Small Steps in the Middle East

Here in America, you’d be forgiven for believing that things are on a downward spiral, as Donald Trump’s disturbing success in various primaries raises the real, and terrifying prospect that he will be the Republican nominee. So if constant media coverage of the primary season depresses you, you could do worse than consider recent developments in the Middle East, where something truly unusual has been happening in the last few weeks. With a fragile ceasefire in Syria and diplomatic negotiations in Yemen, things actually appear to be improving.

Though these developments are tenuous – and each has many problems - they show the value of diplomatic and even incremental approaches to resolving the region’s ongoing conflicts.

It’s technically incorrect to refer to the current situation in Syria as a ceasefire. For starters, it doesn’t actually prohibit attacks by any party against the conflict’s most extreme groups, ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. And unlike a true ceasefire, there is no official on-the-ground monitoring and compliance system. Instead, that role is filled in a more ad-hoc way by a communications hotline between Russia and the United States as members of the International Syria Support Group.

There are other problems with the agreement too, particularly its role in freezing the conflict in a way which is extremely advantageous to the Syrian government and its Russian backers. While this was perhaps unavoidable – Russia would probably not have agreed otherwise – it will reduce the bargaining power of the Syrian opposition in peace talks when they restart on March 14th.

Nonetheless, it’s estimated that the cessation of hostilities – which has held for almost two weeks – has dropped the level of violence and death toll inside Syria by at least 80 percent. Violence has dropped so much that anti-regime protestors were able to engage in peaceful protest marches in several towns. Likewise, despite delivery problems and delays, humanitarian aid is flowing into some areas of Syria for the first time in years.  These small advances are all the more astounding given how unthinkable they seemed even a few months ago.

Progress in Yemen is less spectacular, but still encouraging. Following negotiations mediated by northern Yemeni tribal leaders, the combatants arranged to a swap of Jaber al-Kaabi, a Saudi soldier, for the release of seven Yemeni prisoners. At the same time, a truce along the Saudi-Yemeni border is allowing much-needed humanitarian aid to flow into the country.

Again, these are at best a tiny step towards resolving the conflict, which has lasted almost a year and produced extremely high levels of civilian casualties. The truce is temporary and confined to the border region; Saudi airstrikes continue near the contested town of Ta’iz. Yet the negotiations mark the first direct talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which had previously insisted that they would deal with the Houthis only through the exiled Hadi government.

In both Syria and Yemen, observers are quick to point out the tenuous nature of these developments, and it is certainly true that any political settlement in either conflict remains an uphill battle. But I prefer to view these developments in a more positive light. As numerous post-Soviet frozen conflicts have demonstrated, ceasefires do not necessarily resolve the major disputes which precipitated the conflict originally. Yet even if the end result is not a more comprehensive peace deal, the lower levels of violence and improved access to humanitarian aid can dramatically improve life for civilians. In Syria in particular, this represents a small - but notable - victory for diplomacy.