Category Archives: Middle East

Western Asia in 2020s: risk of major war or opportunity of Regional Integration?

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The biggest opportunity in this decade for Western Asia (WA), the crucial area for the stability of the world, is a great bargain between Shia crescent and the Sunni world, for a WA integration based on a Collective Security Community and a Free Trade Integration. The region has homogeneity in religion even if heterogeneity in ethnicity, but also Europe has the same characteristics. The area has also a history of wars, mostly proxy wars recently, and great power influence and invasions (again similarly to Europe). Finally, this part of the world is economically similar with natural resources, first of all oil, and economic stable growth. Therefore is not unthinkable that Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Arab States in the region (with the presence of Israel as a pivot state) might decide for a gradual regional integration, like Europe, but also Africa, Americas and Southeast Asia decided to do in the past.

There are two issues and two possible inputs for this path. The two issues are:

-In the last two decades the regional powers (first of all Iran, but also Turkey and Saudi Arabia) supported by global ones, competed for influence over the region, creating constant violence and instability, and there seems no to be a new strategic vision for a great bargain at the horizon.

-This great bargain can be possible only with an Iranian regime change (as no Ayatollah regime will accept Israel and a regional system without Israel, even if with a special status, will not be sustainable) and this could take more than one decade to happen.

The possible inputs toward this path are:

-An Israeli-Palestinian settlement (but the recent one proposed by US and Israel has not been accepted and the solution could be postponed for long time, until “facts on the ground” are reached)

-A EU/NATO[1] support after the Iraqi/Syrian proxy wars (but the recent Middle East Strategic Alliance, an “Arab NATO”, didn’t work out and EU and NATO will be busy crafting their new relationship this decade)

The biggest risk, on the opposite, is a great war during this decade between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon on one side and Israel and the Arab world on the other (Turkey will try to stay out,  because of NATO alliance and Iranian border, but if will enter could probably stay with the Sunni side). This risk is high in this decade, given the increased elements that point towards an escalation, and the acceleration because of three more urgent threats at global level that should be treated soon (nuclear, climate and technological). These are the 4 crucial factors that support this risk:

-End of Iranian Nuclear Deal with the real concrete possibility that Iran gets nuclear power in the next couple of years. The Iran nuclear crisis of the early 2000s will be back, pushing military urgency.

-US Peace Plan for Israel-Palestine (rejected by Palestine, Iran but also Arab league) with consequent Israeli annexation of occupied territories inside West Bank after March elections.

-Recent escalation in violence between Iran and US, with the killing of Suleimani and the prospect of more hybrid[2] warfare against Al-Quds and other Iranian militias.

-West Asia never ending proxy wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, may be later also Lebanon) with interventions from Iran and Russia on one side and US and allies on the other, and Turkey moving between the two, with no sign to end soon this decade.

The two possibilities don’t exclude each other, actually a major war could precede the regional integration (as it has been in the past for Europe) and the current trends seem to show a path that points towards this risk. The role of US and Russia will be also determinant to push towards one of these paths, without excluding the Chinese alignments. As a recent Stratfor report argues, the 2020s will be a Multipolar decade, with shifting and fluid alliances. So, we’ll see what happens, as Trump always says.

[1] NATO should close its Mediterranean Dialogue after 26 years and create two new partnerships: North African Dialogue (with Maghreb region) and West Asia dialogue (with Levant region). NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative should be expanded to all countries of GCC.

[2] Hybrid warfare blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare (among state and non-state actors with proxies, militias etc.) and cyberwarfare with other methods, at economic level (with embargos) political level (with diplomatic tools, like proposing peace plans take it or leave it) and social level (with informational warfare, lawfare etc.)

 

 

Iran and the US grand strategy: weakening engagement following maximum pressure

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Obama’s priority for Middle East was supporting US Allies, first of all Israel and Saudi Arabia, while doing “constructing engagement”[1] with Iran, which terminated with the famous nuclear deal. Trump instead, while maintaining and reinforcing the strategic partnership with US Allies, since 2019 started to weaken its eternal rival, with the “maximum pressure policy”, leaving the JCPOA agreement that gave temporary advantage to Iran, reinstating the sanctions to rebalance the power.

A recent Foreign Affairs article argues that “Tump’s Iran imbroglio undermines US priorities everywhere else”, calling out the cost of an incoherent foreign policy, as Trump seemed to go from pulling out from Middle East to engagement, with “expanded American aims across the Middle East—focusing above all on Iran…with a policy of economic strangulation—known as “maximum pressure”—with no objective on which his administration could agree.” But is Trump foreign policy towards Iran and Middle East in general really incoherent, or is showing instead real coherence for a better grand strategy to win the Cold War with Iran finally after almost 40 years, with an implosion of the Ayatollah regime similarly to what happened with Soviet Union?

