Peace in the Middle East - Peace in Europe

Dr. Hannes Swoboda

● former President of the S&D Group in the EP

● Member of the IFIMES Advisory Board


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans.Dr Hannes Swoboda, former President of the Group of Progressive Alliance S&D in the European Parliament (EP) and member of IFIMES Advisory Board in his article “Peace in the Middle East - Peace in Europe” presents his view on refugee crisis and its impact on peace in the Middle East and Europe. His article is published in its entirety.


Peace in the Middle East - Peace in Europe


Peace in Europe depends strongly on war and peace in the Middle East. This has never been more clear and visible than after the terrorist attacks in Paris this November. Irrespective and independently from the recent refugee stream from Iraq and Syria we have to recognize the new level of interdependence. The links with the regions "south" of the Mediterranean Sea became so strong that a separation via new borders and walls is impossible. Such demands of the populists are leading nowhere.


The refugees coming from the Middle East strengthened that interdependence and affected and included most of the Balkan countries. In consequence also in the Balkans, stability and peace is very much influenced by developments in the crisis regions of the Southern Mediterranean, especially by developments in the Middle East. All European countries therefore must have an interest to formulate and implement a common and comprehensive policy to counter the risks a continuation of war and instability in the Southern Mediterranean would have.


Military interventions and the periphery strikes back


In previous times this dependence was mainly one-sided and the West and/or Turkey as centre of the Ottoman Empire were the masters. It was a centre-periphery relationship, where it was clear that European powers including the Ottomans dominated, occupied and colonized the different Arab countries. Things changed dramatically with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and again with the withdrawal of the British and French colonial powers after World War II. Nevertheless neo-colonial influences by these powers, the USA and partly the Soviet Union existed over many years and were also interwoven into the still unsolved Israeli-Palestine conflict. But now the periphery strikes back - in various, partly devastating ways.


Bush II and his administration was especially active in trying to enhance the Western influence in that region under the cover of a strategy of democratization. The "Wider Middle East" from Pakistan to Morocco should be democratized from the outside with economic incentives like bilateral trade agreements and military intervention when "necessary". And for such a strategy the US found also some European countries to join the "Coalition of the Willing".


France which was defying and rejecting such a coalition had its own military actions when intervening in Libya. In all cases of these military adventures the intervening powers did not think about a strategy for the day or days after. Or there existed strategies, but without any sensibility for and knowledge of the precarious domestic political situation. The different - changing - US policies for Iraq were a clear demonstration of such failed strategies. The radical dismantling of the the state authorities by the US was one of the most devastating measures of such a "strategy" in Iraq. One only can hope, that this grave mistake will not be repeated this time with Syria.


Chaos, turmoil and an upsurge of terrorism were the result of these different military interventions and partly also of the internal revolutions after the "Arab spring". The optimism and enthusiasm after several of these revolts faded soon away. Nevertheless they were the background for the support for different rebel groups in Syria, again without knowledge of the specific domestic political situation in that country.


Regional fight for supremacy


The situation was aggravated by a rising competition between the Sunni power of Saudi-Arabia and the Shiite centre in Iran. Both countries which represent the two major orientations of Islam try to defend their existing influence and/or try to extend their power. Many wars, especially the one in Syria can also be seen as proxy wars. Turkey for some time tried to stay in the middle, in a balance between Iran and Saudi-Arabia, but in the end leaned more and more towards the Sunni cause and definitely against President Assad.


Turkey - as many other countries especially in the EU and the US - had the illusion, that President Assad will be ousted in some weeks or at least in some months. Things developed differently. Following the stalemate between Assad and the rebel forces, Turkey executed an ambiguous policy towards some extreme opposition forces. In addition Turkey is looking - at least - with some skepticism at the activities of the Syrian Kurds. After having built a constructive and even friendly relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, President Erdogan was not interested in having a new autonomous Kurdish region, this time governed by forces connected with the PKK.



