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The President's Take

Proxies and Manipulators Vex More and More Wars

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley reflects on Sudan, Libya and Venezuela, and how fear and exploitation are increasingly complicating conflict prevention efforts.

As Crisis Group has noted in the past, the reordering of the international system has meant that global powers either show indifference to conflicts or deliberately fuel them to undermine their rivals; that some regional powers both feel threatened by the ensuing vacuum and seek to exploit it to promote their interests; and that local actors simultaneously are manipulated by and manipulate the resulting global and regional players’ proxy wars. The consequence is to further complicate conflict resolution. This past month provided ample proof.

In Sudan, months of peaceful, diverse, nationwide protests achieved what many had thought unachievable: an end to Omar al-Bashir’s three-decades old rule. The transition’s fate largely hinges on internal dynamics: whether military leaders will divert it in a direction more amenable to their interests; whether the various security forces, already jostling for power, will fragment; and whether protesters and the opposition can stay united. But regional and global powers have been playing a part as well, and hardly for the better. Reports have surfaced of Russian efforts to spread disinformation and help the regime remain in power. More importantly, uncertainty in Khartoum is compounded by interference from the Gulf, which itself is compounded by confusion in Washington. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to be tipping the scales in favour of military leaders with whom they (and Egypt) enjoy closer ties, a reflection of both their concern over popular protests toppling established regimes and their desire to keep Qatar and Turkey at bay. As for Washington, the U.S. largely has been missing in action and it is noticeable that this is the first administration since George H. W. Bush not to have named a special envoy to Sudan. The question is whether this is a symptom of deference to Gulf allies, of disinterest and disengagement, or of a disconnect between the State Department (which called for a civilian transition) and the White House (which stayed silent on Sudan, though has tended to evince greater sympathy toward its Gulf partners’ overall preferences). This much is clear: among Sudanese protesters, the perception is growing that the U.S. is lining up behind Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in backing the military. That’s not only unlikely to endear the U.S. to Sudan’s next generation of politicians, but also risks encouraging military elites to hunker down and avoid the compromises necessary to avert further unrest.

Similar factors are at play in Libya, only with deadlier consequences. In early April, forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched an assault on the capital, Tripoli. There is good reason to believe he did so wrongly convinced it would be an easy affair, and dangerously emboldened by signals of support from regional and major powers. Of these, the most important seem to have emanated not only from his traditional Emirati and Egyptian allies, but from a more surprising convergence among Saudi Arabia, Russia and the U.S. In this case too, Washington’s thinking remains somewhat opaque: the State Department initially expressed concern over Haftar’s move, only to be undercut by both National Security Advisor John Bolton and, more crucially, President Trump, who voiced support for the Libyan military leader after a meeting with Egypt’s President Sisi. The end result: already over 200 people killed; the prospect of a bloody war of attrition between Haftar on the one hand and the Tripoli-based internationally-recognised government along with local militias on the other; and the threat of an escalating proxy war also involving Qatar and Turkey. All outside actors should stop pouring fuel on the fire, press their respective Libyan allies for a quick ceasefire and support a return to the UN-led process.

As of this writing, Venezuela stands as exhibit C in this list of counterproductive outside interference. Little is known about what transpired on 30 April, when an effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro appears to have quickly collapsed. But this much appears clear: Venezuelans are paying the price of Latin American division and impotence; Russian, Cuban and Chinese support for Maduro; as well as U.S. interference, threats and intimations of possible military intervention. The best way out of the country’s chronic political and humanitarian crisis is for outside actors to encourage pro-Maduro and pro-Guaidó forces to return to talks, with the goal of establishing an inclusive interim power-sharing arrangement with representatives of both chavismo and the opposition, leading to credible elections under reformed electoral authorities and with international monitoring.

Our colleague Michael Kovrig remains in detention in China – held for 144 days without formal charges, the ability to leave his detention centre or access to his lawyer or loved ones. This must end.