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The Prospects of Conflict Resolution in the MENA region in 2023

13 January 2023

This article aims to forecast the Middle East’s prospects for conflict resolution in 2023. It takes Libya, Yemen, and Syria as its case studies, through analysis of domestic and regional contexts, examining international influence, and investigating their drivers, limitations, and trajectories in the new year. 


Future Outlook

Predicting the future is one marred with challenges, much so that one may think it impossible to learn what the future holds. Complex, constantly changing, and uncertain, one needs to account for a virtually infinite number of variables to make a plausible prediction. And so much remains hidden from states, rendering any effort to predict future events or actors flawed, for a single change in a variable has an incredible knock-on effect on everything else. The best intelligence agencies in the modern world have no such means. 


Short-term predictions are even more difficult. While most cynical of views expect total doom for humanity, predicting short-term events– the subject of this article –can prove quite tricky at best, for a sudden event, such as the death of a state head or a large-scale terrorist attack, have the potential to change the trajectory of international politics. And nothing could be done in advance to avoid such events, regardless of how much knowledge or experience humanity could accumulate. Only by deeply analysing their impact and learning history lessons can we improve our ability to navigate and respond to future events. 


That said, I shall venture upon several predictions concerning the ongoing conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria and how they may take shape in 2023. My analysis shall be based on extensive experience observing and understanding international events and regional conflicts. 


I shall start with a few assumptions. First, that ongoing conflict in the new year will remain primarily an extension of 2022. Second, while some details might vary, ongoing conflicts, by and large, shall remain centred on regional variables with balanced outcomes. In other words, it is implausible that we would see one side of the conflict emerge victorious, either in Yemen, Syria, or Libya. Finally, these conflicts are being highly influenced by international variables that must be considered if we make any meaningful predictions. 


Domestic Variables

The region remains highly polarised: In Yemen, a ceasefire between the Houthis militias and forces supporting legitimacy seems nowhere in sight; Libya still is in deep divide between west and east forces; and all efforts in Syria to get past the long-lasting stalemate have failed. 


To date, Houthis and forces supporting legitimacy in Yemen have been unable to resolve their differences. A series of negotiations that took place in Vienna (2015), Kuwait (2016), the US foreign secretary initiative (end of 2016), and the Omani initiative (2021) have all failed to produce an agreement on a way forward, despite the mediation of the late Emir of Kuwait, whose leadership and experience in the region are unmatched. Even the short-lived UN initiative in 2021 failed to bring the fighting sides to commit to a ceasefire. The Houthis hard-line position and inflexibility is the main reason international efforts at peacebuilding have derailed. And the Houthis are not too willing to accept democratic change, for they know its unfavourable outcome. 


Libya faces a similar fate. The divide between Gaddafi loyalists and pro-revolution forces has been fuelled by tribalism and political Islam ideology. Syria has also reached a dead-end: Assad’s regime faces fierce civil and armed opposition, while Kurds in north Syria have been fighting the regime for self-determination. The situation in Syria is not too different to Yemen or Libya. 


Regional Intervention

Turkey and Iran have played a vital role in the way the region’s conflict has taken shape. In each of the three cases described above, regional actors influence the direction of conflict and bring tools to bring their own agenda to the negotiation table. 


Iran is the only state backing the Houthis; if this changes, the Houthis ability to pose any threat to the region suddenly vanishes. On the other hand, Turkey has played a decisive role in preventing Libya’s Khalifa Haftar from entering the capital of Tripoli. Turkey’s middling in Libya’s conflict has prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to warn that his army would intervene in Libya to protect Egypt’s national security if Western forces cross the Sirte–Jufra ‘red line’. President Sisi’s warning deterred the west and its allies from driving the conflict closer to Egypt. 


Turkey’s role in Syria is far more present. The Turkish army has carried out several operations across large parts of northern Syria, cracking down on what Ankara sees as a Kurdish threat to its national security. Turkey aims to prevent the Kurds from creating an independent state on its borders that could contain the largest Kurdish population in the region. Eventually, Turkey might occupy vast regions of northern Syria to secure its borders and nip in the bud any ambitions for a Kurdish state. 


Global Influence 

Great power politics spill over Middle East conflicts in more than one way. Global actors are driven by either self-interest or national security and have impacted the three countries significantly. 


