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The fault lines defining the Middle East’s future | The World Weekly

Walking down Syria Street in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli one can hardly miss the bullet holes riddling buildings on both sides of the street separating two once warring neighbourhoods: Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal al-Mohsen. While the reasons for the decades-long conflict are complex, what has driven violent conflict on either side of Syria Street can be seen as encapsulating many of the problems affecting people across the Middle East.

Both districts are poor, many of its young inhabitants lack economic opportunities at home in Tripoli, the biggest city in Lebanon’s largely underdeveloped north, or elsewhere. What is more, the two neighbourhoods are largely divided across sectarian lines, with Bab al-Tabbaneh being predominantly Sunni and Jabal al-Mohsen mostly Alawite, the same sect of Islam Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to. The war in neighbouring Syria, where many of the Middle East’s fault lines play out to devastating impact, inflamed tensions further. Many from the area have joined the fighting in Syria.

This week news reports said Syrian government forces stepped up aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas in southern Syria and launched a ground assault on the city of Deraa and its countryside. Deraa, located close to the Jordanian border, is seen as the cradle of the uprising against the regime of President Assad.

Syrians, inspired by mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, peacefully took to the streets in 2011, demanding the fall of the regime after decades of authoritarianism. The government responded with brute force, starting a cycle of violence that developed into the full blown war still ravaging the country today. Syria’s young generation has suffered from “violence, arrests, tyranny, bombardment and emigration”, says Marcell Shehwaro, a prominent Syrian activist who currently lives in exile.

The Arab uprisings exposed a “deep legitimacy crisis for nationalist regimes”, Imad Salamey, a veteran observer of Middle Eastern politics from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, told The World Weekly.

A whole range of factors triggered the mass unrest that has shaped and transformed the region in the last years. Dr. Salamey adds that this legitimacy crisis was particularly strong in countries where “historic exclusion from economic and social benefits shaped communitarian politics”, citing Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya as examples. In other countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, other “economic and political deprivations” drove discontent.

At a time when President Assad is moving to seize the last strongholds of the opposition, a humanitarian crisis is deepening in Yemen and mass displacement is shaping politics in the Middle East and beyond, TWW speaks to leading experts to find out what some of the key fault lines are that will likely dictate the future of the Middle East and North Africa.

Ongoing wars

Conflict remains a reality of daily life for many of the region’s inhabitants. Syria is not the only country where anti-government protests turned into armed conflict. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s crackdown against protesters triggered a NATO intervention in 2011 that eventually led to the toppling of his regime. At the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, a power vacuum caused by protests against then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the subsequent power struggle turned into a full-fledged war several years later when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened.

These and other conflicts have had a devastating impact on human life and civilian infrastructure. More than half a million people have reportedly been killed in Syria since 2011 and around half of the population has been displaced, with more than 5.5 million people becoming refugees. The war has created the biggest refugee and displacement crisis in recent memory.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, here seen during an exclusive interview with AFP on February 11, 2016, has vowed to retake all of Syria.

There are different diplomatic initiatives to calm the violence in Syria and bring about a political solution. However, after more than half a decade of conflict a grand bargain facilitating political reconciliation for the whole country remains out of reach. President Assad, riding on a wave of military successes with the backing of Russia and Iran, remains adamant that he will take back all of Syria.

In Libya, which emerged from over 40 years of Qaddafi rule in 2011, political and military power remains split between rival alliances. The country is awash with militias and lacking a central authority became a hub for migrants embarking on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. As TWW went to press, operations by military strongman Khalifa Haftar to fully retake the eastern city of Derna were ongoing.

France led a diplomatic push to bring the warring factions together in Paris in May. All those present, including the head of a UN-backed government in Tripoli and General Haftar, agreed in principle to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10. Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at International Crisis Group, told TWW at the time the push to hold elections as soon as possible was a “dangerous gamble”, adding that it was “extremely unlikely that appropriate security and legal conditions will be in place to hold elections”.

Whereas Libya and Syria have made many headlines in the West partly due to their role in the migrant and refugee crisis currently playing out in Europe, the conflict in Yemen has often attracted less attention despite being labelled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In June, Saudi- and Emirati-led forces launched an assault on the port city of Hodeidah, a crucial lifeline for humanitarian supplies.

