Progressive Futures

Towards a new European policy approach in the Middle East

7 April 2016

Europe must address and learn from the mistakes it made in its past engagement with the Middle East and north Africa

Joost Hiltermann

Crises in the Middle East and north Africa (MENA) are multiplying, and Europe is increasingly feeling the impact: attacks in the heart of European cities – causing widespread terror and fear of more to come – and an influx of refugees and migrants seeking a safer and better life. Both phenomena have generated huge pressure on politicians: to eradicate the terrorists and block the entry of the bedraggled masses fleeing war, deprivation and the lack of viable prospects in life. The danger is that while the roots of both phenomena lie in conflicts in MENA, they are different: one is a security threat, the other a humanitarian challenge, and separate responses must be designed accordingly.

European states’ counter-strategies have focused on enhanced policing/CT, deradicalisation measures at home, and outsourcing to Turkey the effort to block refugees and migrants from coming to Europe. In MENA they have limited themselves mainly to attacking the Islamic State (Isis) in its lair in Iraq and Syria. Yet the problem seems to be increasing: more terror attacks, more refugees and migrants, more and increasingly metastasising wars in MENA, and the sprouting of Isis affiliates throughout the region.

How should Europe tackle these challenges? First of all, by avoiding the mistakes made so far:

Do not just fight symptoms but begin to address root causes

Measures must be taken to address the immediate problems we face, yet major resources should also be allocated to efforts that could help bring MENA conflicts (of which groups such as the Isis and Al-Qaeda are symptoms) to an end – and, in the longer term, tackle the deeper problems besetting the region: primarily, the crises in governance and legitimacy.

Do not make matters worse by overreacting through overly securitised responses

Terror attacks in European cities do not pose an existential threat to our societies. The consequences of our panicked response could do just that, however, as we erode rights and institutions that define our post-WWII order and maintain its stability. In MENA, attacking IS and al-Qaida may whittle away these groups’ power, but any effort to defeat them outside the framework of a political strategy that aims to replace them with locally accepted rule will recreate them in a different form and thus perpetuate – and possibly worsen – the problem.

Do not take sides in MENA’s conflicts

The situation is so deeply polarised that taking sides will cause conflicts to escalate, as one party will use western backing to defeat its adversary, who in turn will look for alternative external support to fight back. Such escalation could take us in the direction of superpower confrontation, the potential for which we have already witnessed in Syria.

Do not provide unquestioned and unconditional support to proxies willing to fight Isis and al-Qaida

These proxies have agendas of their own that may aggravate local conflicts (from which Isis and al-Qaida benefit) or run contrary to western aims to maintain post-first world war borders. Kurdish parties in Iraq, for example, are pushing into Arab areas in order to expand the territory and natural resources they control, driving the local population in Isis’s arms even as these parties are fighting Isis. In Turkey and northern Syria, the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates want to further chaos in order to erase the borders that historically have divided the Kurdish nation. While the Kurds may have a claim to statehood, conflicts over these widely-accepted borders are existential for the states which have benefited from them, and will therefore not be settled easily.

Do not sell weapons to allies embroiled in armed conflicts in MENA over and above their legitimate requirements for self-defence

This may bolster ailing European economies but it will not help in de-escalating tensions in MENA and therefore will not do much to stem the flow of refugees, while giving ammunition to those who claim that western nations are upholding states in the region that oppress their people – a leading grievance informing jihadist narratives.

Do not follow the US meekly in whatever it does in MENA

The US has its own agenda: sometimes it accords with that of European nations, at other times it does not. The 2003 Iraq war is a clear example of when Europe has suffered, and continues to suffer, from America’s mistakes in failing to swiftly stabilise Iraq and suppress a burgeoning insurgency. Today, is Washington’s use of proxies in northern Syria that are fighting each other in addition to being primed to fight Isis the most sensible approach to countering the jihadist threat? And what about its support of a PKK affiliate fighting Isis in northern Syria against the wishes of Turkey, the US/Nato’s strategic partner?

In short: Do no further harm.

Steps toward an alternative policy agenda for Europe in MENA:

Define the problem accurately before designing a response

Disaggregate the two problems: the challenge posed by the refugee crisis is not per se a security threat and should be handled on its own terms as a humanitarian crisis requiring: better integration in Europe; a common European border policy that includes refugee/migrant processing based on international law; and greater support for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.

Put Europe’s own house in order and work collectively

Identify areas on which Europe can agree in its approach to MENA. The Iran nuclear deal is a brilliant example of things going right when all agree and form a common front. To create a common European front on Syria’s civil war, European nations would first need to reach a common understanding of the nature and drivers of that conflict and how it came to where it is today; this already would be a major challenge, but it ought not be an insurmountable one. Moreover, European nations understand very well that geostrategic tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, fuelled by sectarian politics, are contributing to conflicts in MENA. Is a concerted diplomatic effort to reduce these tensions, in coordination with the US and Russia, possible?

Be alert to emerging conflicts and intervene through quiet diplomacy

Deadly conflicts could arguably be prevented in many places if European nations, along with others, responded to alarming developments on the ground by allocating resources to early diplomatic intervention.

Use and support diplomacy

Address the problem at it source by helping the UN mediate an end to deadly conflicts and rebuild ravaged societies and their institutions. The UN is woefully understaffed and ill-equipped to confront the political and security challenges it faces in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere. The UN may not be the most efficient international actor to resolve conflicts, but for better or for worse it remains the only truly significant transnational actor the world has. It needs to be given more resources and more expertise to carry out its difficult task in these conflict areas

Develop strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding

Conflicts are precipitated by the collapse of states and the failure of prevailing governance models. Once conflicts are brought to an end, Europe should help build on fragile ceasefires to encourage new, more inclusive and less centralised modes of governance.

Where EU members cannot agree on a common policy, agree to spend more money in critical areas

More can be done to make the lives of refugees more bearable in the neighbouring states: Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdish region, and Libyan refugees in Tunisia. Providing them with access to education should be the top priority: helping their host countries in creating employment (without discriminating against their own job-seeking citizens) is also critical. A significant number of refugees may integrate into the host societies, and the others will hopefully return home once peace is restored and a modicum of stability achieved: their role in rebuilding will be indispensable.

It may be difficult to see how a Europe in crisis mode can take a forward-looking approach toward the rapidly evolving situation in the MENA region. Yet bombs going off in European cities and the arrival of desperate migrants and refugees on Europe’s shores are the twin symptoms of the failure of proactive diplomatic engagement in the region’s conflicts by European nations and others over the past decade. To continue on the path of benign neglect today will do little to address the problems at their source, but instead recreate these very symptoms – multiplied and magnified.

Photo credit: Ben Mitchell / Shutterstock.com