabia’s defense budget, like Iran’s, is not public, but its expenditures in Yemen have been estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion per month.8 To the extent that either Iran or Saudi Arabia is achieving its respective objectives in Syria and Yemen, these are Pyrrhic victories indeed.

This is not to say that there are easy answers to whether external interventions in local conflicts can be justified or successful. The 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq is widely seen as having created enormous local and regional problems in the Middle East as well as domestic political trouble in the United States. But the 1991 U.S.-led intervention to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is generally regarded as both justified and successful, in part because it had limited military objectives.

By contrast, the juries are still out on the NATO intervention in Libya and the anti–Islamic State intervention in Syria and Iraq, partly because the ultimate effects are unknown. Did the Libya intervention violate its humanitarian mandate, destabilize the country, and pave the way for jihadism? Or did it spare Libyans a vast civilian slaughter akin to what has happened in Syria? Regarding Syria, did the United States wisely stay out of a domestic dispute and confine its objectives to defeating an international terrorist organization? Or did it undermine international norms by ignoring massive brutality and pave the way for enhanced Iranian and Russian influence in the region? Even now, is the U.S. decision to retain a military presence in eastern Syria indefinitely necessary to prevent a dangerous power vacuum, or does it start down a slippery slope toward an open-ended intervention lacking achievable objectives?

Every war must end. But when civil conflicts end with political settlements rather than outright victories, belligerents are likely to question whether such agreements will be honored unless they are combined with some kind of international enforcement mechanisms.9 Thus, even if political settlements for Middle Eastern conflicts are found, it is unlikely they will hold without some form of peacekeeping.

This raises the prospect that settlements to existing conflicts might contain the flashpoints for new conflicts and new belligerents. This is particularly the case in Syria, where new spin-off conflicts can be imagined from a number of directions, given contrary ongoing military interventions by Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, the United States, and Hezbollah.

Policy Recommendations

Militaries in authoritarian societies, in which governments are not directly accountable to citizens, face fewer constraints on the conduct of war than do militaries in democratic societies. Thus, in the long run, reducing the level of international interventions may require Arab citizens playing a greater role in the governance of their societies. The United States and Europe, burned by previous experiences and their domestic political consequences, have become more cautious, while Russia may have renewed confidence in interventionism. In any case, there are steps that may limit the scope of further regionalization of Middle Eastern conflicts over time.

  • More limited interventions: If regional and international leaders feel they must continue to intervene in the Middle East, they might consider that it is in their own interest to do so in a more limited fashion. From the United States in Iraq, to Russia and Iran in Syria, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, military interventions in the Middle East tend to begin as short-term operations with limited military objectives and evolve into open-ended commitments with broad political aims. Leaders contemplating interventions might seek to emulate the characteristics of the 1991 intervention against Iraq: it was based on a generally accepted international principle (prohibiting the use of force against the territorial integrity of a sovereign state10); it had a limited, specific aim (repelling the Iraqi invaders and restoring the internationally recognized Kuwaiti government); it enjoyed significant (though not complete) support inside and outside the Arab region; it did not create a power vacuum; and it ended upon achieving its specific goals.
  • Planning for peace enforcement: Extensive academic literature makes clear that without peace enforcement and the disarmament of nonstate actors, the recidivism rate of negotiated settlements to civil wars is high. Given the immense complications of peacekeeping in potentially unstable postconflict environments (presumably including the remnants of nonstate militias and terrorist groups), significant attention must be paid to how any prospective political settlement will be enforced and what, if any, mechanisms for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of fighting groups will be implemented. In all of these cases, smaller follow-on conflicts among local parties are to be expected and mechanisms for peaceful dispute resolution (through political competition, mediation, and so on) should be baked into national-level dispute settlements.

Conflict Escalator 3: Skyrocketing Arms Sales

Beyond direct military involvement, outside actors also intervene indirectly through arms sales and security assistance, which can seem an appealing way to influence the contours of a conflict without deploying troops or undertaking military action. Moreover, for leading exporters, including the United States and its European allies as well as Russia and China, arms sales can generate significant economic benefits, and they have become a diplomatic priority as well as a factor in the political fortune of leaders in exporting countries.

The Middle East is the most militarized region in the world. Although numbering less than 6 percent of the world’s population and contributing less than 5 percent of its GDP, it accounted for nearly one-third of the world’s arms imports between 2013 and 2017—more than doubling its share compared to the previous five-year period.11

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates were three of the four top arms importers in the world (with Algeria and Iraq also in the top ten) between 2013 and 2017. All three have intervened militarily in neighboring countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, Egypt in Libya) since 2013. Turkey and Israel (also a significant exporter) were in the world’s top twenty arms importers, while Iran imported much fewer arms (primarily from Russia and China) due to international sanctions.12

Meanwhile, the United States was the world’s largest arms exporter between 2013 and 2017, comprising some 34 percent of the global total, followed by Russia, France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom. The United States and the UK were the major suppliers to Saudi Arabia, while the United States and France have supplied Egypt as well as the UAE. Germany has diminished its sales to Arab states, although it remains a major supplier to Israel.13

The April 2018 U.S. presidential memorandum to streamline procedures for conventional arms transfers issued by Donald Trump is unabashed regarding the economic advantages of arms exports; its first paragraph hails “a dynamic defense industrial base, which currently employs more than 1.7 million people.”14 French President Emmanuel Macron also has pushed aggressively for arms sales to the Middle East, despite growing criticism of potential abuses related to the technology provided.15

In addition to the economic benefits, advocates of arms exports in democratic countries argue that arms sales and security assistance programs can help to professionalize developing militaries, and in this way can produce a moderating influence on recipient nations.16 U.S. officials also tout the need to improve allied states’ capabilities to enhance the possibility of joint operations with U.S. forces.

