The capital of Bahrain hosted the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ (IISS) annual forum to discuss the most prominent security issues threatening the Middle Eastern region. Directed by former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, the dialogue saw governmental delegations from over twenty countries come together to share thoughts and debate policy ideas about how best to tackle the regions problems. This article serves to summarise, thematically, the chief reflexions of the main speakers.
The full name and position of these speakers, often referred to in shorthand throughout this article, include:
- Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmned Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain;
- Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, the United States;
- Adel Al Jubeir, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia;
- Nabil El Araby, Secretary General, League of Arab States;
- Phillip Hammond, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, UK;
- Salahuddin Rabbani, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Afghanistan;
- Ursula von der Leyen, Federal Minister of Defence, Germany;
- Khaled Al Obeidi, Minister of Defence, Iraq;
- Nohad Machnouk, Minister of the Interior and Municipalities, Lebanon;
- and Crispin Blunt, Chairman of Foreign Affairs Select Committee, House of Commons, UK.
Challenging Daesh regionally; framing Iraq and Syria and ending war
The War in Syria has led to the death ‘of more than 360,000 innocent Syrian people, the displacement of 12 million Syrian nationals, almost half the country, and the destruction of one of the richest Arab countries… [A solution] has to do with a change in the leadership in Syria and the writing of a new constitution and new elections.’ – Al Jubeir.
The existence of terrorist groups, according to Al Khalifa, is not the main challenge in Syria. Rather, it is ‘the loss of unity and the disintegration of the tolerant societal bonds that held a multi-sect Levant together.’ Yet, Daesh can only be defeated by a united Syrian front—a transitional governing body must be set up to preserve civilian and military state institutions, whilst including all relevant national groups. This aim was widely echoed by various speakers. Blinken noted that Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are all fundamental, and this cannot be fulfilled until Assad’s departure. ‘We have to break the mindset—encouraged by both Assad and Daesh—that the only choice Syrians have is between the two of them.’ As long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power, he will act as a magnet to attract foreign fighters to join Daesh. Saudi Arabia added: a second part to this approach ‘has to do with a Syria in which no foreign forces exist, particularly Iranian forces… until that is achieved, the crisis will continue.’
Daesh’s recent expansion into places such as Libya and Nigeria—alongside violent footprints in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for example—show us that a military dogma focused solely on Iraq and Syria may not be enough. But Blinken did bring some military-related optimism to the table. Over 7,700 airstrikes have deprived Daesh of some 30 per cent of the territory it once held. The coalition has also secured 85 percent of the Turkish-Syrian border and is stepping up support to moderate opposition fighters. It is important not forget that military might is also being paired with efforts to counter Daesh’s narrative of nihilism and curtail the flow of financing. Hammond went a step further in saying that it was not enough to defeat Daesh militarily. ‘To eliminate the underlying threat to our security we have to defeat the extremist Islamist ideology on which Daesh is based.’ He called on governments to tolerate difference, but be intolerant with intolerance.
Al Obedi put forward four lenses with which to view the problems in Iraq and Syria. The “historical approach” highlights the unity of foreign perception in directing the affairs of the two countries, with Syria eventually resisting through stability, and Iraq being brought to stability through shaky democracy. The “purposive approach” sees the Syrian regime surviving (until recently) by pursuing seemingly logical but impossible goals which often aim to take advantage of Iraq; Iraq, on the other hand, ‘seeks to manage its existence by seeking to reassure its domestic situation in the face of terrorism and to rebuild the state’. The “geostrategic and operational perception” highlights ‘the persistence of Nusra and Daesh in Syria as the same persistence as in Iraq, and the same interest in Libya and Egypt.’ This differs from usual discourse which often manages issues in each state separately. Finally, the “strategic approach” recognizes different political contexts: Daesh can only be destroyed militarily as a whole in Iraq and Syria, but then separate mechanisms (ideological, propagandistic, economic, and social) which suit the individual landscapes of each country will have to be employed for long term results.
El Araby also highlighted the failure of the United Nations in dealing with the conflict. A resolution calling for a ceasefire was vetoed twice in the Security Council, and a letter requesting intervention in early 2012 was ignored. ‘Had a ceasefire resolution been adopted, maybe a quarter of a million people would have not have died. Regrettably, what we have now is something of a complete abandonment by the Security Council, apart from some speeches made here and there.’
The Refugee Crisis
Machnouk clearly asserted that ‘the refugee question is one of the most important consequences of the Syrian war… for every three Lebanese citizens there is one Syrian citizen living on Lebanese soil; this is equal in size to the entry of 200 million refugees to Europe in one push within two years!’ Still, the Lebanese minister added that the country has not experienced any increase in crime rates despite the influx of visitors. ‘We have 2,200 Syrian prisoners out of 1,500,000 displaced persons. This means that only 1.25 or 1.30 per thousand commit crimes leading to imprisonment, which is a very low rate.’ He saw this as a reason for the international community to assume their responsibilities—they have so far failed to do so—when it came to accommodating refugees.
