Middle East Conflicts and Middle Level Power Intervention in the Horn of Africa

By Lefebvre, Jeffrey A. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Middle East Conflicts and Middle Level Power Intervention in the Horn of Africa


Lefebvre, Jeffrey A., The Middle East Journal


This article examines political-military intervention by Middle Eastern states in the Horn of Africa during the post-Suez (1956) period. Five Middle Eastern conflicts/ rivalries have been played out in the Horn through the years: the Arab Cold War (1958-67), the Arab-Israeli conflict, the post-1973 "moderate" versus "radical" Arab conflict, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), and the secularist-Islamist conflict which continues today. The alliances that were formed between local actors in the Horn and Middle Eastern powers have been motivated less by ideology than by pragmatic geopolitical considerations.

From 1946 until early 1989 the Cold War focused the international spotlight on the interventionist policies of the world's two superpowers in the Third World.1 During the latter half of the 1970s, and throughout most of the 1980s, a primary site for US-Soviet competition was the Horn of Africa-a metaphor used to describe an area in northeast Africa comprised today of six poor, militarily weak, and politically unstable states (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and the Sudan).2 For the superpowers the Horn of Africa's primary strategic value stemmed from its geographic position on the Red Sea and the southern flank of the Middle East. When the Cold War came to an end, however, so did the perceived global strategic value of the Horn. By the end of 1989, Moscow was disengaging militarily from Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime in Ethiopia. Washington had suspended military assistance to President Muhammad Siad Barre's regime in Somalia in the Autumn of 1988, and terminated all aid to General `Umar Bashir's regime following the June 1989 military coup in the Sudan.

With Moscow stopping military assistance to the region, and Washington sharply scaling back military aid to its clients in the Horn, the political-military support provided by Middle East governments to local actors in the region has become in the 1990s more critical to the survival of these regimes and opposition movements. The fact that Middle Eastern states are filling, if only partially, the political-military vacuum left by the superpowers should come as no surprise. Middle East intervention in the Horn of Africa has a history dating back to AD 1000.3 This analysis is concerned, however, with the post-Suez (1956) period-a time when European colonialism in the Horn was coming to an end, and offered opportunities for others to exploit. Consequently, in the latter half of the 1950s Egypt and Israel, followed later by Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, and Syria, began meddling in the security affairs of the Horn.

The central thesis of this article is that given the long-term strategic interests of Middle Eastern states in the Horn of Africa, most particularly the interests of Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (formerly North and South) which border the Red Sea, Middle East intervention in the Horn is not simply a post-Cold War phenomenon, but part of the long-term and enduring political landscape of the region. For many years, their interventionist policies were overshadowed by the Cold War. This is no longer the case. Moreover, unlike the superpowers, which could pack their suitcases and leave the Horn with no fear of jeopardizing vital national interests, Israel and the Arab states of the Red Sea region do not have that luxury. Because the Horn is located just south or across the Red Sea from these Middle Eastern states, what happens in the Horn may affect the entire Red Sea region. Since they cannot move out of the neighborhood, these states have attempted to influence the ideological or foreign policy orientation of local actors through arms, aid or subversion.

Thus, the critical question that arises, and which will inform this analysis, is: Why have these regional or middle-level powers aligned or realigned themselves (either formally or informally) with local actors in the Horn over the past four decades, and why are they likely to continue to do so in the future? …

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