But is there evidence that the increased provision of arms has helped to stabilize the Middle East, or even to provide victory for key allies? Unfortunately, the brutality of contemporary Middle Eastern wars suggests that this flood of weapons has poured fuel on the fire and made conflicts lengthier as well as deadlier.

First, arms sales to belligerents in a conflict are seldom a decisive factor, but rather invite a counterreaction by opposing states, thereby feeding civil wars rather than extinguishing them. U.S. and European supply to the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen has coincided with Iran’s increased support for its Houthi partners.17 The provision of weapons by the United States and several Gulf states to Syrian rebels initially helped to tip the balance against the Syrian army. But this same support also encouraged Iran to escalate its support, and once it became clear that the Obama administration would not take direct military action against the Syrian armed forces, Russia seized an opening to intervene and defeat those same rebels, thereby decisively changing the contours of the conflict.

Even worse, arms provided to militaries in fragile or highly corrupt states can slip into the hands of terrorists, militias, and other nonstate actors. Although the Houthi rebels have reportedly received Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles, many of their ballistic missile stocks are composed of Russian and North Korean weapons originally provided to the Yemeni army and seized during Houthi advances in 2013 and 2014.18 A comprehensive survey by Conflict Armament Research of 40,000 combat items recovered from Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq suggests that more than 50 percent of their weapons were originally produced by Russia and China (many of them for the Syrian and Iraqi armies), and 30 percent originated from Warsaw Pact–era Eastern Europe. Three percent of weapons and 13 percent of ammunition were NATO caliber, presumably seized from the Iraqi armed forces during the Islamic State’s advances in 2014.19

In one case, an advanced anti-tank guided weapon was reportedly manufactured in Europe, sold to the United States, supplied to a party in Syria, and transferred to the Islamic State in Iraq, where it was recovered—all within two months of leaving the factory.20 Unfortunately, the advanced weapons systems being sold to authoritarian Arab governments today may be used by insurgent fighters in future wars.

What of the argument that security assistance and arms sales can moderate the behavior of recipient countries?21 Here too, experience suggests otherwise. Take the examples of U.S. security assistance to Egypt and U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States has provided $1.3 billion in security assistance to Egypt annually since the 1978 Camp David Accords, totaling more than $46 billion.22 While the hope had been that the assistance would help modernize, professionalize, and depoliticize Egypt’s military, in fact the opposite has happened. In 2013, then defense minister (now President) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi upended a brief democratic opening, and since then the military domination of politics and the economy has escalated sharply. Gross human rights abuses have also risen, fueling an insurgency in Sinai and radicalization among youth in prisons. The United States has struggled to use its assistance as leverage; the Obama and Trump administrations each suspended portions of assistance or equipment deliveries due to alarming rights violations and lack of cooperation in other forms, but then gave up and resumed aid without getting anything in return. Any potential political leverage was thus forfeited.

A review of 2017 U.S. arms sales found at least $659 million in sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for laser-guided bombs and other munitions, as well as firearms, to be used in combat operations in Yemen.23 But there is little evidence that the U.S. support for the Saudi-Emirati campaign has either accelerated a coalition victory (thereby shortening the conflict) or significantly reduced casualties in Yemen. U.S.-made weapons systems have targeted school buses, funerals, and hospitals.24 Four years into the war, the situation has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation or suffering from related diseases. Germany and Spain have cut off weapons sales to the intervening parties, and pressure has grown in the United Kingdom and United States to consider doing likewise, particularly after an August 2018 United Nations report found that practices by both sides in the conflict amounted to war crimes.25

Interoperability has also proved to be something of a mirage. The United States and its allies have cooperated in some cases with Arab militaries on common goals: the 1991 Gulf War to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the 2011 intervention in Libya, and the more recent war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But increasingly, Arab militaries are using weapons, technology, and training obtained from the West to conduct interventions not necessarily to the West’s liking—such as the Gulf force that crushed a peaceful Bahraini uprising in 2011, the ongoing Saudi-Emirati campaign in Yemen, and the ongoing Egyptian-Emirati intervention on behalf of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

Policy Recommendations

  • Establish new arms sales parameters: The United States and its European allies should reconsider the circumstances in which they provide weapons to Middle Eastern states—as well as their unseemly rivalry in doing so. Such weapons inflame conflicts and lead to direct threats to their collective security through migration and terrorism. To reduce the likelihood of weapons slipping into the hands of nonstate actors, they should severely restrict the sale of advanced weapons systems to fragile states at risk for future internal conflicts. They should also reduce sales to states at risk of committing grave human rights abuses against their own citizens.
  • Diplomacy to broaden arms sale norms: Western states should seek to reach agreement among themselves on principles, and then can use those principles to discourage other arms exporters such as Russia and China. Such policies would have a limited impact on states not undertaking interventions such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan, though certain advanced systems might be impacted. However, such policies would restrict the sale of weapons to countries such as Iraq and Libya (for fear of slippage), Egypt (for its gross human rights abuses), and Saudi Arabia and the UAE (for their continued conflict in Yemen).

