Beware the Middle East’s forgotten wars

The international community neglected Israel–Palestine until violence exploded. They should not make the same mistake with the region’s other conflicts.

Expert comment Published 20 May 2024 3 minute READ

With global attention focused on Gaza and the attacks on Israel by Iran, to the south, nearby Sudan passed a grim milestone largely unnoticed last month. It is now over a year since the outbreak of civil war between the army and its rebellious offshoot, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Thousands have been killed and millions displaced in a vicious conflict that has seen widespread rape, looting and ethnic cleansing

With the international community’s bandwidth limited, a somewhat myopic focus on the immediate crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean is understandable, but perhaps not wise. 

Sudan has been labelled by the UN, ‘one of the worst human rights disasters in recent memory,’ and has the potential to destabilize its already fragile neighbours in the Sahel, Horn of Africa and Red Sea.

Though attempts have been made to broker ceasefires, there is little sign of a breakthrough and, since the 7 October attacks, Sudan has fallen down the global priority list.

Forgotten conflict

But Sudan is far from the only forgotten war in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Recent attacks on Red Sea shipping by Houthi rebels from Yemen served as a reminder that the conflict there remains far from resolved. 

That war has caused over 330,000 deaths and, though fighting has diminished since a 2022 truce, lasting peace remains elusive. Hopes were raised that the détente in March 2023 between two of the main external protagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran, might pave the way for a lasting deal. However, theses prospects have been derailed by the Houthis’ strikes and the US’s retaliations. 

Elsewhere, Syria has hit headlines for hosting Iranian-backed militia, which have been targeted by the US and Israel since the Gaza war began. It was Israel’s alleged strike on Iran’s Damascus consulate that prompted Tehran’s recent drone attack. 

But Syria itself remains in a state of civil war. Though fighting diminished after 2020, President Bashar al-Assad holds less than two thirds of his country. Turkish-backed rebel groups retain land along the northern border, while US-sponsored forces control the east. As in Yemen, tensions and low-level violence persist and, with no serious peace talks on the horizon, escalation remains distinctly possible.

The same could be said of Libya, where civil war has been on hold since truces were agreed in 2020. The Biden administration initially showed interest in pushing for reconciliation between the Tripoli government and the rebellious administration in the east, but Ukraine and now Gaza have diverted attention from such initiatives. 

These conflicts and Gaza are not isolated incidents but part of an interconnected tapestry of regional instability. 

Tensions also remain high in states that experienced civil wars in the past and could yet reignite. Lebanon is on high alert in the face of ongoing economic crisis, not to mention the danger that its largest militia, Hezbollah, might drag the country into another war with Israel. 

Iraq remains fragile, often made worse by questions over the future of pro-Iran ‘Popular Mobilization Forces’ in politics and society. Further afield, Somalia, after enjoying a period of comparative stability after decades of conflict, has been rocked by a recent presidential power grab that might renew internal discord.

Interconnected risks

Just as IsraeliPalestinian violence exploded in October 2023 after years of relative quiet, any of these forgotten wars has the potential to erupt at any time. These conflicts and Gaza are not isolated incidents but part of an interconnected tapestry of regional instability. 

All have similar domestic drivers of conflict such as unresolved internal grievances, weak state institutions, and the legacy of decades of misrule, often by parasitic dictators. But all have also experienced repeated interventions and interference from foreign governments. 

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And this latter point helps explain why MENA continues to be one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world. The Gaza war has highlighted once again Iran’s deep hostility to Israel, but Tehran is far from the region’s only government utilizing existing conflicts as battlegrounds to pursue their interests. 

In the last decade Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and the UAE among others have all waded into many of the conflicts discussed above either directly or indirectly, mostly worsening matters.

Interested parties

The Middle East sadly remains a tinder box of multiple, interrelated conflicts that, like Gaza, could explode at any moment. The international community may feel this is not their responsibility, although many Western actors along with Russia and China have frequently played a role. 

Like Gaza, these wars pose a threat to both if left to fester. 

Yet even were Western governments innocent of interference, they do have an interest in maintaining regional stability and protecting their allies. Like Gaza, these wars pose a threat to both if left to fester. 

Channelling even a fraction of the extra diplomatic, humanitarian and economic resources put into the Gaza war towards any of these other combustible arenas would be a sensible first step.

Gaza is unlikely to be the last time conflict flares up in this deeply troubled region. The international community were caught sleeping on 7 October. They should heed those lessons and, wherever possible, be wary of the Middle East’s other forgotten wars before they too explode.