Hoping for peace in 2020

The Arab region needs 2020 to be a year of peace and smooth progress instead. The region needs both badly but, at this stage, turbulence is more likely.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Fireworks explode around the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year's celebrations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 1. (Reuters)
Fireworks explode around the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year's celebrations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 1. (Reuters)

The Arab world welcomes another new year amid old wars refusing to end and new conflicts rearing their head on the horizon.

The killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s point man in Iraq, and top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis may usher in a new phase of confrontation and violence that could spin out of control.

The January 3 missile attack that killed Soleimani and Muhandis dramatically signals the failure of Iran’s strategy, which involves the use of regional proxies to inflict maximum damage on its neighbours and the United States while remaining shielded from direct fallout by the convenient cover of deniability.

“Plausible deniability has gone out the window,” said Ramzy Mardini, a researcher at the US Institute of Peace.

The attack, which is likely to spark a new cycle of threats, retaliation and counter retaliation, could change the rules of engagement in the US-Iran showdown.

It does not, however, alter the fundamentals. Iran’s aggressive designs and radical ideology have spurred bellicose policies that have been at the root of much of the insecurity and instability in the region.

Tehran’s encroachment and its use of local proxies there have been at the root of much instability in Iraq, which was already a tinderbox.

With the tragic legacy of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq in the background, Iran’s unfettered interference has meant the proliferation of surrogate militias outside the control of the state. Tehran might try to drag proxies into the confrontation not just in Iraq but also in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

In a US election year, the Trump administration is divided between its avoidance of war and the need to stand up to Iran’s provocations. Now the stakes are even higher.

Turkey is another Middle East country whose policies are a concern. Its regional ambitions, economic interests as well as affinities with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups are driving Ankara towards intervening militarily in oil-rich Libya and risking the transformation of the civil strife there into an all-out regional war.

With the January 2 vote by Turkish parliament authorising such an intervention, Ankara will prepare for its direct involvement in Libya after having already dispatched there hundreds of militants and mercenaries from Syria. Risks of widening conflict in Libya are compounded by Ankara’s clash over maritime natural gas resources in the Mediterranean.

Raising that alarm, French newspaper Le Monde stated that “a geopolitical disaster is unfolding at the southern shores of Europe,” noting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “is combining his authoritarian drift with an expansionist temptation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Escalation of the conflict puts Libya on the brink of further bloodshed, human suffering and internal division. Libya’s neighbours fear a replay of 2011 when turmoil in the vast Maghrebi country, which turned into a huge open-air arms depot and a battlefield for various armed militias, triggered tremors across the Sahel and North Africa. Today, militant groups, as well as human trafficking gangs, roam the Libyan landscape and cross the country’s porous borders, north and south.

Considering the damage incurred by the region as a result of endless wars, especially in Syria and Iraq, 2020 should be the year of a more constructive focus on reconstruction. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.

Many parts of the Arab region have been blessed with natural riches. In many cases, those resources have been a magnet for external competition and likely will continue being so.

Even if the regional picture is not totally bleak, as a few of the region’s countries have used oil wealth as an accelerator of social development, that huge potential of natural riches and human resources has all too often been squandered by mismanagement and corruption. The inability of governments to inspire trust and create adequate opportunities for their youth could be the source of further upheaval. The dysfunctional systems provide extremists and their sponsors with opportunities to exploit.

The Arab region needs 2020 to be a year of peace and smooth progress instead. The region needs both badly but, at this stage, turbulence is more likely.

Happy new year.

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