Conflict Escalator 4: Lacking Regional Norms for Conflict

The modern history of the Middle East is replete with conflict, particularly the numerous Arab-Israeli wars, often of short duration and in recent decades involving nonstate actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. However, before 2011, military interventions by one Arab state into another were relatively uncommon. Notable exceptions included Egypt’s 1963–1967 intervention in Yemen, Syria’s 1976–2005 occupation of Lebanon, and Iraq’s 1990–1991 occupation of Kuwait. The devastating Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988 was a conventional conflict between two states rather than an intervention by a stronger state into a weaker one. By contrast, in the last six years alone, Arab states and Iran have intervened militarily in four Arab countries (Syria, Yemen, Libya—as well as a brief intervention to crush an uprising in Bahrain) as well as politically in others (notably supporting the 2013 military coup in Egypt).

The blurring of lines between civilians and combatants, as well as a lack of international consensus about how these conflicts might be ended, has created an environment where massive violations of international humanitarian law have become commonplace, particularly in Syria and Yemen, but also in Iraq and Libya. These abuses include, but are not limited to, indiscriminate bombing of urban civilian populations, ethnic cleansing and civilian displacement on a grand scale, widespread sexual violence, use of chemical weapons, denial of humanitarian access and use of starvation as a weapon, and the bombing of hospitals and schools.

Norms of conflict and mechanisms for defusing conflict have never been robust in the Middle East compared to other regions. Organizations such as the League of Arab States (established in 1945 primarily in reaction to European colonialism and the founding of Israel) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, established in 1981 after the Iranian revolution and subsequent onset of the Iran-Iraq war) have not been as vigorous or inclusive as bodies in other regions such as the African Union, Organization of American States, or Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While the Arab League and GCC have within their charters commitments to and mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes between members, they lack credible mechanisms to impose consequences, such as sanctions, for noncompliance short of expelling members. They also have been heavily dominated by one or two regional powers—often Egypt or Saudi Arabia, more recently UAE—which have abused and been ready to jettison the organizations to pursue parochial agendas, such as the ongoing Saudi-Emirati diplomatic dispute with Qatar that began in 2017.

Establishing new norms of conflict and reinforcing norms that exist on paper are likely to be a lengthy, perhaps generational process, but need to be part of the international agenda for the Middle East. All Middle East countries are signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and as such political and military leaders have a legal and moral obligation to uphold these standards in the conduct of war.

Policy Recommendations

History suggests that norms are established after conflicts, not during them. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 was a reaction to the widespread use of chemical weapons in World War I. The more expansive Geneva Conventions, which form the basis of modern international humanitarian law, were negotiated after the horrors of World War II. Thus, the eventual end of the current conflicts in the Middle East will offer an opportunity to strengthen norms. However, there are proactive steps that can be taken now:

  • Recommit to international norms of conflict: Organizations such as the United Nations, Arab League, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation should be encouraged to rearticulate their commitment to international humanitarian law. Regional political leaders should be pressed to say publicly what peace—or at least an end to violence—might look like in specific conflicts. Outside donors should consider expanded support for track 2 dialogue on norms of war, including among religious leaders and educators, for use with publics in Arab countries.
  • Lead by example: The United States and European nations as well as Israel should acknowledge the ill effects of the steps they have taken in the name of combating terrorism, including enhanced interrogation techniques and outright torture as well as military tactics such as signature drone strikes (which target people based on their behavioral patterns) and targeted assassinations (long a feature of Israel’s counterterrorism approach). Going forward, the United States, Israel, as well as NATO members should consider more stringent rules of engagement.
  • Train in international humanitarian law: Training in international humanitarian law should be a fundamental part of curricula for officer corps and professional soldiers alike. Providers of security assistance and sellers of weapons should more stringently make access to advanced armed systems contingent upon such training.
  • Pursue accountability: There will inevitably be temptations to do whatever is most expedient to end fighting, including guarantees to avoid accountability for the parties to the conflicts. But international actors and organizations should keep in view the goals of establishing accountability and improved norms to mitigate future conflicts and atrocities. In Syria and Yemen, in particular, this means supporting efforts to collect and safeguard evidence against perpetrators of war crimes. Governments, both in the region and beyond, should refrain from normalizing relations with the Assad government, which has been particularly egregious in perpetrating war crimes.


While the Middle East has been recognized as an outlier among world regions in terms of the frequency and intensity of conflicts for some time, it is time to recognize that it is also an outlier in terms of the dearth of regional communication channels, dispute resolution mechanisms, and norms for warfare as well as a surplus of arms imports. There are opportunities for regional states as well as international actors to open up channels to resolve current conflicts and, in so doing, perhaps prevent future conflicts.

Internal unrest, regional power struggles, and quarrels between neighboring states are likely to endure in this region, which is struggling to find a new equilibrium as its decades-old economic models and social contracts lose salience. But nothing dictates that these problems translate into large-scale armed conflicts that bring about horrific human suffering and the destruction of state institutions, as well as spillover into neighboring regions.

A previous chapter of this report discusses the challenge of refugees and displaced persons. Here it is sufficient to repeat that sustained international humanitarian assistance for refugees and other persons displaced in Middle East conflicts will be necessary for the foreseeable future, and will be challenging to sustain over time as new regional and international challenges emerge. Ultimately the wealth of the Middle East region resides not in hydrocarbons or advanced weapons systems, but in its youthful and dynamic population.


Libya: Reconciling Grievance and GreedTarek Megerisi

How can a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Libya be achieved?

