Yemen, Sudan, Libya: Can US douse flames of Middle East hot spots?

With the euphoria over the Arab Spring wearing off, President Obama is sending top aides to the Middle East to address worsening violence in Yemen and fears of renewed civil strife in Sudan.

Anees Mahyoub/AP
An anti-government protestor reacts during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Taiz, Yemen, on May 31.

With several conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa deteriorating, President Obama is dispatching senior members of his foreign policy and national security team to the region to try to stop things from getting worse.

The White House announced Wednesday that John Brennan, Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, is in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum consulting with government officials on recent setbacks to a 2005 peace accord that some in the region fear could mean a return to civil war.

After Sudan, Mr. Brennan will continue on to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the US will try to give renewed impetus to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s proposal for a transition of power in Yemen. Yemen has witnessed raging gun battles and mounting deaths in recent days as President Ali Abdullah Saleh has rebuffed demands that he step down.

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to the region next week to participate June 9 in the next meeting of the international Libya Contact Group in the UAE. From there, Secretary Clinton will continue on to Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

The Libya Contact Group, which includes NATO countries and countries from the region, is pressing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to leave power. NATO announced on Wednesday that it is extending its military mission in Libya, ostensibly undertaken to protect Libyan civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s military might, by another 90 days. The current mission was set to end in a month.

In a speech in Brussels Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he hopes a “solution to the conflict” can be reached within the next four months, or by the end of September when the extended mission would end.

“The question is not if Qaddafi will go, but when,” Mr. Rasmussen said in his remarks.

President Obama, who last month delivered a major speech on the promise of the “Arab Spring,” wants to nip in the bud the various signs of deterioration in the widespread and revolutionary change across the region, some regional experts say. Initial euphoria after the uplifting revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has died down, replaced by fears of ensuing civil wars in places ranging from Libya to Yemen and Syria.

Adding to the concerns are new worries that Sudan, where a referendum in January resulted in an independent South Sudan, could fall back into the civil conflict that ravaged Africa’s largest country for 22 years.

Obama counterterrorism aide Brennan is also certain to address during his trip growing concerns that Al Qaeda is maneuvering to benefit from instability in Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a growing presence.

But some regional analysts say the region’s conflicts should not obscure the profound political and economic changes that still promise positive transformations in key countries.

“Yes, there are a lot of fires burning in the Middle East, but they don’t all represent things going south,” says James Dobbins, director of the RAND Corp’s International Security and Defense Policy Center in Arlington, Va.

The over-all picture is for improvement in three places in particular, Ambassador Dobbins says: Egypt, Tunisia, and – yes – Libya. “We can anticipate that the popular uprisings in these places are likely to produce regimes that are better than what they replace,” he says.

Which is not to say that any of the transitions will be easy, the former US diplomat and specialist in postwar reconstruction efforts says. But Dobbins says he expects the NATO secretary-general’s prediction Wednesday to come true.

“It’s reasonable to think the bombing campaign [in Libya] will have dislodged Qaddafi in the next four months,” Dobbins says. Some type of peacekeeping force is likely to be necessary in a post-Qaddafi Libya, he adds.

And that just may help explain why Secretary Clinton plans to make a stop at African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While NATO is very unlikely to participate in any eventual peacekeeping force in Libya, the international community would almost certainly call on the African Union to play an important role.

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