Introduction: MENA’s Frozen Conflicts

Marc Lynch, Project on Middle East Political Science, George Washington University

Over the last year, the MENA region’s simmering conflicts have seemed frozen in place. The internationally-fueled civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya have long since settled into an equilibrium in which no side can either truly win or truly lose. Those conflicts have been held in place in part by local ecologies and war economies and in part by the competitive interventions by regional and international powers on behalf of their proxies and clients. But are these conflicts truly frozen?  What does viewing them through such a lens gain, and what are the theoretical and analytical costs?  To explore these questions, POMEPS convened a virtual research workshop on September 25, 2020, with scholars from diverse empirical and theoretical backgrounds.  We are delighted to now publish their papers in this issue of POMEPS STUDIES.

Those conflicts, frozen or otherwise, come at great cost. The humanitarian consequences of the wars continue to mount.  The devastation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is too easily reduced to nigh-incomprehensible numbers: the hundreds of thousands of dead, the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the hundreds of billions of dollars of value destroyed, the disease and famine unleashed.  Beyond those numbers, as Raiman al-Hamdani reminds us in his essay for this collection, lies a devastating landscape of psychological trauma and collective memory, intangible human costs which will endure for generations. People living through these frozen conflicts find themselves always caught in between, observes Sami Hermez, waiting on the next eruption of conflict even if it never arrives.

The contributors to this volume agree on viewing these conflicts as deeply entrenched, stalemated and unlikely to produce victory in any significant sense. But they disagree about whether it makes sense to conceptualize them as “frozen.”  Samer Abboud argues that these conflicts rather continue to metastasize, as what he calls “conflict ecologies” constantly evolve in ways which drive deep change beneath the seemingly frozen surface.  Sami Hermez similarly views them as “continual war, but not a frozen conflict.  The war continues to flow in time, undergoing transformations and mutations.” This calls for careful attention to those mutations and metastasizing conflict ecologies, beyond the binaries of war and peace or the false reassurance of viewing conflicts as frozen.

What keeps these conflicts frozen is not simply military quagmire.  Long running conflicts create new institutional realities which create new elites, new economies, and new incentives.  Frozen conflicts, then, are generative of new realities on the ground, warscapes characterized by fragmented authority, mixed governance, and deep social transformation. Their longevity allows time for these new social, political and economic realities to take deep root.  As Samer Abboud describes it, “These overlapping and entangled insecurities constitute what I think of as crises ecologies, assembling at the intersections of civil conflict, mass human displacement, proxy wars, environmental and epidemiological crisis, state militarization, external intervention, and economic collapse.”  Such conflict ecologies, supported by regional circuits of power and exchange, are far more robust than international efforts at conflict mediation assume.  Once locked into place, they generate a wide range of actors and institutions incentivized to sustain them no matter the human costs.

The contributors to this collection document and theorize these evolving institutional realities of governance and conflict across a range of cases and domains. Across the regional warscapes, Ariel Ahram argues, new forms of hybrid governance have become entrenched: “militias and warlords are steadily embedding in governance and security provisions across wide swaths of territory.  States are receding to mostly symbolic placeholders, with limited practical role in governing.”  The urge to recentralize authority in a post-conflict future is a quixitic one. Instead, he argues, external actors and should accept that “hybrid security governance yields a pockmarked political landscape, with stark variations in who bears arms in different locations and under whose authority.”

This involves significant institutional evolution both within and outside the state. Marika Sosnowski traces the mutations of hybrid governance through the issuing of personal documents: “In the Syrian civil war, where different territorial areas have, at different times, been outside of the control of the state, registering life-cycle events, such as births, deaths and marriages, has become a necessary service other actors have had to fulfil. In times of armed conflict, life does not pause – children continue to be born, people die, marry and divorce – and these life events need to be documented. The gap left by the state in providing life-cycle event registration during the civil war has been filled by a range of other actors in different territorial areas.”   Jerome Drevon and Peter Haenni show governance has evolved under the control of the jihadist Harakat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, where “local governance consisted of a combination of local councils, independent organisations, and armed groups’ infrastructures (including courts and prison facilities).” These mutations also occur inside the remaining state. Ammar Shamaileh shows how the long war has reshaped the power and influence of Syrian economic elites. “As the intensity of the war in Syria has decreased, the intensity of conflict between the Assad regime’s elites has gained momentum.”  These changes are likely to endure. “Syria’s future economic landscape is unlikely to return to its pre-war order. The regime has diversified its cadre of political and economic beneficiaries, creating a more competitive elite landscape that has incorporated many of the elements who organized and funded pro-regime militias throughout Syria.”  New political realities emerge through these easily missed, incremental changes taking place beneath a seemingly frozen surface.