The Kurdish issue


The European Union with many Kurds inside their member countries must be particularly interested in designing a policy of supporting the interests of the Kurds while respecting the borders of the different countries of the region. This would only be possible if a concept of regionalization and transborder cooperation can be developed as a contribution to peace and stability. Solidarity with the Kurds must not imply and include support for demands to change existing borders, especially of Turkey and ethnic cleansing against any non-Kurds in the regions acquired by Kurdish forces.


Delivering arms to the Kurds may be the best way to beat back some of the terrorist groups, especially when Western powers want to avoid to deploy troops on the ground. But the US and the EU should be clearer about the role of Kurdish political and military forces the days after fighting the terrorist enemy: whatever regional autonomy can be envisaged it must not be the source of new conflicts and wars.


Russia comes in


In the mean time the widely forgotten and neglected power, Russia also made it clear, that it has specific interests in the region. While Russia always made that clear, it was not really accepted by the "West" and it was not expected Russia would actively participate in the region's struggles. Russia is economically weakened, especially due to the lower oil price, but it has some military assets, one cannot overlook. And it is ready to come into the scene by deploying military forces.


Some say this military intervention has just the purpose of saving Assad and/or has the intention to divert from the Ukraine crisis and Russian activities there. In fact both intentions are in line with the general policy of President Putin to regain influence and be respected as world leader. Russia is still a force we have to count with. The exclusion of Putin from G8 meetings and the cancellation of the NATO - Russia council was anyway leading to nowhere. And Putin is now forcing the Western leaders to speak with him again and that is necessary if we want peace and stability in Europe.


Critical situations at home


On the home front, inside the EU and the (candidate) countries of the Balkans new developments aggravated the security situation. The rising number of refugees created new concerns and new tasks for the transit countries and especially for the host countries. The number of Muslims in these countries was and is rising and this affords more efforts for the integration of men and women and many children with different cultural and religions background.


Already in the past this task was not undertaken in a sufficient and satisfying way. Many political forces stereotyped and alienated the Muslim population. This exclusion of Muslim minorities had consequences. The "banlieues" in France and Belgium, to mention two countries, generated many young people outside the mainstream of society. They were and are angry about their families, who were normally quite satisfied with their living conditions and with the compromises they had to accept as Muslims in predominately Christian environments. And they are angry with the host countries military engagement in the Muslim region south of the Mediterranean. They see countries like France as still colonizing the Arab world outside its borders and discriminating Arabs inside its borders and keeping them outside their societies.


The "pure" Islam and an aggressive djihad preached and spread by some Imams in the Middle East and in European countries deliver the "ideal" ideology also to people who until recently were not religious at all. Olivier Roi speaks in that connection of the "Islamization of the radicals" which he opposes to the thesis of the "radicalization of the Islam". It is this Islamization of radical attitudes of young Muslims (original or converted) which creates many dangers and risks to EU countries. And the Islamization is directly connected with the wars in the Middle East and beyond. By that way ISIS is attracting some youngsters of non-radical families in European countries. In all cases Islam is misused to justify unbelievable and unjustifiable atrocities.


Again and again it has to be underlined, that the problem is not connected to the Islam as such, but with exclusion and frustration of Muslim youth, which leads some young people to be seduced by radical and extremists ideology. Integration into main society is the major answer. Concerning the refugees we need therefore a European "Willkommenskultur" and an active integration policy. Outright rejection and prejudices against these refugees would not help, in the contrary. But of course the best strategy would be to work towards peace and reconstruction. And that may and should include a decisive role for refugees who got support and training in European countries.


A comprehensive strategy - with domestic and external elements


Any strategy of fighting and beating terrorism must be developed as a comprehensive strategy for peace inside Europe. And peace inside Europe can only be achieved by a combination of policies undertaken inside the European countries and those in the Middle East at the same time. The dominant reliance on bombs is very dangerous. Bombs have always collateral damages as a result. Often people are pushed to join the rebel forces for protection against outside forces. And it "needs" many killed civilians before the terrorists can be beaten. At least the West and particular the EU countries must be implementing a comprehensive strategy with domestic and foreign policy elements included.


