The Middle East crises and conflicts
It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.
Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.
While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.
Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.
Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.
Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.
Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.
Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.
Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.