The Middle East: learning from history or repeating it? (by Ambassador Yakovenko, for the Daily Telegraph)
The successful conclusion of the talks with Iran on its nuclear program is a rare bright spot on the otherwise gloomy horizon of the Middle Eastern affairs. That is a fundamental breakthrough, including in terms of political psychology, upon which, in theory, a sustainable regional architecture could be built.
First of all, given a lot of opportunities missed, including Mohamed Khatami presidency and the late entry of Washington into the diplomatic process, it represents a triumph of common sense, the Westphalian principles and diplomatic method over ideology, political conjuncture and threats of force. The deal reached between the main protagonists, helped by multilateral environment and the flexibility it provides for a veritable give and take, testifies to the truth universally acknowledged nowadays, i.e. problems, both international and domestic, have no military solutions. It is highly encouraging that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as such regional powers like Germany and Iran, subscribed to this notion.
Among the myths shattered is the belief that unilateralism, especially military intervention, works. All unilateral actions of the past 25 years, proved to be utter failures, be it in Iraq, Libya or the Arabian Peninsula, the costs to the region and the world still mounting. A truly collective international effort in ways, perhaps, inscrutable helps find sober and pragmatic middle ground which offers hope of success. It saves from the temptation to simplify and cut corners. It clears the road to an agreed goal of hidden agendas of all the players concerned.
It is true for the next critical issue on the regional and, equally, international agenda which is the fight against the 'Islamic State'. Here, too, a genuine international effort is in the order of the day. Things like double containmen proved wrong for world powers. What grounds to believe that regional players left to their own devices will be smarter? That is why it is irresponsible to expect that
Sunni-Shia schism will provide a universal solution to all the problems of the region and a firewall of protection from adverse weather beyond one's borders. Those who try to manipulate this intra-Islamic conflict will light the fuses leading back home. At any rate, it would result in a substantial reordering of regional borders, massive displacement of population on the scale of partitioning of India in 1947, as well as economic disruption with huge consequences for global energy and financial markets.
President Vladimir Putin proposed establishing a broad coalition to fight this evil. To be effective it has to include all regional players, first of all Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have substantial potential to contribute to this effort. All international stakeholders should assist them, with legitimacy provided by a UN Security Council mandate.
All agree that airstrikes alone won't stop 'IS' and 'Jabhat al-Nusra' and those affiliated with them. It must be a coalition of the like-minded, including those who are fighting the extremists on the ground, i.e. the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Kurds and the countries, which could provide assistance in that struggle. Russia already provides such assistance to Iraq and Syria. When President Vladimir Putin met Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman in June in Saint-Petersburg, he meant precisely this – a united front against terrorism. Search for political settlement in Syria should be reinvigorated on a realistic basis. Those were the main objectives of Moscow at the diplomatic round in Doha, Qatar. Two documents on Syria recently passed in rapid succession by the UN Security Council, that is Resolution 2235 on identifying perpetrators using chemical weapons and the President’s statement in support of Staffan de Mistura’s effort to restart political process, inspire hope.
There is no point in discussing the origins of the present situation in Iraq and Syria. It is the mortal threat it poses that counts. So called situative alliances with dubious entities or attempts to fight prospective allies on other fronts will doom the entire enterprise. Nobody in the region will be capable of ensuring its safety on such terms. On the contrary, it will prove to be self-defeating. It is not by chance that the word 'self-destruction' is now widely used in political analysis.
If only for the sake of humility, let's turn to European experience between two wars. Ideology was to blame, as well as calculus which turned out to be ridiculous in hindsight as it was disastrous for the region and the world at large in practice. The appeasement of Nazi Germany, meant to be a firewall against the Soviet Union and communism ended in tears, including the tragedies of Dunkirk and the fall of France and other European countries. Lack of trust and ideological fears muddied the water and distorted political analysis. But the need to deal with the existential threat of Nazism helped overcome those differences and fears in the final count.
Now, too, the Middle East is facing a similar threat of implosion. What is required of all the players is rallying around a single clear-cut purpose. Whatever domestic transformation imminent, it would be easier to manage collectively, with outside assistance and in a more benign environment. The fight against the IS is no substitute for reforms, rather a prerequisite and precondition for them. All the countries of the region are facing this challenge.
All agree that the region is in a catastrophic state, whether visible or not. Of course, the Cold War politics is to blame. The first wave of political awakening soon after the war was nipped in the bud. The overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo were symbols of this counter-transformation. But after the Cold War ended, there remained no rational justification for the lack of transformative action. Business as usual, including stagnation in the Arab-Israeli settlement, could only be explained by hubris and the end-of-history euphoria which fed inertia and vain hope for things to sort out by themselves.
Now that it is obvious that no outside strategic oversight is possible in this region, the extraregional players acting in concert could provide assistance in finding regional solutions to regional problems. It is not about tutelage of the past, but a mature and honest talk of what is to be done and what kind of help can be provided. For outside players, it'll be dealing with their own problems, particularly threat of terrorism and uncontrolled migration, at their source.
Short of genuine regional cooperation, there will be no hope in the region, no stability and no development. This is the only way to find a sustainable solution to the migration crisis in Europe, too. People in the region, especially the young, with no prospects of education and jobs are facing the stark choice between emigration and joining the extremist outfits.
Old politics does not provide solutions to today's problems. All the more reason for us to help others learn the universal lessons of history, rather than let them repeat it. Outside players failed the region in the past. We cannot fail it now.