This troubled region of ours requires lateral thinking and a new approach
The horrors of Daesh and Al Qaeda have reached such a level of barbarity and violence that we are unable to find the right words to describe them. Today, they have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe and their affiliates are challenging regimes anywhere and everywhere in the world. Their campaign of terror has also resulted in waves of refugees that are putting pressures on countries in the Middle East and in Europe. The chaotic situation in the region, with full scale wars in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, in a vast swath around Egypt, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula, with the involvement of Turkey and Iran, set the scene for this discussion.
There are some who would blame this state of affairs upon the West’s actions—stemming from the crusades, colonialism or the creation of Israel—to the more recent involvement in war in Iraq, not least the continuing incursions throughout the Middle East, both overt and covert. Further, there are some who would see the current chaotic situation as the result of a well-designed conspiracy for the dismantling and Balkanization of the Arab world, whose main features could be seen in such declarations as the value of “Creative Chaos.” But whatever truth there may be in any of these postulations, I believe that the current situation with the emergence of such forces as Daesh has underlined the fact that the U.S. and its allies must confront a different kind of problem than they did five to 10 years ago. Now, the U.S.—and we who live in the Middle East—need a new approach to cope with the current wars and destruction. We must bring an end to the currents of extremism and violence and fashion some kind of stability in the Middle East. But how?
Our region is littered with the corpses of both well-intentioned and malevolent interventions. The region is really a medley of sects, territories, ethnicities and shifting political affiliations, so that the landscape is formed like a mosaic of hard, unyielding small pieces, each one glinting with its own color and character, and somehow solid and inflexible.
Three Scenarios that Failed
In the recent past, the U.S. and its allies have tried three different ways of intervening in the region. A military intervention was followed by a massive presence in the field in the case of Iraq. Then there was support for an air campaign—but no follow-up and no presence on the ground in the case of Libya. Then there was no military intervention and no direct involvement in the case of Syria. Arguably, all three led to disastrous results. The reasons, I believe, are different, but revolve around the type and timing of each intervention. Sometimes focused, targeted diplomatic initiatives are best suited to the task, and bring the desired results— the Iran nuclear negotiations is one such example. Sometimes, the absence of clear political objectives moots the outcome of using military muscle, as was arguably the case in Libya. And sometimes, the timing of an intervention rather than its nature that counts most. It could have been said, perhaps, that in 2012, there was a window in Syria where intervention on the side of the “moderate” opposition might have been possible. But that window has since closed.
Today, in every one of those cases, the U.S. and its allies are confronted with terrible choices, and the best that can be done in almost every case is a sort of least-bad option. But a collection of least-bad options does not constitute a viable regional strategy.
A Different Approach
Allow me to posit a different approach—one that works with the regional powers, beginning with Egypt, and one that deploys all the tools of pressure and seduction, and all the instruments of economic and military muscle. The approach would work in service of an overarching diplomatic initiative that will have parallel teams involved in intense diplomatic discussions, each addressing a major hot-spot and each subjected to an overall review from the oversight of teams around the top decision-makers.
It is essential to recognize the conflicting goals that many of the protagonists have. Thus if the U.S. and Iran have an interest in supporting Iraq, they are at loggerheads over relations with Israel and divergent in Syria where Iran supports Bashar Al Assad. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia may want to defeat Daesh, but they differ on the support that should be given to Shiite forces to achieve that objective. The U.S. may want Turkey to support the Peshmerga forces in their confrontation with Daesh, but Turkey fears that they would strengthen a call for an independent Kurdistan that would in turn, threaten Turkey’s own territorial integrity—and so on.
It is clear, then, that the conventional approach of focusing on one hot-spot a time will not work, for it creates contradictions between actors who could be allies on one set of issues and enemies in another theater where fighting is still going on in parallel.
Military action will still be required, in order to deprive Daesh and Al Qaeda of an independently-held territory or land base, and to degrade their military capabilities as well as to allow humanitarian action to reach the many victims in these various battlefields. Intense coordination and intelligence-sharing between all parties will be required to prevent terrorist action elsewhere. We are still faced with the issue of how to guarantee the political liberties that we desire for our citizens whilst still providing a modicum of security. This does raise important questions of “democratic security” to which we must be alert , but that is a separate discussion for another day.
So the proposal I am advancing—of deploying military and economic strength in the service of a major diplomatic offensive to be carried out by multiple parallel high-level teams under the active guidance of the major international, regional and local leaders is qualitatively different and, I believe, deserves to be tried. For clarity, the international powers are the U.S., Europe and Russia, and the regional powers are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel.
Rules for Action to Stabilize the Middle East
There are several rules for action that can stabilize this region. We must be clear that we will exclude from any consideration the continuation of Daesh or Al Qaeda in any way, shape or form.