There are two drivers of conflict that need to be reconciled for a negotiated settlement to the conflict: grievance and greed. Satisfying the aggrieved will require a mixture of transitional justice and constitutional-level guarantees to assuage insecurities for the future. Predatory actors will be significantly harder to satiate, and will require a mixture of carrot-and-stick-based coercive measures to ensure they don’t spoil any process. Overall, it’s arguable whether the greed driver of conflict can be neutralized without reforming Libya’s governance system and, most crucially, the centralized mechanism for distributing state largesse.

Tarek Megerisi
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in Libya.

Who are the main foreign actors, and how do they affect the conflict?

Despite the international community uniformly claiming to only act through the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), in reality many states act unilaterally to attempt to secure their interests. The coalition backing Khalifa Haftar, comprised of the UAE, Egypt, France, and to some extent Russia, complicates and disrupts the political process and has created fresh grievances among many constituencies. The other major actor is Italy, which prioritizes securing installations belonging to the Italian oil firm Eni, protecting oil extracted from under the Mediterranean, and blocking migrants crossing from Libya to Italy. The Italian-French competition to take the leading role has undermined the efficacy of European actors. Although Qatar has previously been a dominant actor, its involvement dissipated alongside the marginalization of their interlocutors within the Libyan dynamic and the ascension of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to emir. Following the collapse of Fajr Libya and the National Salvation Government of Khalifa Ghweil, many in Libya’s Islamist milieu fled to Turkey to escape an increasingly insecure environment. Although Libyan communities within Turkey continue to send armaments and resources to their allies in Misrata or Tripoli, the Turkish government appears to remain largely indifferent to Libya’s internal conflict.

Is it possible to disentangle the role of these outside actors?

European actors share medium- and long-term interests with Libya. If Europe could agree on a path toward stability and work toward coherent policies, then it could become a unified actor with enough gravity to bend the regional actors toward a common path. Regional actors will be significantly more difficult to untangle given the ideological lens through which they view the conflict. It would behoove UNSMIL to include a strand of work that seeks to reconcile regional actors with their own action plan and dampen the worst negativities of the regional approach. Algeria previously advanced a big-tent approach whereby all Libyan security and political actors would meet to devise a road map. Reviving this could be a diplomatic way of disentangling international involvement.

Given the political fragmentation in recent years, what new governance structures are needed?

Libya’s postrevolutionary conflict, political malaise, and fragmentation are largely a product of its Jamahiriya governance system, which incentivizes zero-sum competition between Libyans. Key to this is the centralization of the state’s administration, decisionmaking systems, and finances. As such, decentralization is at the heart of any structural fix to the country. Political issues (such as service delivery and development projects) should be devolved and a division of the country’s oil revenues should be guaranteed. If expenditure and decisionmaking are decentralized, then resolving Libya’s many militias into a national security apparatus would also become considerably easier.


Iran in Syria: Securing Regional DeterrenceHassan Ahmadian

What are Iran’s primary interests in Syria?

Iran is primarily concerned with preserving Syria’s prominent role in the Axis of Resistance and its overarching goal of securing its regional deterrence. Accordingly, the collapse of Damascus was intolerable because it would have negatively affected Iran and its allies in the region. This includes securing supply routes to Lebanon; enhancing the deterrence capabilities and operational experience of the Axis of Resistance against Israel and the United States, especially with Trump’s renewed hostility; and balancing Turkey in northern Syria. In addition, preserving Syria’s significant position within the Axis of Resistance serves to showcase Iran’s effectiveness in supporting allies and in its leadership role in the axis.

Hassan Ahmadian
Hassan Ahmadian is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, as well as an assistant professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at the University of Tehran.

What is Iran’s preferred outcome in Syria, and how is it seeking to achieve such an outcome?

While initially opposing a military solution in Syria, Iran and its allies gradually moved to using military means to pave the way for a negotiated political settlement after the military balance on the ground shifted drastically against the Syrian regime. This transition was evidenced clearly in the Iran-Russia partnership, which aimed at stopping the opposition’s advances in Syria and provided a lifeline to the Syrian government. The premise of this strategy was that with the reversal of its advances, the opposition in Syria would be incentivized for a political settlement. While Iran still insists on this general political blueprint, Tehran’s preferred outcome is one in which the Syrian regime and state would survive and the opposition would be tamed and ideally integrated. It also wants takfirists and their backers completely excluded. Deterring the United States along the eastern Euphrates is also important for Iran. To achieve this, Iran banks on its own allies on the ground and on its counterparts in the Astana process, which has proved successful in mitigating negative effects from the civil war.

How can an Iranian-Israeli conflict in Syria be avoided?

First, to avoid a conflict it is very important to avoid misperceptions on Iran’s policy and priorities in Syria, which include prioritizing the balancing of Turkey and pushing back against the United States in northern Syria. A conflict with Israel is not a priority. Iran will also stay in Syria until its strategic concerns with keeping Syria in the Axis of Resistance are met. That includes a Syria free of foreign troops, especially with regards to U.S. and Turkish forces. Second, there is the possibility of unintended conflict. Iran cannot turn a blind eye and refuse to respond to Israeli assaults on itself and its allies without putting its reputation in jeopardy. Therefore, it is possible that Iran’s secondary priorities could, at any time, cause unintended conflicts that go beyond Syria. International partners, especially Russia, can be intermediators of crucial effect to contain such a knock-on effect and conflagration that could quickly envelop the larger region.

