MERI Forum 2018, P6: The Global and Regional Power dynamics (1)

Panel – 6: Global and Regional Power dynamics: Conflict and Collaboration (1)

  • Ebtesam al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Centre
  • Taha Özhan, Research Director at Ankara Institute
  • Ranj Alaaldin, Brookings Institute
  • Mohammed Bin Saqar Alsulami, International Institute for Iranian Studies
  • Steven Blockmans, Centre for European Policy Studies (Chair)

The current turmoil in the Middle East and its shifting power dynamics were the focus of this panel, explained Steven Blockmans, which also took into account the role of the international players in shaping and influencing the developments at the regional and local levels. The uncertain future of the Iran Nuclear Deal clearly represents one of the main game-changers in this respect, as the incremental US sanctions may produce a realignment in the current set of regional alliances. The panellists agreed that power rivalries and lack of cooperation represent the main roadblock to normalization of relations among the most influential regional powers.

Indeed, Conflicting interests on larger scale are exacerbating this trend of instability, thus highlighting the necessity for new political and diplomatic approaches in order to end conflicts and promote a virtuous cycle of stability and collaboration. The panel tried to present the best countermeasures as well as the proper solutions to reverse this negative trend, in order to understand whether it is possible to effectively influence the events in the region.

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi believes that the situation in the Middle East region is still in flux with increasing instability. This is coupled with a changing world that is no longer bi-polar, and not even clear if it has turned unipolar or multi-polar. In this state of flux, milestone events, such as 9/11, Iraq war in 2003 and the Arab Spring since 2011 have shaken the political scene in the region and awakened the historical grievances. Currently, there is more room for conflict than cooperation in the region; nevertheless, major regional powers (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) avoid direct military confrontations for achieving their aims.

Al Ketbi also argued that the changing relations among major international players are influencing the changes in alliances and enmities in the region too. Meanwhile, continued existence of failed states like Syria and Yemen means the continuation of proxy wars. Similarly, ideological survival of ISIS and active presence of Hizbullah and Huthis herald the possibility of further conflicts in the future. Meanwhile, Al-Ketbi believes that American sanctions and withdrawal from the nuclear deal must aim at change in Iran’s behavior, and if this occurs more stability will be witnessed in the region. She concluded that an independent and stable Iraq will be a good friend for the USA, Iran and Arabs and will be the factor of stability and development in the region.

Taha Özhan considered efforts such as MERI Forum important in fostering much needed debates and creating common grounds in the region.  He believes that the current regional arena displays an interplay between three kinds of state-actors, both internal and external, whose specific features inevitably affect the outcomes of their policies. The first category encompasses those states having maximum military and political capacity but minimum vision, a combination that, in the Middle East, has proven to be disastrous. This has only exacerbated the pre-existent problems, helping them to turn into “a virus with a contagious ripple effect.” In Özhan’s opinion, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal perfectly instantiates this category. At the same time, there are states with limited military or political capacity but substantial vision. Yet, also in this case, the consequences are likely to be damaging, as policies reveal to be ambitious but groundless, creating “hallucinations and unrealistic expectations” that cannot be concretely achieved. The third category of states he referred to are those that have neither capacity nor vision, but being co-opted by the interests of more powerful allies and becoming instrumental to further unrest. As a result, Özhan noted, there is an increasing and widespread trend of political securitization and military build-up, which, in turn downplay the role of politics and create a vicious circle of violence, as the Syrian civil war demonstrates. He also underlined the declining and limited scope of the three dominant political cultures of the region, including the Arab, Persian and Turkish ones, which are described as “aged, matured and tired” vis à vis  the “young, energetic [although] inexperienced” actors: Israel, the KRG and the Palestinians.

According to Özhan, a possible solution to this quagmire may be an astute and subtle geopolitical approach, in which military means represent a short-term solution concurrently sustained by political and diplomatic tools. In this regard, he illustrated the strategy adopted by Turkey in Syria, based on limited military interventions and active political engagement with both allies and, especially, foes to reach a peaceful compromise. While acknowledging that “this is not the best solution,” he nonetheless considered it as an “improvement” compared to previous results.

Ranj Alaaldin concurred that a battle for regional supremacy is ongoing, although he presented a less optimistic vision for the foreseeable future with respect Özhan. According to Alaaldin, competition rather than cooperation will likely prevail because the conflicts which have emerged in the recent years are “far from settled,” and the seeds and grievances that fuel them are continuously revived as long as these conflicts last, remaining vivid in the memory of people for generations and producing a “conflict relapse” dynamic. As he explained, “war time conditions created a momentum for further conflicts” and the fact that non-state military groups are replacing conventional forces in many confrontations not only makes the business of war cheaper, but it also exacerbates it, since many of these groups only rarely adhere to international norms and principles regulating combat actions. Another factor he highlighted was the lack of a shared and positive framework which can establish precise rules to limit the use of military means in the region, which are too easily employed to achieve political objectives. Such an enduring ‘conflict relapse’ situation is exemplified by the confrontational narratives used by influential powers such as Iran, which is still engulfed in a mind-set of perpetual conflict with the West, or plainly re-emerged between the KRG and Iraq in the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum of September 2017. According to Alaaldin, the Peshmerga and the ISF frustrated three years of cooperation and goodwill while fighting against Daesh, yet fail to build on that momentum.

The first and essential necessity, Alaaldin noted, is to depart from these corrosive narratives and invest in politics and good governance rather than military solutions, highlighting how “winning the peace is more important than winning the war.” So far, this litmus test has not been passed successfully by Baghdad. In the case of Iraq, he maintained that the huge institutional gap now existing between the central government and the provinces can be addressed only through a decentralization framework which, by devolving a fair share of power and authority to the local administrations, may produce “the ideal breeding space for the development of a unifying narrative.” Social and political inclusion, thus, must be the core features of the rebuilding process, further fostered by the mitigating role of Civil society at large.

On the mention of the Iranian Nuclear deal, Alaaldin candidly stated that it had both positive and negative effects. Indeed, while, on the one hand, it succeeded in bringing to the negotiating table potential opponents thus enhancing positive talks, on the other hand it has failed to address all the problems concerning Iran’s activities in the region, especially in Syria or even in Iraq, confirming the need to adopt a multidimensional approach in this regard. “Iran has still to prove to be an honest and committed broker of peace in the region.” Iraq is on the edge between (a) evolving in a space in which the Arabs and Iran can forge a consensus, or (b) becoming the new battle ground between Iran and the U.S. and their allies.

Mohammed Bin Saqar Al-Sulami pinpointed the factors that changed the Middle East from the cradle of civilizations to the cradle of conflicts and later stressed on the ways to overcome the problems. He argued that lack of trust among regional states, the curse and bless of oil, absence of good governance, lack of political vision and negative role played by the world superpowers in the region are the root causes of problems in the Middle East.

Al-Sulami believes that the problem between Saudi Arabia and Iran is political one and not related to religious or national causes. He argued that if Iran changes her conduct and try to build confidence with the governments in the region, stability would be achievable and Iran will be saved from crisis. Al-Sulami stressed that Iraq must tackle the root causes of the emergence of ISIS and its other conflicts.  He added that Iraq should not be the scene of regional rivalries and proxy wars.

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