Broken states never heal themselves and can only be put back together with the prolonged involvement of outsiders working together to end the violence, impose peace and rebuild societies and states.
By Gerard M. Gallucci*
The international response to the crises in the Middle East is splintered, uncoordinated and getting nowhere. The crises arose from misguided Western reactions to the so-called Arab spring and from the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Like a bull in a china shop, the American effort – to bring democracy and human rights to countries barely held together at all – broke it all into pieces. Now those pieces must somehow be picked up and put right.
Efforts to address regional instability include continued US military involvement in Afghanistan. There President Obama has decided to retain US troops to help limit the resurgence of the Taliban that George Bush drove out of power. In Iraq, Washington continues to try to prop up the weak government of Prime Minister Abadi without using ground forces and while supporting the essentially independent Kurdish entity and its troops. In Syria, the US has defaulted to its preference for bombing, special ops, covert action and support for a favored local combatant (the Kurds again). The Western European allies participate in the bombing with France doubling down since mostly native grown terrorists attacked Paris.
Russia has intervened in Syria as well with its own bombing and special forces campaign while choosing its local “allies” from the pro-Assad, pro-Iranian Shia. The Gulf states – chiefly Saudi Arabia – have supported anti-Assad Sunni rebels which may have at one time – and still? – included jihadists within ISIL. (Saudi Arabia – the main exporter of Wahhabi fundamentalism – is also involved in the internal conflict in Yemen, a state that perhaps should never have been created in 1990.) Turkey opposes Assad and has just shot down a Russian plane but mostly prefers attacking Kurds. ISIL itself may have been losing territory but remains a force on the ground in its Sunni areas and a jihadist brand (and organization?) with proven international reach.
Mirroring the confused military response, the reaction to the refugee crisis has been fragmented and dysfunctional. Even before Paris, Europe was deeply divided over how to handle the flood of Mid-Eastern IDPs reaching its shores. Since Paris, most of the European states (including those still kept outside the EU) have been building walls, closing borders and refusing to take any Brussels-imposed “quota.” Germany – the prime refugee goal – has been trying to maintain its approach to accepting large numbers while focusing on what the EU must do to gain Turkish support for stopping the flow. After years of delay – Western Europe did not want to be invaded by poor Turks – Berlin at least recognizes a deal must be struck in order to stop those poor Syrians. (Erdogan seems intent on making the EU now pay his price including the long-delayed move toward membership.) The US – the “bull” – is doing nothing to help with the refugees as the Republican candidates for president and many Democrats balk at accepting President Obama’s modest proposal to receive 10,000 in 2016.
The human species has a long record of Us vs Other conflict. Indeed, homo sapiens is the only surviving species from a long period in which various other kinds of humans shared the evolutionary record. We emerged the victor and have succeeded ever since in seeking to eliminate, replace or enslave the Other throughout our recorded history. The conflicts of the last century have been mainly of this type, primarily over identity: ethnic, tribal or religious. They have spun from control when the regimes that ruled over multi-ethnic states have fallen or been seized or overthrown. Once identity conflicts begin, they quickly turn zero-sum. Violence begets violence and the possibility of achieving a political solution recedes beyond the horizon.
So, what is to be done? Nothing easy. Broken states never heal themselves and can only be put back together with the prolonged involvement of outsiders working together to end the violence, impose peace and rebuild societies and states. Some broken states might be better left in pieces. (Getting people to accept living next to each other in peace may be more achievable than pushing them to live together in the same entity.) If there is to be outside involvement in repairing the damage done in the Mid-East, it must address basic political, social and economic issues as well as find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The role of the militaries in such an effort must be to constrain the combatants sufficiently to bring them to negotiations and to neutralize any spoilers who refuse political solutions. Diplomacy must lead such efforts and begin with the major powers from inside and outside the region agreeing on a framework for reaching a mutually acceptable and viable outcome.
If the international community cannot bring itself to do this, then better perhaps to leave those at war to settle things among themselves without outside military involvement or support. Such involvement without coordinated, agreed-upon political objectives will only sustain the violence. First do no harm.
*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 now works as an independent consultant and as adjunct professor for national security policy at the Daniel Morgan Academy in Washington, DC.