As difficult on a human level as it may be to stand back and not intervene, the best approach to the conflicts in the Mideast may be to do nothing, take no sides. Perhaps better to work within the international community and the UN Security Council to encourage peace through diplomatic means while standing ready to undertake peacekeeping should there eventually be a peace to help keep.
By Gerard Gallucci
If one takes a somewhat broad view of what counts as civil war, the phenomenon seems to be spreading. Defining civil war as a conflict between people who once lived together in a common state but have come to see themselves as an us vs them unable any longer to co-habit, civil war now characterizes an arc across the Mideast from Libya to Syria, Iraq and now Yemen. Other states in the region face internal pressures that might easily push them over the boundary as the wars next door engender further instability.
Civil wars may occur due to the breakdown of an existing state that contained groups that potentially or already come to see themselves as threatened by the other. Such state collapse may arise from internal dynamics or as the result of outside intervention. Groups may come to see themselves as split along some ethnic, religious, language or other divide because of long simmering differences over some tangible or intangible, real or perceived inequality. Or they might be encouraged along that path by conflict “entrepreneurs” seeking to excite and ride group conflict as an avenue to power or riches. Facing a weak central government – one unable to maintain order either by repression or compromise – internal conflict may transform into civil war on its own. With Yemen, this may have been the case. But in Libya, Iraq and Syria (and also non-Arab Afghanistan), civil war broke out after foreign powers broke the repressive regimes holding the centrifugal forces in check.
Now the civil war in Yemen appears to be kicking the whole region into a new level of conflict between people ostensibly united by Islam but in reality long divided by a potent mixture of ethnicity, history and religion. On one side are the Arab Sunnis and on the other the Persian Shiites and their followers. This is not a clean divide (and that is part of the problem). But Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are now arranged against Iran and its proxies in Yemen (as they have been – if never in neat ways – in Syria and Iraq).
Hard decisions face the leaders of the Western democracies, and especially the United States. President Obama is under pressure to decide whether to come to the aid of traditional Arab allies or stay out of involvement in yet another conflict it is essentially powerless to resolve. Already he has taken a step in the direction of intervention by reportedly supplying the Saudis with intelligence. But Obama knows too well that US interests themselves are in conflict. In Iraq, the US seems to be fighting alongside Iran and the Shiite militias and against the Sunni Islamic State. In Syria, Washington appears to be working against both the enemies and supporters of the Iranian-backed Assad regime. Now in Yemen, the question is whether to support Saudi Arabia – an ally but also the patron of Wahhabism and Al Qaeda – or stay out of its conflict with Iran especially while trying to negotiate a deal on the latter’s nuclear program.
But the deeper issue is what, if anything, outsiders can do about civil war. Logically, there would seem to be two alternatives: stay out or take sides. What should be clear – though policy makers often try to dodge the issue – is that any involvement means taking sides. What must be made clear is that there is usually nothing outsiders can do about the zero-sum conflict at the heart of civil war except making it worse by trying to help one side defeat the other. A civil war – a conflict over basic identity – is existential to the participants. They see only their side and anyone not with them is against them. Outsiders helping one side to defeat the other means either assisting genocide or leaving behind a festering wound and continuing source of instability with the added result of making the losers hate you as well. In the emerging jihad between Shiites and Sunnis, US intervention in Yemen and continued involvement in Syria and Iraq – no matter which side chosen – only adds fuel to the Islamic outrage against America because of its longstanding support for Israel against the Palestinians. (This outrage may be the only thing that unites Sunnis and Shiites.)
Civil wars rarely have happy endings. (One look at the electoral map of the US – divided into Red states and Blue – suggests it has not yet fully recovered after 150 years.) Americans have a knee-jerk tendency to “get involved,” spread “human rights and democracy” and take political stands. It almost never works out well. As difficult on a human level as it may be to stand back and not intervene, the best approach to the conflicts in the Mideast may be to do nothing, take no sides. Perhaps better to work within the international community and the UN Security Council to encourage peace through diplomatic means while standing ready to undertake peacekeeping should there eventually be a peace to help keep.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.