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Multilateralism and incessant conflicts in the MENA region

20 Jan 2020

Multilateralism and incessant conflicts in the MENA region

20 Jan 2020

Multilateralism, as an institutional form of global policy coordination, lays the foundations of how the world should be governed. It outlines the concept of global governance and suggests that the absence of a world government impedes provisions of governance in the larger context. Considered to be the core to new world order, international organizations’ multilateralism in the past has contributed to global peace and stability especially in conflict zones. Therefore, lack of adherence to multilateralism, or constraints applied by global powers, has hampered crisis resolution on many occasions, especially in the conflict-ridden parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The concept of multilateralism has been contested since the creation of the United Nations in 1945. At the least, it has not been employed well enough to resolve a series of international and regional crises. Organizations formed at the end of the Second World War – such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Foundation (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – all provide services and interventions to organization members at the core of multilateralism. These organizations aim to enroll all the countries as their members. For instance, the UN Charter is based on international rules and norms – the principle of sovereign equality, the prohibition of the use of force, and the principle of non-intervention – that apply to all nations. However, these rules often remain a dead letter.

The principles of multilateralism have also evolved due to the changes in the international order. The era of waning US supremacy has thrown multilateralism into turmoil as shifting international relations revive great power politics. Troubled regional powers and a divided Security Council routinely hamper the UN peacemaking process.

The changing nature of conflicts and an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape have impacted the capacity of regional organizations like the Arab League and the African Union in maintaining peace and security. Most conflicts today take place and are resolved without outside influence. While multilateral diplomacy is under siege, it remains undefeated. Since the first Gulf War in 1990 and during the Arab uprisings, with the multilateral framework increasingly contested as the US retreated from the region, external powers competed for influence in countries such as Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The subsequent rivalries and interventions powered, exacerbated or prolonged conflicts, and prevented or stalled emerging political solutions. Moreover, the growing Iran/Resistance Axis and Saudi/Israeli rivalry continue to threaten the regional order. Many of these regional disputes and their multilateral implications have played out in international institutions, particularly the UN and have been addressed via resolutions, agencies, and emissaries.

Despite the US exercising overwhelming power and influence during the contemporary period, the Middle East has proved to be stubborn. It has not fallen in line with a “hegemonic legitimacy” conferred mainly by the US, corresponding to the idea and practice of multilateralism (Falk 2016). The US partial retreat from the region has amplified the strategic vacuum due to which external powers have competed for greater relevance within failed states like Syria, Yemen, and Libya and opened an opportunity for other powers to step in. The competition over the control of the MENA region has contributed to extended regional security chaos in the absence of stable alliances. In this paper, we advocate the importance of multilateralism in conflict prevention and conflict resolution in the MENA region showcasing the constraints facing the collective security initiatives.

Multilateralism: The Iceberg

Despite the achievements of multilateralism in conflict prevention and the war on terror, global governance on issues such as climate change, migration, and trade continues to face immense challenges. The only way forward on these issues is cooperation among nations and tackling them on a humanitarian basis and not through the prism of narrow state interest. There are no real alternatives except through activating the role of multilateral relations, and the participation of states and international organizations in resolving armed conflicts and civil wars.

The United States, which used to be the de facto guarantor of the international order, now has a president who questions the value of international institutions every week (Gowan 2018). Washington has pulled or announced plans to quit UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and the Paris Agreement on climate change. The US plan to withdraw from multilateral agreements and organizations has disappointed an already fragile system of multilateral institutions. The current move from bipolar spheres of influence and interest toward a multi-polar world leaves much to be desired. Some analysts argue that the most powerful public institutions – the IMF, the WTO, and even the WB – have promoted economic globalization and extreme liberalism without caring much for the people.

Addressing the 57th session of the UN General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “It is not enough to denounce unilateralism unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action” (Annan 2003). Further changes are needed in the system of international organizations to achieve global governance through multilateral diplomacy.

Renewed competition between world powers is rapidly replacing the post-Cold War cooperation as the dominant framework in international security affairs. However, the prospect of major-power conflict has returned, driven by dangerous new escalation dynamics. Space for, and confidence in, diplomacy is eroding, with technological advancement and nuclear instability heightening tensions. Even without direct conflict, great powers are employing “all measures short of war” in pursuit of strategic ends. Leaders are reassessing globalization’s impact on national security, finding vulnerabilities in information networks, economic interdependence, financial integration, and even shared energy infrastructure – all of which are fueling geopolitical tensions.

Despite peacekeeping’s tangible post-Cold War successes the international environment has worsened as terrorism is getting increasingly interwoven with civil wars and failed states. Terrorism and conflict battle deaths are ever more interconnected. Between 2013 and 2017, 93 percent of all battle-related deaths occurred in countries in which UNSC-designated terrorist organizations operated. This form of violence is heavily concentrated in the Middle East – which accounted for 70 percent of all battle deaths during the same period. This is particularly challenging given that the region’s strategic resources make it historically resistant to great power or multilateral conflict management.