We ought to beware of all the other Islamist political movements or jihadist groups who claim not to be associated with Daesh. Then, we must look at the combatants within a specific country or theater and not those from outside, and if one side has a clear preponderance of being the likely winner, we must settle with it even if one does not particularly like that party.
We must not bring one fanatical group to fight another fanatical group, but support communities that are on the ground and defending their homelands, such as the Yazidis, or Kurds. We must seek a political settlement that brings in all the groups in the territory and all the external parties that have a stake in this particular fight. We need to understand the intersecting agendas of each of the combatants and of their external backers.
And understanding the overarching considerations (for example, Iran and the Shiite Arabs as against Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arabs)—and how their interests are manifested in local conflicts—is critical. It is for us to create parallel negotiating teams in all the conflicts so that one party can “win” in one case and “lose” in another, so that linkages can be developed. Our strategy must be to develop a win-win outcome for the external sponsors and backers of local combatants. Solutions will need to include a massive dose of federalism in all existing nation states if these nations are not to be divided and further balkanized. Federalism will require clarity as to how to split national resources—whether or not these are oil or off-shore gas reserves.
Solutions will need the separation of fighting forces on the ground, followed by political power-sharing arrangements, whereby none of the various concerned parties will be excluded from having some power and decision-making authority over the daily lives of their people. Ultimately, the global and regional powers will have to provide multi-party guarantees to maintain the status quo after settlements for at least five to ten years, possibly placing multi-lateral forces (possibly including contingents from the armed forces of the major global powers) for a long time if required, to ensure that the solutions are given enough time to take hold. “Locking-in” these agreements once reached, with their guarantees, through a form of U.N.-based endorsements can ensure stability. For all its weaknesses, the U.N. remains the only body that has some kind of international legitimacy, and that could be a forum for bringing on board the support of China, Japan and other global players who are not directly involved in the chaotic wars of the Middle East. This will require a major endeavor both politically and militarily, and it will require the attention and commitment of the major decision-makers in the world. But in the very least, it would have the saving grace of being a deployment of diplomatic talent and military and economic muscle that is devised within an overall strategy.
Beyond Politics and Military Action
But such geo-political strategies address only two facets of the problem: the political and military stresses that are tearing the region apart. Such a program must be complemented by three other major initiatives focused on governance, development and culture.
In the first instance, where good governance ought to build on the short-term stability achieved by a geopolitical strait-jacket, the world should assist in institutional capacity building and nurturing the structures of governance in order to promote longer term political stability and the emergence of inclusive and more just societies than those that are now falling apart. Secondly, socio-economic development, both locally and regionally, through a series of interlocking initiatives that would promote properly sequenced macro policies and bottom-up initiatives and support that by the provision of adequate credits for rebuilding the ravaged landscapes of our region.
Finally, a cultural response to the continued appeal of extremism and violence must be developed if pluralism, dialogue and understanding are to spread among the disenfranchised and marginalized populations of the region. We the intellectuals of the region have a major responsibility to ask ourselves why our societies have become such fertile ground for extremism and violence. We must undertake sweeping cultural initiatives to change the political and religious discourse, and promote multi-hypenated identities that are brought together under a big tent of the (now federal) national state. I am happy to say the Library of Alexandria has started such a program in 2015, and we expect to have some results within three to five years.
The stability that will emerge from such arrangements is likely to be initially very stiff, and potentially brittle. But the populations concerned are tired of conflict, tired of extremism, and will welcome an alternative vision that is based on inclusion and equity, recognizes and even revels in diversity. A vision that promotes stability and opens the path to prosperity for those who have the drive and ambition to succeed can speak to all. And for a truly lasting stability in the region it will be essential to also bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conclusion, for lack of progress on the Palestinian front remains the central argument for those who advocate violence over diplomacy.
Let me return to the credits I mentioned in discussing socio-economic development. Here I believe that two regional funds should be set up: One that could finance these massive infrastructure rebuilding projects, and one that caters to the bottom up micro initiatives. This would involve putting external funds with some resources from the sovereign funds of the region in a matching formula. These two funds can be managed by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) which could co-finance all these projects with many international financial institutions. This would give the populations of the region a sense of ownership of the process of rebuilding infrastructures that are quasi-nonexistent because of war or prior neglect. A well-designed massive rebuilding program can also help in boosting local employment in all these troubled lands.
None of this is going to be easy, but it seems to me to be the most promising means of stabilizing the region. And guess what? As a bonus, a successful endeavor on this front would also enormously reduce the tide of escaping refugees and the pressures that they generate on the immigration policies of many countries. So let us move forward on this new approach to “Crafting Stability in the Middle East”.
Dr. Ismail Serageldin is the Founding Director of the Library of Alexandria. A former Vice President of the World Bank, he is an advisor to the Egyptian prime minister on matters of culture, science and museums. He has chaired notable multilateral commissions across the world and has received 34 honorary doctorates.