The Middle East (or better West Asia, given the fact that “Middle East” is a Eurocentric concept) has always been the pivotal region to “command the Heartland” as Halford Mackinder, one of the founding fathers of geopolitics and geostrategy, said.  The Obama’s pivot or “rebalancing” to Asia has never been very convincing, and after the post-Arab Spring chaos, the birth of ISIS, and the proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the US have been pulled back to the region, even if not anymore with an old style increased presence on the battle ground but with more modern complex hybrid warfare. The fact is that West Asia is the pivotal area for geographical reasons, with three regions converging on the contested space the “Fertile Crescent” (the Syria-Iraq region, called today also the “Shia Crescent”) but even for historical ones: not only the cradle of civilizations and of the Abrahamitic religions, but the area where Turkish, Iranians and Arabs clashed (with the Kurds in the middle, always repressed or excluded) and where Shia and Sunni also fought. Iran, like Turkey, in its history has been always defiant and proud of its civilizations and empires, trying often to dominate the “wild” Arabs. So, to speak about Iran is to speak not only of the current “revolutionary regime” of Ayatollah and the Islamic Republic, but of an ancient nation, with sophisticated people and history, besides economic power and geopolitical crucial position. This should be taken into consideration when we talk about grand strategy for Iran and West Asia.

The US should have a comprehensive long-term strategy and not a fragmented or changing one if wants to win also this Cold War, that’s true. But this doesn’t mean that Trump actions reveal an incoherent strategy. On the opposite. At the end of the day the coherent strategy of Containment lasted 4 decades, before to be successful, and required different regional wars and global actions. To contain Iran too US tried with regional wars (Afghanistan-Iraq) and a Western embargo, but then the birth of proxy wars and the diplomatic cooperative approach of Obama presidency changed the situation, giving Iran more power. Trump administration started with the strategy of “maximum pressure” that is actually giving its own results. The US should therefore keep and increase this pressure, like is doing now, transforming it in a “weakening engagement”, close in some way to the “containment” strategy, but balanced with a more offensive policy, similar to the “roll back” that US didn’t really use towards Soviet influence across Europe and Asia (but that was another rival). This will really help US to do a better deal with Iran, not with the Ayatollah but with a new regime, when the moment of regime change will arrive (from inside the country as always must be in order to be sustainable). When people will be fed up of the regime propaganda and repression, the citizens themselves will topple the dictatorship masked by “Supreme Guide”, in Iran as anywhere else.

The clearest demonstration that this weakening engagement is the best strategy is the fact that when the US arrived to a deal with Iran after 36 years of division, Iran was not weakened but reinforced. Instead, the art of the deal, Trump docet, require that deals must be done from a superior position, otherwise they will be good for the other part not for us. The weakening engagement has shown to be working very well already, as after the assassination of Suleiman Iran practically only reaction was an own goal: killing Iranians on the Ukrainian flight. Showing not only the unwillingness to really revenge with a full attack against US military bases, to avoid an escalation that Iranian regime could not win, but also the inability to use the most advance weapons, like the missiles that shoot down the airplane. Therefore, the weakening of the regime is already very evident, besides the protest that are going on in the country.

So how this coherent strategy should be maintained in this decade? The weakening engagement strategy should be maintained first of all with economic tools, as economic crisis is always the first reason of protests against a regime. The economic embargo is already giving its fruits (Iran economy is expected to shrink almost 9% in 2019/2020 according to World Bank). The second threat to the regime will be the democratic and modernization desire of the youth. And here will be important to support the demonstrations as usual but also to engage with the soft power of Iranian people, their culture and history, showing to the world that Iran is much more than a Theocratic regime. The third threat to the regime will be the imperial overstretching, with regional influence not able to be held anymore with economic shrinking. Imperial overstretch and economic stagnation are a tremendous cocktail against the survival of a regime, as Roman empire learned almost two millennia ago and Soviet Union more recently. And the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni wars, together with Hezbollah support in Lebanon, already made Iran starting to suffer from the regional engagement, making the Quds Forces on the first line of efforts. The final important thing for this strategy to work is to continue with the escalation, to make Iranian regime weaker and weaker.

So, what will be the main drivers of escalation for Iranian foreign security policy in this decade with the US? The first will the efficacy of the US maximum pressure campaign/weakening engagement strategy itself. If there is high level efficacy Iran will have to follow up with more escalation. Then there are the political factors in Iran, which are based on religious ideology, military strategy and elites’ power. If Iranian hawks will remain in power, then the escalation will continue (Iran will have also crucial parliamentary elections in February that will affect all this) creating more division in the internal power struggle with elites. Finally, is important to see the Iranian regional gains: if Iran perceives that is gaining in the region that will make escalate more. But the end of the day a proxy militia is an “active resistance” militia for Iran, so ideology is the real final driver for Iran.

