By Emily Estelle
Great-power competition and the terrorist threat intersect and interact with one another in Africa and the Middle East.
Syria, Libya, and the Lack of US Leadership
The Syrian and Libyan cases demonstrate how proxy interventions expand, intensify, and prolong civil wars while deforming the local society and undermining local and international conflict resolution mechanisms.
Assad’s backers have prolonged the Syrian civil war by propping up the dictator and preventing the formation of an effective opposition to his regime acceptable to the international community.
Assad’s forces are extremely reliant on external support, including Russian air power. 55 They have relied on Iranian and Iranian proxy forces to conduct key operations as part of an integration that will grant Iran an enduring foothold in Syria.
Assad’s backers have also provided him diplomatic cover and options, enabling him to spoil negotiations. Anti-Assad players have also caused instability and created opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups, but at a smaller scale.
Turkey destabilized northeastern Syria in 2019 and disrupted counter-Islamic State operations with an offensive targeting Syrian Kurdish forces after American troops partially withdrew. External players are also making the Syrian civil war more violent.
Russia has provided air capability that supercharged Assad’s brutal effort to displace civilians en masse and break the opposition’s will. Assad’s backers are not responsible for all of his regime’s brutality, including its use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, but they provided the capabilities and man power for him to hold his position and launch new campaigns such as the bloody offensive in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province in early 2020.
They have also repeatedly blocked efforts on the international stage to hold him accountable for atrocities such as his use of chemical weapons against his own population.
The prolonging and worsening of the conflict has further torn Syria’s social, economic, and institutional fabric and disrupted the local mechanisms that would otherwise facilitate conflict resolution in the country.
The Assad regime has employed collective punishment to discourage the formation of local governing structures that can provide an alternative to the regime. This destruction of institutions also opens the door to other malign actors capable of delivering an alternative to Assad’s often absent or brutal governance; see the efforts by al Qaeda–linked groups to take over Idlib’s judicial system.
External players, particularly Russia, are stymieing the international community’s response on Syria and doing lasting harm to the global order in the process.
Russian officials framed their 2015 intervention as fighting the Islamic State—a claim that was rapidly debunked but still fueled a long-running discussion in Washington, DC, about whether to cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State.
The Kremlin has also obstructed international fact-finding missions into Assad’s chemical weapons use and worked to marginalize the UN-led diplomatic process for Syria, allowing Putin to lead an alternative negotiating track that has gained limited legitimacy but achieved only cosmetic effects.
Even more significantly, the prolonging of the Syrian conflict has numbed the world to the crisis and heightened the sense that the world’s leaders both cannot and will not stop an ongoing and preventable humanitarian disaster that was predictable before it grew immense.
This sense of fecklessness and hopelessness is one of Putin’s general aims, since it is one way he seeks to end US-led unipolarity and reestablish Russia as a first-rate global power.
Syria is also a potential front for a Russian-Turkish confrontation that could invalidate NATO’s collective defense provisions, though Putin has thus far played this possibility carefully to avoid escalation to higher levels than he desires.
The Syrian war also supports Putin’s main foreign policy efforts in the former Soviet Union by providing a distraction from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a learning ground for a new way of war.
Libya, perhaps even more than Syria, demonstrates the effects of American disengagement. External actors, including Russia, have grafted their interests onto Libya’s civil war and reenergized a conflict that would otherwise have de-escalated.
Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 torpedoed the UN-led peace process because it was about to codify the status quo, constraining Haftar’s nationwide ambitions and preserving a UN-backed government that Haftar and his backers view as unacceptably linked to Turkey and Qatar.
The war became more foreign as it raged on. On one side, Egypt, Russia, the UAE, and others provided Haftar with air power, weaponry, snipers, and Syrian and Sudanese fighters.
On the other side, Turkey has provided advanced weaponry, including drones, and thousands of Syrian militiamen. Haftar’s coalition is particularly dependent on foreign military support and the financial backing required to preserve the fragile military state he has built in eastern Libya.
The internationalization of Libya’s war made it much more violent, bringing a new level of military and civilian casualties that will only deepen political and societal rifts. The arrival of Russian mercenary snipers to the Tripoli front in fall 2019 made the fight noticeably deadlier.
The Kremlin continues to deny evidence of Russian private military contractors fighting in Libya. Likely Emirati air strikes have struck civilian targets, including a migrant detention center. The availability of mercenaries and drones has made it easier for external actors to raise the temperature of third-party conflicts for a limited cost and with little fear of domestic or international consequences.
As in Syria, the prolonged and increasingly violent conflict is tearing Libya’s social fabric and disrupting the mechanisms that could otherwise facilitate conflict resolution. Haftar’s gradual foreign-enabled takeover of eastern Libya has been damaging in its displacement and demonization of his opponents and selected populations, and retaliatory attacks have occurred across the country.
Virulent propaganda campaigns, spread online by foreign trolls, are deepening preexisting divisions among Libyans and doing long-term harm to the public’s ability to trust information.
The prolonging of the Libyan conflict is also raising threats to the population over time, including a liquidity crisis in the banking system, worsening medical care, and frequent displacement of populations.
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, which Turkish intervention ended at least temporarily in May 2020, had introduced regular air and artillery strikes on the country’s most populated area.
These include a strike on Tripoli’s main hospital in May just as COVID-19 reached the country. This economic and societal degradation risks creating desperation among vulnerable populations and may open the door to Salafi-jihadi infiltration that Libyan communities were previously able to resist.
The way of war developing in Libya is rooted in deniability—both the perpetrators’ ability to deny their actions and the international community’s ability and willingness to accept this denial.
