The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An age of deconfliction may be dawning on the Middle East

A Yemeni stands in a cemetery for people killed in the war on April 10. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

Let’s talk about ending ugly wars. No, not the one in Ukraine, at least not yet. But those in the Middle East. Here’s a brief inventory, and it shows why American diplomacy remains essential in this vexed part of the world.

The Yemen civil war, one of the cruelest this century, appears to be inching toward a stable settlement — thanks to tireless mediation by U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking and concessions from Saudi Arabia, a country that Americans (often for good reason) love to hate. Yemen could still reignite, but after a year of quasi-truce, the Saudis deserve some credit.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, after a phone call last week with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “welcomed Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary efforts to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap for ending the war and offered full U.S. support for those efforts,” according to a White House statement. It’s about time. In late 2021, the United Nations estimated that this war, started by the Saudi leader with U.S. support, had killed or starved 377,000 people.

The Syria civil war is, if anything, even more tragic. Since 2011, the conflict has killed more than 500,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and driven about 6 million people from the country. But this miserable conflict lacks a U.S. mediator or road map for resolution. So Arab countries are moving on their own to make separate deals. The Saudi foreign minister was in Damascus this week for the first time since 2011. That’s a sign that countries are getting ready to freelance their own arrangements.

Syria fatigue afflicts American policymakers, which is understandable after countless unsuccessful diplomatic forays. In place of a policy, we have sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad and refuse any normalization with him. The sanctions might make members of Congress feel better, and they give us a bit of leverage, but they do nothing to ease Syria’s suffering. This approach reminds me of America’s non-policy toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The right role for the United States in Syria is easy to describe but exceedingly difficult to execute. First off, we have a moral obligation to help the Syrian Kurds — who nobly fought and died to destroy the Islamic State — find a place in a future federal Syria. The vulnerability of our Kurdish allies was illustrated when a drone strike, probably from Turkey, nearly assassinated Gen. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, this month in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

To protect our Kurdish allies in a future Syria, the United States should be working with its regional partners in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and, yes, Saudi Arabia. I hope that secret diplomacy has already begun.

The world owes a debt to the SDF. After vanquishing the Islamic State, the militia took responsibility for housing prisoners, including foreign fighters who would threaten every country in Europe and the Arab world if they were released. It would be grotesque to abandon the SDF after it lost 12,000 dead fighting the Islamic State.

America’s Syria agenda includes more than our Kurdish allies. Neighboring Arab states (and Israel) need help reducing Iran’s military power there; Turkey needs reassurance about the security of its southern border; refugees need a way home; Assad, the presumptive victor, doesn’t deserve help with reconstruction, but Syria does. And our agenda won’t be complete without the release of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and Post contributor who was kidnapped there in 2012.

When we think about ugly wars in the region, let’s pause a moment to recall poor, ruined Lebanon. That country has been ravaged by civil war and corruption for five decades. Its political system is so poisoned that the nation can’t agree on a president. The United States can help by backing the presidential candidacy of Gen. Joseph Aoun, head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, a clean, apolitical symbol of the nation and its aspirations. Hezbollah doesn’t like him, but many Lebanese people do. Let’s hit the Lebanon reset button, at last.

The Middle East has been a conflict zone for most of our lives; now, an age of deconfliction may be dawning — with the sad exception of the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new operating system can be summarized in four words: Make friends, make money. This moment is about settling quarrels. The Saudis, with Chinese help, are normalizing relations with Iran. The UAE has stopped feuding with Turkey and Qatar. The Arabs (holding their noses) are reviving relations with Assad. China gets credit for brokering the Saudi-Iran deal. But, really, the animating force in the region is the UAE, the architect of “no-problem” foreign policy.

The Biden administration is rediscovering diplomacy, too, after decades of American wars in the region. We’re brokering deals with Iraqis, Lebanese, Emiratis, Kurds, Saudis and maybe, eventually, some Syrians, too. Some of our partners are distasteful, but that’s part of diplomacy. We’ve had too many decades of ugly wars; it’s time for some ugly peace.