Day: April 12, 2017
The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted April 4 a panel “Containing the Civil War Contagion” featuring Kathleen Cunningham, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland; Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Kenneth M. Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings; the discussion was moderated by MEI’s Ross Harrison.
Lynch said that a conversation on civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should not begin with the uprisings in 2011, as these point only to the tipping point of a larger trend. The steady decline in ability of states to deliver economic goods and to tackle issues such as growing poverty, deteriorating infrastructure and corruption had continued for over a decade. As citizens’ demands of their governments mounted, there was a new pattern of civilian empowerment through social media and civil society.
The events of 2011 occurred at the intersection of these two trends. Even after six years, not a single factor contributing to state decline has been alleviated. Rather the causes have intensified. Where we see the restoration of autocratic stability, the regimes maintain a surface level of stability but accelerate the underlying drivers of instability. If the current trajectory is followed, region-wide volatility encompassing many of our Sunni-Arab allies will be the result.
Citing international intervention as a driving force that prolongs and intensifies violence, Lynch sees little hope for resolution of the on-going civil wars in the next four years. International actors can only do good if their intentions are aligned, which has proven impossible in Syria, Libya and Yemen. From a policy perspective, there is little hope for making a positive impact in areas that have already collapsed, but he encourages the White House to strengthen state capacity in our regional allies. This support should go beyond security forces, as seen in Tunisia, to promote responsible, responsive and transparent governance.
Pollack said he agreed with Lynch on the issues despite their different beliefs on policy options. The most pressing issue for international powers from the civil wars is spill over: terrorism, refugee crises, economic disruption, and spreading instability. Unlike Lynch, Pollack believes that it is possible to end other countries civil wars, it is just hard to do so. US actions over the past few years are inconsequential because they lacked muscle; limited intervention is unproductive.
The civil wars are due in part to deliberate actions by the Assad and Gaddafi regimes to turn protest movements into civil wars. Western intervention may succeed in preventing the outbreak of civil war and its eventual spillover. How much engagement is needed? Pollack believes you either do it right, or you get out. He sees potential for the US to determine the outcome in Syria, but advocates strongly that the US should leave Yemen alone.
Cunningham said that civil wars are increasingly fragmented, posing unique challenges to negotiating a settlement in traditional ways. There are more options than just staying out or negotiating a peace agreement involving all parties. The alternative is piecemeal settlements that entail getting some, but not all, of the groups to stop fighting.
The key to this strategy is to stop the fighting in stages, which is most likely to be successful when people on the ground want to stop fighting and feel it is feasible to do so. She feels that targeted pressure on groups is likely to be more fruitful than calling for everyone to lay down their arms. This necessitates understanding what people on the ground will accept in return for not fighting. In Syria she sees an outcome where the Kurds maintain autonomy, ISIS is pushed out, and low level fighting persists in opposition areas. But it is hard to imagine a situation where Assad is out of power.