MERI Forum 2018, P7: Global and Regional Power dynamics (2)

Panel – 7: Global and Regional Power dynamics: Conflict and Collaboration (2)

  • Fatih Yildiz, Turkish Ambassador to Iraq
  • Ramon Blecua, European Union’s Ambassador to Iraq
  • Alberto Fernandez, President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks
  • Lukman Faily, Former Iraqi Ambassador to Japan and USA
  • Tanya Gili, Former Member of Iraqi Parliament (Chair)

This panel complemented the themes emerged in the previous session (6), explained Tanya Gili, and help analyse the regional power dynamics from a broader perspective. The speakers were asked to focus on the trend of rivalry and confrontation,  underlining the current and future developments in terms of stability in many areas.

Fatih Yildiz characterised the bonds between Turkey and Iraq and emphasised the shared interest in having a stable relationship and a secure borders. He described security as a primary concern for Turkey, as “both Daesh and the PKK remain a threat for Ankara”.  He also highlighted a series of challenges which still affect Turkey and the rest of the Middle East. The first is the “historical tragedy of the Palestinian people” as Israel continues the “illegal occupation” and denial of their political rights.  According to Yildiz, “as long as we cannot redress this deep feeling of injustice emanating from Palestine there is no better future for us all in this region, including here in Iraq.” Secondly, he mentioned the war in Syria, where a story of political stalemate and failed diplomatic solutions is still continuing, and whose consequences for Turkey, especially in terms of refugees and security, have been severe. Turkey is indeed hosting 3 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country, and, for this reason, Ankara is trying to address these issues by actively cooperating with key partners on the ground.

Yildiz considered Iraq as the third challenge, where political unity as well as territorial integrity are still at stake, where inclusiveness has not been fostered enough and where ethno-sectarian identities appear to remain the main lens through which governance and policies are implemented. He explained that Turkey is at the forefront to help Iraq to become more inclusive and stable.

The fourth challenge was Iran. According to Yildiz, it was crucial to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran even after the withdrawal of one of its main contributors, which he described as “a matter of concern”. The Turkish Ambassador stressed Turkey’s commitment in this regard, and the necessity to engage Iran through diplomatic means rather than sanctions and military threats. He concluded by highlighting Turkey’s multifaceted orientation when it comes to foreign policy, in light of its bridging geo-political position “with an eye on Europe but also very much embedded in the Middle East”.  This can help Ankara to work effectively and positively with a wide range of partners to bring peace and stability in the region.

The EU ambassador to Iraq Ramon Blecua emphasized the necessity to put the Middle East in perspective, and described how ‘the threat to multilateralism’ represents the main challenge for the region, with power dynamics evolving in an increasingly uncertain way. At the global level, he noted, the partial decline of multilateral processes has resulted in trade wars, the abandonment of international treaties and the resort to military means for resolving disputes. These issues, in turn, are reflected on crucial power relations and alliances, ranging from the future of NATO to the long-standing partnership between the EU and Turkey.  Ultimately, these are affecting the role of the ‘revisionist powers’, such as China, Iran or Russia.

As a result of these issues, there are increasing tensions everywhere, and conflicts, especially in the Middle East, are exacerbated to the point of unintended consequences.  He mentioned the example of the JCPOA, which is defined as a “safety net for keeping in check not only the Iranian nuclear ambitions, but also the regional tensions.” The failure of this agreement risks to produce an escalation of violence which, according to Blecua, would come at “one of the most dangerous moments in the recent history of the region,” characterized by a system of alliances that may easily – if not automatically – drag the Middle East into war, in a sort of World War I scenario. The EU diplomat warned that “there is no war that ends the way it is intended at the beginning,” and, given the increasingly global and interlinked nature of conflicts, a single spark in one area may easily trigger a confrontational ripple effect, as the case of Daesh and its metastases in Libya or Afghanistan demonstrate.

According to Blecua, there are also positive developments. Iraq, for instance, should be praised for “its capacity to integrate multiple identities,” an aspect which may represent a good basis for a virtuous future of the region. Such a precious capacity, he highlighted, is a heritage of the rich history of the country, always characterized by a multi-layered system of intra-communal relations that kept the social fabric together. The introduction of “exclusive identities” by the Colonial Powers destabilized such social balance, while the rise of Daesh and its extreme reinterpretation of Islamic orthodoxy have almost destroyed it.  Blecua concluded by stressing the necessity to implement a comprehensive reconstruction process which can revive the historical cultural diversity of the Iraqi society, exemplified by what was the city of Mosul before 2014. He finally underlined that the EU is at the forefront in promoting reconciliation, inclusiveness and sustainable governance in Iraq.