European perspectives broadly agreed but offered a somewhat different approach. Von de Leyen said a common interest was to ‘give the people of those countries a perspective again, for security, prosperity and a life in dignity in their home countries…most important, [we must] create hope and perspective for refugees to return home, including respect for human dignity and human rights.’ Crispin recognized ‘the cost should have fallen on the whole of the international community, even if the practical burden is borne, as it necessarily should be, by the neighbors.’ Europe should not create a false sense of hope and incentivize victims to make an appallingly dangerous journey. ‘The right thing to do is to take the pressure off the camps in the region and then to take the people who are the most deserving from the camps to try and give them some [limited] support in Europe… We do the countries from which these people are coming a total disservice if we rob them of their best, brightest and most economically mobile and take them into our own populations… you then cripple [the parent country’s] future.’
Russia’s role in the region
Russia’s intervention will increase leverage over Assad, but it will also increase the conflict’s leverage over Russia, according to Blinken. Putin cannot afford to sustain an indiscriminate air campaign against everyone opposed to Assad’s rule. For Russia, the costs will mount every day politically and economically. They will alienate millions of Sunnis in not only Syria, but throughout the region and in Russia itself. And yet, at best, their current stance can only prevent Assad from losing; it cannot make him win. Daesh is a threat to Russia too, and its destruction is common interest. Russia also wants Syria to remain intact as a state, but this inevitably requires the departure of Assad.
Al Obeidi alleged that Russian opposition to Daesh in Syria has helped prevent the organisation from ‘reaching the middle in great numbers.’ Meanwhile, Machnouk asserted that Russia should be given a chance. Putin had ‘stepped into a vacuum which was abandoned by others… [Intervening in the region] can only lead to a Russian awareness of these conflicts’ intersections and interdependence in Syria.’ He further argued that, with regard to its military operations, Russia would fall victim to its limited economic resources. As a result, Syria would then fall prisoner to whomever funded military operations. Sir Jenkins later challenged this point: ‘the probable budget of Russia’s military intervention in Syria is about $4 million a day which means that perhaps, over a year, they could afford $1.2 billion. I wonder whether their staying power might be slightly longer than suggested.’
Iran after the nuclear deal, and its ongoing threat to security
Although the nuclear deal with Iran means that ‘every single one of Iran’s pathways to a bomb is blocked through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action far into the future,’ (Blinken) the deal did little to curb Iran’s sometimes violent meddling within the region’s affairs. El Araby was one to express disappointment that the deal mentioned nothing of Iran’s direct and indirect interventions across the Arab world. He did, however, recognize that Israel had completely avoided the limelight in recent international discussions over nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Iran had actually started a process in 1974 aiming to achieve a nuclear-free region, but this initiative was made derelict by Israel’s initial armament.
Al Khalifa asserted that ‘Iran has provided sanctuary and financial support for those charged with conducting terrorist acts in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states and the rest of the region… Iran has hosted Bahraini citizens in IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] training camps… has also conducted smuggling operations to bring in explosives and weapons. These actions, along with the terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah and their proxies across the region, are no less a threat to us than Daesh and Al-Qaeda.’ Despite Bahrain’s willingness to engage with Iran, it has consistently refused to take up the offer.
Al Jubeir hopes that Iran will ‘use the proceeds it will be receiving from the lifting of the sanctions in order to address some of its infrastructure challenges and developmental challenges rather than finance some of its aggressive policies.’ Indeed, Saudi Arabia see’s the four drivers for regional stability as being a unified Gulf Cooperation Council, an integrated Yemen, and a friendly Iran.
Iran’s backing of Hezbollah was frequently mentioned. Machnouk put forward Lebanon’s “golden triad” to tackle terrorism: ‘(A) achieving a minimum level of national solidarity. (B) Developing and updating security activity and fostering relationships among Lebanese security agencies. (C) Continuing to encourage moderation in our political and religious discourse.” However, he claimed that Hezbollah posed the biggest challenge to this dialogue. “Hezbollah’s rejection of the state’s logic and its intransigent refusal to agree on the application of security plans in its sphere of influence, which exposes both the credibility of security plans and Lebanon’s stability to danger.” Moreover, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is Lebanon’s greatest threat to stability. “The Party’s fight in defense of the regime and to protect Iranian interests in Syria, and its hostility to the will of the majority of the Syrian people has provoked a wide swathe inside Lebanon, who sympathize with the Syrian revolution and the preferences of the Syrian people.’
The Arab-Israeli question
‘Many of the reasons why you find youth throughout the Middle East feel that they have been persecuted, that they have not had fair treatment by the international world emanates from what is happening to the Palestinians by Israel.’ –El Araby.
