Alana Barrington Dye: What factors are essential for American interest in an internal conflict in the Muslim world?

In her article “Libya: What’s Really Behind the US Action,” Liz Peek states: “Self interest is at the core of diplomacy.”[1] A state will act in a certain manner when it believes that it can benefit from this action. There are no selfless actions in international politics. The United States of America is a prime example of this. In this paper, I will analyze what is necessary for the United States to become interested in an internal conflict in the Muslim world by looking at the recent conflicts in Darfur, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. This American interest can come from official policy of the US government or from loud and visible discourse dominating political discussions within the American populace. It might stem from economic reasons, from discourses left over from the Cold War, or from a desire to maintain an alliance with a state that is already involved in the conflict. Since the start of the twenty-first century, there have been many internal conflicts within the Muslim world that the United States could have cared about, and while the Bush and Obama administrations have created policy to intervene in some conflicts, they have left others relatively to completely untouched. The question remains then, why these conflicts? Why, for example, is the United States currently so invested in the conflict in Syria but not in Yemen? Why was America interested in the conflict in Darfur in the early 2000s but no longer retains any interest despite very little change in the condition of the region? The bottom line is that the United States will become interested in certain conflicts of the Muslim world when it feels it is convenient to be interested. Only if there is something for America to gain from the situation will the United States retain interest in a conflict.



In 2003, rebel groups attacked the Sudanese government over land disputes and a history of marginalization. The Sudanese government responded with attacks that initially targeted these specific rebel groups but soon expanded to affect, or directly target, tribes that were associated with the rebels.[2] The fighting was bloody, much humanitarian aid was required in the region, and American interest grew. Save Darfur, a non-governmental movement based in the US, was founded in the summer of 2004, although David Lanz argues that this was “more than one year after the conflict in Darfur reached a point of no return,” due to the origins of the conflict and they ways in which it was unfolding and spreading.[3] The Save Darfur movement was “arguably the largest international social movement since anti-apartheid.”[4] The American populace as a whole was greatly aware of the conflict that was happening in the Darfur region of Sudan and desired to put an end to the violence and the atrocities that were being committed against innocent civilians.

David Lanz states that one of the reasons that the Save Darfur movement was so successful was its ability to quickly create a specific narrative regarding the actors involved in the conflict. This narrative establishes “Darfur as a place of good and evil, victims and perpetrators, villains and heroes,” the heroes being the aid workers and activists who traveled to Darfur from the West.[5] Lanz continues, saying: “There is…a tendency to portray people affected by conflict as helpless victims, who need to be saved from the outside – hence the name Save Darfur.”[6] In the dichotomy of good and evil that was the dominant narrative, the West, including the United States, was able to place itself fully on the side of good by presenting themselves as saviors. In part because of America’s self-perception as a salvific body, interest in Darfur would be at the very least “unthreatening for the political establishment.”[7]

The focus on the political establishment is crucial. As Lanz explains, “Darfur was an opportunity for liberals, who had supported the war in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, to reclaim the moral high ground.”[8] Because the war in Iraq was no longer looked upon favorably, liberals who had supported the war and no longer did wished to reclaim their perceived moral superiority by paying attention to Darfur. Interest in Darfur was a means by which to once again appear on the side of good in the perception of the good versus evil dichotomy that was, and is, so widespread. Lanz continues: “Save Darfur therefore met a political context that received its activities favourably.”[9] Save Darfur, and general political interest in the region from the American public and the Bush administration, was therefore “unthreatening,” if not in fact beneficial, because it allowed for the portrayal of the United States as once again a positive force. The political climate was a desire to look past the bungled US intervention in Iraq and once again appear superior to the rest of the world.

