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Black Hawk Down returns: how local conflicts become regional

After 20 years, the instability that began in Mogadishu still ripples through East Africa. TSGT Perry Heimer/USMC

Twenty years ago, on 3 and 4 October 1993, the so-called Battle of Mogadishu, also referred to as Black Hawk Down, raged in the Somali capital. Two decades on, this region of East Africa still suffers from the instability anchored by the collapsed Somalian state, and the inability of local and international actors to deal with it effectively. The conflict in Somalia which has and continues to devastate the country has proliferated well beyond its borders, drawing in neighbouring countries, regional and international organisations, organised crime networks, and the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda.

Few of these players aspire to victory in a traditional sense, and none of them is likely to achieve it, simply because the capacity (and will) of the other parties to avoid defeat is sufficient. Even when it seemed that local warlords had defeated the UN Mission in Somalia in October 1993, this was a hollow and short-lived victory at best; fighting between the various local factions continued and Somalia descended further into chaos.

Yet Somalia is not a unique case of this kind of regionalised conflict. One of the prevailing myths of civil war scholarship from the 1990s is that violent conflict is predominantly intra-state, as opposed to inter-state. While there is clear evidence that the incidence of conflict between states has indeed declined, many of the so-called intra-state conflicts have become regionalised.

In the Great Lakes region of Africa, conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo stems from instability, competition over natural resources and regional power games in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The almost forgotten conflict in Darfur is tied up with local and regional rivalries between Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic. The continuing chaos in Libya has spilled across borders into Niger and Mali. Similar patterns of regional instability that multiply, intensify and prolong local conflicts are found across the world, from Central America to the Caucasus, from the Balkans to Afghanistan-Pakistan-India.

Regional spill-over is one of the most concerning features of the conflict in Syria. Stability and security in neighbouring countries has been negatively affected by a rising flow of refugees. Lebanon in particular has borne the brunt, but this also affects Turkey and Iraq (especially through the complex regional dynamics of the Kurdish issue), and possibly also Israel and the Palestinian territories (through the various links between Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran).

While the major players - Western powers, Russia, China, Iran, the Gulf states - all have interests in the outcome, and while none run the risk of an actual military defeat, all of them will continue to suffer the consequences of an ongoing conflict. In other words, the real danger of the Syrian conflict, from a broader international security perspective, is that the longer it lasts, the greater its potential to create instability and insecurity beyond its own borders.

There may be no prospects for an imminent end to the Syrian conflict at the moment, but this doesn’t that nothing that can be done to facilitate at least the beginning of the end. The UN Security Council Resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons, though imperfect in its outcome, indicates that an international consensus on action is possible. A next step that will again require difficult compromises might be an arms embargo on all parties with the aim to deprive them of the means to continue fighting. This would need to be combined with a smart sanctions regime targeting leaderships of the various armed factions if they continue to refuse to negotiate. Sanctions would also need to be aimed at those who continue to provide material support to the regime or rebel factions.

At the same time, assisting neighbouring countries to cope with the humanitarian fall-out of the Syrian civil war is essential both to help alleviate the plight of refugees and prevent destabilisation of countries who find it hard to cope with the influx of so many people.

For an arms embargo to work, Syria’s neighbours' borders need to be strengthened, not least to stem the influx of foreign fighters into Syria. Drones could monitor borders in remote regions not easily accessible by government security forces. Governments in neighbouring countries which do sign up to such a regional response will also need assistance to prevent the kind of retaliation that Kenya has experienced over the years for its stance against al Shabaab.

The magnitude of the task - containing the Syrian conflict and creating a so-called ripe moment for its settlement - is clearly enormous. It will require massive and concerted effort to achieve the necessary political compromises and an investment of significant human and material resources over many years. Even taking into account how costly, and clearly foreseeable, the consequences of failing to do so, such commitments and staying power will not be easy to come by.