‘Frustration’ in the Middle East

‘Frustration’ in the Middle East

Abdullah Gül
Your excellency, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to participate in the Halifax International Security Forum, which I have followed with great interest over the last five years.

I started my active political career in 1991, which overlapped with the First Gulf War and the Middle East Peace Conference held in Madrid right after that. The leaders of the time were very much aware of the complex links and indirect interaction between the Palestine problem, the nerve center of the region, and other problems in the Middle East. These links are unfortunately still there.

Since that day I have witnessed many initiatives, plans, projects and contacts launched in order to resolve various conflicts in the Middle East.

I personally contributed to some of these processes as a Member of Parliament, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and finally President of the Republic. There were cases where I took personal initiatives.
Indeed, the international community spent an immense amount of energy to create permanent peace, stability and cooperation in the Middle East. It made political investments and mobilized intellectual and financial resources.

In this context, I would like to express my appreciation for the sincere and unfaltering efforts of the U.S. administrations from both parties, including President Barack Obama, Foreign Secretary John Kerry, Senator John McCain, Senator George Mitchell and other politicians and diplomats.

To this, I should also add Saudi King Abdullah, who submitted an invaluable plan known by his own name, other actors in the region, as well as efforts by the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

But unfortunately, the efforts spanning the quarter of a century since the Madrid conference have not yielded the desired results. The modest progress achieved was sometimes sabotaged or remained insufficient.

Moreover, thousands of innocent people both in the region and outside have fallen victim to violence or terror originating from the Middle East. Survivors have fostered feelings of spite, hatred and revenge. The tragedy experienced by the people of Gaza last summer, the atrocious murders of ISIS, and the victims at the synagogue in Jerusalem last week are the most recent examples. The despicable terrorist acts that took place in Canada last month, thousands of kilometers away from the region, were also a recent example of just how contagious violence can be.

Today, we stand at a point where the situation has become graver. While Saddam Hussein was the only threat in 1991, the threats have multiplied, creating a cumulative effect. In 1991, President Bush and President Gorbachev held the Madrid peace conference jointly. But today, the U.S. and Russia are no longer able to function together in the Middle East due to the distracting effect of the conflicts in Ukraine.

Following the First Gulf War, U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 stipulating the disarmament of Iraq became operational. Let me remind you that this resolution also included a perspective and a provision on freeing the region of weapons of mass destruction. This provision, which secured Arab support during the Cold War, still stands as a promise that is far from being fulfilled, apart from the conference initiated by President Obama in 2010.

The key term to express the gravity of the situation in the region at present can be “frustration.” This frustration can explain both the reasons and consequences of the conflicts. Indeed, the elites of the region and the international community are deeply disappointed at the failure to solve problems in the Middle East, and particularly in Palestine, as well as the further aggravation of these problems. We should expect such disappointments and frustrations to have consequences, one way or another.
Let me step away from pessimism for a moment and draw some lessons from a few positive signals and trends that I have observed in recent months:

a)    The clearance of chemical weapons from Syria has been a notable development. It has also proven that joint efforts yield results when it comes to the common goal of the international community to free the region from weapons of mass destruction.

b)    Another step further in the same field, but perhaps more importantly, is the expectation that talks on Iran’s nuclear program may bear positive results. If this happens, it will be a great victory of multilateral mechanisms and win-win diplomacy. I am pleased to note that I was involved in various phases of this process as Foreign Minister or President, either during visits to Teheran or hosting contacts in Turkey. I am the only NATO alliance leader who spoke about these issues directly with the religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.

c)    If the Iran nuclear talks reach success, this will have strategic, political and economic consequences both in the region and the world. So, all parties should act carefully and cautiously in the post-solution era. A solution to the nuclear file may create a difference by leading Iran to be more motivated about the resolution of political problems in the region, and to opt to use its soft power henceforth.

d)    Another important but belated development is the establishment of a more inclusive Iraqi government with a broader base. This is has been enabled by the common sense and coordinated efforts of actors in and outside of Iraq. This has reminded me of the meetings between the foreign ministers of countries neighboring Iraq, which I launched during my time as prime minister in 2003 during the Second Gulf War. Both before and after the war, we managed to hold nine senior-level meetings with the P-5 and regional organizations as countries bordering Iraq around a common agenda, and carried out deliberations and coordinated activities. Therefore, I believe that the new Iraqi government should be encouraged and supported with a similar understanding.

e)    Positive signs regarding the resolution of disagreements between the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government about the political issues and financial problems in connection with oil revenues are further worthy of mention. The dropping of the possibility of a referendum on independence from the agenda in the Kurdish region, for the moment, is also good news for stability in Iraq and the region.

f)    Another major step forward is the coalition formed against ISIS. The first positive military outcomes in the field have already been observed. However, “hard power” alone will not be a solution. The ultimate solution lies in patient and inclusive political solutions that will help convince the local people and leaders in Syria and Iraq who have been lured to enter the dictate of ISIS because of despair, frustration and lack of hope. Political transition and exit strategies must be considered, and mistakes once committed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria should not be repeated. Possible solutions should take the political and socio-economic imbalances of states into account and must be morally superior. This is because ISIS is a phenomenon in which all diseases of the region, including political, ideological, economic and social ones, have crystallized. 

g)    Another interesting trend in the region is the decision by some European countries, parties and parliaments to recognize the state of Palestine. This trend reflects a serious disappointment about the deadlock regarding a possible solution in Palestine. I hope that this trend will contribute to the efforts of the parties in Israel and Palestine to defend a peaceful settlement and encourage them. When I was elected the President of the Republic in 2007, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres came to Ankara to congratulate me and jointly addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly. That atmosphere can and must be reinstated for a permanent solution. It is in everybody’s interest that the Israeli government acts with restraint regarding its policies on settlements and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

h)    I would also like to touch upon the Arab Spring. The bad news is that the first wave of the Arab Spring has been disrupted, except in Tunisia. The good news, on the other hand, is that the expectations, yearnings and concerns of the Arab peoples’ are still alive and valid. The demands raised during the Arab Spring for democracy, good governance, human rights, transparency, gender equality, social justice and freedom of thought will continue to lead the agenda. This is just like the ideals and principles of the 1789 French Revolution, which were only realized in France and the world decades after the revolution, despite the fact that the revolution had been reversed by the restoration of monarchy.

i)    Likewise, there is a vision in the region regarding the setting up of a cooperation and security system similar to that of the Organization for Security and Development in Europe (OSCE). This is a vision that has been around since the 1980s and has been worked out intellectually. This vision must be kept alive and remain a part of the agenda, despite the current unfavorable conditions. Such a long-term strategy will provide a perspective and an anchor for efforts geared towards the solution of other problems. This strategy will also require a very strong economic cooperation dimension that encompasses energy and water issues.

The positive developments I have referred to above include some possibilities, lessons and clues. I believe that we can make a difference if all of these are tackled by political actors within a holistic and strategic approach, with a constructive mentality and on common ground. This will serve peace and stability, not only for the people of the Middle East, but also for the whole world.

*From Turkey’s 11th President Abdullah Gül’s speech at the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 22.