In this context, “In July 2004, the US Congress unanimously passed a resolution designating the situation in Darfur as genocide, calling on the White House to ‘seriously consider multilateral or even unilateral intervention to stop genocide in Darfur.’”[10] In this same month, the Security Council gave the Sudanese government thirty days “to disarm the Janjaweed and bring their leaders to justice, or face ‘further actions.’”[11] Feeling accomplished and once again justified in its intervention in conflicts in the Muslim world, the United States, as well as the United Nations, lost interest in the situation in Darfur. Between 2008 and 2014, there has been only one mention of the word “Janjaweed” in the more than thirty reports filed by the UN African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and as Aicha Elbasri believes, it was “undoubtedly by mistake.”[12]

There is currently little to no American attention on Darfur, despite reports that “The janjaweed militias that led the 2004 genocide are now back in full force.”[13] Amnesty International states: “The war crimes being committed in Jebel Marra are the same as those seen in 2004, when the world first woke up to what was happening in Darfur.”[14] Since the start of 2016, there have been over thirty attacks using chemical weapons on civilian populations.[15] Al Jazeera reported in 2014 that, at least a quarter-million Darfuris were pushed from their homes by renewed violence in the first three months of this year.”[16] Despite all of this, in 2010 the chief of UNAMID, Rodolphe Adada, told the world that the war in Darfur was over.[17] It seems as if either the world believed him, or they do not care enough not to. According to Human Rights Watch, there are no key international actors currently in Sudan other than UNAMID,[18] which has done little to nothing since it was founded and actively gave false information to the UN.[19]

Unlike in the early to mid-2000s, the United States no longer has a desire to overlook how poorly the war in Iraq is turning out. America no longer requires a renewed sense of moral superiority from its actions in Darfur, and so the country has lost interest. It does not matter that the conflict in Darfur has not ended; it only matters that the US is satisfied with the narrative of goodness that it can once again spread to the American people.



In the words of Al Jazeera, Bahrain has been “abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West and forgotten by the world.”[20] Protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, or what is known as the Day of Rage.[21] Security forces in tanks shot at protesters and pelted them with tear gas,[22] and on March 15, 2011, the Bahraini government declared “a ‘State of National Safety’, a euphemism for martial law,” as explained by Ala’a Shehabi and Marc Owen Jones.[23] At this point, Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in the conflict. Although the Saudis were not invited, after they had invaded, the Bahraini government claimed that they had been officially invited to take part in the conflict and help stop the protests. “The state media,” as Shehabi and Jones state, “painted these troops as saviors.”[24] The intervention of Saudi forces allowed the Bahraini government to claim the pretext that the Saudi presence was necessary to protect Bahrain’s sovereignty against Iranian interference, and on March 21, 2011, King Hamad claimed that Bahraini forces had stopped a foreign (implying Iranian) plot.[25]

Bahrain’s relationship to Saudi Arabia is in fact crucial to its survival as a country. The Bahraini economy functions almost entirely on oil exports and Saudi aid,[26] making it nearly impossible for Bahrain to oppose Saudi Arabia, a much more powerful country, when they intervene in an internal conflict in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia’s influence and control over the situation in Bahrain does not end there, however. According to Shehabi and Jones, “The Telegraph reported that ‘Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain,’”[27] and muted it was. Comedian and past host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart noted that while American politicians were amassing support for US interventions in Libya and Syria, their response towards the events occurring in Bahrain was, “Hey, tone it down will ya?”[28] The lack of Western media covering the events in Bahrain continues to this day. There are reports of the Bahraini uprising being “aborted,” “quelled,” and “crushed” despite the fact that Bahrain is still overcome with protests and clashes.[29] There is no desire to report to truthfully report the events in Bahrain because, as Shehabi and Jones state, “The Bahraini uprising was inconvenient, exceptional, and an anomaly.”[30]

The Al Khalifa government in Bahrain receives significant support from Saudi Arabia as well as the West, the three most influential countries in Bahrain being Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the United States,[31] with the United States also maintaining a strategic naval base in Bahrain.[32] It would be politically dangerous for the United States to support the Bahraini protesters, given Saudi Arabia’s intervention. It would also have broken the trust between these two unlikely allies if the United States had interfered in Bahrain despite the deal that it made with Saudi Arabia in regards to intervention in Libya.