In the meantime that the weakening engagement works, it is fundamental to maintain the alliance with US traditional allies in the region, obviously the Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, which represent Washington’s comparative advantage towards Iran who has no allies, apart a strategic relationships with Russia (but not and ideological alliance based on values and historical bonds). The most important US relationship to make the strategy work is the one with Israel. The relationship with Iran is strictly connected to the existence of Israel and to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as Iran consider Israel the main enemy, illegitimate occupier of Palestinian land that will have to disappear. The irony is that with this stance the Ayatollah declares their own end, as there cannot be coexistence between Iranian Ayatollah regime and Israel, and obviously Israel will never disappear from the maps. Today Trump will reveal its Middle East plan, even if we know already that Palestinian Authority will not accept it as a Palestinian PM already said that Trump plan will “finish off Palestinian cause”. Kushner last year presented the economic part of the plan, with 50bn$ investment to drastically improve the Palestinian economy, but the political plan doesn’t satisfy Palestinians, nor the Iranians, as it doesn’t support the two-state solution.

Iran prefers to avoid a major war, that’s why it maintains unconventional forces and proxies, instead of engaging in a total war with stronger powers, as Iran never won a war, and a war with US and Israel would obviously be the end of Iranian regime. But in the long run with the weakening engagement proxy wars will not be enough to maintain Iranian sphere of influence in the Shia Crescent. And even if Iran will not do the first strike, with increased assassinations (the first one will be probably the new chief of Quds Forces as US envoy recently said), clandestine operations, cyber warfare, unmanned vehicles attacks, etc. a major military engagement could be forced during the decade. The issue is to see if this will be accepted by a hungered and angry population. That will be the moment of truth of the Iranian regime. If not, the internal “rift” that will be created by the weakening engagement will do.

[1] Similar to the Reagan “constructive engagement” for South Africa

For a West Asia future integration: regional powers strategy and European support

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The human suffering caused by proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya will be probably remembered as the biggest failure of the international community to defend civilians in civil wars, worst than the Balkans or Rwanda at the end of 20th century. But sooner or later also these wars will have to end, like it happened in the past long wars of Europe, with peace negotiations among major regional powers, local factions and international community. And it is in time of despair that we need stronger and longer visions: the Middle East (or better West Asia, as West Asia is a European construction) will not be the same anymore, the post-Ottoman order have arrived to an end after one century, and a new regional order has to rise.

The regional powers will have to think strategically on how to build a new regional order based not on an unstable balance of power but on a gradual future integration. The powers with vocation of global actors, in particular Turkey and Iran, will have to understand that only together will be able to play a role in the future complex world. As it has been for Europe last century, also West Asia, if it wants to abandon the past of violence and underdevelopment, will need some type of grand bargain among the regional powers. An economic, political but also security integration, like it has been for the CEE and NATO, as development and security go hand in hand.

Therefore the question that rise for the future of West Asia in comparison to the European past is: could Iran be what Germany has been for Europe, a strong engine, Turkey what France has been, a democratic light, and Saudi Arabia what Italy has been, an understanding bridge? And could the EU help to facilitate this process like the US did in Europe with the Marshall Plan and NATO? Comparison are always a risk, as every region and history is different, but lesson learned, principles and best practices can be adapted to new times and different spaces. Especially if we look at long term trends in this decade of 2020s.

Iran was back in the international community since the nuclear deal was signed, but it is now in a much different situation. Nevertheless, it will always have the potential to become the economic cornerstone of a future “West Asian Economic Community”, at least when the Ayatollah regime will disappear, or will be radically transformed to accept the existence of Israel and the presence of US military bases in West Asia. Turkey neither is today in a cooperative attitude, with its desire to cast its influence in the Levant and the Mediterranean. But Turkey, besides being the connector between Europe and the West Asia, has the potential to be the “light on the hill” for the region, with its history of multiculturalism in the Ottoman times and democratic growth in the Republican ones. Turkey represented the most trusted country in the West Asia for long time: the country to who the Muslim world would look up to.  Governments and regimes pass but countries’ history and identity remain, so Turkey will have to rediscover the good elements of both the Ottoman times, with its history of cohabitation, and the good ones of its Republican history, with its roots in secular democracy. It will have to make a great bargain not only with the Shia power but also with the Arab world, from where the revolution against the Ottoman empire came. Finally, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries sooner or later will have to see that their role is the bridge between the Maghreb and the Southwest Asia: the region to which they belong historically, geographically and ontologically is the space between the Levant, the North Africa and the Indian Ocean. And they are the custody of the Muslim holy cities, so they can be humble enough to understand the different perspectives of the other Muslim brothers and sisters. It is there that they have to find a new Renaissance with a new approach between religion and politics, instead of keep trying to fight an impossible battle with the Shia crescent, either in the Levant or in the Arabic Peninsula. Egypt, like the other North African countries, being Muslim Arabs and so similar for religion and ethnicity to the Arab part of West Asia, could support Saudi Arabia but from an external point, as all North Africa is part of Africa and should re-learn the pan-Africanism that will be important for the future greater integration of African Union.