The fusion of conflict and terrorism has overtaken peacekeeping efforts and the current mechanisms are not responding adequately to stop their escalation in the MENA region. Countries hosting UN deployments have accounted for only 7 percent of total global conflict deaths between 2013 and 2017, meaning that the vast number of conflicts is not being met with a multilateral response. The presence of terrorism or external support for a proxy has hampered UNSC authorizations or willingness to engage. Even with authorization, the UN cannot execute even its mandate in these environments. Attempts by others, such as the African Union, to deploy peacekeeping missions with the UN’s political and financial support have struggled for funds and lacked adherence to standards, including on human rights. Without serious reforms, the UN will remain stymied from acting in critical cases.

Failure of multilateralism: causes and consequences

The multilateral dialogue and conflict-resolution have become intangible as crises persist in the MENA region. Several unfavorable conditions hamper the emergence of some form of multilateral security process: areas of intense conflict have widened in recent years making violence almost widespread in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

The Middle East peace process is in a deadlock. The trust deficit between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is all but gone as both have become more contested among respective constituencies and less respected abroad. The social contract seems to be breaking down after a failed Arab Spring, challenging authority even in countries like Tunisia, where a fragile democratic transition continues audaciously despite growing socio-economic discontent and a deteriorating security situation.

MENA states have become weaker as a result of chronic violence and dysfunctional governance, other non-Arab states, like Turkey and Iran; have expanded their clout, even regardless of the mounting pressure from the international community. Extra-regional actors have never appeared more divided about the course to follow, or more distracted by other priorities.

The continuation of regional rivalry is one of the greatest impediments to the revival of multilateral security dialogue. From Syria to Iraq, from Libya to Yemen, crises across the MENA region are compounded with, when they are not directly provoked by, proxy conflicts that have entangled regional, and sometimes also extra-regional, actors in a brutal contest for influence premised on a zero-sum approach to security.

In such a confrontational context, bringing the same forces to the table contributes to undermining the fragile Middle Eastern order. Even in such an unpromising backdrop, proposals for re-launching multilateral security dialogue in the region have been put forward in recent years. There has been resurrection of ideas cyclically floated in the Mediterranean diplomatic and policy circles since the end of the bipolar era.

One such idea is to explore the applicability, in the Mediterranean and/or the MENA context, of a multilateral process akin to the one that inspired a similar experiment in the European Union. While chaos reigns in Syria and Iraq, three major protagonists are emerging today in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. These countries have converging interests in countering the threat posed by ISIS but differ on Syria.

For these three regional powers, advancement and sustainability requires an ample effort to resolve economic, and, social challenges. Saudi Arabia launched Vision 2030 to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil. Turkey, while striving to get out of the European umbrella, still has a pivotal role to play as a mediator between Europe, Asia, and Africa. For Iran, it is about trying to regain power using revolutionary doctrine and expanding its influence on the rest of the Muslim world. In sum, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran are all seeking to ensure a predominant role in the region and their ambitions as regional powers are on the rise.

Regionalism and unilateral geopolitical system

The Muslim world does not follow a unitary geopolitical system and it is necessary to distinguish the different analyses on the subject. The Middle East – as a theological, historical and geographical center of the Muslim world – is a global crossroads and a strategic space torn between world powers. The lack of unified leadership among the MENA region, besides the regional institutions’ conflict resolution or stabilization efforts, has been unsuccessful. No flagship state in the region can bring the players together under a unified structure. Apart from the Arab regional institution-building and the development of sub-regional bodies since the 1980s, the Middle East has also been involved in other cooperation projects that transcended its (ill-defined) geographical borders.

Some forums hinged on unifying identities other than the ethno-linguistic idea of “Arabism”. The main instance of such a project is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (until 2011 the Organization of the Islamic Conference – OIC), which was founded in 1969 in response to an arson attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. As a “pan-Islamic” cooperation forum, its 25 founding members included not only the member states of the Arab League, that were independent at the time, but also Turkey, Iran, and several other Muslim countries from West Africa (like Senegal and Niger) to Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The OIC has made the Israeli-Palestinian issue its main focus but also occasionally provides a forum for other notable multilateral initiatives, including the adoption of conventions on human rights and security issues. Nevertheless, the organization has witnessed a different diverging Islamic countries agenda while dealing with the regional crises.

For instance, the Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019, which took place in Malaysia, marked a deepening divide in the Muslim world. The summit has highlighted curbs on some states’ ability to navigate freely among different blocs and alliances. Saudi Arabia and some other Islamic countries are not happy with Malaysia’s efforts to build a platform that could potentially challenge the OIC, which is led by Riyadh. The summit became controversial after Malaysia’s refusal to extend invites to Saudi Arabia and its close allies in the Gulf region. Reportedly, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Pakistan were the primary invitees to the summit, which includes more than 400 Muslim scholars from across the world.

Most of the regional organizations do not work in the “right” way for a variety of reasons that could be associated with peculiarities, problems, or failures specific to the Arab world. In a regional variant of the neoliberal theory of hegemonic stability, the absence of a single regional hegemon in the Middle East (Lustick, 1997) and its “multipolar” structure (Frazier and Stewart-Ingersoll, 2010: 738) might be considered the root cause of institutional weakness.

