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Researching Middle East conflicts: A better understanding of local and regional dynamics is needed to address challenges in the region and beyond

by Luigi Narbone, Director, Middle East Directions Programme, RSCAS/EUI.


2 March 2016

The Syrian conflict has come to epitomize the state of disorder which affects the Middle East and the risks of spill over to Europe. The UNSC-endorsed ceasefire, which entered into force on 27 February, raises hopes that the Syrian conflict may, at last, enter a new phase which could eventually lead to a political resolution. It would be high time.

The growing military involvement of external actors in support of the various factions has transformed Syria into a battleground for regional and international powers, and is contributing to the shaping of a new regional order. The internationalisation of the conflict has made the risk of escalation outside the Syrian theatre dangerously high.

The cost of the five-year civil war in terms of human suffering and physical and economic destruction is enormous. The dramatic consequences of the conflict go well beyond Syria’s borders. The civil war has caused the largest refugee crisis since WWII, with over 4.5 million people fleeing into neighbouring countries and having destabilising effects both politically and on the socio-economic fabric of the region. A growing proportion of refugees has chosen to undertake the dangerous and sometimes fatal journey to Europe, causing a surge in the migrant flow which is having a dismaying impact on solidarity between EU Member States, and possible lasting consequences over the EU integration project.

The Syrian war has highlighted some worrying patterns that make regional conflicts intertwined. The conflict has broken up the country along sectarian-ethnic-community-tribal lines which, in turn, have provoked or facilitated the intervention of external actors. ISIS penetration in Syria and the creation of the self-proclaimed Caliphate over a territorial continuum across Iraq and Syria has established a link between the two countries’ crises. ISIS’s expansion into Libya is the result of military intervention in Syria/Iraq which pushes its militants to seek refuge there, but also of favorable conditions, similar to those present in Syria and Iraq, in terms of power vacuum, reduced legitimacy of national and local authorities, marginalization of important constituencies and military imbalances. Similar underlying forces are at play in Yemen.

The wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have resulted into major disruptions and reorganization of the social and political orders. Political processes aimed at ending these wars and finding a lasting solution need to take into account the various dimensions of the conflicts, and the interplay between the international, regional and local levels. Similarly, to tackle the migration and security crisis stemming from continuing conflicts in the Middle East European policymakers require a thorough understanding of the local and regional processes at work.

By promoting empirical research and multidisciplinary analysis in conflict-affected countries of the region the new RSCAS Middle East Directions Programme aims to contribute to this effort of understanding and producing policy-relevant analysis.


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