Another similarity with European history is that Iran and Saudi Arabia sectarian division is not so different from the Catholic-Protestant division in Europe, which started with a 30 years religious war and ended centuries after with two world wars, before France and Germany finally agreed to integrate in an economic union. A similar religious war is actually happening with proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, supported by their global partners, but to avoid a major armed conflict, regional powers in West Asia will have to be enough visionary to understand that they can have more benefit if they collaborate than if they compete, in particular in globalized times. If Iran, S. Arabia and Turkey will understand that cooperating with each other for economic development and mutual security will be more beneficial than competing for sphere of influences, as Germany, Italy and France finally understood, this will create the leadership that the West Asia desperately need since at least one century. And most importantly, the Muslim world will have the leadership needed to live in peace with Jews and Christians, recreating that harmony of faiths that recognize Abraham as their first prophet.

All this is a long process, but long paths have to start somewhere and like the Treaty of Rome followed the Ventotene Manifesto on Europe, also the West Asia needs some new “Manifesto”. The intellectual and political figures of West Asia need to come out with a visionary role that may take the lead to trace the road. The Islamic intelligentsia should start to reflect and talk about the future regional order, and international organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should play a role in this too. Concepts like the Islamic banking and finance, based on similar political or economic values, could be an important starting point to make the regional powers see that they share more than what they differ.

The integration of West Asia cannot happen though without also the inclusion of Israel. Israel is the compass of the region, it is the only state with a stable democracy in West Asia, even if with its flaws in the discrimination towards Arab citizens and the Palestinian state (actually like US has been for centuries: a new great democracy in the world, but not towards the Indians and the black slaves). Therefore there will not be integration of the West Asia without inclusiveness of Israel and with that process Israel will finally get the legitimacy to be recognized as a partner by the leaders of the West Asian Muslim world but will have to democratize for all its citizens, including Arabs, not having second class ones.

This task will not be possible without some external supporters, to facilitate the diplomatic efforts and the security environment needed for an economic and political integration (like the US has been for Europe with NATO). This can be done if external powers enter in the scene as mediators and guarantors, not as invader like in the past, and the first of this actor should be the EU. The EU could do for the future “West Asian Union” what the US did for the birth of the EU, including security and economic support. This could represent an occasion also for the EU to recover from the economic, social and cultural crisis that is living right now. But the EU should first of all change its foreign policy towards the region and start using a “constructive engagement”. “Constructive engagement” was a term used by the Reagan administration during the 1990s, as an alternative to the economic sanctions to South Africa during Apartheid. A constructive engagement could be possible also in the West Asia, using incentives as a means of encouraging diplomatic tools and regional integration. The demonstration that this strategy can work is the fact that the US and the EU were able to arrive to a deal with Iran after a long “cold war”, and at the same time didn’t lose the alliance with their main allies in the region. This therefore is the time in which the Western powers can amend from the past actions in the West Asia and to paraphrase the famous book of David Fromkin, help to build a real “peace to end all wars.”

Diplomacy requires time and patience, and ability to find a balance among the parts. It is not an easy game but is needed to extend the “shadow of the future”, to think about the long term in order to open prospective for convergence. It seems a far stretch right now to think about a West Asian integration but the European Coal and Steel Community also seemed impossible during the worst times and it started only in the 1957 in order, as Schuman said, “to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”. The same could happen in the ME in the long run, putting in common the energy resources, and the regional powers will have to take the lead during this century. And better sooner than later, first for the people of the West Asia, that are always the victims, and second for all humankind, that will need to solve quickly these ancient tribal problems, before to think to its own survival with global solutions for global threats of climate change, nuclear war and technology disruption, as the famous scholar Harari argues.

It is in time of suffering that we need clear strategies and long visions. It is in time of war that we need political will and new ideas. It is in times of chaos that we need the realism of the mind and the optimism of the heart.

 

The opportunities with the end of the World Liberal Order and Pax Americana

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Richard Haas in a recent article argued that the US retreat and the consequent end of the, Western built, Liberal World Order will make a world “that is less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful, for Americans and others alike”. This short article wants to challenge this conclusion, to say that it could, but it could also represent the opposite: it is a question of perspectives. To argue so we need to challenge its definition of “World Liberal Order”.

