Welcome to the deadliest region in the world

The nature of war is changing in the Middle East and North Africa, and the death toll is increasing day by day. Published in MEED, 1 June 2015

In the first 24 hours after taking control of the Syrian city of Palmyra in May, forces from the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) executed at least 17 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Several hundred more have been killed since.

Further east, at around the same time as Palmyra fell, the group was carrying out mass executions in the Deir al-Zor province, including one man named as Ibrajim al-Shridah, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an Albanian recruit.

The brutality of the Syrian conflict is often shocking, but it is not only Isis forces who are guilty there. SOHR says 9,000 barrel bombs have been dropped from government helicopters on towns and cities across the country over the past seven months, killing rebel fighters and civilians without distinction.

The civil war in Syria is by far the deadliest conflict in the world, with an estimated 70,000 people losing their lives in 2014, according to data compiled by the London-based think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The second deadliest conflict is also in the Middle East, in Iraq, where 18,000 perished last year. Both figures mark a worryingly sharp rise from the year before. In 2013, some 49,000 people lost their lives in the Syrian war and a further 8,500 in Iraq.

The escalating death toll in these two countries is part of a global trend of conflicts getting more deadly. Around the world, the number of wars, insurgencies and other violent conflicts has actually been steadily declining over recent years, from 63 in 2008 to 42 last year, but what they have lost in number they have gained in ferocity. Total fatalities have risen from 56,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014, says IISS.

The wars in Syria and Iraq account for almost half of the global total and mean the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is today the world’s most dangerous region, with just over 101,000 deaths from eight conflicts last year. The next most dangerous regions are Latin America, where narcotics-led violence was largely responsible for the 30,500 deaths in 2014, and sub-Saharan Africa, where a dispiriting tapestry of ethnic, religious and political violence claimed more than 28,000 lives in seven countries.

Worsening situation

In most parts of the Middle East, the situation has been getting worse rather than better. Last year was the deadliest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute since the 1967 Six-Day War, for example. The Israeli assault on Gaza, called Operation Protective Edge, which began in June and lasted 50 days, resulted in well over 2,000 deaths.

The number of fatalities also rose in the Sinai Peninsula area of Egypt, where 900 people lost their lives in 2014; in Libya, where 3,000 people were killed; and in Yemen, where the death toll quadrupled to 4,000. Among the main areas of conflict in the region, it was only in the Darfur area of Sudan that the number of deaths declined, from 3,000 in 2013 to 2,500 last year.

The number of refugees and internally displaced people has also been rising as a result of these conflicts, with Syria again at the forefront of the problems. As of early May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 4 million registered Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as 6.5 million internally displaced people within Syria itself.

“It is civilian populations that continue to pay the price of conflicts, both in terms of short-term dislocation but also in respect of longer-term impacts resulting from the collapse of government services, in particular education and healthcare, and economic development opportunities foregone, blighting the prospects of future generations,” says Nigel Inkster, director of transnational threats and political risk at IISS.

Jihadist strategies

There are some other important trends among these conflicts, beyond the merely depressing increase in the number of deaths and displaced people, which could have some far-reaching consequences for the region. Perhaps the most important is the changing nature of the jihadist groups fighting in these war zones and the strategies they are employing.

“Armed conflict has fundamentally changed the nature of jihadism, so that you now see jihadism as a state-building enterprise,” says Alia Brahimi, visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford in the UK. “I think that’s going to be the biggest impact on conflicts that are already going on.

“Jihadist space is geographically expanding, but also systematically deepening. Isis isn’t just exploiting chaos; it’s seeking to impose a long-term order, and that will have a significant effect on conflict.

“In order to compel local populations, you have to continually instill fear, so as a result we’ve seen ever more fanatical discourse, where mass casualty attacks against civilians are now presented as something self-evidently justified. This is a huge change from the days of [Osama] bin Laden.”

The strategy was clearly apparent in May, when Isis fighters captured Palmyra, but it has been going on for some time. SOHR estimates that the group now controls more than half of Syria.

“The capture of Palmyra is significant for several reasons,” says Matthew Henman, head of the terrorism and insurgency centre at IHS Jane’s, a UK research firm. “It further expands Isis’ territorial control, reinforcing its position as the single opposition group that controls the most territory in Syria. Palmyra is very strategically situated and can now be used as a launching pad for further territorial pushes towards Homs and Damascus.”

The more ground Isis controls, the more income it can generate from its territory, particularly from oil resources. This is to some extent a zero-sum game, with the government suffering a fall in its income every time an oil well or gas pipeline changes hands.

“So many states [in the Mena region] are fraying at the seams because of insurgencies and civil wars,” says Valerie Marcel, an associate fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House. “What’s happening in Syria and Iraq is that a fledgling state, previously just a jihadist group, is now acting like a government and controlling oil production.”

This is not just an issue in Syria. The practice of groups taking and holding land is also clearly visible in Yemen, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) occupies a substantial patch of territory in the east of the country, and in Libya.

“The loss of the state monopoly over the control of oil installations, production and marketing further weakens the central state,” says Marcel.

“If you look at Libya, you’ve seen different groups battle it out for territory, but more significantly for control over oil production facilities and export terminals. The more that sub-national groups control the oil infrastructure, the more it gives them the possibility to enrich themselves, but it also undermines the central states’ capacity to take the revenues, pay civil servants and consolidate their own power. So it hastens the weakening of the state.”

In Iraq, meanwhile, Isis forces have consistently shown themselves to be a good match for the under-motivated national army and, as a result, the jihadists now hold vast swathes of territory covering much of the west of the country. It has only been a combination of airstrikes by the US-led coalition and the response of Shia militia organised by Iran that has held them back from even greater gains. Even so, Isis was able to capture the city of Ramadi, little more than 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, in May this year.

Political solution

“What we have seen in Iraq is that the great blitz attack that Isis did last year has, broadly speaking, been contained by the coalition air strikes, but also just as importantly by the mass mobilisation of Shia militia,” says Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at IISS.

“Quite clearly, the [recent events] in Ramadi demonstrate Isis still can counter-attack at the tactical and operational level and it can seize the initiative. It’s displaying tactics of quite a high order. My prediction is that this to-ing and fro-ing in the near future will continue.”

In the case of both Iraq and Syria, it is very hard to see how any side can win an outright military victory any time soon. As is the case in other conflicts such as Libya, Yemen and Palestine, a long-term political solution is needed if there is to be any hope of restoring stability, peace and prosperity. The prospects for diplomacy do not look promising at the moment, however. The Middle East looks set to remain a dangerous neighbourhood for many years to come.