The pervasiveness of foreign intervention in the region and the role of external forces, at least for an initial period, in the running of these bodies may have also impacted negatively on the resilience of regional cooperation processes. From a purely legal perspective, one could point to the lack of courage in framing the institutional structure of these organizations as crystallized in their charters. Their reliance on unanimity, which gives every member state the right to veto, effectively deprives these bodies of any substantive power to impose their decisions on the member states. Yemen and Libya are an example of the failure of the international community and regional powers to broker the peace needed after a political conflict.

In Yemen, the humanitarian consequences are staggering after more than five years of conflict. The road to peace talks will be difficult and uncertain. The UN has once again been blocked by unilateral agendas of different external powers involved actively in the conflict. The efforts made by Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, to create a framework for more formal negotiations, have been scuttled. The Houthi delegation violated the Stockholm Agreement in al-Hodeida, claiming that the UN had not met their conditions. The current framework for talks, UN Security Council Resolution 2216, was largely sidestepped by the Houthis and remains  unworkable because it calls for the Houthis to disarm and withdraw from the territories that they have gained.

The intervention of regional powers in Yemen’s conflict, including Iran, threatens to draw the country into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Numerous Iranian weapons shipments to Houthi rebels have been intercepted in the Gulf of Aden by the Saudi navy since April 2015. In response, Iran has dispatched its naval convoy, which further risks military escalation. The conflict continues to take a heavy toll on Yemeni civilians, making Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to the UN estimates, the civilian casualty toll has exceeded 15,000 killed or injured. As many as 22 million Yemenis remain in need of assistance, eight million are at risk of famine, and a cholera outbreak has affected over one million people.

All sides in the conflict are reported to have violated human rights and international humanitarian laws. The UN has failed to find an effective plan to set up a constructive dialogue between Yemen’s warring factions. All UN envoys to Yemen have put in place their agendas, recognizing that the Houthi militias oppose Yemen’s legitimate government, bypassing the UN Security Council resolutions, particularly 2216.

Other regional organizations such as the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have not been able to find a compatible solution to the Yemeni and Syrian crises due to the different polarizations, alliances and interests between regional and international parties.

In Libya, while the ambitions of competing commanders fan the flames of conflict, and consume the country’s oil resources, envoys from the UN and West to Libya have said a lot but done little. What hangs in the balance is not only the success of those diplomats’ missions but also the future of Libya as a functioning state. Diplomats throughout the region and beyond commend each other and receive recognition, awards, and promotions for conceiving the idea of the so-called Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Despite the high praise, the 2015 agreement has been repeatedly violated by its proponents and by the members of the government.

What many fail to admit is that the last piece of diplomatic wrangling that has had any lasting impact was UN Resolution 1970. It called for armed intervention against Qaddafi in 2011. In the eight years since millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours dedicated to resolving the seemingly unending struggle have done little more than encouraging NGOs to apply for more funding.

UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame’s roadmap, with its straightforward steps and benchmarks, was hailed at the UN and by Western diplomats as a great leap forward. However, none of these diplomats would admit that some aspects of Salame’s plan were in conflict with the previously negotiated LPA. For instance, Salame proposed that a new Presidential Council would be selected by the Tobruk-based Parliament. In a response to concerns that his roadmap would violate the LPA, Salame simply said he was more concerned about the spirit of the LPA and not by its letter. After several rounds of meetings in Tunis and elsewhere with Libyan politicians, foreign diplomats, oligarchs, and influencers, Ghassan Salame steadily but quickly abandoned the proposal.


The world needs multi-polar blocs to meet its most difficult challenges: from climate change, poverty eradication to human rights violations and the proliferation of weapons. This requires multilateralism without exceeding respect for national sovereignty, which is a core principle of the UN Charter. International and regional institutions must, therefore, play a mediating role in enabling institutional structures to address ongoing conflicts in the MENA region. The continued absence of effective and constructive regional cooperation contributes to the rise in conflicts and poses major security threats for the region.

The future and the credibility of international and regional organizations are at stake in the MENA region. The region appears to be increasingly concerned with preserving its security and sovereignty and defending its various agendas, at the expense of reforms and policies of harmonization. The need of the hour is rational and multi-polar management of regional crises while developing relational aspects and avoiding collateral conglomerates based on hostility to international entities under the existing system.

In conclusion, a resolute engagement of international actors is desperately needed in the Middle East to resolve the many crises. We would like to see the Security Council fully shoulder its responsibilities. International and regional communities should also make efforts to establish regional mechanisms of dialogue for the peaceful settlement of disputes and dialogue for the stability of the Middle East in the larger interest of international peace and security. Destructive violence in the name of regional struggle and balance of power must be brought to an end. The countries should instead seek collaborative and just solutions and implement a policy of balanced dialogue so that the people of the region can find points of convergence, define the modalities for sustainable neighborly relations, and opt for the non-violent, pluralistic exercise of power.

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