First of all, it was a “world” order as it was dominated by the Bipolarism and then by the Unipolar moment of the US, but both of this orders ended (the first for the collapse of one of the two empires and the second for the retreat of the one left, given the unsustainability of “imperial overstretching” for both). But in reality, the order had been created by the winner of WWII, UK and US, and it was led by the West (in primis US that is why many refers to it as “Pax Americana”) while today could become really more “worldly” because of multipolarism. Many countries around the world want to have their say today and it is their right, now that the “Rest” is catching up with the “West”. The “Easternization of power”, to say it with a recent book of Gideon Rachman, shows that the balance of military, political and economic power has shifted far away from the West to Asia and this has to be taken into account by the West. Not only China and India but emerging powers with primacy in their regions desire to become the stakeholders of future regional structures, from Turkey and Iran in the Middle East, to Indonesia and the Philippines in South East Asia, to Brazil and Andean countries in South America. Regional orders are becoming more and more important with economic integration and the so called “collective security communities”, the first and oldest one being NATO, that after ending its expansion is concentrating now on defense of its borders. But there are other collective security communities in formation, first of all the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with China and Russia leading it, the Association of South East Asian Nations, with Indonesia and Thailand at the center of the ring, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, with India and Pakistan, the Organization of America States, with Mexico and Brazil as top player. The other two regions, Africa and Middle East, must resolve their internal domestic problems, before to think about a grand bargain among the regional powers. This shift from world orders to regional ones will save the preponderant power, still the US, from the risk of “imperial overstretching” of the hegemon, even if there is always the risk of the lack of order with the lack of hegemony (see the Hegemonic Stability Theory).

Second it was “liberal” as it was based on liberal values of free market and democracy, but the beneficiary of this system were especially the political and economic elites, not so much the billions of people that still struggle to achieve their human security needs around the world. This liberal order based more and more, with the time, on extreme forms of neoliberalism, liberism, and crony-capitalism, was the reason that created the enormous inequality of today, that has not end in its raising. And to end such type of liberal order could mean to limit the top-down liberalism imposed on people for the interest of the banks and great corporations, to create a more “inclusive liberalism” at grassroots level, with more inclusion for people, especially of lower classes, ethnic minorities, or discriminated people because of gender, age or different abilities. Nevertheless first, this can be done only if we pass in the West from “representative democracy” systems, often corrupted and representing the interests of the few, to a more “participatory democracy”, similarly to the ancient direct democracy, now that we have the technological tools that can help us to do that. We can look at the new “Five Stars Movement” (5SM) in Italy, that always represented a country that anticipates the trends for the Western world, being the creator of that Western civilization, from the Republic in Rome two millennia and half ago, to the Renaissance in Florence five centuries ago, to Berlusconi that arrived to power almost 25 years before Trump. This movement, born online, is the first party in Italy, and is foreseen that will govern soon the country. Its first policies will try to reduce inequality, cutting high incomes of politicians and introducing a citizen’s basic income, and to reduce the corruption of representative democracy, cutting public funding, forbidding convicted representatives to be in Parliament and limiting the mandates of lawmakers to a maximum of ten years. This is how populism could be used in a good way in other democracies too, at least provided that people can vote with the head on their shoulders, and not with the guts and the fake news of today. The problem though is that the end of political ideologies gave people insecurity on how to choose the vote and so before to give the power of “direct/participatory democracy” to the people, if we want to avoid manipulation and possibility of going back to tyrannies we need to do a formation of the people, teaching in the schools political literacy and civic education for example, and before to vote the citizens should be informed on programs more than on Facebook likes (Trump docet). The US will learn from past errors and the lobby system as well as the informational wars are things that America will be able to deal with in the short future.

Finally it was an “order” as no major conflict among great powers erupted, but it was not an order for external smaller powers, from the hot long battled in South East Asia and East Asia to the violence inside many countries, full of intra-state conflicts, with minorities repressed and securitized and dictatorial regimes supported by the West destroying their people and arriving at genocide attempts while the great powers tried to not look (from Balkans and Rwanda, to Myanmar and Syria today). The end of this “international order” therefore, could facilitate more order inside the countries, if external powers stop to meddle in other’s sovereignty and start to support actions that address the root causes of internal conflicts, fist of all economic causes, followed by political and social ones. Great power rivalry also, doesn’t exclude the support in the long term to the smaller powers, on the contrary can make competition for soft power of attraction, more that for hard power of sphere of influence, positive for the countries assisted. This is how nationalism and retreat to our own borders, today, could be used in good way: not for invasion and meddling but for respecting the dignity of any state. Great powers could deter one another while cooperating to solve global security, environmental and economic problems, that are the most urgent problems we have as humankind, from international terrorism to illicit trafficking, from climate change to epidemics, from stagnation to still presence of strong poverty. And again here the leadership of the US could be crucial, at the end of the day administrations pass but country’s values and missions remain.

Therefore, as we can see if we want to understand the advantage of living in an era of transformation, we can help to build more “Inclusive Regional Orders” with the lesson learned from the past. We don’t need to throw the baby with the bathwater, many elements of the old World Liberal Order can and should be maintained but also improved, first of all the leadership of someone that take into account the needs of all the rest, like the US could and should do in the future as it did in the past. It will be a long gestation, but we owe it to our future generations, that will hopefully live in peace one day on this planet.

A Middle Eastern possible integration in the post-Syrian and Iraqi wars?

