The Era of Global Paradoxes: Aspects of the New Threats in the Middle East
The state of world affairs over the past decade has been characterized by complexities that defy easy analysis and prognostication. Global developments experienced during the previous year have only added to existing difficulties-particularly in terms of guidance and progress.
In fact, it is a cause of concern to see even the most experienced statesmen and intellectuals fall into a state of despair. We face a novel set of circumstances driven by the fact that, despite the economic interdependence produced by globalization, the scope and scale of politico-ideological conflicts and fragmentation has grown.
I would like to confine myself to pointing out a few of the most significant paradoxes, in order to draw attention to the increasing complexity of the situation. While the dramatic decline in oil prices pleases consumers, its concomitant result—in the shape of stagnation in energy sector investments—has created anxiety. Moreover, the upward trend of the U.S. dollar has caused new fragilities in emerging markets, lowering growth rates, and a downgrading of export capacities.
At the same time-while the political and regulatory outcomes of the global financial crisis have negatively impacted on trends having to do with capital, labor, and the free movement of goods-Ame-rican ambitions to conclude free trade agreements with Europe and Asia could open up new horizons in global trade. Whereas some economies have to cope with deflation, insufficient demand, and excessive austerity measures (especially in Europe), others have suffered from the opposite. The possibility that the Iranian P5+1 nuclear negotiations may produce positive results raises hopes for the lifting of sanctions, whilst encouraging the prospect of expansive opportunities for economic and commercial cooperation. Strangely enough, at the same time as the P5+1 talks entered a more advanced stage, sanctions were imposed on Russia, which is a key partner in these negotiations, due to the crisis in Ukraine.
The situation is not too different in the political sphere: xenophobia, Islamophobia, and antisemitism in Europe have gained a new dimension by linking up organically with the Middle East geography through militants recruited in Europe by Da’esh and al-Qaida. In a period when dialogue between the West and Russia is needed more than ever on issues such as energy, terrorism, and the economy, the crisis in Ukraine poses an obstacle. Gaza, southern Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula, and Nagorno-Karabakh carry increased potential for conflict-in addition to extant ones in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Further to the east, new tensions have emerged between radicals in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities. The problems in the South China Sea have led to disputes between China and its neighbors, causing worries in places as far away as Washington.
Although the African continent is expected to capitalize on its great potential, the increase in ethno-fanatic violence has now linked with traditional problems like poverty and epidemics.
We observe that some new and unfavorable tendencies have also appeared at the level of ideas across the world. For instance, it was a common belief until very recently that market economies could function successfully only under the conditions of pluralist liberal democracy. However, contrary to this conviction, a new mindset advocating an authoritarian type of capitalism has been spreading recently.
Such pessimistic and despairing descriptions are also seen very frequently in think tanks, newspaper columns, parliaments, and public arenas all over the world.
When we take a look at the history of humanity, we can discern periods of increased interdependence, economic and cultural exchange, and communication between nations similar to the globalization of today—sometimes giving way to political, economic, and cultural disasters—even wars—in unexpected and paradoxical ways.
The most recent example was World War I, which suddenly broke out when a dynamic economic, cultural, and scientific period of development was in ascendancy in Europe. A plethora of new studies and conferences that coincided with the centenary of its outbreak were quite useful in terms of analyzing this particular paradox.
A similar situation occurred during the Renaissance—which was without doubt an apogee in the history of European civilization. The succeeding sixteenth century saw the outbreak of truly cruel and devastating religious and sectarian wars, together with epidemics such as the plague, which disrupted the momentum created by the Renaissance.
If we go back further in history and examine the ancient Egyptian, Hittite, Babylonian, Trojan or Mycenaean states—each of which established, between 1600 and 1200 BC, interactive civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East similar to contemporary globalization—we can see that they declined through successive waves of various types of disasters, with each nation disappearing in turn. Mysterious invaders known as the “People of the Sea,” whose origins and identities are still unknown, destroyed these countries through atrocious attacks and massacres that exhausted the established nations’ energies and resources. Ultimately, although the “People of the Sea” were pushed out, the destruction they caused, together with other factors, such as earthquakes, droughts, and uprisings, extinguished the successive Bronze Age civilizations.