Turning to Yemen, what is the best way to produce a negotiated peace settlement in that country?

Iran’s main driver for the limited support to Ansar Allah (the formal name of the Houthi movement) is to help keep Yemen independent of Saudi domination, which is in and of itself a strategic gain over Riyadh. Bogging down Saudi Arabia in Yemen is part of a strategy of exhausting Riyadh’s anti-Iran campaign in the region. Based on this clear and precise goal, Iran brought up an initiative for a political settlement in Yemen stressing an end to the Saudi war in the first clause, which in effect would mean a Saudi defeat, demonstrating that any scenario (either peace or war) is a defeat for the Saudis. As such, despite its close ties with Ansar Allah, Tehran was not welcomed as a mediator by Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, a peace in Yemen is only achievable when realities on the ground, namely the political primacy of Ansar Allah, are acknowledged, but it does not appear that Saudi Arabia is ready to recognize Ansar Allah and negotiate.


The United States in Syria: Defeating the Islamic State, Blocking Chemical WeaponsJames Carafano

What are the United States’ primary interests in Syria?

The United States has several strategic interests in Syria, but only two currently rise to the level of vital interests that would merit the use of U.S. military force: defeating the Islamic State and deterring/punishing the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In addition to those two, the United States also has an interest in containing Iranian influence, protecting allies from threats emanating from Syria, addressing the humanitarian situation inside Syria, and preventing more refugees from flowing out of Syria. However, the problem lies in balancing U.S. interests without incurring unnecessary monetary and military costs. Therefore, the United States should be primarily concerned with counterterrorism operations in Syria and deterring/punishing the use of chemical weapons. It should continue eliminating any remaining Islamic State presence and prevent it and similar terrorist groups from rising again. The second-order goals can be accomplished by working through allies and friendly Syrian factions, without the direct use of U.S. military force, at least for the time being.

James Carafano
James Carafano is the vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow.

How should the Trump administration seek to secure these interests?

The U.S. military policy in Syria should focus on counterterrorism first. U.S. troops should not remain in Syria longer than is necessary to accomplish their strategic goals there, and working with allies in the region should be prioritized. To prevent Iran from filling the vacuum left by the Islamic State, the United States should not withdraw its limited military presence in eastern Syria until allies and local partners have been trained, equipped, and deployed to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. The United States should continue working with allies on not only counterterrorism but also mitigating the spillover effects from the Syrian civil war.

The United States should strongly support Israel’s right to self-defense in pushing back on Iranian advances in Syria. It also should assist Jordan in defending itself against the Islamic State, Iran, Iranian-trained militias, and the Assad regime.

Is an accommodation between Washington and Moscow possible in Syria? (If no, why not? If yes, what might such an accommodation look like?)

The United States and Russia have competing interests in Syria. Russia has long been friends with the Assad regime and has backed Syria against Israel and the United States. Additionally, Russia has aligned itself with Iran and has supported Iranian meddling in Syria. Both of these realities are in direct opposition to U.S. interests.

Russia has furthermore proven itself to be an untrustworthy diplomatic partner for the United States in Syria. It has negotiated the creation of four deescalation zones that enabled it to temporarily reduce the fighting on some fronts while it crushed other fronts, one by one. Idlib is the last remaining deescalation zone. Putin’s interventions in Ukraine and Georgia also demonstrate that Russia has no problem in violating its international legal commitments and undermining other nations’ borders or governments.

Shifting briefly to Yemen, to what extent should the Trump administration support the Saudi-led intervention there?

Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East. The Houthis, who overthrew the internationally recognized government of Yemen, increasingly have become an Iranian proxy force and have launched Iranian-supplied missiles at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen. They have also attacked international shipping, U.S. Navy vessels, and Royal Saudi Navy vessels in the Red Sea. The United States has a vital interest in safeguarding the free flow of oil and other shipping through the Red Sea, and lower priority interests in helping Saudi Arabia push back the Houthis, countering Iranian influence in the peninsula, restoring the legitimate government in Yemen, and brokering a political settlement in Yemen that ends the fighting, eases humanitarian suffering, and frees up the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition to focus more on defeating al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Yemen.


Syria: Marking a Pyrrhic VictoryKheder Khaddour

What is the nature and extent of control you expect the Assad regime to exert once most or all of the fighting ceases?

Through a mixture of military and security methods, the Assad regime will most likely remain in control of the majority of Syria’s territory and strategic areas such as border crossings and major highways. Yet much of this control will be over lands that have been largely, or in some cases completely, depopulated. Rather than negotiate with residents in these areas, the regime has instead chosen to displace them, seize the lands, and leave it up to international powers to negotiate for their rights.

Eventually, the regime aims to reconnect all the territory under its control with Damascus, making the capital the only hub through which regional and international powers can deal with the government on a national level over issues such as reconstruction and return of the refugees. In short, the nature of the Assad regime’s control will be characterized by efforts to dominate key resources through the central hub of Damascus.

Kheder Khaddour
Kheder Khaddour is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, and his research centers on civil-military relations and local identities in the Levant, with a focus on Syria.

Are new governance structures needed to stabilize the country? And is there a way to institute them?

