Thursday, 15th October 2015

Syria/Yemen:‘Too hard’ politics just got worse, global response needed

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) monarchies have emerged as significant regional players in the past decade, reflected in Oman’s invaluable back channels for Washington to talk to Iran, Qatar’s global projection of soft power and military capacity in Libya and the Levant, and the increasing tendency of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to dictate policy with air power. The trend towards greater regional autonomy has been encouraged by the United States’ reluctance to commit to Middle Eastern conflicts during Barack Obama’s presidency, and the hesitancy of new powers such as China or a weakened Russia to provide a counterweight to the declining Pax Americana. GCC leaders, Turkey and other ‘new’ players (including a spectrum of non-state actors) have taken an ever greater role in shaping international relations and protecting national interests. But that evolving world order is being tested in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and a Mediterranean Basin ‘flooded’ by refugees from conflict and economic failure – and it is coming under potentially intolerable strain.

The entry of Russia as an active player in the Syrian conflict changes the balance of force, adding to a precipitous outlook for the region. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give Russia’s long-time Baathist ally overt military support is highly unlikely to resolve the region’s most intractable conflict; it could change President Bashar Al-Assad’s fortunes on the ground, but is unlikely to produce anything like an outright victory. Meanwhile, the Russian intervention is generating flashbacks to the Cold War – echoed in reports that UK Tornado aircraft bombing Islamic State (IS, or Daesh) targets in Iraq will be armed with air-to-air missiles. It will come as no surprise if persistent violations by Russia of Turkish air space lead to a jet being shot down, with Nato’s blessing.

Putin is clear that he will not put Russian boots on Syrian ground, not least with the Afghanistan experience in mind. But neither is Putin – nor Assad (for now) or his other main allies Iran and Lebanese Hizbollah – going away. The US is having to respond through rhetoric and diplomatic activity, and a series of knee-jerk military/security moves, including finally admitting that Washington’s hugely costly support for ‘moderate’ Syrian groups has got nowhere. As the Syrian conflict gets ever more global, regional governments that played a dominant role through their proxies risk being outflanked – or return to being treated as proxies themselves.

Meanwhile the GCC states most active in Yemen will want to keep control of ‘their’ conflict. But even the most bullish Emirati or Saudi nationalist should be concerned that conflict on Arabia’s southern flank risks getting out of control, with the bombing of civilians, heritage sites and vital economic and social infrastructure creating a calamity that even the GCC’s huge funds of potential redevelopment finance will not easily pay off.

Sooner or later, a fractured and ineffective ‘international community’ will have to produce a more coherent, holistic response to the Middle East and Mediterranean region’s crises. This was the substance of an appeal by emergency response organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s international president Dr Joanne Liu, in London to collect the prestigious Chatham House Prize on 13 October. The 3 October bombing by US forces of MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, underlined the need for greater international leadership and clarity in enforcing rules and standards of behaviour, Liu argued. Obama may have publicly apologised for Kunduz, but MSF’s campaign for an independent enquiry is based on a view that saying sorry is not enough. “Until we understand what happened we can’t go back. That’s why we need an enquiry… to safeguard our ability to work in conflict zones,” Liu told Chatham House members.

In a world where “there’s a huge vacuum of political leadership”, a reaffirmation of the Geneva Convention was essential to instill acceptable rules of engagement, Liu said. MSF and its peers can apply only so much sticking plaster. A new approach to global leadership is urgently required, which implies heavywight players supporting major peace initiatives. This, in turn, could have a marked impact on Gulf states already under pressure over Syria, Yemen and their attitude to refugees. Another shift in the way global politics is transacted may prove difficult for the GCC to accept.

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