How long might such mutations persist?  The experience of MENA states which emerged from conflict suggests that they can continue for a long time.   Lebanon’s political system has remained impervious to change, as Sara Kayyali and Sami Hermez note:  “despite experiencing some of the most profound system shocks in the region, including… mass protests, economic crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens demanding change have been unable to achieve a transition to a new political arrangement.”  Post-occupation Iraq, too, has proven highly resistant to change despite massive failures of governance and security, the bloody war against the Islamic State and a large scale protest movement.  Chantal Berman, Killian Clarke and Rima Majed argue that “since the end of the post-invasion civil war, Iraq has experienced multiple waves of mobilization – in 2011, in 2015, and in 2018 – all of which aired a similar constellation of demands. In this sense, the Tishreen uprising was the culmination of a decade of mobilization in which Iraqis denounced, with increasing forcefulness, the dysfunctional political system that was set up following the 2003 invasion.” While security and governance has become ever more hybrid with the integration and penetration of Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units, the political system remains impervious to change. In Algeria, the inscrutable system of military control has resisted meaningful change despite the demands of the unprecedented Hirak movement which took to the streets in 2019 against the re-election of a long-incapacitated president. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority continues to govern despite having lost its raison d’etre.

The contributors to this collection disagree about whether international intervention, particularly by the United States, could unfreeze these conflicts in productive ways. Intriguingly, scholars primarily focused on U.S. foreign policy are more optimistic than are the scholars primarily focused on the institutional transformations of hybrid governance. Mieczysław P. Boduszyński argues that “Washington had the leverage and tools—and perhaps uniquely for the Libyan case—credibility and neutrality—to help push the conflict from the level of low-intensity war and de facto partition toward a permanent settlement.”  And Alexandra Stark argues that since “third party military intervention plays a critical role in sustaining Yemen’s war… ending external intervention and getting regional actors on board with negotiating a political solution will be a critical step in ending Yemen’s frozen conflict.” But others view the U.S. and other outside actors as generative of the conflicts rather than as the source of their potential resolution.  Matteo Capasso argues that “war sustains war through securitization, border surveillance, arms sales, private military companies and the creation of logistics spaces.” Samer Abboud argues that “fragmented regional visions are generative of conflict, not paralysis or inertia,” as external actors intersect with local realities in ways which create robust “regional circuits of warfare, humanitarianism, and displacement.”  And Ariel Ahram warns that interventions or mediation oriented towards rebuilding central state authority rather than recognizing the new hybrid realities are doomed to fail.

Beyond the conflict ecologies and regional power politics, several contributors urge us to consider the effects on individuals and communities of conflicts remaining frozen in these particular ways.  Stacey Philbrick Yadav thus proposes that transitional justice “might be seen as a means of unfreezing frozen conflicts like the war in Yemen.” She suggests that transitional justice, properly applied, “may help to promote a cessation of hostilities and break the stalemate of this frozen conflict; but unless peace-brokers recognize and draw more genuinely on some of the everyday peacebuilding done by Yemenis in their local communities, it is unlikely to produce a more durable transformation of the conflict and could even jeopardize such work by hardening lines that can be more fluid on the ground.”   Hamdani similarly warns that “in Yemen—whenever this war ends—the collective memory of violence will endure well into the post-conflict future. For Yemeni society to truly heal from the brutality there must be a collective mechanism for processing trauma that acknowledges, rather than attempts to bury, the reality of the violence as a lived experience.”

The essays in this collection point towards hybrid and fragmented governance within robust conflict ecologies remaining long-term features of the regional landscape. Abboud observes, “Regional crisis ecologies must thus be understood as neither aberrations of an otherwise stable regional order or as stalemates that remain stagnant, generational, and in need of external intervention to resolve.”  They constitute a new reality, one David Patel describes as “a new normal.” The essays in this collection help us to understand the nature of that “new normal,” what sustains these conflicts and what would need to be done to unfreeze them in a constructive rather than destructive way.

  • Marc Lynch, 27 October 2020