By Emily Estelle
Great-power competition and the terrorist threat intersect and interact with one another in Africa and the Middle East.
American Reluctance in Syria and Libya
American war-weariness and retrenchment are partly responsible for the internationalizing of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. US reluctance to engage created a void that other actors have filled, layering on global and regional conflicts to already complex local dynamics.
The inconsistency of US policy in Syria and its implications are clear, whatever one’s judgment of the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations’ actions and inactions. The Obama administration criticized Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s crackdown on popular protests and declared a “redline” on the use of chemical weapons but ultimately decided not to retaliate militarily when Assad crossed that line.
Obama ended up in Syria anyway because the Islamic State exploited the existential threats that Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis faced—from both the Assad regime and Iraqi Shi’a militias—to seize a large part of eastern Syria and take over the second-largest city in Iraq.
The US still engaged only reluctantly and limitedly in response to the Islamic State’s moves. Washington’s focus on building an international coalition to fight the Islamic State helped open the field for Russia to intervene on Assad’s side in 2015.
The Kremlin framed its intervention as countering the Islamic State, but its true intent—to strengthen Assad—rapidly became clear. The Iranian regime had begun its extensive effort to prop up its ally Assad years earlier, but the lack of a strong American response emboldened Tehran to pursue a new and bold form of expeditionary warfare in Syria.
The Trump administration did strike Syrian regime targets in response to chemical weapons use and is enacting aggressive sanctions on the Assad regime, but the administration has still shied away from providing international leadership or a clear commitment on Syria.
President Trump’s abortive 2018 withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria hastened the strengthening of the Islamic State and damaged America’s reputation as an ally. Today’s US policy in Syria is slowing the advances of Assad, Iran, and ISIS while intermittently addressing the humanitarian situation, but will not likely achieve an acceptable end-state on any of these fronts.
US policy has done nothing to prevent the war from protracting and deepening and is not driving effectively toward ending the conflict. Syria’s civil war has become a front in several global and regional conflicts. The Iranian regime seeks to build a “Shi’a crescent” across the Middle East to preserve and export the Islamic revolution, achieve regional hegemony, expel the US from the Middle East, and eliminate Israel.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants a new Syrian government closer to his interests and ideology; his support for Syrian opposition groups has drawn Turkish forces into the Syrian conflict, where Turkish objectives also include managing massive refugee outflows and disrupting the formation of a Syrian Kurdish statelet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has found an opportunity to pursue several strategic objectives in Syria, whose Arab Spring uprising he saw as part of a tide of Western-backed efforts to collapse dictatorships like his own.
The Kremlin has leveraged Syria to reestablish a military footprint in the eastern Mediterranean and again make itself a power player in the Middle East, advancing long-running goals to weaken NATO and raise Russia to global-power status while diminishing the US.
Russia has applied its Syria playbook to a limited extent in Libya, where a chaotic civil war paired with the West’s reluctance to engage has created opportunities for the Kremlin to advance these and other wide-ranging objectives.
Some are simple economic and military interests, such as gaining new construction contracts and acquiring basing on the central Mediterranean. But Putin has a deeper strategic investment in Libya, too. It is an opportunity to undermine NATO on its doorstep, in a country where a NATO intervention helped rebels kill their longtime dictator, whose gruesome death was captured in a video that Putin reportedly rewatches obsessively.
Syria and Libya together offer Putin a variety of levers on NATO; these include reestablishing the Soviet-era military footprint and gaining a point of influence over the European and NATO states that he seeks to divide from the US and each other.
Western disinterest and disunity allowed other players—including Russia and especially regional states—to transform the Libyan conflict into a proxy war.
Several Middle Eastern states have actively shaped Libya’s trajectory since 2011, when they armed and funded the rebellion against Libyan dictator. NATO’s intervention also contributed to Qaddafi’s fall—but the US and Europe had no interest in remaining to shape Libya’s governance outcomes.
Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE remained and continued their influence-building, laying the groundwork for Libya to become one front in a regional battle to determine the future of governance in the Muslim world.
The Arab Spring set in motion an ideologically inflected power struggle that has driven apart Sunni states and incentivized them to battle for influence across the Muslim world, often with destructive consequences.
The 2011 popular uprisings raised the prospect of democracy and an organized Islamist political opposition that some Arab rulers, notably in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, saw as an existential threat. This threat perception pitted them against Qatar and Turkey, whose leaders sought instead to co-opt political Islam to topple their rivals and secure their regimes.