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The catastrophic human suffering in Syria and Iraq, with more than six million refugees only from Syria, will be remembered as one of the biggest failure of the international community to defend civilians, since the Balkans and Rwanda more than twenty years ago. Even if territorial ISIS has just been defeated and the Iraqi Kurdistan is bidding on its independence we don’t know when the Syrian and Iraqi internal conflicts will finally end. But when they will that area will not be the same. And the entire region of Middle East (or more precisely South West Asia, as cardinal directions on a globe are relative) could not be the same if this time the regional powers, and not the world ones, will decide to build a new process for a regional integration.

Since 9/11, the US and his allies’ intervention in Iraq, that facilitated the birth of ISIS, and in Afghanistan, that didn’t stop the Salafi terrorism, and later the non-direct-proxy intervention of many world and regional powers in Syria, that created the humanitarian catastrophe, the Middle East and specifically the Arab world has been in disarray (adding also the failure of the Arab Spring). There is no comparison between the situation of today and the one of the second half of 20th century, when stable countries and strong leaders (like Nasser in Egypt) could give some form of stability to the region. The US President Donald Trump declared since the beginning of its mandate that he will “fix the mess he inherited” but even if some analysts at the beginning thought that he “will design a new Middle East” it is clear now that he has a flawed Middle East policy with no real plan for Syria or Iraq after Isis is defeated. Actually, he needs to concentrate on East Asia mostly, putting in practice the pivot that Obama already declared. But this is not a bad thing, at the end of the day, as there is no design or fixing of the Middle East with external interventions, we saw that repeatedly since at least one century, since the end of the Ottoman Empire, and probably even before since the Napoleon campaign in Ottoman Egypt and Syria: only regional empires really created stability in the past and only regional powers will create it in the future.

The leaders of Middle East are today facing a fundamental decision: to choose between the old-style balance of power, with the consequent instability when the balance becomes unbalanced, or a gradual future regional integration. The second choice is the only one that could guarantee some stability for the region, as Europe showed in the last 70 years after centuries of conflict because of balance of powers’ failures. Would this be possible also for the Middle East or is this just a utopian and naïf idea? Political will for transformational changes is never an easy thing, in particular in a region like this one, but also for Europe during WWII it seemed impossible to arrive to what we arrived today. After the destructions of the Syrian and Iraqi wars a long political vision has to come from the region, not from outside, and it is never too early to start to plan, at least if we have constantly in mind the civilian victims that suffer in the region every single day. But how to think about such a visionary plan?

To bet on a future economic and political integration in a region like Middle East the local powers will need not only to negotiate political settlements after stopping the fight but to reach a compromise on regional institutions to foster cooperation. This is the grand bargain that the regional powers need to achieve. To do this the regional countries with vocation of global actors, first of all Turkey and Iran, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will have to understand that together they will be able to play a stronger role in the future complex and globalized world. As it has been for Europe last century, also the Middle East, if it wants to definitely abandon the past of violence and underdevelopment, will have to search for a gradual integration: an economic, political and also security integration, like it has been for the CEE and NATO, as development and security go hand in hand.

But the question that rise for Middle Eastern future in comparison to the European past is: could the regional powers of the area have the vision and determination of their European counterparts? And specifically could Iran learn to be what Germany (until 1990 only the West part) has been for Europe, the engine, Turkey what France has been, the torch, and Saudi Arabia what Italy has been, the bridge? Comparison are always a risk, as every region is by itself, and there are never models to apply, but lesson learned and best practices can be useful, if adapted to new times and different spaces. And we need to look at longer terms, all this century more than the next few years of decade (as China does at economic level with the new Silk Road initiative). Because longer time spans allow us to really see the long trends for the future, and try to impact them, more than to identify countries with their current leaders or administrations. So, let’s see one by one these regional leaders.

Iran is back in the international community since the nuclear deal was signed and it has all the potential to become the economic cornerstone of a future “Middle Eastern Economic Community”. It should nevertheless understand that its role is not the one of regional hegemony, either economically or ideologically, but the one of a shared leadership. Iran should work for Shia minorities in the future Middle East to be included in new democratic and inclusive governments, and not attempt to weaken the domestic politics of these governments to destabilize them and enter as a regional leader. This is something that the Ayatollah regime may not be ready to do it now, but regimes, as everything in human societies, are not eternals. So, let’s see what will be the future for Iranian democracy, as it is one of the countries that experienced the earlier democratic development in the Middle East, one century ago with the Persian Constitutional Revolution, unfortunately put down by the Russians.

Turkey today is not in a good situation, struggling between its internal democratic regression, the forgotten European membership and the external and internal threats of terrorism. But Turkey, besides being the connector between the EU and the Middle East, has the potential also to be the “light on the hill” for the Middle East, with its history of multiculturalism in the Ottoman times and democratic values in the Republican ones, and even earlier at the same time of the Iranian democratic development with the Young Turk revolution in 1908. Turkey represents one of the most trusted countries in all the Muslim world (that we don’t have to forget live mostly in Asia) and if it will rediscover the good elements of both the Ottoman times, with its history of cohabitation, and the Republican history, with roots in secular democracy, could become one of the political leaders of the future regional integration.

