14. Musings on the domino effect of war in the Middle-East

Left: Tuareg fighters in North-Mali (picture: Magharebia, Flickr.com); Right: Syrian rebels (picture: FreedomHouse, Flickr.com)

Left: Tuareg fighters in North-Mali (picture: Magharebia, Flickr.com); Right: Syrian rebels (picture: FreedomHouse, Flickr.com)

The Middle-East has the reputation of being a turbulent region. Popular protests over food, jobs, oil, religion and, not to forget, democracy are common. Wars in the Middle-East are, luckily enough, less frequent, but never absent. In the past ten years there has been fighting in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and the Palestinian areas. These wars are never isolated, but have always a wider resonance in the area. A domino effect so to say. To illustrate this, we will look at two ongoing conflicts, North-Mali and Syria.

The conflict in North-Mali started with the uprising of the Tuareg fighters of the Mouvement national pour la libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). MNLA’s goal was to create an independent Tuareg state in North-Mali called Azawad. The movement allied itself with armed radical Islamic groups, like Ansar Dine, to drive the Malian army out of the area. They succeeded and declared independence in April 2012. However, the MNLA was then sidelined by its radical allies, who took control over the region and began to enforce their strict version of the Islam. In their wake many Islamic sanctuaries were destroyed in Timbuktu and North-Mali became a safe haven for Islamic terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. This situation can be called the result of the Libyan revolution or, a bit bolder, the result of the first free elections in Algeria. This may sound odd, but there is some truth in these claims.

But how is this connected to Libya? Libya’s late dictator Mu’ammar Ghaddafi employed Tuareg as mercenaries in his battle against the Libyan rebels in Cyrenaica. When Ghaddafi was killed in October 2011 and the Libyan civil war ended, the Tuareg mercenaries returned to North-Mali taking their weapons with them. The MNLA not only profited from the influx of armed fighters, but also of weapons from Libya. The Libyan rebels did little effort to secure the weapon storages in the military bases from which they had driven Ghaddafi’s troops. What was not taken by the rebels, was stolen by weapon smugglers and other unsavoury figures. As a result, the Libyan weapons ended up not only in the hands of the MNLA, but also in the hands of armed Islamic radicals operating in the Sahel region. Another part of the plundered weapons was smuggled to the Sinai peninsula in Egypt and the Gaza strip, where they were used by other armed (terrorist) groups to attack the Egyptian army and Israel. The Libyan conflict had thus a wider destabilising effect on the region.

But what is the link with Algeria’s first free parliamentarian elections? In 1991 the Algerian ruling party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), allowed for the first time other political parties to participate in the elections. One of the most important opposition parties was the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). The Algerian election system was changed before the elections to ensure that the FLN would remain the biggest party. However, the rigged system worked in the end against the ruling party, giving the FIS a majority in parliament in the first round of the elections. Before the second round was held, the Algerian government was overthrown by the army and the FIS was outlawed. In reaction to this coup different Islamist groups took up their arms against the new military government starting a bloody civil war. A part of the Islamist fighters had already been active in local armed groups in the 80’s, while another group had fought in Afghanistan with other Arab and Afghan fighters against the Soviet army. Like the Libyan conflict, the war in Afghanistan had a wider effect upon the region as other Arabic fighters formed armed organisations like al-Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

During the Algerian civil war different armed Islamist groups were active, of which the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) was the most ruthless. Between 1992 and 1998 the GIA not only murdered Algerian civilians en masse, but it also executed many members of other armed Islamist groups. Because even the most radical fighters found the methods of the GIA too radical, the fighters founded in 1998 a new group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). While the radicalism of the GIA and the continuous attacks of the Algerian army pushed most armed groups into peace negotiations, the GSPC continued its fight in the Sahel region and renamed itself in 2007 to al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. As result of Algeria’s first free elections and the civil war that ensued, the Sahel region became the playground for radical armed Islamist groups. When the last remains of governmental control disappeared in North-Mali, they seized the opportunity to make their twisted version of Islamic caliphate reality.

It is easy to trace the origins of a current conflict, but it is a lot harder to predict which conflicts a current conflict will cause. For example, the current Syrian civil war will probably contribute to other conflicts within the region. Syria was ruled by president Bashar Assad and his Baath party. However, Assad and most of the leading members belonged to a minority sect, called the Alewites, while the majority of the Syrians were Sunni Muslims. Although the Syrian conflict started as a general uprising against the regime, it has developed over the months into a more sectarian war of Sunnis against Alewites. The mainly Sunni rebels are consists of many different rebel groups, who only managed last November to unite themselves into a single organisation, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF). But this has not stopped the growing sectarianism of the conflict as foreign radical Islamic fighters continue to flock to Syria and more orthodox Islamist rebels groups are armed by Qatar and Saudi-Arabia. Syria may very well become a regional exporter of weapons and fighters as result of the combination of lacking (governmental) control, ubiquitous presence of weapons and radical(ised) fighters.

The war in Syria may reignite the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq. After the United States had conquered Iraq in 2003, a sectarian slaughter broke out between these two groups. The Assad regime supported at the time the Sunni minority as both shared the same ideology, Baathism. However, in the current Syrian conflict the Assad regime is supported by Iraq’s Shia majority as Alawites are seen as their coreligionists, while Iraqi and foreign fighters who have fought in Iraq against the Shia now join Syria’s rebels. These fighters may return to Iraq after the end of the Syrian conflict to continue their fight there. The radical opposition fighters may also turn their guns against the “Zionist enemy”, Israel. But it remains to be seen if they in fact dare to attack Israel as most radical groups seem to be reluctant to do this. Al-Qaeda was chided a few years ago by Hamas, an armed Palestinian organisation, because it seemed to fight against Israel anywhere but in Israel or the Palestinian areas.

The Syrian conflict may also affect Lebanon. This multi-sectarian country is divided between opponents and supporters of both sides in the conflict. The reasons to support or reject the Syrian regime are manifold. Lebanon has a large Shia population who supports their Syrian coreligionists, while Lebanon’s Christians fear the persecution of their fellow Christians at the hands of radical Islamist rebels. On the other hand, many Lebanese dislike the Syrian regime for their occupation of Lebanon until 2005 and its involvement in the murder of its popular prime minister Rafiq Hariri in the same year. The Syrian conflict may very well cause a new sectarian conflict in Lebanon like the one in the 70’s and 80’s. Although most of the armed groups involved in this conflict have laid down their weapons after the end of the civil war, one group, Hezbollah, has retained its weapons. The fact that this group is an armed Shia organisation sponsored by the Assad regime, underlines that the effect of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon should not be underestimated.

Although the domino effect is clear in case of past conflicts on present conflicts, it is a lot harder to predict if and where a current conflict will cause another conflict. However, this domino effect can be countered by ensuring that the conflict stays within its borders. Arming irregular rebel troops, even if their ideas and ideals deserve full support, will surely lead to the spread of the conflict, while the creation and presence of a (provisional) regular army may prevent this. As obvious as its sounds, a regular army may prevent the plundering and smuggling of weapons and may be able to disarm uncontrollable armed groups. As a result, the flow of weapons and fighters from one to another country will be stemmed. This advice may be difficult to implement on the short-term with regard to the current conflicts, but it may prevent new conflicts on the long-term.

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