Crisis Group's President Robert Malley on this month's conflict developments
The President's Take

The President’s Take | Three Ways to Approach Conflict

Our President Robert Malley’s monthly column accompanying the conflict tracker CrisisWatch for April/May 2018 points to human agency in a destabilising chain of events in Somalia, a dangerous escalation with Iran and a sharp reduction in the chances of pre-emptive war on the Korean peninsula.

This month illustrates three ways to deal and not to deal with conflict.

Somalia’s fractious politics have been made worse by the spillover effects of a senseless spat between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abu Dhabi’s wrath at Mogadishu’s close ties to Doha coupled with the Somali federal government’s anger at the UAE’s direct dealings with some of its regional governments triggered a destabilising chain of events. Mogadishu confiscated a delivery of Emirati cash and blocked an Emirati plane from taking off. The UAE stopped its military training in Somalia and shut down other aid programs. I visited Mogadishu last week and three things were apparent: that Gulf states should take greater care that their rivalries not stoke new instability in Somalia; that Somali politicians should stop manipulating those rivalries for their own ends; and that if all sides don’t take a step back, the result could be highly destructive for the country and its people.

On the Iranian front, an already tense situation has been made more so by both President Trump’s apparent decision to scrap the nuclear deal and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peculiar show-and-tell which, purporting to demonstrate what almost everyone knew (that Tehran possessed a clandestine military nuclear program) in fact vindicated what Trump and Netanyahu refuse to see (that the nuclear deal successfully addresses it). Iran’s likely reaction, whether to resume those parts of its nuclear program it agreed to halt or respond asymmetrically against U.S. personnel or interests in the region, could prompt a dangerous escalation. There is no rational basis for an American withdrawal from an agreement that is working, but rationality is not what this is about. As I spoke to European and Iranian officials, one thing was made clear: a slight chance remains to salvage the deal, but it will take European boldness and creativity in ensuring Tehran still enjoys some of the accord’s promised economic dividends, as well as Iranian forbearance in resisting the urge to engage in a tit-for-tat with Washington. Neither is a sure bet.

So much ultimately depends on the actions – petty or grand – of a few individuals who hold the fates of so many in their hands.

Finally, on the Korean peninsula, provocative steps and ominous talk of pre-emptive war have been swept aside (temporarily at least) by a momentous meeting – rich in symbolism, but also replete with substance – between Northern and Southern leaders. There will be plenty of time to raise questions about Kim Jong-un’s sincerity, the United States’ intentions and the two sides’ mismatched expectations. For now, though, one should savour the moment. And press Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, Beijing and others to live up to the hopes raised by the inter-Korean summit.

Serious, deep-seated issues lie beneath these three disputes. But they are an apt reminder that conflicts are also the product of human agency, of steps taken and others avoided, and that so much ultimately depends on the actions – petty or grand – of a few individuals who hold the fates of so many in their hands.

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