Finally Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. The Arabic Peninsula represents the bridge between the Maghreb and the Southwest Asia: like Turkey also Saudi Arabia controls two seas that separate her from these areas, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. The region to which the Arabic peninsula belong historically, geographically and ontologically is a bridging space between the Levant, the North Africa and the Indian Ocean. It is therefore with their Arab brothers that they must find a new Renaissance, starting with a more united and expanded GCC, after the conflict with Qatar will be solved, and following with a renovated Arab League. Will Al Saud family be able to do it when old king Salman will die, and the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will become the new King? Will Al Saud family, with gradual reforms towards a more democratic monarchy, be able to represent a more enlightened Arab leadership that Gaddafi, Saddam, Hafez al-Assad and others could not do? Future will say but unfortunately it seems that Mohammed bin Salman wants to escalate the cold war with Iran and might risk a hot battle with unimaginable consequences.  The problem is that Al Saud family, even if will be able to reinforce its power with the recent purges of bin Salman, will not be able to lead the country eternally as its own property. And mostly the Al Saud family needs a new approach to the relationship between religion and politics, as this will help to facilitate in the long future a Shia-Sunni rapprochement, instead of keep trying to fight an impossible battle with the millenary Shia communities in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia sectarian division at the end of the day is not so different from the Catholic-Protestant division we had in Europe for centuries, before France and Germany finally agreed to integrate in an economic union, even if after two world wars. If Europe could do it Middle East can do it. Hopefully avoiding a similar bloodbath.

So, to avoid a major armed conflict, or keep going with proxy local wars, regional powers in Middle East will have to be enough visionary to understand that they can have more benefit if they collaborate than if they compete, especially in the future globalized times. If Iran, S. Arabia and Turkey will understand that supporting each other for economic development and security will be more beneficial than competing for sphere of influences, as Germany, Italy and France did after two world wars, this will create the leadership that the Middle East desperately need since at least one century. And most importantly, the Muslim world will have the leadership needed to live in peace with Jews and Christian, creating for the first time on that land a religious harmony of faiths that recognize Abraham as their common prophet. Actually, the integration of the Middle East cannot happen without also the participation of Israel. Israel could represents the compass of the region, as it is the state that can share a history of stable democracy in the Middle East and is the country that can bring the concept of inclusion of diversity in the new regional order. There will not be integration of the Middle East without the inclusion of Israel, and this means also a stable peace process between Israel and Palestine, and with that process Israel will finally get the legitimacy to be recognized and respected as a partner by the leaders of the Middle Eastern Muslim world.

 

But what are the concrete steps with short-term goals that the regional powers should take to start a similar integration? First of all, like the Treaty of Rome followed the Ventotene Manifesto on Europe, also the Middle East will need some type of “Manifesto” to mark the road and explain the necessity of such future. The intellectual and political figures of the Middle East need to come out and take the lead to trace the road. The Islamic intelligentsia for example should start to debate about the future regional order, and international organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation could play a role in this. Concepts like the Islamic banking and finance, based on specific political or economic values, could be an important starting point to make the regional powers see that they share more than what they differ. Secondly, conferences on economic and security cooperation should be held. These conferences could address the preliminary steps for a common market and common resources (first oil and gas) as it is through economy that the interest of cooperation comes out first. Then security conferences could be done, on the example of the Helsinki Conference in the 1970s, that created the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in order to accompany the birth of an “Organization for security and cooperation in Middle East”. International preparatory conferences will not be easy as these countries meet among many others at the UN or G20 but never met for such process of integration, so they will need a political leadership with enough vision and boldness to propose these actions. But the task will not be possible without some external supporters, to facilitate the diplomatic efforts for an economic and political integration (like the US has been for Europe). So the third element could be the support of external powers as mediators and guarantors and the first of these powers could be the European Union (EU). As the EU helped the US and Russia to come to an agreement with Iran, it could also help in future the Middle Eastern regional powers to take the lead for a regional integration. The EU could give to a Middle Eastern integration process what the US gave for the birth of the EU, which is economic and political support. This would represent an occasion also for the EU in the next decades to recover from its economic, political and cultural crisis that is living now. The EU seems the most legitimate and balanced international actor to take such role, as the US and Russia would keep fighting for sphere of influences and this would not help the future integration. For the same reason security should be kept in the hands of regional powers, as if external actors like NATO for example would enter in the protection of local partners this could create frictions between again the two world superpowers. This doesn’t meant that partnerships and dialogues like the NATO Mediterranean dialogue with Maghreb and NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with Gulf countries should not continue though.