This historic conflict affects all Arabs, and particularly the countries surrounding Palestine, says Machnouk. As well as the violence directly associated with warfare, the conflict has ‘resulted in a historically insurmountable refugee problem, and it has dedicated the authority and prestige of armed groups in a number of countries at the expense of legitimacy and national armies.’
El Araby argues that the way to proceed no longer involves a question of negotiation. ‘The Israelis have an obligation to withdraw, not to negotiate, according to certain conditions laid down by Resolution 242.’ Various agreements and treaties have already been negotiated and signed over the last twenty years, thus ‘it is a legal question of one country having to carry out its own obligations, its own commitments, its own undertakings, which is not taking place.’ He emphasised how, historically, one single resolution created a territorially smaller (44 per cent) but more populous Arab state compared to its Jewish counterpart. Despite this highlighted inequity, El Araby’s anger appeared more directed at the fact that Palestinians are now only asking for 22 per cent of territory. Even this demand seems unlikely if Israel continues to build settlements.
Most recently, the United Nations has failed to provide protection for Palestinians near the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where clashes have flared. Al Khalifa noted ‘it is the Israeli government’s responsibility to maintain the longstanding agreement with Jordan regarding jurisdiction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to prevent all those who seek to incite violence from entering.’
Blinken dictated a short but clear message: ‘the United States will never stop supporting and defending Israel’s right to protect itself and its citizens… just as we will never cease working to realize the goal of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side-by-side in peace and security.’
Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan
Some light was shed upon the GCC’s intervention in Yemen. A decision to intervene was ‘not taken lightly. It was by the invitation of the legitimate President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and it was our final option, and we are not intent on continuing military operations a day longer than necessary… [the GCC] could not allow an extremist proxy movement with ties to Iran and Hezbollah to take over Yemen… [we] had to intervene to stop Yemen from sliding into an imminent civil war and almost certain break-up… [we had to stop] a dominant Houthi insurgency that does not play by the rules and demands more than its fair share of power.’ Blinken also commented that ‘we must focus our efforts on supporting the work of the UN Special Envoy to get all parties to return to UN-brokered political talks to find a lasting, peaceful solution, based on UNSCR 2216’ and must work to get humanitarian aid to parts of the country still controlled by Houthi insurgents. Government forces have reclaimed most of the country, and Aden’s airports and seaports have been re-opened.
Libya was mentioned briefly. In short, the US ‘looks to Libyan leaders to put the interests of the Libyan people above divisive politics, endorse the final political framework text, and empower a Government of National Accord to begin to govern, restore stability and eradicate terrorism.’
In Afghanistan, Daesh has increasingly tried to expand its influence, adding to the presence of other extremist groups, which include the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement. Rabbani reminded the session that, in late 2013, the Afghan High Peace Council organized an international Ulama Conference—‘200 Islamic jurists and scholars from around the world adopted a declaration that condemned extremism and declared illegitimate any decree that contradicted the values and principles of Islam… We have decided to convene a follow-up conference.’ Rabbani also made clear that the government has ‘kept the doors of peace talks open to those elements of armed opposition who renounce violence and join the peace process.’
The need for cooperation and coalition
Amidst these security concerns, several speakers called for more regional cooperation. Al Jubeir called for all Gulf States to come together and exploit opportunities in economics. ‘We have to get out of the way in terms of streamlining our economic and financial laws, have more free market enterprises, less government regulation of the marketplace’ in order to create jobs, wealth and stability. Von der Leyen pledged for ‘a new partnership of dedication. That is, not only coalitions, point-to-point, but a joint political will; an overarching understanding whom to fight, but also whom to protect; a common effort to foster economic development and to nourish solidarity with millions who suffer.’ Manchnouk said: ‘We must abandon the idea of working unilaterally and clinging to individual decisions. We need today to create a solid nucleus based not on daily or circumstantial alliances, but on strategic alliances… attention should be paid to the pivotal role of Beirut and Lebanon at the heart of the new strategy.’ Finally, Blunt asserted that there is a vacuum of decently coordinated regional policy between the regional powers—‘Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt must become a P4 for the region.’
Despite increasing regional cooperation, the West still has a role to play. Hammond said ‘we will publish our long-awaited Gulf strategy, setting out our vision for Britain’s relations with its Gulf partners over the next 20 years or so, including how we will operationalize our commitment to a more sustained military presence in the region.’ Moreover, America is linking ballistic missile defence system in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as providing F-16 support to Bahrain, and naval ships to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, ‘the United States will provide an additional $100 million in assistance in support of the Syrian opposition—bringing our total support for their efforts to $500 million… $15 million will go to the Syria Recovery Trust, a multi-donor initiative that has already reached 2 million Syrians with support for essential services.’