The conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have left vacuums of authority and swaths of ungoverned territory, becoming major boons to the Islamic State and other Islamist terrorist groups. After the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino, there has been more focus on addressing such problems in the Middle East.
And so a little-trumpeted confluence of international diplomatic efforts next week to deal with the three conflicts offers a glimmer of hope in the international battle to reverse the alarming spread of the Islamic State, or IS, and other Islamist extremist groups.
None of next week’s meetings – in Rome on Libya, in Geneva on Yemen, and in New York on Syria – are expected to result in quick resolution of the issues. But taken together, they represent a flurry of diplomatic activity that underscores a growing sense of urgency about resolving the conflicts.
“We are anticipating a really big week of diplomacy, here in New York and at other venues, that could be an important moment in the ongoing efforts to resolve conflicts that continue to pose security threats on so many levels,” says Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In particular, the Islamic State has profited from the breakdown of governing authority in these conflict zones to expand beyond its base in northern Syria and further its project to build a caliphate to rule in the place of national governments.
On Sunday, warring factions in Libya’s 4-year-old conflict – which has left the country divided and open to infiltration from outside groups like IS – will meet in Rome to take up a proposed United Nations accord to form a unity government and reestablish some form of national authority.
With IS controlling the Mediterranean port city of Sirte, many experts consider the zone the group’s second capital after Raqqa in northern Syria and a potential launchpad for attacks in the region and the West.
Getting a Libyan government back in full control of national territory is considered so urgent by the United States that Secretary of State John Kerry plans to co-chair Sunday’s opening session with Italy.
On Tuesday, talks aimed at ending Yemen’s 9-month-old conflict will take up in Geneva under UN auspices between the exiled government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebels. The fighting between the Iran-backed Houthis and a pro-Hadi coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia has left 6,000 Yemenis dead. It has also produced widespread disorder and lawlessness that have benefited the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The conflict in Yemen has forced Western diplomats to pull out and has impaired the quality and amount of intelligence on AQAP, according to counterterrorism experts. AQAP, which was responsible for past unsuccessful attacks targeting the US, including the attempt by the Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomber, is considered by many experts to be Al Qaeda’s strongest regional branch.
Also next week, Secretary Kerry will make stops in Paris and Moscow ahead of Syria talks tentatively set for next Friday in New York.
The New York meeting, aimed at moving forward on a Syrian political transition plan, would follow up on a gathering in Saudi Arabia this week. At that gathering, Syrian opposition groups agreed on unified representation and a set of principles for negotiations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tentatively set for next month.
On Monday in Paris, Kerry will attend a ministerial meeting focused on Syria, before heading to Moscow Tuesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Kerry has said he wants to gauge Mr. Putin’s intentions in Syria and Russian enthusiasm for defeating IS. On Friday in Moscow, Putin said for the first time that Russia is assisting both the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army, the US-backed rebel group, in the fight against IS.
Earlier this week, Kerry said his Moscow trip would be useful because Russia is proving that it wants to see a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. “They have helped us in this [negotiating] process,” Kerry said in Paris Wednesday. “Russia has been constructive in helping [the Vienna-based peace process] take place.”
The three Mideast conflicts are linked in how they have opened the door to expansion of Islamist extremism. But the Syrian and Libyan conflicts in particular are linked by the strong presence of IS in both countries.
Indeed, US officials have said that intelligence out of Syria, including intercepts of IS communications, suggests the group may have already drawn up contingency plans to move its base of operations from Raqqa to Sirte if intensified international efforts to blast it out of Raqqa succeed.
If that’s true, Kerry’s diplomatic foray to Rome on Sunday suddenly looks like more than simply an effort to resolve one country’s civil strife. It would also become part of the multidimensional campaign to defeat IS – and a move to nip in the bud any plans that IS might have to transfer its headquarters.