Former US diplomat Alberto Fernandez partially disagreed with the previous analyses, noting that the worsening and exacerbation of the current dynamics in the Middle East should not be considered only as a future possibility, but primarily as a persistent regional pattern for the last forty years, since “the structural reasons for such a deep crisis have never been addressed.” These very causes, such as disastrous governance and “corruption on a global scale”, are endemic to the region and are still affecting “a situation which is likely to get worse before it gets better.”

The picture presented by Fernandez was even more dire as he described the crisis of MENA not just in socio-political and economic terms, but also “intellectual and spiritual” ones. He noted how the factors and grievances that led to the rise of Daesh are all still unaddressed, and how the lack of thirst for real change and reforms continues to undermine any serious effort to bring stability in many regional countries, especially those within the Arab League. Fernandez praised the actual US government for its realistic efforts to reverse what he defined as the “disastrous mistakes” made by the Obama administration, from the disregard for ISIS’ emergence in 2013 to the bloody mirror effect of the JCPOA in the Syrian conflict, where Iran and its allies have established a firm foothold through the blood of the Syrian population. He defined the Trump’s administration’s strategy in the Middle East as a “real response to the unchecked aggression by revisionist powers such as Iran,” coupled with a real effort “to re-forge ties with [Washington’s] traditional allies in the region,” such as Turkey or many countries of the Arab world. Nevertheless, he pessimistically stated that whilst the US commitment can certainly help to put in place a minimum level of stability, at the same time the endemic problems have to be addressed first and foremost by the local governments, and “neither multilateralism nor any foreign system can do more for the region than the region does for itself.”

Fernandez voiced a cautious optimism with regard to Iraq. He acknowledged the sincere attempts to address crucial problems such as sectarianism and ethnicity, and he noted that the last elections in the country have produced positive, although premature, signs in this regard. The military defeat of Daesh certainly represents an added value and builds confidence for the future, but it must go hand in hand with a serious effort to improve governance and provide good services to the Iraqi population. According to Fernandez, indeed, the recent popular protests in Basra and other parts of the country are an encouraging signal, because they demonstrate the people’s will to fight for their rights, but as long as the government do not listen to these demands, things will not improve.  Finally, Fernandez emphasised that Iraq has to find its own place, based on independence, territorial sovereignty, democracy and institutional strengthening. The US and the West are committed to these outcomes.

Lukman Faily began his remarks with a provocative question: where does the Middle East fit in the debate regarding global challenges and developments? Does it complement the current – global – concerns or does it contradict them, remaining entangled in more local ones? Does it keep pace with globalized problems or is it still focused on typical 19th century dynamics? For instance, while terrorism is certainly a global phenomenon which is extensively considered and faced in the region, environmental issues are almost absent from any serious local debate. According to Faily, the progressive, but steady, change in global dynamics can be positive as it may push Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole, to take on a more proactive role, since many of these dynamics directly affected it.

At the same time, he noted that there seems to be a lack of both historical leadership and a strategic framework to face and address all these crucial problems, as the tools at the disposal of many countries are inadequate or even detrimental to achieve any positive outcome. He noted how regional platforms such as the Arab League or many Islamic religious organizations have lost influence and are, to some extent, declining. Indeed, given the extensive international support for most of the challenges which trouble the region, it is essential to frame the analysis in terms of being proactive rather than reactive. The issue of human trafficking, for example, has to be managed mainly by Europe or require also Middle Eastern countries’ active cooperation?

The former Iraqi diplomat highlighted that such a perpetual situation of conflict and socio-political crisis has left irreversible damages, such as the exodus of minorities abroad or the Yazidi massacre, which will remain a scar for life, and has exacted a huge price on the Iraqi population, in terms of physical, cultural and economic destruction. Still, noted Faily, Iraq’s neighbours and allies are asking Baghdad to take position in the new struggle between Iran and the US, rather than rewarding it for its major effort against Daesh.

Faily moved on by emphasizing the necessity to put into the equation a series of variables, which he defined “wild cards,” that may profoundly affect the future of Middle Eastern dynamics. Firstly, the current direction of US foreign policy and the uncertainty about Washington commitment to the region. He contended that the ‘new-realism’ narrative adopted by the Trump administration may continue even after Trump’s presidency, since the president is only the tip of a broad diplomatic and political establishment. The second factor was the lack of political and institutional capacity to address problems. The issue of identity, characterized by a lack of clarity, as well as the role of non-state actors such as Daesh were also mentioned by Faily, who stressed how the combination between these factors and the exponential demographic growth in the region, has resulted in a widespread economic stagnation. In a pessimistic vein, he stated that “there are too many wild cards,” and the lack of capable leaders and effective platforms inspires little confidence for any prospect of dialogue and cooperation, as no actor is willing to admit its mistakes. Faily concluded that Iraq is certainly evolving, even though this process does not have a clear vision about where the end-game is. Furthermore, Iraq can be considered as an “early warning” actor in the Middle East for possible conflicts, thanks to its multicultural nature.

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