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.