The Pandora’s Box has Come Open
This is the exact sort of threat that Da’esh and al-Qaida brings to mind, justifying the urgent focus of the international community. Da’esh not only commits murders and massacres at a scale which defy humanity, but also obliterates all traces of civilization in the cities under its occupation—affecting countries as far away from its center of operations as Libya, Nigeria, and Yemen. On the other hand, while Arab countries fight against Da’esh and al-Qaida, the decrease in oil prices negatively affects their capacities to effectively fund the fight against terror. It seems that the Da’esh phenomenon, if not forcefully countered, could provoke unpredictable consequences together with its cumulative
This reminds me of the warnings I conveyed to my counterparts as the then-Prime Minister of Turkey on the eve of the Iraq War at the beginning of 2003. At that time, I repeatedly stated—both publicly and privately—that Iraq was a bellweather for the entire Middle East: a Pandora’s Box that once opened could be closed again only with great difficulty. I urged my interlocutors to be very careful in considering how to conduct the occupation of Iraq, for if this proverbial box were opened carelessly and without foresight, we would come face to face with totally unintended results.
Unfortunately, the Pandora’s Box is wide open today. Terrorism, massacres, and wars have spread across a wide area of Mesopotamia, a geographic area that represents the cradle of numerous civilizations. Its concrete effects are being felt across a wide area stretching from Yemen and Canada to France and Australia.
The sectarian approaches instigated by Da’esh poison relations between the region’s countries, making cooperation virtually impossible. While targeting Shiites, Da’esh and al-Qaida also murder Sunnis of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman origin as well. In fact, Da’esh kills innocent Sunnis who do not cooperate with it more than any other group in its daily scope. Moreover, the aftershocks of its reign of destruction on education and healthcare could span generations for the peoples of Iraq, Libya, and Syria—if not farther afield. It is now even claimed this terrorist organization brought the Ebola epidemic to Iraq and Syria through the recruitment of African militants to its ranks.
However that may be, it is evident that the plight of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons represents not only a great humanitarian tragedy, but that their living conditions now constitute a socio-economic disaster for Iraq, Libya, and Syria, as well as neighboring countries. The cruel actions of Da’esh and al-Qaida towards Muslims, as well as Yazidis, Assyrians, Copts, and foreign hostages, unfairly damage Islam and the position of Muslims around the world.
The ‘Smart Power’ Solution
Hard power’ alone will not be enough to defeat Da’esh. The ultimate resolution of this problem is to persuade local Syrian and Iraqi tribes attracted to or dominated by Da’esh—be it as a result of frustrations, disappointments, or helplessness—to oppose this terror organization. They can only be persuaded to turn away from Da’esh by the offer of credible, resilient, and comprehensive political ‘smart power’ solutions. A political transition and accompanying exit strategies should be thoroughly and thoughtfully contemplated; for the recent mistakes made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria must not be repeated. The solutions that need to be found must take into consideration, in my view, the political and socio-economic sensitivities and imbalances in these countries—and the high moral ground must also be retaken. The reason is simple: Da’esh is a phenomenon that crystalizes all the region’s political, ideological, economic, and social maladies.
The new Iraqi government should completely leave behind the sectarian habits of the Maliki period and implement promised reforms as soon as possible. Sunni politicians in Baghdad could make a difference by reaching out to those under the influence of Da’esh through consistent and credible messages. One of these would be that however attractive tactical accommodation may seem, the triumph of Da’esh would necessarily result in the destruction of the identities and way of life of all communities falling under its saw—whether they be friend or foe. Thus, whatever grievances a tribe or community may have against Baghdad, submission to Da’esh is a recipe for their own destruction. Working to establish a new mainstream in Syria and Iraq, however difficult, needs to be understood as an eminently more attractive proposition.
Intensifying efforts towards finding a durable political solution in Syria is also very important. Unless the power vacuum created by the chaotic environment in the country is filled, proxy wars will inevitably continue on a sectarian and ethnic basis—not just in Syria, but farther afield.
Even if the military coalition established against Da’esh is successful, there does not seem to be a discernible game plan for the aftermath of whatever is understood as constituting victory. No one can assume that military solutions will not bring about new political problems in their wake.
