On November 4th, JMEPP’s Regional Editor for Egypt Elissa Miller sat down to interview Darko Mocibob, Deputy Director of the Middle East and West Asia Division of The United Nation’s Department of Political Affairs. They spoke about the various nuances which define international humanitarian relief efforts, along with the UN’s contributions to those efforts in MENA.
JMEPP: You have a broad portfolio as Deputy Director, Middle East and West Asia Division in the UN Department of Political Affairs. Within that portfolio, what are your priorities?
DM: Consistently, the priorities for us have been the most active conflicts in the region – Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan. The Department of Political Affairs, including my regional division, has a mandate to provide political advice to senior UN officials including the Secretary General on all political issues related to the region. We also provide backstopping for the UN missions on the ground. Said missions are either peacekeeping operations, which are covered by a different department, or special political missions that fall under the Department of Political Affairs. We have the two largest political missions under my division – Iraq and Afghanistan – and there are a number of other missions and offices, including offices of special envoys for Syria and Yemen.
Generally, for the Department of Political Affairs, conflict prevention and conflict resolution are the high priorities. Even in situations where the conflict was partially resolved, there is always a risk of slipping back into conflict, Iraq being one example. ISIS controls very little territory now in Iraq; they are reduced to some small enclaves in the valley of Euphrates. However some of the unresolved disputes that predate the rise of ISIS in Iraq are now coming back, possibly with a vengeance, and have the potential to further destabilize Iraq. One example is the referendum held on September 25 in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was not accepted by the government of Iraq. The government requested that the results be annulled, and when that did not happen, the government took a series of measures, including a military move to retake the so-called “disputed territories” that were temporarily controlled by the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga. The government also insists that the central authorities should take control of the airports in the Kurdistan region and the international border crossings, which could spark further clashes and conflict.
Syria, of course, for years has been the focus of the international community. The fighting in all honesty has died down, and what contributed to that fact is the process established by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Astana in Kazakhstan to create the so-called de-escalation zones. That did not entirely eliminate the humanitarian suffering, because there are still enclaves, mainly of the opposition, that are besieged, and it is very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance to them. The bigger problem is that there is still no political solution for Syria. As a result these current political divisions may solidify, leading to the de facto partition of Syria and to longer term instability. It may not be a full-fledged conflict but it could be a simmering conflict with a lot of terrorist activity and occasional fighting, the inability to engage in reconstruction, refugees would be prevented from returning home.
And finally, Yemen, which does not appear much in the media, but is probably the largest humanitarian disaster on the globe after Syria. And due to regional involvement in the conflict, it is slowly moving towards intractability, with serious humanitarian consequences.
JMEPP: How are political conflicts, such as that in Yemen complicated by international involvement, and how does this impact political progress and the work of the UN more generally?
DM: The regional and international players are certainly present. Most notably in the Middle East, it’s the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran manifesting through proxy conflicts.
These regional forces and international players can both complicate and facilitate the resolution for the conflict. So, it is important for the United Nations to understand what motivates these outside players, what are their red lines, what are their interests and objectives, and to see how we can work with them towards the resolution of the conflicts.
JMEPP: How do you work to understand the interests of domestic parties involved in these conflicts? In Yemen, for example, how do you understand what is motivating the different parties involved ?
DM: It is important to understand the history of the country. Not only recent events, but also a longer-term history, and how it arrived at a particular situation, which was really an internal dispute about power sharing that brought about the demise of the regime during the Arab Uprisings in 2011. The UN was involved early on through a special envoy to Yemen, who led the effort to find a solution which would allow for a peaceful transition from then-president Saleh to a new arrangement.
However, after one side to this arrangement tried to take over militarily and after Saudi Arabia and a number of other GCC countries decided to intervene militarily on the side of the interim President Hadi, the conflict became regional. As a result, it unfortunately acquired sectarian undertones due to the fact that the Houthis are a distinct religious group – they are Zaidi Shia – whereas the majority of the forces that support the interim president are Arab Sunnis. Saudi Arabia and others in the GCC level the allegations that Iran is supporting the Houthis by providing weapons, advisors, and so on, and that complicated the matter further because of the proxy conflict between the two regional powers.