Regaining control over Hodeidah would be a big success for the coalition supporting the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, even in liberated areas, the government is struggling to assert control, says one observer who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work on Yemen. “The government is unable to fight corruption, war profiteering or deliver basic services to gain popular support.”

Despite superior fire power and logistical as well as intelligence support by Western countries, “the coalition has not yet found a realistic vision for a winning strategy,” the observer adds.

A regional battle

While the crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen all have local roots, they serve as perfect examples of how armed conflicts in the region rarely remain domestic affairs. Dr. Salamey sees it as a reciprocal relationship. “Local disputes are typically infuriated by regional conflicts and vice versa.”

Much of the involvement of regional states revolves around a struggle for supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran and Riyadh back opposing sides in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

The Iran-Saudi competition does not only play out in the Middle East, but “globally as the two countries have fought for hearts and minds around the world for at least two decades,” says Theodore Karasik, senior advisor to the Gulf State Analytics consultancy.

Under King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has taken a more aggressive approach towards Iran. MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is widely known, has repeatedly likened Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and vowed to fight back Iran’s influence. 

Saudi Arabia sees the Houthi rebels in Yemen as Iranian proxies - a charge they deny - and strongly opposes Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese armed group and political party that is closely aligned with Tehran. Iran and Hezbollah have been pivotal allies of President Assad in Syria, while Riyadh supports the opposition. “In the current environment Saudi Arabia is using all its efforts to push back Iran,” Dr. Karasik told TWW. This includes attempts to break the relationship between Russia and Iran and to take advantage of protests in Iran.

Both countries invest heavily in outreach programmes to increase their clout in Muslim communities across the world.

Fleeing, rebuilding and fighting extremism

Conflict across the Middle East and North Africa have led to mass displacement, with millions of people forced to leave their homes. Syria is a key example of how much displacement on such a large scale can shape the region’s politics. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken in around 5.2 million refugees. Already prior to the outbreak of the Syrian war, both Lebanon and Jordan were hosting a large population of Palestinian and in the case of Jordan Iraqi refugees. Several Lebanese leaders have called for Syrians to return home.

As political pressure in several countries for Syrian refugees to return home increases, questions of reconciliation and reconstruction have become more urgent. This is also crucial in terms of international efforts to fight extremist groups like Islamic State (IS), observers say.

Displaced Yemeni children who fled battles in Hodeidah use donkeys to collect water from a well in the northern district of Abs in Hajjah province, on June 26, 2018.

“Militarily, the United States and its partners have made great strides in addressing violent extremists in key parts of the Middle East and North Africa,” says Joshua Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism on former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

However, “long-term rebuilding for Raqqa, Sirte, and other cities and areas ravaged by ISIS remains very much a work in progress,” Dr. Geltzer, currently a fellow at the New America think-tank, told TWW, stressing the need for “increased diplomatic, financial, and other efforts” to stabilise liberated areas.

Conflicts are not the only driver of migration inside and from the MENA region as a lack of economic opportunities has caused many young people to seek their luck abroad. With the second youngest population of all world regions, economic discontent remains widespread over seven years after mass protests swept the region and toppled governments.

“The whole Middle East is suffering from structural problems” after many years of stagnation, population growth, and a lack of economic development, Harith al-Qarawee, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently told TWW. A wave of protests in Jordan earlier this year showed how high unemployment, public debt and subsidy cuts mandated by international lenders can create a toxic combination.

Nevertheless, after a sharp decline in economic growth in 2017, the World Bank forecasts economic growth to pick up again, reaching 3.1% in 2018 (up from 2% in 2017), 3.3% in 2019 and 3.2% in 2020. The bank warns, however, that “geopolitical tensions, the challenges posed by the forcible displacement of people... and the rising level of debt in the region could cloud the positive outlook”.

Dr. Salamey warns that the situation in the Middle East is a “protracted crisis”, adding that leaders are unable to respond with “appropriate solutions as challenges are becoming multi-fold, requiring global and regional cooperation to address local issues”.

The fact that those seeking change were crushed means that “more than ever today there is a need for a struggle for justice, freedom and equality,” says Ms. Shehwaro. 

On Syria Street, a local NGO in 2015 brought together youth from either side of the conflict line for a theatre project. To have a more lasting impact, a cafe was subsequently opened on the street, promoting unity and serving as a meeting space for people from once warring neighbourhoods.

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