For example, there are news reports claiming that Sunni Arab residents of villages and towns re-captured by the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias, and Kurdish Peshmerga are being forced to flee their homes, and pushed to move to areas controlled by Da’esh. If these are true, the opportunistic and maximalist behaviors based on narrow calculations of military necessity overshadow ongoing collective efforts, and may create
further risks in the time ahead.
It is critical for the future of the region that we not allow ongoing military operations to cause new waves of revanchism—a new Sunni Arab irredentism.
What Can Others Do?
What can other countries do in such a complicated and difficult situation? First of all, it is clear that the Da’esh threat and its side effects inflict damage on the interests and values of all responsible stakeholders in the region and across the world. Therefore, mutual accusations, doubts, and egoistic calculations of interests, should be replaced by efforts to create a sincere and serious synergy with broad horizons.
Remarkable achievements in this regard have been made rece-ntly—and they need to be further encouraged.
For instance, the successive high-level visits from Egypt, Turkey, the United States, and Pakistan to the new Saudi king within a single week in February 2015—and the resulting consultations held on those occasions—were timely steps taken in the right direction. It is of great importance that these steps are expanded and strengthened, and that countries in the region come together around a joint agenda.
Moreover, the evolution of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk into a final settlement putting an end to the conflict in Ukraine will help facilitate the active contribution of Russia in seeking solutions to the myriad problems in Syria and Iraq.
In addition, a successful outcome to the P5+1 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program in the coming months may place the question of anti-Da’esh cooperation with Tehran on more solid ground—surely helping to further counter the threat.
Furthermore, the European Union should not deal with Da’esh (and the problems associated with it) only in terms of its own security, but should instead approach it in such a way as to make a comprehensive contribution to a solution. Europe—and the West more generally—possesses the intellectual and political wherewithal to make this contribution, if changes are made to the currently held narrow point of view. The recent summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. in mid-February 2015 was a positive exercise in this regard. Views asserting that the recruitment of militants in Western countries by Da’esh and its sympathizers is the product of socio-cultural environments in these countries—rather than the success of Da’esh itself—should be taken seriously.
Finally, it is essential to apply strong pressure to ensure that the peace process between Israel and Palestine is resumed, and that it takes a positive course following Israel’s recent elections. It is desirable that all parties support the efforts of the Obama Administration in this direction, for the Palestinian issue continues to carry fundamental importance that may deeply affect the psychology of the region.
Prospects for the Future
Perhaps the only benefit of the Da’esh phenomenon is that it revealed once again the need for a comprehensive framework of cooperation and security in the Middle East. Although it may seem premature—given current circumstances—I believe that if the region’s countries could situate their common struggle against Da’esh and al-Qaida in such a perspective, they would be able to operate within a more consistent and permanent framework.
There should be no doubt that political and military plans need to have a long-term, sustainable socio-economic perspective. This does not appear to be the case at present. I believe that UN agencies, such as UNDP, should already be planning to reverse the socio-economic damage caused by the civil wars in the areas occupied by Da’esh—particularly in Syria and Iraq—and, once carefully thought through, these plans should be made public and promoted.
Keeping alive the goals of the Arab Spring for all the peoples in the region, whilst encouraging relatively stable countries to continue their good governance efforts—as well as paying due diligence to protecting and raising democratic standards—are critically important in terms of inspiring the people of the region for the future. Against the dark dystopias of organizations such as al-Qaida and the Da’esh, Muslims should present enlightened and workable models of governance based on the true Islamic values—particularly those concerning justice and mercy—and take serious and practical steps to implement them sincerely. I believe that waging a convincing ideological-theological fight against extreme fanatics is a moral duty for the politicians and intellectuals of countries like Egypt, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Iran, as well as Morocco and Tunisia—just to name a few.
Naturally, Security Council reform; increased transparency of financial markets; effectively tracking global challenges, such as the prevalence of violence and hatred in the media and politics through promoting a culture of peace and tolerance—as well as fighting poverty, illiteracy, health, and environmental problems—will have most positive impacts on the Middle East. These would invariably strengthen the capacity of the region to overcome the scourge of Da’esh and improve its present circumstances, as befitting the proud inheritors of great and ancient civilizations.
Abdullah Gül is 11th president of the Republic of Turkey. This article was published in the third issue of "Horizons" magazine by Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development's (CIRSD).