In June of 2016, the US State Department lifted restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain despite the Bahraini government’s continued human rights violations such as the extreme use of torture.[33] In this conflict, the United States clearly cares more about its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Saudi influence in the region than about the issues and rights for which the Bahraini protestors are fighting.



In 2011, what started as peaceful protests[34] against Assad’s suppression turned into what Charles Glass refers to as “a mass civil uprising.”[35] By 2012, this conflict became an all-out civil war. Foreign assistance led to increased violence and proxy wars in addition to the internal conflict.[36] The United States continued to give attention to the situation in Syria as the situation worsened, and in 2012, President Obama said that the use of chemical or biological weapons would be a “red line” that could prompt US military action.[37] In early 2013, international demands were issued for Bashar al-Assad to step down, but he ignored them.[38] By the summer of that year, according to the United Nations, over 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and President Obama announced that with Congress’ approval, the US would start bombing Syria. However, by the following fall, the United States had decided not to attack Syria, even while the UN reported that chemical weapons had been used in Damascus.[39] In the summer of 2014, Assad held elections in the government-controlled areas, and he won the election by almost 90% of the vote.[40] At this point, the United States had begun bombing Assad’s opponents rather than condemning his administration,[41] and by the end of 2014, it was widely accepted that the opposition will not be able to oust Assad.[42] Peace talks were held in Vienna in the fall of 2015,[43] and soon after, Obama announced that US Special Forces would be in Syria to play an “advisory” role. The conflict becomes increasingly international as terrorism from ISIS spreads to countries such as France and Turkey.[44] CNN reporters Hakim Almasmari and Angela Dewan state: “The Syrian conflict is of interest in the West as it has bled beyond its borders, with ISIS carrying out or inspiring attacks across Europe and spreading its influence in other Middle Eastern countries.”[45] The violence in Syria is not enough to be completely committed to the conflict: it is the fear of an international spread that forces the United States and the West to be interested in the actions of ISIS in Syria.

Glass believes that the United States must desire something even more from Syria in order to retain interest in the conflict. Citing the lack of US interest in Bahrain, he does not buy the idea that the United States, or Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would oppose Assad because he is a dictator. Glass claims: “The US opposed Assad, as did the Saudis and Qataris, because he would not relinquish the alliance with Iran that gave him a strategic asset against Israel.”[46] Syria is therefore not a conflict relevant to the US because of Assad’s regime or the atrocities in the country, but because of its political alliance with Iran. Glass reveals that on March 5, 2007 Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker: “The US has…taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant version of Islam.”[47] Glass gives a convincing argument that the US involvement in Syria began well before the Arab Spring with policies left over from Cold War alliances and the American desire to harm Iran and its allies. Glass believes that actions of the United States, along with other Western as well as Middle Eastern countries, have directly led to an unwinnable conflict in Syria. Why Syria? “Nearly all Arab governments are repressive dictatorships, but only Syria was not a US satellite. Only Syria had a strategic alliance with Iran.”[48]



Almansri and Dewan state: “unlike Syria, the world’s gaze has largely missed a conflict that has left millions in need of aid and pushed communities to the brink of famine. As such, many term it the ‘forgotten war.’”[49] Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, expands on this term, saying: “It’s probably one of the biggest crises in the world but it’s like a silent crisis, a silent situation and a forgotten war.”[50]

In September of 2014, Houthi rebels took over most of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa,[51] and on January 21, 2015, they took control of the presidential palace.[52] The following day, Yemeni President Hadi and Prime Minister Bahah resigned instead of complying with Houthi demands on constitutional reforms,[53] effectively leaving their country without a government. In February, President Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden,[54] where he announced that he was still the president, but that the capital now lay in Aden.[55] However, the following month he was forced to flee again as the Houthis began to move south. Hadi returned to Aden, his temporary capital, in September after Saudi-backed forces (organized in March 2015[56]) secured the city.[57] Hadi’s government is currently supported by Saudi Arabia as well as loyalists against the Houthis within Yemen. However, the Houthis also claim to be the official government of Yemen. They claim that the Yemeni parliament has been dissolved and replaced with a council led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. However, this government is not recognized by the United Nations, the United States, or the Gulf-Cooperation Council.[58]

