Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Nathan BrownNonresident senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program
If there is any lesson learned from the last five years, it is that the search for stability in the Middle East is chimerical. There are deep-seated social and political forces at work in the region; the question is not whether they can be resisted or contained but whether political structures can emerge that will guide local societies to manage inevitable changes with minimal violence and disruption.
In this respect, those who participated in the 2011 uprisings got the diagnosis right: the root of the region's problems lies in bad politics. But they have had little success in devising any cure, and the effort so far has only brought further disruption, which might only get worse before (and if) it gets better.
Western governments—despite their diplomatic, economic, and security tools—cannot reconfigure or repair the region. Most have come to understand that, and in this sense, their modesty is healthy. But it has had one very pernicious effect: the international order in the Middle East, when it was dominated by Cold War rivalry, provided a safe environment for authoritarian politics. The current international rivalries and disarray enable bad politics of a more disorderly sort.
This issue will not be easy to address. And as long as leading actors, including the EU, Iran, Turkey, and the United States, continue to regard each other suspiciously, it is unlikely that any regional structure can be built to support more managed change.
Koert DebeufRepresentative of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group
Stability in the Middle East and North Africa needs a strategy that goes further than seeking truces or supporting strongmen. It is of strategic importance to Europe’s security and prosperity that its Southern neighborhood is secure and prosperous, too.
In the short term, the EU should do everything in its power to stop the Islamic State (IS). Together with the United States, Europe should launch military strikes against IS and arm the Kurdish forces. The West should also support the new Iraqi government and help it convince Sunni Iraqis that there will be a new and inclusive Iraq soon. However, in this effort, the EU should not make the mistake of partnering with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who supported the creation of ISIS. Equally important in the short term is to stabilize Libya, where the West should push for a UN intervention to prevent the country from sliding into civil war.
In the medium term, there will be no stability and progress in the region without Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting together and solving issues between them. Together, these two countries can ease tensions in Yemen, Libya, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. The EU should push for such talks.
In the long term, the EU should help address the root causes of the Arab revolutions by supporting the fight against corruption and human rights abuse and by investing in education and democracy building. Without serious long-term engagement of the EU in the Arab world, the region will not see stability for a very long time.
Kristina KauschSenior research fellow and head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at FRIDE
Stepping up Europe’s efforts to manage imminent crises, including via military means, may help to save lives, and even turn the tide in a specific conflict. But it surely won’t bring stability to the Middle East.
Crises from Syria to Libya to Iraq are, in a nutshell, the result of geopolitical shifts over the past decade that cracked open a long-standing order of U.S.-fed political stasis. Not only is today’s Middle East—faced with fragile statehood, nonstate spoilers, and transnational threats—less controllable by governments, but Western allies are also less able to influence the course of events as they compete with larger money, stronger ideologies, and clashing interests.
Today’s Middle East is a proxy battlefield for larger geopolitical competitions. If key Western powers wish to help end these conflicts, they should focus on exploring collaborative options with other global and regional powers who, directly or indirectly, fuel those proxy wars both from inside (Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and outside (China, Russia) the region. Strictly issue-based “plus arrangements,” such as the E3+3 dialogue with Iran and the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, show that it is possible to involve difficult partners on specific dossiers.
The main challenge of a regional anchor strategy, of course, is not to recycle the superficial stability approach that lit the fires that the West is now rushing to extinguish.
Sally Khalifa IsaacAssociate professor of political science at Cairo University
Five elements, outlined below, would stabilize the Middle East. These are mentioned acknowledging the fact that some of them may be too idealistic to achieve.
- Combating terrorism and radicalization, whether by short-term military and nonmilitary means or by long-term strategies that target improving economic conditions and education.
- Implementing a comprehensive peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis—not between Israel and Gaza and Israel and the West Bank separately. As long as there is no Palestine, there will be no stability in the region.
- Establishing the Middle East, which certainly includes Israel, as a nuclear-free zone. Imprudent concessions on the Iranian nuclear program would not create stability but would justifiably trigger central Arab countries to seek the acquisition of nuclear power. This scenario would only increase the sense of insecurity and instability in the Middle East.
- Fostering economic growth, which is necessary to improve the living conditions of the miserable Arab masses and create sizable middle classes in the Arab world.
- Establishing democratic systems, which can be built and effectively utilized only when sizable middle classes are grown, minimum levels of economic growth are reached, and democratic values are thoroughly instilled through a systematic process of educational reform.
Lina KhatibDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
The belated reaction of European countries and the United States to the spread of ISIS speaks of action without long-term strategy. For there to be stability in the Middle East, localized military action is not the solution.
The spread of ISIS has several root causes: the exclusionary policies of Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq, which the West turned a blind eye to; the marriage of convenience between the Syrian regime and ISIS, as until recently, the regime had found in ISIS an indirect partner to fight myriad opposition groups; lack of foresight by the international community, which remained indecisive about Syria until ISIS threatened to become an international problem; and lack of foresight by regional actors in the Middle East.
On this latter point, Turkey initially turned a blind eye to ISIS because the movement was seen as an isolated group fighting the Kurds, and has now changed its stance in support of the Kurds against ISIS. Gulf countries also supported jihadist groups other than ISIS in the hope of toppling Assad, but those groups proved to be both weak in the face of the Syrian regime and ISIS and a potential source of instability within the Gulf.
The only viable path toward stability would be for both regional and international leaders to cooperate not only militarily but also politically, to develop long-term political strategies for the region based on empowering moderates and forming inclusive governance structures.