A man sits in the ruins of the northern Syrian town of Ahsem in October 2022.

A man sits in the ruins of the northern Syrian town of Ahsem in October 2022. Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Risks of De-escalation

At the wrong time and place, it can do more harm than good—as its Mideast track record shows.

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating with colleagues in a workshop in Washington sponsored by a European government. The topic of discussion was de-escalation in the Middle East. 

During the meeting, many excellent points about the general merits of, and various approaches to, de-escalation were made. A senior European official chaired the discussion and asked several questions on Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iran. One question particularly caught my attention. The diplomat asked: “What is the risk of pursuing de-escalation?"

I raised my hand, and my intervention immediately sucked up all the oxygen in the room.  

I began by saying that I am a student of, and strong believer in, the concept and practice of arms control, of which de-escalation is part. I'm drawn to arms control because as a realist myself, it is a pragmatic, mature, and realistic tool in statecraft. Arms control doesn’t pretend to solve political conflicts but merely to save lives and lower the temperature in adversarial inter-state relations. Arms control, as understood and analyzed by the early pioneers of the discipline including Thomas Schelling and Bernard Brodie, was necessary during the Cold War to avoid a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was little to no hope for the superpowers to resolve their fundamental differences in politics and ideology, so the most they could achieve was manage and stabilize their competition. 

That, however, was the Cold War. I told the European official that in many other contexts, de-escalation is not only insufficient but can also be counterproductive. I provided three examples to illustrate my point.

The first is Yemen. I reminded our European colleague that in 2018, Emirati forces were making tremendous advances against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Indeed, in the summer of that year, the Houthis were on the ropes and the Emiratis were very close to seriously degrading them by cutting off their supply lines. Had that happened, the Houthis would have been forced to come to the negotiating table and compromise. But Washington intervened, and along with the United Nations, called for a halt to the UAE’s military campaign against the port city of Hodeidah, which the Houthis had seized. This was all in the name of de-escalation and allegedly preventing a humanitarian catastrophe (Hodaidah is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis). To preserve its relationship with Washington, Abu Dhabi agreed to U.S. demands. Four years later, the conflict in Yemen continues, more Yemenis have died or are starving, and the Houthis have dug in their heels, feeling emboldened by the UAE’s military exit in 2019 and Saudi Arabia’s inability to end the war. 

The second example is Syria, which is much more tragic. Throughout the Syrian civil war, international diplomacy focused on containment without attempting to address the root causes of the conflict—the brutality of the Assad regime. Again, in the name of de-escalation, Washington and Moscow came up with various agreements including one in 2013 to remove Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. As long as Assad was not gassing his own people, it seemed, he could freely kill with impunity and conventional arms. And that’s precisely what he did, for years, using missiles and barrel bombs. Today, the Syrian government's killing machine remains, Assad has won the war, and human suffering will persist in Syria and continue to spill over to neighboring countries.

The third example is the Palestinian territories. From the days of the 1993 Oslo Accords to the present, international diplomacy has ignored the basic reality of Israeli occupation and emphasized de-escalation whenever the Palestinians tried to resist their oppressors. For decades, the “peace process” has taken on a life of its own, achieving nothing in terms of conflict resolution. 

These examples and many others from the region and elsewhere show that de-escalation, when pursued as an end in itself, can be very damaging for the cause of real peace. To be clear, I am not suggesting that escalation is the answer, either. The 2007 US troop surge in Iraq, itself a method of escalation, succeeded in defeating Al-Qaeda in Iraq and in creating a political space for the Iraqis to resolve their differences. But ultimately, it was not enough because the Iraqis failed to get their politics right.

The argument I made to the European official was that, when pursued as a means to a well-defined end, de-escalation can be very helpful and quite necessary. Indeed, it’s hard to negotiate when shots are still getting fired and people are getting killed. But sometimes, it is those very bullets, if used as part of a coherent strategy, that can lead to a political settlement. 

When Western governments emphasize de-escalation without making a genuine effort to help the warring parties achieve a political resolution, all they are doing is kicking the can down the road in the interest of preserving so-called stability. If the immediate interests of those Western governments are not being directly affected, and if refugees are not arriving in large numbers to European cities, then the urgency of political resolution unfortunately vanishes. 

What I find deeply worrisome about de-escalation is that it is agnostic, at least in the Middle Eastern context. Its proponents do not distinguish between the victim and the aggressor. They care less about who’s responsible for the killing and the injustice, as long as violence is contained and “stability” is restored.

I say all this, of course, fully recognizing that at the end of the day, the antagonists are the ones who have to settle their disputes and reach a settlement. If late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat didn’t genuinely want peace with Israel, no amount of US mediation would have made a difference.

That said, Western diplomacy should not put process over substance. In other words, it shouldn’t—inadvertently or not—delay a solution to the conflict and thus contribute to more loss of life, more despair, and more injustice, all in the interest of avoiding military or diplomatic escalation. The road to hell is often paved with the best intentions. Sadly, this is often the case with Western diplomacy in the Middle East.