The regime has created a dilemma for itself. In order to survive, it created a mass of informal networks and structures outside Syrian state institutions throughout the years of war. These informal structures have expanded everywhere and at all levels, while the formal structure has been weakened. Now the regime must find a way to formalize these informal networks if it hopes to win political recognition as the country’s legitimate government that it has been striving to attain. Consequently, future governance structures will necessarily include people who were involved in the war either economically or militarily. These will likely include prominent figures from various militias, who are now becoming involved in local elections, as well as the businessmen who helped finance armed groups, some of whom are now serving in the Syrian parliament. This process will continue as local armed groups and nongovernmental organizations are gradually incorporated into the framework of the state.

As a consequence of the war, Syria will not see a new centralized government structure able to stabilize the country, but instead existing structures will be used to stabilize the remaining forces —the regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the armed opposition groups—rather than Syria as a whole.

Given the ongoing role of regional and international actors inside Syria, what can be done to avoid persistent or new armed conflicts emerging?

Turkey and the United States are present mostly in the border regions of the north and east, while the Iranians and Russians are more involved in Syria’s south and its key urban hubs. To avoid any persistent conflicts, political channels should be maintained on common ground between all powers present in Syria, particularly in the northern and eastern border regions.

Given the likely continuation in power of Assad for now, what can be done to guarantee the safety and property rights of those refugees and IDPs who seek to return to their homes?

With support from the Russians, the Assad regime is trying to gain political legitimacy and to make Damascus the central Syrian hub for dealing with the refugee issue, partly through dealing with neighboring countries.

The issues of displaced people and refugees must be put on the agenda of the political process in Geneva and must be made part of any international resolution for Syria. Such international attention will be one of the best methods for ensuring property rights.


Russia in Syria: Preventing Regime Change, Buying International InfluenceMarianna Belenkaya

What are Russia’s primary interests in Syria?

According to the official version, Russia’s intervention is a fight against international terrorism in a remote territory. Syria has always been diplomatically close to Russia: it is the only country where Moscow had a military-technical base on the Mediterranean, although before the beginning of the Syrian conflict it was difficult to consider it a real military base. Russia also had economic plans in Syria. However, the psychological trauma on the Russian leadership from the development of the Libyan conflict and the murder of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi became the catalyst for Russia’s actions. A few months after the beginning of the military campaign in 2015, it became obvious that Russia had regained its influence in the Middle East, which it had previously lost after the collapse of the USSR. Russia’s military operation in Syria coincided with an international campaign to isolate Russia because of the events in Ukraine. But thanks to the Syrian campaign, Moscow’s influence on international politics only increased. Now, for Russia, the stabilization of the situation in Syria is a matter of maintaining Russian positions in the Middle East and the international arena as a whole.

Marianna Belenkaya
Marianna Belenkaya writes on the Middle East for Russian daily Kommersant and is an Arab studies scholar with almost twenty years of experience covering the Middle East region. She also contributes to Al-Monitor and Carnegie Moscow Сenter.

What would a preferred end state for Syria look like from the perspective of the Russian government, and how can it be achieved?

Russia is interested in stabilizing the situation in Syria and preserving the integrity of this country. It is important for Russia to demonstrate not only its success in putting an end to terrorism in Syria but also its positive role in the political settlement in that country. It is important that the future authorities of Syria remain loyal to Russia, and that the country continue to be in the orbit of Russian interests, becoming an outpost of Russia’s policy in the Middle East. In addition, Russian politicians realize that considering a more active role the United States starts playing in Syria and the Turkish interests there, returning Syrian national integrity is not an easy task, especially in light of the need for the country’s reconstruction. No country can accomplish the latter task by itself. And Russia has some reasons to fear that it may end up in an unfavorable situation.

What can Russia do to reduce the likelihood of a conflict between Israel and Iran in southwest Syria?

Russia has already done everything that was in its power on this issue. It was Moscow that got the pro-Iranian forces to refrain from officially participating in the military operation in the southwest of Syria and move to other areas. Unofficially, some Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces remain in the area, and the Israelis know about it. But while the status quo is being respected, the Israelis are turning a blind eye to this. Further developments depend not only on Moscow but also on the attitude of the international community toward Tehran. The greater the pressure on Tehran, the more actively it will resist. Moscow will try to restrain Israel and Iran, since an open conflict between them is not in its interests while the situation in Syria has not yet stabilized. But not everything depends on Moscow.

Is an accommodation between Washington and Moscow possible in Syria? (If no, why not? If yes, what might it look like?)

Now that Washington has stepped up its policy in Syria and intends to stay in that country for a long time, the prospects for agreements between Washington and Moscow do not look simple. However, military contacts and political dialogue between the two countries will continue. But Russia can’t resist the United States if it decides to stay in Syria, and in this circumstance a search for the political solution in Syria will be more difficult and drag out the conflict. In any case, both sides will be forced to contact each other and negotiate on issues of coexistence in Syria.


Russia in Syria: Preventing Regime Change, Buying International InfluenceMaysoon Al-Damluji

What can be done to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State inside Iraq?

Various political, economic, and social measures will need to be implemented in order to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State inside Iraq. First, the population that previously provided shelter to the Islamic State will have to feel it’s a part of the political process. This population has felt threatened and disenfranchised since 2003. It suffered from de-Baathification, abrupt detentions, false imprisonments, and exclusion from the armed forces.

The economy also plays a part in bringing normality to the region. Reconstruction of cities must be accomplished by the hands of their own youth. Agricultural land and rural areas have to be developed in order to increase employment and productivity.

Intellectual, cultural, and physical challenges should also be addressed. Libraries, sports grounds, museums, and so on should be made vital elements of communities, with larger support for civil societies and media.