The states intervening in Libya have adopted a doublespeak with which they obscure or legitimize their actions while giving reluctant Western countries the cover they need to avoid taking politically or diplomatically difficult action.
Haftar’s backers have long obscured their role, even as it became increasingly obvious, by maintaining superficial support for the UN-brokered political agreement that established the unity government. Flagrant violations rendered a UN arms embargo nearly meaningless.
Turkey, taking the opposite tack, has trumpeted the UN-backed government’s legitimacy as justification for an intervention whose primary objectives include violating internationally accepted naval boundaries.
The Syria crisis has set precedents for Libya, including a fraught Russian-Turkish bilateral channel that sidelines the US and Europe
from key discussions. The effects of the Syria crisis in Europe—namely, terrorist attacks and mass migration—also widened divisions among EU states on Libya.
The US has been similarly reluctant to engage for its own political reasons. Taken together, these dynamics have decoupled international efforts on Libya from the ground reality and continuously reaffirmed to Libyans and those intervening in Libya that the international system has no willingness to use its power.
The Syrian and Libyan conflicts have protracted partly because geopolitical competition tends to link conflicts together, expanding the resources that can be drawn on to expand and prolong them. This allows states to shift man power and weaponry from one theater to another when conflicts would have otherwise stalled for lack of capacity or will.
The Turks and the Russians have brought Syrians to fight in Libya. Iran has recruited Afghans and Pakistanis to Syria.
Political cross-pollination also plays a role, particularly in constructing a facade of legitimacy for would-be dictators. Haftar has trumpeted his growing closeness with the Assad regime, a relationship that allows him to play head of state.
Opposition to Turkey in Libya may also partially underpin the UAE’s softening toward the Syrian dictator. Russia and Turkey both seek to play powerbroker in Libya but in doing so make it a bargaining chip among other interests, including the higher-priority Syrian theater, meaning that agreements on Libya will be subordinated.
Libya’s future is now tied to Syria’s in a way that will make it more difficult to isolate and solve Libya’s own problems.
Prolonged Conflicts Empower Extremists
Legitimate and responsive governance is key for societal stability. External interventions are degrading this governance or preventing its formation, both by prolonging conflicts and by propping up nonresponsive governments that ultimately worsen popular grievances.
Absent or abusive governance in turn enables the growth of extremist movements such as the Salafi-jihadi movement.
Salafi-jihadism is a fringe ideology that requires its adherents to wage holy war to bring about an Islamic polity, governed under an interpretation of Islamic law meant to return society to the earliest days of Islam.
The movement’s goals are utopian and apocalyptic—they forecast a clash of civilizations of the Muslim world against the West. The vast majority of Muslims, throughout history and today, thoroughly reject Salafi-jihadi ideology, the painful effects of which are felt most often in Muslim communities.
The availability of conflict zones is crucial for the development of transnational extremist movements. The Salafi-jihadi movement needed this disorder and weakness in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria to cohere its leadership and develop networks of individuals to accelerate its growth and spread.
This phenomenon is not limited to the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and its ilk. Elements of the transnational white supremacy movement may be exploiting vulnerable areas, including the Ukraine conflict, as training grounds.
The Salafi-jihadi movement’s strength depends on its ability to forge relationships with aggrieved Sunni populations. Like other insurgencies, it relies on access to a population to survive and grow.
Salafi-jihadi leaders tried and failed for decades to end the isolation of their fundamentally unpopular movement to develop a transnational movement in the Sunni population.
They failed to penetrate most Arab societies deeply until 2011, when exogenous events delivered the conditions that the Salafi-jihadi vanguard had long sought: disorder, conflict, and grievance that would allow Salafi-jihadis to gain popular support from desperate and coerced populations.
The Arab Spring aligned popular objectives with those of the Salafi-jihadi movement; both sought to collapse and replace regimes, albeit in very different ways. The collapses that occurred generated real and perceived threats to Sunni populations that Salafi-jihadi fighters offered to protect against.
This situation created nonideological incentives for communities to permit Salafi-jihadi presence, or even governance, in return for help in survival and self-defense.
In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State took over populations that were already fighting the brutal Assad regime or wracked with sectarian violence. In Libya, Islamic State militants exploited the seams of the civil war to seize the isolated and undefended city of Sirte.
Other Salafi-jihadi groups are succeeding under the policy radar elsewhere by focusing on governance where Sunni populations are vulnerable. In West Africa’s Sahel region, for example, Salafi-jihadis present themselves as the solution to absent or predatory states and rising ethnic violence.
Any foreign intervention in states with sizable Muslim populations that causes or perpetuates governance collapses therefore sets conditions beneficial to the Salafi-jihadi movement. External interference that protracts conflicts compounds the rending of the social fabric over time and makes eventual reconciliation and stability even harder to achieve.
Al Qaeda–linked groups’ aforementioned infiltration of the judicial system in Syria’s Idlib province is one example. In Syria and Iraq, the weakened Islamic State is growing more established and confident, demonstrating its ability to exploit disruptions in counterterrorism pressure and political infighting.
In Libya, the disintegration of the Qaddafi-era security services, the disorganization and disunity of anti-Qaddafi factions, and the general deterioration of order in Benghazi during and after 2011 allowed Salafi-jihadi groups in Benghazi to recruit from vulnerable communities and partner with nonideological armed groups against common enemies.
Salafi-jihadi groups in Libya have not yet recouped their losses from military pressure in 2014–17 but will strengthen in the coming years if Libya remains unstable and fragmented.
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.