Diplomacy requires time and patience, and ability to find a balance among the parts. It is not an easy game and as the recent US rapprochement with Cuba and Iran demonstrates, and it has to be constantly nurtured, as the more recent Trump hostile actions show. So the international community and the regional powers need to extend the “shadow of the future”, think about longer terms in order to open prospective for convergence of interests and cooperation. It seems a far stretch right now to think about a Middle Eastern integration but the European Economic Community also seemed impossible in the past but it born with the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago, in order, as Schuman had said, “to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible” in the future in Europe. The same could happen in the ME in the long run and the regional powers, supported by the EU, will have to take the lead during this century if they want an enduring stability with a regional order.

It is in time of chaos that we need clear ideas and long visions, it is in time of war that we need strong political will, and it is in time of major human sufferings that we need to search for long term solutions. We owe it first to the people of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and all the other areas of Middle East in constant suffering.

 

Ethno-nationalism on the march. Next stop Europe?

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The referendums of Lombardia-Veneto in Italy and moreover Catalonia in Spain (with voices of new referendums in the UK), on the wave of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, show that nation states are in a transition phase in Europe. The nation state, born four hundreds years ago and reinforced through the centuries, traditionally based on a very centralized state and an homogeneous nation, is changing skin, being eroded from above and from below. And the citizens of these nation states, at least in the so called “West” part of the world, seems to want to change their national identity skin, and in the process trying to rewrite the social contract with a new self-determination wave.

The European cases are different obviously from Kurdish one, as in Europe there are democracies, there has been no decolonization or genocide attempt against these minorities and autonomies are already strong, both in federated states like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Belgium, but even in non-federations such as Spain, United Kingdom, or Italy (with regional assemblies for special regions) that can be defined as “asymmetric federalism.” But new nationalism, based on ethnicity as in the Catalan case, are on the rise as reaction to globalization, migrations and new identities, and politicians are using that narrative together with populist attitudes to capitalize political power.

But changing borders is not a game and can end up with fatal consequences. The are several separatist movements in Europe and beyond. If all of them seek independence that would create a big mess in world politics in terms of humanitarian consequences and economic costs. An independent Catalonia for example could shake the foundations of the European Union. Should Sicily and Lombardia seek independence after that? If we witness an increasing of ethno-nationalist wave, we will have serious problems in the European integration, even if we will not go back to the Europe of fifteenth century.

The self-determination is the right of the people to determine their own political status without external interference but is becoming more and more a complex and delicate issue. Self-determination is mentioned only two times in the United Nations charter, in the context of developing “friendly relations among states” and “equal rights.” Even if during the 1960s it was interpreted as the right of colonies to become independent, distinct ethnic groups within colonies did not have a right to separate. Since the 1990s—under international law—this right is tangled with human rights and democratic norms. And today it is not free from political manipulation, with interests that go beyond the “autonomization” of nations, ethnic groups or cultures, as we saw with recent referenda.

Many compare the case of Kosovo with Catalonia. Kosovo is the newest European state to have gained independence, but the country did not just decide to secede for no reason. Independence was essential for the survival of its people who were being ethnically cleansed, persecuted, and tortured for decades. Kosovo and Kurdistan are much more comparable cases, even if Kosovo is a sui generis case: the only time when the West initiated a military humanitarian intervention to prevent another Srebrenica. This is not to say that Catalans or Venetians do not deserve more autonomy or even independence in the future. The argument though is that the world is evolving and so is the understanding of self-determination.

Nation states are not eternal. But monoethnic nation states are not the solution. Few countries in the world are ethnically homogenous and will be less and less in the future. Pluralistic nation states, with federations, autonomies, decentralization, and even cities included in the participation to the national “public affairs”, the Res-publica, are more successful, democratic, and stable. Independence and secession should be the extrema ratio for self-determination of the people. The normal process should be the negotiations, the eternal “market of points of view” that would allow to respond to the needs of all parts in a consensual decision making.

Real democracy, substantive, meaningful and liberal democracy means power “from by and to” the people, and so inclusiveness of all parts of society. Level of inclusion, through “autonomization” of regions that feel repressed and people that feel not recognized should be the criteria to measure democracies. This for both authoctonous and new minorities. Immigrants arriving to a new country should be granted if not citizenship at least the status of refugee, and their children given the jus solis principle of citizenship based on birth.

But we need to take care of political strumentalization in the process. Referendum can be a great instrument of democracy (like the ones asking on civil rights) but also a great instrument of manipulation. We have seen them used as power tool in many countries, from Venezuela to Ukraine, from Turkey to Europe today.  Constitutions are still the main social contract that state must abide to. If new sensibilities and social change require to change Constitutions that must be done with negotiations.

The world, and states in particular that don’t represent their diversity, because of their history of conquer, nationalist institutions and politics of repression, from Middle East to Africa to Europe, are in great distress. But we need to take care that this process doesn’t become a tragedy for the people, manipulated by political forces. The real solution is dialogue. Spanish and Catalan representatives, as well as Italians and Venetians or British and Scottish, should negotiate and reach a compromise, probably a federalized state structure, for the satisfactions of all the parts and the continuation of the important European integration that is under stress from above and from below.

Visar Xhambazi and Maurizio Geri