Still a long way to go

I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.

In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.

The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.

But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).

Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.

Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.

Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.

Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.

The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.

No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.

So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.

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