An asymmetric challenge – what role for Europe in the Middle East?

Posted on 01. December 2014

by Zuzana Novakova

Reflections on the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum

Zuzana Novakova NEWWith the “traditional” challenges of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry being further exacerbated by the Arab spring and the expansion of ISIS, the disarray in the Middle East can no longer be ignored. What role could and should Europe aspire to play? There is no doubt that any lasting solution needs to be a regional one. Europe is not one of the decisive actors in the region, yet any solution will have a (in)direct impact on our security, forcing the EU to define its role within this uneasy context. What are some of the main dilemmas ahead?

First of all, any intervention against the “Islamic state” (ISIS) by an international coalition inevitably leads to the question of what order is to come after. A historical parallel offers a warning not to leave the region immediately; in post-Taliban Afghanistan, international troops are still present a decade after the initial intervention. An external intervention is simply not enough. There is a need for reconstruction beyond the economic realm, towards a more inclusive system that can channel socio-economic and political frustrations.

So inclusiveness is the keyword for any future order in the region. It is after all the politics of exclusion, the failure to integrate broad segments of society that has created a fertile ground for the rise of ISIS-like phenomena. ISIS itself is a heterogeneous coalition where several interests and ideologies meet in an alliance of convenience between foreign jihadists, ex-Baath officers, generals, technocrats, bureaucrats and local Sunni nationalists.  They only represent themselves as a homogeneous group via social media.

What unites them is the experience of ‘exclusion’ in various forms:  the Sunni population has experienced exclusion from the al-Maliki government and from the economic benefits of reconstruction contracts after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, while their regions were marginalised and their  peaceful protests violently suppressed. The ex-Bath official, on the other hand, is seeking to regain his grip on power again after being out of the picture for a while. This is combined with a lack of effective integration policies for those who have experienced combat in different contexts: the ex-Mujahideens, who fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the foreign recruits, mostly from Chechnya and the North Africa region, now caught up in its own post-Arab spring unrests. The regional turmoil and collapsing of states provide the perfect circumstances for ISIS to gain wide-spread support. Strong symbolic imagery and a tangible offer of benefits analogous to a ‘welfare system’, with healthcare support for families (of Mujahideens), further add to ISIS’s allure.

Why and how is this relevant to Europe? As mentioned before, the West will not be a decisive actor in this region. However, both the US and the EU still need to take their responsibility.  The European side bears a unique soft-power in terms of being able to build an inclusive system and foster development through inclusive political dialogue, thereby creating the capacity to prevent structural violence by co-opting formerly excluded groups and consensus forging. The EU could and should better utilise this advantage in defining its role in the region. The challenge ahead for the EU is to rethink how to utilise this soft-power to contribute in a context where states fail or where a state as such is absent.