The war continues, and the chaos of this multi-sided war has allowed ISIS and Al Qaeda to grow stronger in the region,[59] with ISIS claiming responsibility for multiple terror attacks in Yemen this year.[60] No one involved in this conflict is following the traditionally respected laws of war. A Human Rights Watch report states that the Saudi-led coalition has been using cluster munitions, which are banned by international treaty, as well as indiscriminate airstrikes, “violating the laws of war and killing and wounding thousands of civilians.”[61] Houthi forces have also fired indiscriminate rockets into cities in southern Yemen as well as in Saudi Arabia, which have resulted in civilian casualties. The Houthis have also enacted an extreme crack down on dissent. The Freedom Foundation, which Human Rights Watch describes as “a Yemeni group that monitors press freedom,” reported that there were forty-nine Houthi attacks on media in January of 2015 alone.[62]

The United States has done very little in terms of promoting public discussion on the conflict in Yemen, but US forces are aiding, although not leading, airstrikes on Houthi forces,[63] following Saudi Arabia’s lead. Peter Salisbury, an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, states: “the Americans…don’t have any real strategic interest in Yemen, which is why they have decided to back the Saudis. For them, the strategic imperative in Yemen is really to keep the Saudis happy and to maintain a degree of stability in the Gulf.”[64] This statement clearly sums up US involvement, or lack thereof, in Yemen as well as in Bahrain. It is clear that policymakers in the West, and especially in the United States, seem to value their relationship with Saudi Arabia more than any consideration of the correct way to deal with the conflicts in Yemen and countries like it.[65]



The United States will only intervene in an internal Muslim conflict for reasons of self-interest. An intervention must be politically convenient for the US: it must help, or at least must not hurt, its image and the existing political structures. It is therefore crucial that in any action that the United States takes in the Muslim world, it remains on good terms with Saudi Arabia, the unlikely ally. In internal conflicts in which the US has little stake, such as in Yemen and Bahrain, the US appears to defer to Saudi Arabia’s wishes, revealing that the maintenance of this relationship can be more important to American policy makers than the conflicts themselves. Twentieth-century alliances remain incredibly relevant in twenty-first century conflicts; the interventions of the US in the Muslim world function mainly to help itself or Saudi Arabia, or to hurt Iran and its allies. These relationships reveal the nature of the proxy wars in Syria, which complicate and exacerbate the conflict there. A lack of Western interest will lead to an absence of Western media coverage, which serves to further detach the West from these conflicts.[66] So although there have been many recent Western and American interventions that have gone incredibly poorly to say the least, it is still important for Western powers such as the United States to be aware of the atrocities occurring in a region and be invested in ending these humanitarian crises. The question remains, then, how to make America interested in a conflict that they have little stake in, and in such a way that American involvement does not exacerbate the conflict.




Works Cited

Almasmari, Hakim and Angela Dewan. “Yemen: The ‘forgotten war’ cloaked in the shadow of Syria.” CNN. Last modified October 9, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Almasmari, Hakim and Jason Hanna. “Yemen’s deposed president flees house arrest, plans to withdraw resignation.” CNN. Last modified February 22, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Anker, Elisabeth R. Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and The Politics of Freedom. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

“Bahrain: Events of 2015.” Human Rights Watch. Last modified 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Browne, Ryan and Angela Dewan. “US strikes Yemen after missiles launched on warship.” CNN. Last modified October 13, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Duggan, Briana. “Amnesty says Sudan used deadly chemical weapons in Darfur conflict.” CNN. Last modified September 29, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2016.

Elbasri, Aicha. “We Can’t Say All That We See in Darfur.” Foreign Policy. Last modified April 9, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2016.

Glass, Charles. Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, 2nd ed. New York: Verso, 2016.

