Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 04/2015

TSG IntelBrief: A War of Frustrations

March 2015

The Soufan Group


• There hasn't been a lasting and successful end to an armed conflict in the Middle East in decades, and the newest fighting in Yemen can be seen through a lens of deep regional frustration over countless issues that seem to defy solutions

• The entire region is frustrated with the worsening status quo, but the consensus and creativity to meaningfully address the challenges is lacking, even with the newly announced Arab ‘rapid response force' to an extremist problem that has been openly growing for a decade

• The only actors not frustrated are non-state actors, who fill the ever-widening chasm between what regional governments can deliver and what their populations demand.


Given the recent history of failed conflict resolution, Yemen just might become the latest permanent conflict zone in the Middle East. There hasn't been a successful and lasting end to an armed conflict in the region in decades, with the best results being cease-fires that are routinely violated and the worst results being continuous fighting at varying levels. Individual conflicts ignite and smolder but are never extinguished, leaving extremist ideology to take root among the collective ashes.

Every recent regional conflict is unique; Iraq, Syria, Libya, parts of Algeria, and now Yemen are wildly different in terms of local circumstances, challenges, and identities. But they all share one tragic characteristic: external efforts to resolve them come either too late and are insufficient or they are counterproductive and destructive. The current conflicts are entirely immune to the post-WWII conflict resolution infrastructure, where U.N. resolutions at least sometimes led to positive outcomes. The paralysis of the U.N. between the U.S. and Russia over issues such as Syria is reflected at the regional level. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries are divided amongst themselves at times but are always unified as a bloc against any Iranian or Iranian proxy move. The region is at a crossroads, and state actors are locked in place even as their script changes. These actors are now supremely frustrated by ever-increasing concerns, ranging from fear of unrest or even regime change to expanding Iranian influence to economic and societal worries to waning regional influence. The inability of these actors to affect sustained positive change either at home or abroad has created great tension.

There are of course sectarian concerns underpinning many of the conflicts being fought now in the Middle East, but the overall geopolitical frustration of regional powers is driving what should be local issues into wider conflicts. This frustration is oddly schizophrenic, as Arab countries proudly declare they can handle their internal and external affairs-with some generally not faring well-while at the same time expressing genuine concern and annoyance that the U.S. isn't taking a leading role. Some argue the U.S. isn't taking a harder line against Iran while others perceive a wavering of U.S. support. The U.S. is itself frustrated, since nearly every move taken in the region since the 1991 end of the Gulf War hasn't achieved its intended goal, and has usually led to more insidious conflicts. Even with its influence expanding in some areas, Iran itself is frustrated as it tries above all else to get out from under economic sanctions and international isolation. The only actors happy with the status quo are the non-state actors such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda who can only exist in an environment of frustration and anger.

An apt expression of this regional frustration is the announcement by Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby of a ‘regional rapid response force' to respond to the growing threat of extremism; a threat that has been widely known but ignored for over a decade. There are not enough details as to the makeup and utility of such a force to make an assessment of its potential. Substituting foreign Western soldiers with foreign Arab soldiers might reduce the ideological undermining of groups like al-Qaeda but it probably won't since those groups lump all others in the same enemy camp regardless of religious or ethnic origin.

It is against this backdrop of regional frustration, and the looming Iranian nuclear deal, that Yemen finds itself in the crosshairs. The Saudi-led coalition is determined to act decisively, though frustration is never a solid basis for decision-making. The coalition insists the fighting will continue until the Yemeni people are secure-an ambiguous if ambitious objective if it means more than the restoration of exiled president Abd Rabbuh Hadi. The frustration that led to the airstrikes has yet to evolve into an achievable political and societal solution. In announcing the rapid response force to extremist threats that include Yemen, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated, "the Arab nation is facing unprecedented challenges and threats." To avoid worsening frustration and conflict, it will need to implement unprecedented approaches and solutions.