JMEPP: This issue of sectarianism seems to appear in all of these conflicts. How does that make your efforts more challenging?
It is difficult to generalize regarding the entire Middle East, because there are specific countries and situations with different nuances. But it is true that the sectarian nature of the conflicts is becoming more prominent. I would argue that the religious/sectarian issues are rather a tool used in what is essentially power struggle for regional domination. I do not think that religion per se, or religious differences, are the trigger or the root cause of many of the conflicts in the region. Sectarianism does exacerbate them because it is used as a tool to mobilize support for one side or the other.
The sectarian aspects need to be properly understood. But at the same time, depending on the concrete situation they, should not be overemphasized, because in most cases in the Middle East the root causes are not religious. Religion is instead used as a vehicle.
JMEPP: Do people start to forget what those root causes are when sectarianism is used as a tool?
That is certainly true for the people who are actually living through these conflicts. In many instances, you are reduced to day to day survival. You also seek protection, and protection is often provided under the guise of membership in a tribe, religious sect, and so on. So identities keep switching from the national identity of a Syrian or a Yemeni or an Iraqi to these ethno-sectarian identities of being an Arab Sunni or a Christian or a Kurd, for example. And then you have fragmentation, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These divisions entrench themselves even deeper because the popular support for different, more moderate solutions disappears. Expectations of the street become ethno-sectarian, and that in turn influences the leaders and the ones who started this process in the first place.
JMEPP: Moving back to the Levant, as we see ISIS being pushed out of Iraq and the international community beginning to think about reconstruction, is there room for the UN to start doing more conflict prevention work? How do you go about doing that?
DM: When ISIL took the second largest city of Mosul and a good chunk of the territory of Iraq, the UN responded first in terms of humanitarian assistance due to massive internal displacements. As things shifted in favor of the Iraqi government and the anti-ISIL coalition, more and more territory was reclaimed from ISIS. Very often we would find infrastructure destroyed, and additional displacements. The government puts a premium on returns. It was not easy initially, especially because of the challenge of providing security in these areas, but eventually things started to improve. The UN has provided support for the stabilization program for these areas, which is a shorter-term intervention. But it allowed for some quick fixes that will in turn allow our people to start returning. For example, getting electricity and water supply working through local contractors and channeling money from the UN funding facility will provide some short-term employment. We will also fix medical facilities and schools and then move into a larger stabilization program. But the government is still fighting ISIS and is not ready yet to take fully over these responsibilities.
Stabilization will come to an end in a year or so, and we need to transition to a longer-term reconstruction effort. There are preparations, including through a donor conference early next year in Kuwait. But given all of the needs in the region there is a bit of donor fatigue. Yet Iraq also had to shoulder a huge cost of the war against ISIS and of the displacement and the country will require structural reforms going forward. To this day, the largest employer remains the state and Iraq will have to diversify its economy and not rely too much on oil.
There are a lot of challenges regarding how this assistance is distributed and how oil revenues are distributed across Iraq. This will determine whether Iraq will manage to stay together and become a functioning country, if not a functioning democracy. It is not just the Kurds; there are other regions, like Basra in the south, where there are rumblings about not getting full benefits from the central government and about forming their own region.
JMEPP: What lessons can you draw from your career as a diplomat dealing with these challenging conflicts?
DM: I am not a typical case, because in all honesty I never planned on working for the UN and certainly not in the Department of Political Affairs. By training I am a medical doctor. I ended up where I am today because of the war in my own country in the former Yugoslavia, specifically Bosnia in the 1990s. I took up a job as an interpreter for the UN mission there in the middle of the war. In all honesty, I was planning to work for a little while, and the first time I went on leave to neighboring Croatia I didn’t come back because I was caught up in work surrounding the war. Even as an interpreter I had the opportunity to attend a lot of meetings and negotiations, ranging from basic issues like trying to restore electricity and water to high-level negotiations about the nature of the future political system.