September 13, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 409

Semi-Frozen: The Middle East's Intractable Conflicts

September 13, 2022 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Iran, Libya, Yemen | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 409

Recent Snowfall in the Sahara

The term "frozen conflict" came into vogue in recent decades to describe a variety of border conflicts between Russia and neighboring countries, often over breakaway regions like Abkhazia or the Donbass.[1] There are also historic conflicts like Kashmir or the Arab-Israeli Conflict that go on for decades, sometimes hot and sometimes cold, that seem to also be "frozen," neither conclusive war nor outright peace, but an uneasy, volatile reality in between.

But aside from the old conflict over Palestine, the Middle East seems to have engendered new conflicts in recent decades that are, at least, semi-frozen, lasting for a decade or longer. Often extremely violent and damaging to the future of nations, they also simmer down to situations approaching some type of wary truce, mere political turmoil or low-grade instability only to flare up again. This seems to be the case in places like Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, all three countries where the overthrow of a longtime brutal dictator unleashed forces that have not yet played out years later.

Of course, the region is flush with conflict. In Lebanon and Syria, one side (Hezbollah and Assad) is more or less victorious and dominant, though there is still some opposition on the ground. Morocco and Algeria are increasingly at loggerheads, though not at war. In Sudan, political crisis and societal turmoil could lead to open conflict between rival groupings inside the military regime. Transnational Salafi-Jihadism and Iranian-inspired terrorism still exist in the region and still claim victims.

But it is the cases of Iraq, Libya, and Yemen that are particularly haunting and costly to the future of the region. All three countries had been ruled by long-standing dictatorships that while they may have provided some of the aspects of stability, were still very volatile regimes. Two of them, Saddam's Iraq and Qaddafi's Libya, were actually major "exporters" of instability, promoting terrorism globally, repressing local citizens internally and attacking their neighbors.

Iraq has been at war, albeit sometimes at relatively low levels, since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. But even before that was the Kuwait War of 1990-1991 and the Iran War of 1980-1988. On top of that were internal conflicts, the regime's decades-long war against the Kurds, the savage repression of a Shia insurgency in 1991, and then after the American forces left in 2011, an increasingly sectarian Iraq under Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the war against ISIS beginning in 2014. That war greatly increased something that had already existed, Shia paramilitary groups, which echoes today in the ongoing conflict between the militias and parties closest to Iran against those arrayed with Muqtada Al-Sadr.[2] The open armed clashes in Baghdad and Basra of August 2022 have ebbed thanks to the mediating efforts of Iraq's prime minister and of the Shia clerical authorities in Najaf, but the political crisis continues.[3]

The American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 essentially dethroned Sunni power in Iraq and handed it over to the long-oppressed Iraqi Shia. Today's clashes in Iraq are less about good versus evil than an internal civil war within different factions of the Iraqi Shia political establishment, all of whom in one way or another, have colonized, subverted, and become parasites on the Iraqi state.[4] A 40-year-old Iraqi citizen alive today knows nothing but war and violent political turmoil inside the borders of his country.

Libya's Second Civil War ostensibly ended in October 2020 after six years of bitter fighting that drew in many foreign powers. The complexities can be dizzying but essentially an Islamist-dominated coalition based in Tripoli, supported by Turkey and Qatar, fought a nationalist coalition based in the country's east, supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Both sides, but especially Turkey, used Syrian mercenaries in the fight.[5] Also involved were Sudanese mercenaries from Darfur and Russia's notorious Wagner private military company (PMC), on the nationalist side. The United States and the UN mostly supported the Islamist-dominated coalition. After months of political impasse and rising tension, outright bloody violence broke out again in the Libyan capital Tripoli in July and August 2022 as Islamist Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, blessed as a compromise candidate by the UN in 2021, continued a slow, constant effort to gain ultimate power before, or despite, repeatedly delayed elections now scheduled to be held in December 2022.[6] Most Libyans alive today have known nothing other than the Qaddafi regime or the internecine conflict of the past decade.

Yemen's conflict has been especially brutal, including famine and malnutrition. Unlike oil rich Iraq and Libya, Yemen was destitute even before the uprising against long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. It was Saleh who, after losing power and being forced to step down in 2011, helped engineered the pro-Iranian Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in early 2015, triggering a military response from an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Saleh, who allied with the Houthis, would turn against them and be killed by them.

While the Houthis fight a brutal internal war against Yemeni rivals, they have developed, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, a regional capacity that Yemen never had.[7] Houthi television was formulated by Hezbollah while Houthi drones of Iranian manufacture launched long-range attacks against Saudi cities and, in early 2022, on Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE. In an echo of North Korea, Yemen's people may be hungry but the Houthis can launch deep strikes in the Arabian Peninsula and threaten to strike Israel as well, in the furtherance of Iran's regional ambitions.[8] As in Libya, the UN has been able to – on paper and to some extent on the ground – achieve a shaky truce but that has not prevented other violence by Yemen's own Al-Qaeda branch (AQAP) targeting South Yemeni separatist forces in Aden on September 6th. The 49 percent of the Yemeni population under the age of 19 has grown up in a dark era of constant turmoil and near permanent conflict. 

It was the Americans who overthrew the regimes in Libya and Iraq years ago and it is Iran that stokes much of the violence today in Yemen and Iraq. Other countries have played an often-deadly role, including Turkey. Interestingly enough the one country that has not played a role in these three conflicts is Israel. Without minimizing the role of the West or the venality of local leaders, the situation in all three Arab countries would have been much clearer and probably much better absent the toxic role played by Turkey or Iran.[9]

Today all three conflicts – Iraq, Libya, and Yemen – are simultaneously on the verge of cooling down and of heating up. Certainly, all three have seen bloodier days in the recent past but improvements and deterioration seem equally possible. The cost from these conflicts to the 80 million people living in these three countries has been tremendous in terms of broken lives and lack of investment in people, infrastructure, and industry. While in two of the cases oil wealth has prevented a bad situation being even worse, billions have been wasted in unproductive ventures, in buying weapons, buying politicians, or short-term fixes in the context of an unceasing struggle for power. Iraq in particular is country with great lost (so far) potential. And the price has been high for everyone else involved, for an international community trying to provide relief or broker peace, and even for those foreign powers who feel driven to intervene in these conflicts.

All this human and fiscal waste comes in the face of massive unaddressed existential challenges. Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are three of the most water-scarce countries on the planet. All three will see increasing deleterious effects as a result of climate change in the near future, results that could make life in these countries increasingly harsh.[10] Both Iraq and Yemen, larger countries with rapidly growing populations, have not been able to invest in providing young generations with the education and economic futures they crave. The easier way out has been to pick up a gun or work for the government (or both). These conflicts may freeze or unfreeze but the weight of these costly, lost decades makes future prospects look increasingly incendiary.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], April 2010.

[3], August 30, 2022.

[4], September 5, 2022.

[5], September 5, 2022.

[6], January 6, 2022.

[7], April 1, 2021.

[10], May 8, 2020.

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