“Houthis take over Yemen presidential palace.” Al Jazeera. Last modified January 21, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

Kumar, Akshaya. “Darfur, the genocide America forgot.” Al Jazeera America. Last modified April 18, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2016.

Lanz, David. “Save Darfur: A Movement and Its Discontents.” African Affairs 108, no. 433 (October 2009): 669-677.

Peek, Liz. “Libya: What’s Really Behind the US Action.” The Fiscal Times. Last modified March 30, 2011. Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Political Unrest in Yemen.” C-SPAN. Last modified January 30, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air.” Amnesty International. Last modified September 29, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2016.

Shehabi, Ala’a and Marc Owen Jones, eds. Bahrain’s Uprising. London: Zed Books, 2015.

“Sudan: Events of 2015.” Human Rights Watch. Last modified 2016. Accessed December 15, 2016.

“Yemen profile – Timeline.” BBC News. Last modified November 21, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Yemen: Events of 2015.” Human Rights Watch. Last modified 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.





[1] Peek, “Libya: What’s Really Behind the US Action,”

[2] Duggan, “Amnesty says Sudan used deadly chemical weapons in Darfur conflict,”

[3] David Lanz, “Save Darfur: A Movement and Its Discontents,” 670.

[4] Ibid, 669.

[5] Ibid, 670.

[6] David Lanz, “Save Darfur: A Movement and Its Discontents,” 673.

[7] Ibid, 671.

[8] Ibid, 671.

[9] Ibid, 671.

[10] Kumar, “Darfur, the genocide America forgot,”

[11] Elbasri, “We Can’t Say All We See in Darfur.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kumar, “Darfur, the genocide America forgot,”

[14] “Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air,”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Kumar, “Darfur, the genocide America forgot,”

[17] Elbasri, “We Can’t Say All We See in Darfur.”

[18] “Sudan: Events of 2015,”

[19] Elbasri, “We Can’t Say All We See in Darfur.”

[20] Shehabi and Jones, Bahrain’s Uprising, 9.

[21] Ibid, 4.

[22] Ibid, 5.

[23] Ibid, 6.

[24] Ibid, 7.

[25] Ibid, 7.

[26] Ibid, 25.

[27] Ibid, 9.

[28] Ibid, 8.

[29] Ibid, 20.

[30] Ibid, 9.

[31] Ibid, 27.

[32] Ibid, 26.

[33] “Bahrain: Events of 2015,”

[34] Glass, Syria Burning, 35.

[35] Ibid, 1.

[36] Ibid, 3.

[37] Ibid, 6.

[38] Ibid, 7.

[39] Ibid, 8.

[40] Ibid, 10.

[41] Ibid, 11.

[42] Ibid, 12.

[43] Ibid, 16.

[44] Ibid, 17.

[45] Almasmari and Dewan, “Yemen: The ‘forgotten war’ cloaked in the shadow of Syria,”

[46] Glass, Syria Burning, 168.

[47] Ibid, 53.

[48] Ibid, 153.

[49] Almasmari and Dewan, “Yemen: The ‘forgotten war’ cloaked in the shadow of Syria,”

[50] Ibid.

[51] “Yemen profile – Timeline,”

[52] “Houthis take over Yemen presidential palace,”

[53] “Political Unrest in Yemen,”

[54] “Yemen profile – Timeline,”

[55] Almasmari and Hanna, “Yemen’s deposed president flees house arrest, plans to withdraw resignation,”

[56] “Yemen: Events of 2015,”

[57] “Yemen profile – Timeline,”

[58] Ibid.

[59] Almasmari and Dewan, “Yemen: The ‘forgotten war’ cloaked in the shadow of Syria,”

[60] “Yemen profile – Timeline,”

[61] “Yemen: Events of 2015,”

[62] Ibid.

[63] Browne and Dewan, “US strikes Yemen after missiles launched on warship,”

[64] Almasmari and Dewan, “Yemen: The ‘forgotten war’ cloaked in the shadow of Syria,”

[65] Ibid.

[66] Shehabi and Jones, Bahrain’s Uprising, 159.




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