This Sunni rift crystalized in Egypt, where the anti-Islamist states backed the counterrevolution against democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi. Tensions escalated again in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies blockaded Qatar.
This intra-Sunni struggle is partly ideological but is more fundamentally about power, with both sides seeking to shape the governments of third-party states to serve their domestic priorities and their regional and extra-regional ambitions.
Nonviolent political Islam raises its own challenges, but it is not generating the same extra-regional effects as its opponents are.
This Middle Eastern competition has intersected with an increased Saudi and Emirati drive to defend their security interests throughout the broader region, driven partly by doubts about America’s commitment to their security with the negotiation and signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) and the Trump administration’s repeated declarations of its intent to pull back from the region.
Regional players have gradually ramped up their involvement in Libya to the point that they can now pause and accelerate the conflict. This interference has occurred partly because the international community—particularly the US after the 2012 Benghazi attack—has avoided committing to Libya until threats became too obvious to ignore. For example, the US and Europe marshaled policy responses to the formation of an Islamic State stronghold on the Mediterranean coast and swelling migration into Europe.
The US and others contented themselves with a UN-led peace process that muddled along for years while several member states violated the arms embargo on Libya with impunity. This negligence bore fruit in April 2019.
Libya appeared to be stabilizing, but not in a way that met the maximalist objectives of would-be Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar and secured the interests of his backers, notably Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Haftar’s backers resourced and armed him to launch an offensive on Libya’s capital, Tripoli, that raged for more than a year.
That war brought in Turkey to defend Tripoli; the Turkish intervention proved momentarily decisive and thwarted Haftar’s ambitions in May 2020.
Libya now hovers between possible futures, flooded with foreign weaponry, increasingly fragmented, and stretched between powerful rival players. The Libyan conflict’s broader implications became clearer with Turkey’s entry.
The Syrian war spilled into Libya, with Turkey and Russia facing off and Syrian mercenaries entering the Libyan battlespace. Libya, like Syria, is now at NATO’s bleeding edge, with the added complication that Turkey’s motivations—which include redrawing Mediterranean maritime boundaries—run afoul of fellow NATO members.
Effects of Interventions
The chaotic, multiplayer interventions in Syria and Libya have warped these conflicts in ways that harm both the local social fabric and the international system.
hese interventions are not mere geopolitical competition or the routine pursuit of national interests. Their hallmarks include introducing new weaponry and man power to the battlefield, spoiling or diverting conflict resolution efforts, pursuing deniability and the use of hybrid war and “gray zone” tactics, and merging conflict zones.
Critics of US foreign policy will charge that the US is equally guilty of intervening in foreign wars to disastrous effect. The invasion of Iraq and operations in Afghanistan obviously did not yield the promised or desired outcomes.
The decision to invade Iraq and the execution of both wars are clearly open to criticism and argument. But the invasion of Iraq is not the original sin from which every subsequent Middle East crisis flows.
The effects of the invasion must be considered alongside the outcomes of all subsequent US policies, including drawdowns, withdrawals, and reentries, and their interactions with other states’ actions, global and regional trends, and local dynamics.
The lesson to draw is not that US interventions inevitably fail and that ceding the field to other actors will at best generate better results and at least pose no threat to American interests. The US has taken exactly this approach since 2011 with catastrophic results—Syria and Libya among them.
In an ideal world, the US could skip these thorny questions and forsake its responsibility to maintain the global order on which its prosperity and security rest. But the post-2011 world shows the reality—that when American leadership wavers and recedes, adversaries and malign actors fill the void.
No viable alternative to US global leadership exists based on either power or values. The US ability to project power and gather allies and partners remains unmatched.
The US and its liberal democratic allies also intervene with different intent than the autocratic or autocratic-leaning states that are increasingly prominent today do. Intent falls on a spectrum, of course, and it is wrong to attribute to the US and its allies purely altruistic intent and to US adversaries evil intent only.
But it is also wrong to draw false moral equivalencies between America’s actions in the world and those of, say, Putin’s Russia, whose strategy in Syria includes the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools.
The US and its allies are aiming to not only secure their interests but also protect human rights, promote representative governance, and avert humanitarian emergencies, however fraught the execution of these objectives may become.
Taking all flaws in US policymaking and execution into account, it remains the case that only principled leadership by the US and its democratic allies offers a chance of shaping a tumultuous region in a positive direction.
Emily Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She specializes in the Libya conflict and the Sahel. Ms. Estelle has appeared on MSNBC and published for numerous news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, National Interest, The Hill, and FoxNews.com.