The claim that the Middle East is “the most turbulent region of the world” had become a truism even before the shocks of the second decade of the 21st century. The conflicts in the region became a “new normal”, but at the same time, brought many unpredicted alliances — for example, between Russia, Iran and Turkey — and new mechanisms for solving problems on a local and global scale. At the first session of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference, titled “War and Diplomacy in the Middle East: The Lessons of the 2018-2019 Crises,” the experts attempted to identify the reality of the current disorder and what caused it, and also to find a new “language” that could be used to discuss war and diplomacy in a situation where they do not exist in their pure form.
Despite the fact that the title of the session refers to war, “hot” conflicts are not the only problem in the region, and certainly not the cause of all other problems. Among the more general issues, the panelists named conflicts between different branches of Islam, a lack of democracy, the violation of the sovereignty of certain countries from inside and outside, the problems of demography and economics, the crisis of confidence, and the militarization of politics. One of the participants also mentioned the lack of education, pointing to the negligible number of books which have been translated into Arabic. When war becomes a consequence, but not a cause, an “ordinary” peace treaty, which is achieved solely through the efforts of all conflicting forces, becomes impossible. Therefore, according to one expert, hope for this in case of the Middle East would constitute excessive optimism.
As for ways to overcome the crisis, there are several options. They include the strengthening of regional and sub-regional security systems, as well as the creation of multilateral forums like those that exist between Israel and Palestine or between Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The main principle governing the functioning of such organizations, according to experts, should be inclusiveness, which would allow for the cooperative resolution of problems rather than one-sided answers. Thus, one should start with the functionality, that is, with the invention of the proper peacekeeping mechanisms and then proceed to implement them.
“As for the year 2019, I agree that there will be even more conflicts and contradictions before we reach stability. I am talking about stability instead of peace, because in the near future it is not foreseeable,” one speaker said. In his opinion, although in recent years there were many attempts to resolve the crisis with diplomacy, successes were short-lived and the problem did not disappear. This was due to the fact that all these decisions were sub-regional, rather than regional ones, and could not change the situation as a whole. They involved alliances between several regional powers or major external players, which today are more likely to be an obstacle to stability rather than assistants in achieving the difficult task of promoting it.
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq can be regarded as the “original sin”, which was followed by others. Washington and its partners hoped to capitalize on its violent, unprovoked attempt at democratization, but their actions were hasty and ill-conceived, and ultimately led to the deterioration of regional stability. “The Syrians themselves are to blame for what happened to Syria, but the countries of the West are also to blame,” the expert reminded. “That is why the Geneva process did not succeed: we wanted to make a result of what is a prerequisite.”
According to another expert, war and diplomacy are not necessarily antagonists: today we see examples of what can be called “military diplomacy,” that is, military agreements which are established when ordinary diplomacy does not work. For example, the armed forces of Russia and the United States, or Russia and Israel, maintain agreements. Today we are witnessing the return of the military to political life, which makes us recall the military regimes that existed in the Middle East before. Moreover, there are also other “new” diplomacies – for example, the “twitter” diplomacy of the White House, which became possible in connection with the invention of new media and influences both the military and diplomats. We also shouldn’t forget about the actions of non-state actors – primarily terrorist groups, but also private military companies. “Unfortunately, so far we see rampant violence, and it cannot be overcome quickly. Obviously, this needs to be done, but how to limit the influence of a violence culture on ordinary people is a very serious problem,” the speaker concluded.
Although history, as one session participant recalled, “teaches that it does not teach anything,” the fight against terrorism using conventional armed forces remains effective. Surprises and unpredictability will continue. As the experts agreed among themselves, the adoption of a decision depends on the prevailing conditions. Therefore, one should ask: is Idlib ready for a military solution? Or, is Northeastern Syria ready for a political solution? “I hope that this opportunity will be used, and the negotiations that are conducted between Damascus and the Kurds with the participation of Russia bear fruit and lead to a political decision,” one of the participants said.
At the Q&A session, it was emphasized that the most important task today is to establish a “spirit of collectivity”, since everyone has different values. At the same time, as another expert said, this issue is relevant beyond the Middle East, since a conflict of values exists within Europe itself. The source of the problem, he said, should be sought in the absence of the political leadership necessary in a situation of general discord. “Because of the internal divisions and the fact that the West fanned the sectarian struggle, people trust only their own group, their militia and coreligionists. Whether someone is able to put an end to this and achieve a collective beginning is a big question.” All the participants in the session agreed with this conclusion.