Islam and Europe


The problem is not to have Muslims inside the EU countries. The countries of the Balkans have shown, that Muslims live in harmony with their Christian (Jewish etc.) brethren and sisters. The condition for such a harmony is that they are treated as equals with respect and recognition. They should not live in systems of "Apartheid" as the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls said after the attack against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. The strategy against any kind of "Apartheid" and for integration is an indispensable element of a strategy against terrorism. We must develop that domestic fight against terrorism as a fight for deradicalisation and not as a fight against a religion. That inside "Islam" there should be also a fight for a tolerant and peaceful interpretation - as we can find it again and again in its history - is another story.


Progress and democracy from inside


The other side is a reformulation of our Mediterranean or Middle East policies. We cannot and should not conduct a policy of withdrawal from that region. But we should offer alternatives to an enforced democratization from the outside. Opening up our markets and our universities and offering support for professional training are as important as investment cooperations. This policy must be defined as a partnership with the citizens of the region, irrespective of the ruling class and authorities.


Democracy must be developed from inside the countries concerned, parallel to economic and social development. Of course there is no guarantee, but military interventions definitely bring neither democracy nor stability or implementation of Human Rights. As we see with the critical developments in some EU countries, EU institutions have big difficulties to enforce Human Rights standards inside the EU itself. While the EU must be very strict to its member countries, it should be more pragmatic in its external relations without aligning itself with dictators and authoritarian leaders. But in the interest of peace and stability we have to speak and deal with them in addition to an alliance with the citizens, which always has support for democracy in its focus.


A way-out of military adventures


As war and terrorism already exist - not least in consequence of US and partly European military interventions - we must work on a way out from military actions and for peace. There is no alternative to a broad coalition of countries who can contribute to peace. The agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue improved the conditions for a new and peaceful Middle East decisively by creating a new balance of powers. The bigger countries of the region: Saudi-Arabia, Turkey and Iran must be brought to the conviction, that a continuation of the war in Syria and a permanent fight for supremacy will in the end result only in chaos and terrorism to all of them. That is an experience European countries can vividly describe and we should transfer this knowledge to the countries of the region. Supporting terrorist groups will backfire one day.


The Palestinian conflict


And of course the EU must not forget one of the core crisis, the one between Israel and Palestine. Even if and when other events are overshadowing this conflict, it is still existing and people are killed nearly every day. At any time a new intifada may arise and conditions to find a peaceful solutions may deteriorate further. Too many occasions have already been missed to force the two sides to find a solution.


Only a policy which would give all citizens of Israel and Palestine equal rights, opportunities and safety can prepare the ground for solving the conflict. Institutional issues about a two or one state solution can be thought of after agreeing on and implementing these principles. The West has to act, and as the US is in no position to act alone as an honest broker the EU must deal also with this neighborhood of ours.


A reset for relations with Russia


In addition, the West cannot think and suppose, it is only them who have justified interest in the region. Russia has also rights and interests it wants to have respected. But also for Russia it would be useful to actively promote a strategy of peace and see the realities on the ground. President Assad is not an asset, but a factor of instability. He can never be a legitimate authority again. That does not exclude transition periods where he and his allies can play a stabilizing role. But staying there for a longer time would be a provocation for many people and making any fight against ISIS or similar forces difficult to win.


In its recent "Final Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project" some interesting proposals have been presented to revitalize and strengthen the OSCE. But it would need a stronger commitment from the side of the West, especially the EU and NATO and the side of Russia to establish an All European Security System. The common threat coming from the continuation of war in the Middle East and different terrorist groups should be an occasion to reconsider the New Cold War of the past month. The existing differences cannot be overcome easily, but with good will on all sides it is possible. The countries in-between from Ukraine to the Balkans could be happy about such a detente. And the same is true for all the people of the Middle East.


Ljubljana, December 1, 2015                                                                                             

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