Middle East a la française

Middle East a la française

With a new year comes new expectations about our region. This may be U.S. President Barack Obama’s last year in office, but the Middle East will be higher on the agendas of other leaders. French President François Hollande tops the list.

After the Paris attacks, France is considering a longer-term plan for the area known as the Levant. Lebanon and Syria were France’s dominion after World War One and French influence there is not simply cultural. The region represents social plurality, religious diversity. That is why the paths of Russia and France have crossed during operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Overthrowing Bashar al-Assad or getting rid of religious extremism is one thing, creating a multicultural society is another. For that, you need global leadership.

According to intelligence analysts who cover the area, France will gradually slow down on accepting asylum seekers from North Africa. Among its citizens of Maghreb origin, it will initiate a deep screening process and will move toward deporting those thought to have potential for extremism. Their new homeland will probably be the “new Syria.” This entire scenario may sound like a long-shot political game, but for realists the French physical presence in Syria is inevitable. 

The second phase of this transformation has links to secularization and rise of other religions in the region. One analyst who closely monitors events said the following: “For the West, Islam in the Middle East has too many facades. A holy religion is read in one way but interpreted in more than 10 different ways … Europeans think it has become a political ideology rather than a religion that shapes a moral and spiritual path for its believers.”

So we should not be surprised if we see more churches established and missionary schools founded in Syria. To create a more secular and culturally diverse society, the West thinks there should be more a vibrant and open Christianity. This is no accident. Remember the late 18th and early 19th centuries: French schools were at the core of Ottoman modernization. Turkish secularism is the only method that has worked.

Russia will be the guardian of Orthodox Churches in the region. Its military presence will increase and its footprint in the Middle East will have a spillover effect on issues ranging from the Israel-Palestine peace talks to the Cyprus problem. Russia will diversify its trade portfolio, meaning that Turkey will no longer be the only citrus provider or tourism destination for Russian citizens.

As for the U.S., there is very little to say. One highly informed source told me this about how Washington sees the region: “After the establishment of the F-35 fleet in the Middle East and bases in Iraq, as well as better diplomatic relations with Iran, the U.S. will pivot to Africa and Asia.”

President Obama’s final State of The Union words wrapped it up practically: “We can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq - and we should have learned it by now.”