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Why Initiatives to Settle Regional Crises Failed

19 October 2016

Most of the initiatives pushed to solve regional crises have failed to achieve their goals – even when the parties behind the initiatives established low expectations. Despite conducting a series of negotiations between the relevant parties to these conflicts in order to discuss initiatives and establish specific mechanisms for transforming them into action, the persistence of armed confrontations has created many obstacles, reducing their ability to achieve positive results.

UN Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura discussed this problem after concluding several rounds of negotiations, which had ended in failure. The latest of these negotiations had taken place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sep. 9th, 2016 and resulted in the reaching of an agreement to end acts of violence and bring humanitarian aid to besieged areas. However, on Oct. 3rd, 2016 the U.S. announced that they would suspend their participation in bilateral channels with Russia on implementing the agreement, stating: “The road to a settlement cannot be paved with bombs.” This was in reference to the continued armed confrontations in which several regional and international parties had been directly involved, including Turkey, Iran and Russia. These parties appear to seek to increase their military involvement in the Syrian conflict following simultaneous disputes with the U.S. on addressing developments both in the field and in the political sphere.

Several difficulties

Perhaps it can be said that many obstacles have rendered initiatives to reach settlements for various regional crises ineffective. The most prominent examples are as follows:

1. The complexity of the conflicts: The conflicts currently plaguing the region are extremely complicated in all aspects. They are linked to unconventional security phenomena as well as a collapse or severe decline in the nation-state. This combination has been witnessed across the region in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. The deterioration of nations has repercussions, the most important being the rise of newer generations of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front (which recently changed its name to Jubhat Fatah Al-Sham). Other repercussions include the expanding scope of hybrid conflicts between armed militias, state armies and regional forces; intensifying trilateral polarization between local parties and various regional and international forces; and the domination of sectarian and ethnic dimensions.

2. Contrasting objectives: The success of initiatives aimed at reaching a political settlement for a given crisis is linked to the extent of its ability to foster a consensus among all relevant parties. This factor is lacking in most of the initiatives put forth to settle the Syrian crisis. For example, disputes between the parties involved have been quite dramatic, evidenced in the current American-Russian disputes which threaten to escalate the crisis itself, especially following threat Moscow directed towards the U.S. stating, “targeting the Syrian regime army will bring about to an earthquake in the Middle East.” Russia and the Assad regime came under strong criticism due to recent military operations undertaken by the regime while being given air support by Russian over the city of Aleppo.

What is most striking is that this contrast in objectives extends to allies as well. This is evident, for example, in the concerns expressed by Iran regarding talks between Russia and the U.S., which resulted in an agreement to end violence before the U.S. suspended its involvement. Iran was also criticized when Russia announced their intention to launch various bomber and fighter jets from the Nojeh Air Base in the Iranian city of Hamadan.

The outstanding disputes between Turkey and the U.S. on establishing a safe zone in northern Syria, and US support for Kurdish militias who participate in armed confrontations against ISIS is another example of contrasting objectives in this regional crisis.

3. The domination of the security factor: Most recent settlement initiatives have taken more than one path, the most prominent paths being political, security-based or militarily oriented. However, it is clear that the security dimension has remained a priority in all efforts to reach a settlement.

Here it can be said that security disputes between Libyan political parties, particularly between the politically created High Council of State, and the Libyan Army under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar, represents an obstacle to resolving the crisis, especially after the former called on the Ministry of Defense and General Staff forces of the National Reconciliation Government to unite their ranks to combat, “the threat of a military coup” after Haftar’s forces gained control of Libya’s oil crescent.

4. Differing priorities: It appears that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration does not wish to make changes in their policies on addressing various regional crises, prompting many to guess that Obama will leave the burden of managing these crises to the next U.S. President. This will impact America’s handling of these crises as they develop, and they may permit other international forces and parties, such as Russia, to expand their political and military involvement, particularly when it comes to the Syrian crisis. This will help transform them into a major party with the ability to set potential strategies for the conflict in the next phase.

Without a doubt, the imminent U.S. presidential election is not the only reason why the Obama administration is persistent on refraining from altering its policy toward these crises. Other reasons include, most notably, the U.S. commitment to prioritizing the war against terrorism, particularly the war against ISIS, as well as the nuclear agreement with Iran, which could, according to several reports, be altered if the administration takes a more aggressive stance against the Assad regime.

5. Common conflicts: Looking at the map of regional conflicts, it appears that all have a common denominator, the negative roles played by some of the regional forces involved. This includes Iran, and these negative roles contributed to the failure to ratify the agreement to settle the conflict in Yemen. Iran was keen to link this agreement with developments in the Syrian conflict, for which their influence has declined very clearly in favor of Russia. This appears to be what pushed Iran, according to several reports, to impede the settlement with Yemen and attempt to utilize it to further their interests in other regional issues.

6. The absence of binding mechanisms: Settlement initiatives for various conflicts lack mechanisms, which would force parties to meet their obligations, thereby reducing the ability of these initiatives to achieve significant results. This was evident in the Skhirat Agreement, which was unsuccessful in addressing the numerous obstacles preventing resolution of the Libyan crisis, such as the governmental split and the spread of armed militias.

7. Lack of political will: Despite some parties involved in regional conflicts claiming they wish to reach political settlement, their actions are often contradictory. This indicates that such parties simply hope to reduce the pressure imposed by domestic parties, or regional and international forces, by doing so and to avoid being slapped with international sanctions by obstructing the efforts being made in this regard. This has been the modus operandi for both the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi movement in Yemen.

8. Declining role of the UN: This is obvious for all regional crises due to a contradiction in the goals of relevant regional forces regarding those crises in question, which in turn impedes the efforts made by international envoys.

9. Interim adjustments: One study revealed that the initiatives made for most regional crises aimed at reaching an interim settlement do not end conflicts, nor do they solve fundamental issues, meaning that they typically form tactical proposals only. This is what took place in the context of the Syrian crisis where previous understandings between the US and Russia were focused on establishing a center for joint military coordination and drawing front borders in order to end hostilities. However, these meetings failed to address the fundamental issues hampering a true settlement.

10. Overlapping issues: The keenness of some parties to prioritize these issues, such as the war on terrorism for example, has led to a decline in interest in major regional crises. This was made clear by the policy adopted by the U.S., which focused heavily on fighting ISIS. The goal of the policy was to prevent the group from threatening American interests. With regards to the crisis in Syria, ISIS presents negative implications for those interests in the eyes of the Obama’s administration.

In light of this, perhaps it can be said that the failure of these initiatives to achieve their goals and establish political settlements for regional crises may not be the only issue at hand. The risks of failure represent a no less important challenge, because failing to achieve positive results motivates the parties involved to escalate militarily once more.