No single power can ‘fix’ the current turmoil in the Middle East. Still, there may be scope for Russia–Europe cooperation in managing the region’s ills.
When future historians write about the early 21st century, they are likely to single out the crisis in the Middle East as one of the major problems of our times. The crisis is fundamental, long-term and multifaceted. Its roots lie in widespread failure to achieve social, economic and political modernisation (with only a few exceptions), in turn sowing the seeds for catastrophic civil wars, severe repression, surging migrations and the growth of jihadist terrorism. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) crisis is also a global problem, with its repercussions being felt, directly or indirectly, through much of the world.
There is no easy solution. In principle, the best option might be a comprehensive regional collective security system, carefully designed, erected and maintained under UN oversight. However, this solution is clearly not within our reach in the observable future. First, it would need to be inclusive in order to work, involving all three major non-Arab states in the region (Turkey, Israel and, above all, Iran). Yet the prospects for involving both Iran and Israel simultaneously in such a regime appear slim, to say the least.
Second, the Arab world itself looks deeply divided today, with the conflict between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates having practically paralysed the Gulf Cooperation Council, which had previously been viewed by some as a potential embryo of a collective security system. Third, the provision of a collective security framework for the region would have to address the problem of state sponsorship of non-state actors, who are among the most important drivers of instability and violence. Any system would therefore have to include an agreement to curtail the activities of these actors, something which would be very hard to achieve.
If peace and stability are unlikely to come from regional cooperation, can they come from the outside? The role of external players – the US, Russia, China, Europe – should not be overestimated; they cannot ‘fix’ the region to their liking. Ultimately, the roots of the crisis are mostly indigenous and external powers have limited capacities to drive the profound social, political and cultural transformation of the region that is required. Any potentially positive role for external players is further complicated by diverging views among great powers on how to deal with specific situations, by the tendency of some powers to view each other’s involvement as part of a zero-sum game, and by severe limits on what regional political forces would regard as legitimate external interference.
On the other hand, the role of external players should not be underestimated. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, leaders in the Middle East have often relied on overseas partners, allies, protectors and supporters for various forms of military assistance, security guarantees and development aid. This dependence has offered external players significant bargaining power that, if used properly, might help in dealing with the burning problems of the region.
What should external players do to reduce the risks and to capitalise on the influence they have? First, and most importantly, they need to cooperate with each other. Competition between the major powers, especially in relation to the provision of military support, has often intensified the destructiveness of conflicts in the region, allowing them to continue long after the resources of the warring parties would otherwise have been depleted (Syria is a case study of this). Whatever the temptations of seeing the Middle East as an arena through which to score points against each other in a global struggle, the reality is that Europe, Russia, the US and China all have a common interest in preventing further destructive wars in the region, with their negative consequences (terrorism, economic disruption, migration) for them all.
Second, to underpin this cooperation, the major external powers should each make their positions towards the region as clear and unambiguous as possible, while avoiding unclear red lines, ‘constructive ambiguities’, policy changes or impulsive decisions. Predictability and reliability are rare commodities in the region and the demand for them is high.
Third, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for the region. In some situations (such as Yemen), the United Nations can and should become a key actor; in other cases (such as Iraq), the main role of external powers should be to assist the legitimate government to strengthen positive trends that already take place on the ground. In places with ongoing fighting and a major foreign military engagement (such as Syria), the name of the game should be escalation avoidance and pressure on conflicting sides, internal and external, to come to a political compromise. In situations where conflicting sides are not yet ready for a political compromise (such as Libya, possibly), the priority for external players might be to work together to contain the conflict, preventing its spillover impact on neighbouring countries.
Fourth, external players should keep in mind the inextricable link between security and development. There will be no stable development in the countries of the region until their basic security is provided. At the same time, nobody can guarantee security without sustainable social and economic development, which in turn is closely linked to broad-based legitimate governance. This link implies a deeper interaction between institutions, agencies and individuals dealing with both the security and development sides of the regional crisis.
Europe and Russia have more stakes in the Middle East than other global players, like the United States and China. They are much closer to the region than others, which means that Europe and Russia will lose disproportionately if things go wrong, but also that they can reap substantial benefits (not least economically) if things go right.
All the deep divisions and disagreements between Moscow and European capitals notwithstanding, a more intensive cooperation between them on important regional problems is not only desirable, but also possible. The most graphic example of such cooperation in recent years has been the JCPOA agreement with Iran, which – so far at least – continues to survive the abrupt and unhelpful US withdrawal.
Andrei Kortunov is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.
Malcolm Chalmers is RUSI’s Deputy Director-General.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.