Mediators to the Rescue

Patrick Seale

Several conflicts across the Middle East seem in danger of sinking into long-running stalemates, and are beginning to display all the characteristics of murderous civil wars. In Libya and Yemen, but also in Bahrain and Syria, there seems little chance of a rapid or widely acceptable settlement. Can mediation help?
The good news is that mediators -- mainly drawn from the region itself -- are at last beginning to offer their services in an evident attempt to save the ‘Arab Revolution’ from degenerating into uncontrollable chaos. The euphoric democratic wave of the early days has been replaced by a harsher, grimmer mood, suggesting that the revolution has entered a new and more violent phase.
In Libya, in particular, mediation is urgently required to break the dangerous impasse. As if mimicking the desert battles of the Second World War, rebels and Qadhafi loyalists chase each other up and down the Mediterranean coast with neither side seeming able to deliver a knockout blow. Meanwhile, precious infrastructure -- including oil installations -- is being destroyed, while some 450,000 people have already fled abroad. The country is in danger of splitting into two. Food and fuel is everywhere in short supply.
A delegation from the African Union, led by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, seems to have won Qadhafi’s agreement to what was, in effect, a Turkish roadmap for a settlement. It proposed an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian aid corridors, and negotiations between Qadhafi and the rebels. But the rebels have already rejected any plan which leaves any semblance of a role for the Libyan dictator and his sons. They want them out.
Turkey will no doubt try again. It has won an enviable reputation for conflict resolution. It has also invested heavily in Libya, where it has many large-scale construction projects worth several billion dollars. When fighting broke out, these projects ground to a halt and Turkish workers were among the first to be evacuated. At a time when the United States seems anxious to disengage from military operations, while Britain and France face the unwelcome prospect of a long war, Turkey’s efforts deserve strong international support.
Qatar, a small but influential country, has also distinguished itself as a regional mediator, notably in Lebanon and Sudan. Like Turkey, it has now entered the Libyan arena, but not as a mediator. Instead, it has offered the anti-Qadhafi rebels precious backing. Its jets are helping enforce the No-Fly Zone; it has recognised the Interim Transitional National Council in Benghazi; and -- perhaps most important of all -- it has offered to supply fuel to the people of eastern Libya and market oil from the region.
It is no surprise that Riyadh is leading the mediation effort in Yemen. No country has a greater interest than Saudi Arabia in the stability of Yemen, where the beleaguered President Ali Abdallah Saleh is fighting for his political life. With backing from other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia has been attempting to organise a conference of all the parties in Riyadh. No doubt, Saudi subsidies and offers of development aid could help smooth the way for a settlement.
But the gap is difficult to bridge between President Saleh and the many factions opposed to him – youthful revolutionaries, Islamists, Zaydi Houthis from the region of Sa‘ada in the north and would-be secessionists in the south. President Saleh wants to leave office in his own time and with full immunity from prosecution, while the revolutionaries say they will only engage in dialogue if his immediate departure is assured.
Yemen is the poorest and most turbulent of the Arab countries, while Saudi Arabia is the richest and in many ways the most stable. If Yemen were to sink into lawless turmoil, Saudi Arabia would inevitably suffer. Destitute Yemenis, unable to find work in their own country, would seek to cross the long porous border into the Kingdom in search of a better life. From Riyadh’s point of view, they would pose a security threat.
Historically, relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen have veered back and forth between cautious friendship and bitter hostility, especially since the 1962 revolution which overthrew the one thousand year-old Imamate, making Yemen the only republic in an Arabian Peninsula ruled by kings, sultans, emirs and shaykhs. The last forty years have been marked by one crisis after another in Saudi-Yemeni relations.
Qatar has also suggested helping to mediate the conflict, but President Saleh appears to have rejected its offer and expelled its envoy. Meanwhile, the situation in Yemen has turned increasingly ugly. Protesters are being met with live fire. Pitched battles are being fought in the streets. Casualties are mounting, fuelling anger and a thirst for revenge, and hardening positions on both sides.
In Bahrain, Kuwait was reported to have offered to mediate between the government and opposition, but Saudi Arabia, whose troops have helped quell the recent protests, may not welcome interference in a country it regards as falling within its sphere of influence. Turkey has also attempted to mediate in Bahrain. Its hyper-active foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has held talks with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as well as with al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group.
It is not clear whether Syria would welcome a helping hand in resolving a situation which is now threatening to escalate into further violence. Once again, Turkey has stepped in with advice, if not with actual mediation. “We cannot remain indifferent to what is going on in Syria,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan has declared. “We have an 800 km border with Syria. I advised President Bashar al-Asad to listen to the demands of his people.” Erdogan is thought to have recommended that President Bashar institute a multi-party democracy on the Turkish model.
Hakan Fidan, the powerful head of Turkey’s Intelligence Service (MIT) has paid a recent visit to Damascus. No doubt Turkey feels it has the right to speak its mind since it has been enjoying a spectacular political honeymoon with Syria. The two countries carried out joint military exercises in April 2010, to Israel’s evident dissatisfaction and alarm.
Even in countries where rulers have already been toppled, protests have by no means been silenced. In Egypt, the revolutionaries want Husni Mubarak and his closest associates to be put on trial. In Tunisia, where an atmosphere of great political confusion reigns, no fewer than 51 political parties have registered to contest the 24 July elections. Plagued by economic misery, hordes of young Tunisians have sought to smuggle themselves across the sea to Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has warned of a “human tsunami.”
The fear of a wild, infectious insurrection sweeping across the region is bringing would-be mediators onto the scene. But the situation with which they have to deal is daunting, and it is far from clear that all parties to the various conflicts would welcome external help.
Israel is certainly a regional power that wants no interference in its continued land-grab of Palestinian territory and its cruel oppression of the Palestinians. But the recent dangerous flare-up on the Israeli-Gaza border -- which at the time of writing had claimed the life of some fifty Gaza citizens in the last month -- is serving to alert European leaders that the time for a forceful mediation to enforce a ceasefire and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is fast approaching.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global