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.