Navigating Regional Chessboard: Europe’s Options to Address Conflicts in MENA Region

Written by | Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020

As the year 2020 draws to a close, the conflicts and tensions in Syria, Libya and Yemen have been ongoing for nearly a decade, while the conflict in Iraq has been ongoing almost continuously since 2003. During the same period, the region witnessed growing tensions between the Gulf States and Iran, the US and Iran, a structural, though not political, US military withdrawal from the region, and an increasing engagement of Turkish and Russian Forces. In contrast, the European Union and individual European actors have often been perceived as being too passive or divided in their approaches on how to solve the underlying conflicts of the region.

This has resulted in a loss of credibility and missed windows of opportunity. Mechanisms of dialogue in the region are generally in very poor shape. International efforts have often failed to sustainably solve the conflicts. National and regional strategies for conflict solution and prevention as well as regional institutions to settle conflicts are widely missing. In addition, the prevailing discourse is mainly dominated by state leaders and security institutions, often marginalizing civilian experts and local civil society organizations as well as their interests and demands for conflict resolution – while their expertise and perspectives would bring an added value to the discourse.

With the exception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that of the Western Sahara, there has been no military conflict on territories in the region since the Kuwait war three decades ago. And yet, instability has grown massively in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Regimes are under threat and states are disintegrating or even failing. Current conflicts and wars take place within states – and regional actors are increasingly involved. The complexity of conflicts and political constellations has multiplied, both on the local and national as well as on the regional and international levels. They are not only complex, but intertwined and multi-layered.

In many ways, the local conflicts – Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria only being the most prominent and the most tragic – have in fact overlapped into a complex regional chess board. Of course, there are shortcomings to this metaphor: in Middle Eastern realities, there are more than two players involved and the complexities make for more gray than black and white. But to stay in the metaphor, we argue that Europe should look for options to address conflicts in the MENA Region, which would make Europe a far more convincing player, with a hopefully positive outcome for the conflicts of the region and especially the affected populations.

When academics and think tanks discuss a much-needed security architecture for the MENA region, they usually design it on a macro level. Western and Arab experts have debated the feasibility of a Westphalian Peace for the Middle East, as well as the Helsinki process or even an OSCE for the Middle East. On the other side of the spectrum, many scholars and INGOs working in the field of conflict resolution have strongly argued that peace must come from within, opting for a strictly bottom-up approach. These approaches have a certain appeal, but they are often putting more emphasis on the national than on the regional level which should not be neglected.

It seems interesting to note here that the four regional powers – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel (and the US as an international power, of course) – all justify their actions by claiming perceived threats to their national security. It is equally interesting that Russia and the United Arab Emirates are the two relevant outside actors who do not advance their positions along this line. It can be argued that the policies implemented by regional and international actors with regard to the MENA have often resulted in rather less stability and security and are thus detrimental to their own proclaimed interests. But this argument alone is deficient. It does not take into consideration that those countries – which are the theater of regional and international interventions – and even more importantly, their populations, are usually paying the price.

There is certainly no easy way out of this regional quagmire of multiple unresolved conflicts: international vs. regional actors, regional vs. regional, Shia vs. Sunni, state actors vs. non-state actors. In fact, there are other negative aspects further aggravating the situation. The region is characterized by a political mentality where competition for regional power, dominance and the prevalence of military solutions rule, coupled with a common feeling of mistrust and perceived threats. There is no meaningful framework for an inclusive security architecture or even a security dialogue, a situation which is further complicated by dysfunctional institutions like the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council. Further, there is no meaningful mechanism in place to integrate the three powerful non-Arab states of the region nor to prevent simmering conflicts from erupting into open military confrontations. Finally, ad-hoc actions or reactions by the US, the European Union or individual European countries dominate, but no long-term strategy is in sight.

Europe is a direct neighbor to this conflict-plagued region. It has many reasons and responsibilities to be involved. The past decade has proven that the conflicts of the MENA can easily cross the Mediterranean. Terrorism or the wider issue of security as well as (forced) migration have dominated the European discourse, followed by an emphasis on the multifold economic interests of Europe in its neighborhood. While this should be reason enough for Europe to invest heavily in conflict resolution in the region, there is also a responsibility to be involved. It originates from Europe’s strong historic ties to countries in the region, and it is equally linked to a questionable tradition of strong relations with authoritarian regimes. The EU sees its identity as a value-based union which is founded on respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

In the reality of European approaches to the MENA region, stability and security have been a dominating interest in a rather narrow sense, while neglecting too often the fact that only an inclusive political system will lead to sustainable stability and to human security in the region, which in turn will guarantee a secure and stable neighborhood for Europe. These are key policy recommendations on how European actors could constructively engage with regional actors and how generally a more concerted, active and coherent European involvement in the conflicts of the MENA region can look like:

UNIFY – European actors should aim at developing a unified position on the ongoing conflicts in the MENA region which do have, not only through their close geographic proximity, immediate effects on European countries

HUMANITARIAN AID AND LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT – The EU and its member countries should use cooperation on issues related to the distribution of humanitarian aid as the start for a trust-building process with these actors, paving the way for discussions of political issues in the future. Moreover, short-term needs should at best be combined with long-term development strategies, ideally at the local level in order to support the emergence of future political elites. European actors should also participate in the economic reconstruction (especially in Syria), in order to prevent leaving this field to Russian and Chinese actors alone.

DIPLOMATIC INITIATIVES – Europe should engage with the regional and international actors and try to influence them in order to work towards a resolution of the underlying conflicts. Any European initiative in the field of diplomacy should also look beyond the respective conflict and take into consideration the actors’ regional interests and positions, which are not only of geo-strategic and geo-economic nature but do also often have an ideological component.

MILITARY AND SECURITY COOPERATION – If Europe wants to be a credible actor, it must become so through enhancing its military capacities. This includes greater cooperation on defense issues, especially in the context of the Mediterranean.

TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE – Besides all sorts of diplomatic, economic and military initiatives, Europe should uphold its values and continue to address human rights issues by forming international or European investigation committees and thereby setting a strong sign against war crimes, atrocities and human rights violations and for the accountability and prosecution of such.

The policy recommendations summarized here are a balancing act between “realpolitik” and a value-driven approach. If Europe wants to play a more active role in these conflicts in order to work towards a conflict resolution and directly influence the lives of millions in this war-torn region, Europe has to leave its comfort zone. The proposed initiatives will have a price and require unified action. Finally, Europe also needs to invest in an inclusive security architecture for the region, where conflicts and disputes could be settled without the support and the interference of outside actors.

‚Navigating the Regional Chessboard: Europe’s Options to Address Conflicts in the MENA Region‘ – Analysis by Achim Vogt and Sarah Schmid – Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

The Analysis can be downloaded here

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