Finally, and probably most importantly, police and other security institutions must appear to work for the communities, not against them.

Maysoon Al-Damluji
Maysoon al-Damluji was an architect until 2003, when she was appointed deputy ministry of Culture in Iraq, a position she held until 2006 when she became a member of Iraq’s parliament for three terms.

What can be done to insulate Iraq from the impacts of the regional competition between the United States and Iran?

Iraq’s long border with Iran makes it difficult to insulate, adding deep historic and religious elements that tie the two people. Iran has had a massive influence on politics in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, under the pretext of spreading religion and resisting invasion.

At the same time, a new Iraqi nationalism is also on the rise, especially after the defeat of the Islamic State. Iranian-backed politicians are being held responsible for the sectarian conflicts and corruption that have consumed Iraq’s income since 2003.

Iraq today is in need of a competent government that can deliver services, build a sound economy, and limit the influence of militias. Iraq could even take advantage of the regional competition to negotiate the flow of water into rivers from Turkey and Iran.

Is a more equitable political compact possible in Iraq?

A review of the Iraqi constitution is urgently needed in order to clarify the relationship between the federal government and the provinces, to look into ownership of natural resources, and to create a fair system for distribution of wealth. After fifteen years, it is time to put an end to de-Baathification and to refer all personal injustices to courts of law.

The electoral system has to be more inclusive by creating clear constituencies where a constituent can relate to his or her representative.

Also, the judiciary has to be fortified and empowered to gain more of the public’s trust, and able to hold officials responsible for any misconduct.

Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors have improved in recent years. What can be done to nurture this process?

Iraq can play a pivotal role in creating stability and balance in the region. Prosperity would not be confined to Iraq but would spill over to neighboring countries, enabling deeper economic, cultural, and social ties with the Arab world.

Yet neighboring states might find it beneficial to invest in Iraq’s stability and prosperity, and find a way to coexist with Iraq’s Shia majority.

Exchange of visits, effective embassies, and small investments might be a good start.


Yemen: Empowering Local Civil GovernmentsAmat Al Alim Alsoswa

How can a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Yemen be achieved?

The United Nations Security Council must support a framework that enhances confidence between local and regional parties to the conflict and encourages them to return to the negotiating table. The UN prioritizes a deal between the Houthis and the Yemeni government (President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s administration), but the Houthis will look for assurances from the Arab coalition (mainly consisting of Saudi Arabia and the UAE)—assurances Hadi can’t deliver—before they deescalate. In return, the Houthis must distance themselves from Iran and end attacks on Saudi Arabia. This kind of progress is unlikely unless tensions between the regional powers ease, so the UN Security Council should also encourage any rapprochement between the regional powers, which can create a more appropriate atmosphere for negotiations.

The war economy must also be undermined. The coalition governments need to punish commanders profiteering from the conflict and shut down illicit trade, some of which stems from neighboring states, and the Security Council needs to sanction major war profiteers on all sides. These and other measures need to be tied to the broader peace process, in which warring parties must be incentivized to cooperate with the UN envoy in serious negotiations.

Amat Al Alim Alsoswa
Amat Al Alim Alsoswa is a Yemeni political leader and activist who has served as a minister of human rights, an ambassador, an assistant secretary general for the UN, and an assistant administrator of the UN Development Program.

Can traditional dispute resolution mechanisms in Yemen be reactivated if the external intervening parties allow it? Or have power relationships among Yemeni factions been fundamentally altered due to the war?

The war has undermined the very existence of the state, traditional institutions, and political parties in Yemen, and there are no national leaders with the influence to make major decisions that can stop the war, begin a national reconciliation process, and ensure justice (or even reparations or another form of compensation) for victims of war crimes. The people with immediate power will be the de facto authorities and armed militia leaders who continue to benefit from war and corruption. Therefore, discussions on the future of Yemen should take place with the participation of representatives from all regions of Yemen and representatives of the constituents of Yemeni society, integrating the needs and opinions of local communities in particular.

Right now there’s no sense that external parties want Yemeni reconciliation. There’s not only the intervention of pro-Saudi and UAE elements but also the undeclared presence of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. All these actors must be both pressured and incentivized to facilitate a permanent ceasefire on the ground.

Given the political fragmentation of recent years, would new governance structures be needed in a postconflict scenario?

The best solution for Yemen is to reach a flexible central system of government and a system of regions based on our historical and social constituencies, but not merely on a tribal basis. One path toward accomplishing this is to empower local civil governments that adopt equal citizenship and promote the rule of law, and empower them to direct their communities’ reconstruction. These local bodies would be elected prior to any national-level elections, and this approach would remove decisionmaking power for basic governance and development from the political elite, placing it in the hands of local leaders more responsive to their communities’ needs and demands.

What are the prospects for defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups operating in Yemen?

Counterterrorism must be looked at locally and internationally. Locally, a representative government that delivers basic services, stabilizes livelihoods across regions, and disempowers corrupt leaders using sectarianism as a tool for their own ends will all help diminish al-Qaeda. So here, prospects for a long-term “defeat” are poor.

But we also need a serious reconfiguration of international counterterrorism policy. Emphasis should be placed on drying up the sources of terrorist thought and adopting realistic policies to contain terrorist elements and reduce their risk by adapting economic and educational plans that help to eliminate the underdevelopment, poverty, and unemployment in Arab and Islamic countries.


The UAE in Yemen: Supporting the Legitimate GovernmentMohammed Baharoon

How successful has the military intervention in Yemen been in pursuing the primary objectives of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia?

