Preventing wars in the Middle East is a global responsibility

Outside interventions without well-thought exit strategies can cause endless disasters.
March 11, 2018
Displaced Syrians carry boxes of humanitarian aid supplied by UNICEF at a refugee camp in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province, on February 26. (AFP)
In the eye of the storm. Displaced Syrians carry boxes of humanitarian aid at a refugee camp in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province, on February 26. (AFP)

A study released by the World Bank and the United Nations makes a strong case for conflict prevention. “Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict” states that wars cost an average of $70 billion in economic losses every year and that, from 2005 to 2014, the number of deaths caused by armed conflict increased ten-fold.

More than 65.6 million people — half of whom are children — have been displaced or rendered refugees.

Wars in recent decades tended to last longer. “While conflicts that ended in 1970 tended to last an average of 9.6 years, conflicts that ended in 2014 had lasted an average 26 years,” notes the report.

The Middle East and North Africa region finds itself in the eye of this storm. MENA countries, the report says, “have seen the most rapid expansion and escalation of violent conflict. Although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the region accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorist incidents, 68% of battle-related deaths, 47% of internally displaced people and 58% of refugees.”

Sobering numbers and the future could still be dire.

“By 2020, it is estimated that almost three-out-of-four Arabs could be living in countries vulnerable to violent conflict,” the report warns.

Syria is home to the planet’s worst killing fields, with more than 400,000 dead, 5 million refugees and 6.3 million internally displaced. “The Syrian war is one of the defining crises of the contemporary era,” the report says.

Syrian children have been continuously victimised, thrust into the middle of armed conflict: “The proportion of children under 15 being recruited by armed groups has increased from 20% in 2014 to more than 50% in 2015,” notes the report.

The wounds of Syria’s war will take generations to heal, if ever. “In real terms, Syria’s GDP was estimated to have contracted by 63% between 2011 and 2016,” the report states. “In cumulative terms, the loss in GDP amounted to an estimated $226 billion between 2011 and 2016 — approximately four times the 2010 GDP.”

Internecine wars are gaining in complexity around the world, with Syria again the prime example.

“In 1950, there were an average of eight armed groups in a civil war; by 2010, the average had jumped to 14. In 2014, more than 1,000 active armed groups were estimated in Syria alone,” the report says. It is no surprise that peace or even a ceasefire has been so elusive.

The report, however, suffers from a major oversight: It fails to acknowledge the degree to which armed groups serve as proxies for regional powers. “Many of today’s armed groups have no (or little) formal connection to a state and are categorised loosely as non-state armed groups,” the report contends. This statement does not reflect the reality on the ground, where Iran-sponsored militias, for instance, span the region.

The proliferation of armed groups and continuation of conflict are linked to the fraying of the state. Moreover, “illicit economies” thrive in such environments, creating another vicious circle. Such parallel economies finance militias and terrorist groups, as has been the case in Syria, Iraq, the Maghreb and the Sahel.

Violent conflicts do not appear out of thin air and the report accurately observed that conflicts in the MENA region “take place against a background of domestic grievances, particularly a breakdown in the prevailing social contract in these countries.”

Young people often feel excluded and disenfranchised. They might enjoy better standards of living than previous generations but they also share greater ambitions and frustrations, especially as they are better educated and more aware of the wider horizons in the world.

Climate change is another underlying cause of conflict. Drought, for example, engenders migration flows and makes life in rural areas unsustainable.

From 1980-2010 “climate-related disaster [coincided] with approximately 23% of armed conflict outbreaks,” the World Bank and the United Nations say. With water growing scarcer in MENA, future wars already have a built-in trigger.

As crucial as they are, these factors are exacerbated by the role of foreign and regional powers. The use of proxies and airpower make wars limit the number of casualties for outside forces tempted to fight to the last Iraqi, Syrian or Libyan civilian.

Convincing such actors to refrain from pushing their agendas through reckless military intervention might be easier said than done but it is prerequisite for preventing and containing conflicts. Outside interventions without well-thought exit strategies can cause endless disasters. Western-led campaigns in Iraq and Libya are cases in point.