Assad regime dodged an impending collapse when the Syrian civil war reached a climax, thanks to Russia’s intervention. In Libya, inter-European competition, especially between France and Italy, and Western and Russian intervention, have greatly influenced the direction of conflict on the ground. Yemen also has become a theatre for international intervention. On the one hand, Iran continues to carry a proxy war via the Houthis; on the other, the Coalition-backed legitimacy forces continue to resist the Houthis-Iran ambitions. Yet, international intervention in Libya may be less present than in Syria or Libya. 


Various Repercussions 

Looking at the above variables across local, regional, and global contexts, we may make three observations, outlined as follows:


1. First, stalemate is the common denominator across Syria, Libya, and Yemen:

There’s no prospect for a paradigm shift that could drive real change in any of these conflicts. A sort of delicate balance of power, thus, has been reached among actors that might tip the situation towards a resolution rather than a military conclusion. 


2. Second, the region has become less of a priority on the international agenda in light of recent developments:

This is due to the war in Ukraine, which repercussions far surpass that of war in the region. Global powers, driven by their security and self-interest, are more concerned with the impact of a new world order being promoted by Russia and China; hence, their attention has shifted, leaving a significant gap in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. 


In the US, arguably the world’s greatest power, a debate has been ongoing since the Barak Administration over the gradual and eventual withdrawal from the Middle East. It hasn’t happened yet, considering America’s big regional interests. This strategy is not expected to result in a total withdrawal from the region; however, the American interests in the Middle East run deep. Yet, Russia’s operation in Ukraine at the gates of Europe has posed the first real threat to Western powers since the end of the Second World War. Though Russia has cemented its presence in Syria, its military intervention is expected to slow down as it looks to re-allocate most of its resources to the ongoing operation in Ukraine facing NATO. 


At the moment, there is no sign of slowing down. What is more certain is that international actors have shifted their attention away from the Middle East, which may increase the chances of peaceful instead of armed resolution. Great powers have long sought military intervention to produce a ‘new Middle East’ without any outcome; however, their role would be more effective by providing economic and security guarantees that drive the peacebuilding process in the region. 


3. Third, the Middle East sees a strong movement for resolution in 2023:

Notably, regional actors have moved to normalise relations after a long-standing stalemate, aiming to achieve de-escalation in the region. This could be seen in Libya between Egypt and Turkey, in Yemen between Arab Coalition and Iran, and between Turkey and the Assad regime in Syria. Also, Turkey has moved to normalise its relations with other countries across the region, including the GCC. Leaders of the region have realised that conflict would lead to nowhere, and only dialogue, such as the one being initiated between Saudi, UAE, and between Saudi and Iran, could offer an exit to the current situation. 


A case in point is the 2022 Jeddah Security & Development Summit. The unique position held by all Arab leaders opposing a NATO-like coalition against Iran ushers a new era of preference for dialogue despite standing differences and unresolved issues. The same could be said of the UAE-Saudi-Turkey relations and Qatar, which has existing ties with Turkey. Egypt also has taken slow yet promising steps towards mending its relations with Turkey. And finally, the latest reports have revealed Turkey may be willing to reopen diplomatic channels with Assad’s regime, which might benefit Russia-Turkey relations in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine. 


Positive Outlook

The critical element that could drive real change in the Arab world is a possible shift in regional relations. If Arab states manage to build new diplomatic channels with regional actors, then these relations would definitely have an impact on conflict in the region. An Arab-Iran understanding, for instance, could have a positive spillover on Yemen; similarly, a successful diplomatic effort between Turkey and Egypt would undoubtedly pave the way for resolution in Libya. Likewise, patching up Turkey-Syria relations based on common grounds could allow a sustainable resolution of conflict in Syria. The Kurds’ rights could be recognised under the Syrian state, and growing Turkey-Russia relations could support the rebuilding of Syria. 


Despite careful optimism, it remains doubtful that 2023 will see the resolution of conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The interests of regional players are profoundly complex and often fall in contrast with significant power interests. It is quite difficult to picture a resolution in Syria through a scenario in which Russia’s interests could be affected. And finally, we should note that if regional powers agree, then no single side could claim victory, for all powers would have to make some sort of compromise. Still, the future remains anyone’s guess.