The efforts in Yemen are both military and diplomatic. The diplomatic effort by the Saudis and Emiratis to establish a unified global position on Yemen, represented by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, is based on two important principles: supporting the legitimate government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and preventing a religious takeover of Yemen akin to the Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul and Raqqa. Meanwhile, the military campaign has stopped the advances of the Houthis into Aden and Marib and helped push them back in many areas, including the west coast where most smuggling was happening through ports like Mokha and Midi. This does not mean the military mission has been a complete success, but it is an important aspect nonetheless.

Mohammed Baharoon
Mohammed Baharoon the director of Dubai Public Policy Research Center (B’huth). B’huth focuses on UAE policies and its impact on the UAE development and its connection to regional and global developments.

What would, in your view, an acceptable end state for Yemen look like?

Resolution 2216 articulates a base line for all parties involved, both domestic and foreign. Once the legitimate government has been restored in Sanaa, then the peace process can be resumed that decides the final status of Yemen. Ultimately, it is up to Yemenis to decide on the form of governance that provides justice and realizes their aspirations. Yemen may not go back to be the central state it used to be, and its diversity may be managed by a more decentralized state.

Is a negotiated solution in Yemen possible now? If so, how might it be achieved?

Experience has shown that unless the Houthis feel pressure, they will not be interested in a negotiated solution. Thus, the ongoing coalition military operation is designed to create leverage for such a political process. Despite a great deal of international support, the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has not yet succeeded in getting negotiations restarted. However, there still is the prospect that tribal dialogue with the Houthis could lead to a breakthrough.

What role do you expect Yemen’s political and social forces to play in resolving the conflict?

Discussions are ongoing among various political forces. But Yemeni politics are changing. The General People’s Congress splintered into three factions after the assassination of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, while Islah is also strained by internal divisions. Meanwhile, new political forces have emerged, such as the secessionist Southern Transitional Council. A major challenge is that the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, is not a political party and does not want to be seen as such. It insists that it is a movement possibly to avoid being measured by the size of its constituency. This distinction will complicate things.

The traditional tribal forces have been absent from the process but can be vital for track 2 discussions. An example is the temporary truce Saudi Arabia achieved with the Houthis on December 15, 2015. There is little evidence that civil society organizations can be helpful in a political dialogue even though they will be vital for postconflict discussions.


1 Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, along with Hezbollah, announced an intelligence sharing agreement in September 2015, though little seemed to come of it, and in 2016 Iran revoked permission for Russia aircraft to fly combat missions into Syria out of Iranian airbases. Anne Barnard and Andrew E. Kramer, “Iran Revokes Russia’s Use of Air Base, Saying Moscow ‘Betrayed Trust’,” New York Times, August 22, 2016,

2 According to an informal Kremlin adviser on Middle East affairs, Russia has managed to simultaneously develop relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, making it the only actor currently positioned to mediate Middle East conflicts.

3 The original articulation of the security dilemma can be found in: John H. Herz, “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma,” World Politics 2, No. 2 (January 1950): 157.

4 Discussion with retired Israeli military official, Europe, February 2018.

5 Discussion with Iranian international relations scholar, Europe, February 2018.

6 Yara Bayoumy, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, “Trump Seeks to Revive ‘Arab NATO’ to Confront Iran,” Reuters, July 27, 2018,

7 Ahmad Majidyar, “Iran Faces Uphill Battle to Profit From Its Role in Syria War,” Financial Times, February 13, 2018,

8 Bruce Riedel, “Saudi Defense Spending Soars, but Not to America’s Benefit,” Al-Monitor, May 13, 2018,

9 Barbara F. Walter, “Bargaining Failures and Civil War,” in Annual Review of Political Science 12 (June 15, 2009),

10 Christopher Greenwood, “New World Order or Old? The Invasion of Kuwait and the Rule of Law,” Modern Law Review 55 (March 1992),

11 “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2017,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), March 2018,, and “GDP (Current US$),” World Bank, 2017,

12 Kate Blanchfield, Pieter D. Wezeman, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “The State of Major Arms Transfers in 8 Graphics,” SIPRI, February 22, 2017,

13 “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2017,” SIPRI, March 2018,

14 “National Security Presidential Memorandum Regarding U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” White House, April 19, 2018,

15 John Irish and Sophie Louet, “Despite Criticism at Home, French Arms Sales Double in the Middle East,” Reuters, July 3, 2018,

16 A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey, “Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Cato Institute, March 13, 2018,

17 Jonathan Saul et al., “Exclusive: Iran Steps Up Support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – Sources,” Reuters, March 21, 2017,

18 Asa Fitch, “How Yemen’s Houthis Are Ramping Up Their Weapons Capability,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2018,

19 “Weapons of the Islamic State: A Three-Year Investigation in Iraq and Syria,” Conflict Armament Research, December 2017,

20 Ibid.

21 Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, “U.S. Arms Transfer Policy: Remarks by Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs,” Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), August 8, 2018,

22 Jeffrey M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, June 7, 2018,

23 William Hartung, “Trends in Major U.S. Arms Sales in 2017,” Security Assistance Monitor, March 2018, p.8,

24 “Yemen: Coalition Bus Bombing Apparent War Crime,” Human Rights Watch, September 2, 2018,

25 “Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Situation of Human Rights in Yemen, Including Violations and Abuses Since September 2014,” United Nations Human Rights Council, August 17, 2018,