Europe and the Conflict Dynamics of the Middle East

This article is Frederic C. Hof’s Remarks presented at the Heinrich Bӧll Foundation’s 17th Annual Policy Conference on June 17, 2016.

I’m deeply honored to open our session this morning on Europe and the New World Disorder. Representing, as I do, the Atlantic Council, my strong inclination is to add the words “North America” to “Europe” in the title of our session. After all, as we struggle with the conflict dynamics of the Middle East, transatlantic partners face the same choice Benjamin Franklin offered his fellow signers of the American Declaration of Independence: to hang together, or hang separately.

The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, which I now direct, has been hard at work for over a year with a Middle East Strategy Task Force. Under the leadership of Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, this nonpartisan body is working with regional stakeholders to devise a transatlantic strategy to influence positively the direction of this volatile region. I would urge you to pay attention to this initiative by visiting the Atlantic Council website periodically.

The Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region is undergoing a crisis of political legitimacy. With rare exception among the MENA countries there is no internal consensus on the rules governing political life. This absence of consensus defines illegitimacy. It produces instability, encourages poor governmental performance, and even promotes state failure and civil war. Where legitimacy is present, stability and intense political competition can and do co-exist. Where it is absent vacuums can be created. The Islamic State (ISIS) currently occupies vacuums of political legitimacy in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. It threatens to spread elsewhere.

For some 400 years the source of political legitimacy in much of the MENA region was the Sultan-Caliph ruling the Ottoman Empire. With the possible exception of a handful of monarchies, it is hard to discern that which has replaced the Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy in much of the MENA region.

Indeed, for some 90 years after the fall of the empire the source of political legitimacy in the MENA region has been an open and contentious question. Was it colonial rule? Arab nationalism? Personal charisma? Political Islam? Divine right of kings? In 2011 young Arabs demonstrating in Cairo and Tunis, and others fighting tyranny in Libya, Yemen and Syria, seemed to be offering an answer to the question of legitimacy’s ultimate source. Their answer was that legitimacy derives from the consent of the governed; that consent coerced by a dictator is not consent at all; and that a governing system insensitive to the rights and dignity of citizens is, by definition, illegitimate.

The negative reaction of some political elites in the MENA region to the “Arab Spring” has not been surprising. The most extreme has been that of Syria’s Assad regime, which has inflicted collective punishment and mass homicide in an attempt to preserve compulsion over consent. The regime has, almost literally, burned Syria to ground, making much of its eastern half safe for ISIS. Although the Assad regime stands out in terms of brutality, the MENA region is experiencing elsewhere a push-back against the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Middle East today is more unstable, disordered, violent, and dangerous than at any time in recent memory. More than 540,000 people have died in the region’s civil wars and over 2 million injured. Millions more have been displaced in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, about half is displaced. The United Nations estimates the number of displaced persons in the region as a result of the civil wars to be 17.8 million.

States bordering countries in conflict have paid heavily. The Syrian civil war has hardened sectarian divisions in Lebanon. It has reignited tensions in Turkey involving the Kurdish minority. By providing space within Syria for extremists, it has helped renew conflict in Iraq, undermining years of effort to stabilize that country. And it has left Jordan in dire straits, heavily dependent on external financial and military assistance.

Syria’s neighbors have also shouldered a tremendous refugee burden. An estimated 2.7 million now reside in Turkey, with another 1 million in Lebanon and 650,000 in Jordan. Despite international assistance, the sheer number has presented neighboring governments with daunting technical and political challenges as they seek to absorb, feed, house, and educate these migrants.

Moreover, the disorder in the region has had consequences far beyond. More and more Syrians and others are now looking north to Europe for their futures. Beginning in 2015, over a million displaced Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others began to stream north in search of refuge and opportunity—a mass movement of humanity for which Europe was not prepared. The refugee flow served to rock Europe’s already troubled union. It has had a regrettable impact on political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

The building of political systems reflecting strong, voluntary public consensus on the rules of the political game is a task belonging exclusively to the peoples of the MENA region. No doubt there is, from one end of the region to the other, bottom-up demand for consent of the governed. No doubt there are, within political elites in regional states, gradations of interest in promoting consent of the governed as the pathway to political legitimacy. And no doubt those leaders interested in opening the way to consent of the governed must, at the same time, deliver governmental services in ways that encourage citizenries to believe that the state system can both protect them and permit economic opportunity. Systems that cannot produce the basics of security and economic advancement have little hope of institutionalizing voluntary public consent.

The trans-Atlantic community cannot compel the growth of legitimate governance in the MENA region. But can it assist in meaningful ways? Can it encourage political elites to seek systemic legitimacy? Can it help young people make their voices count in the broad contexts of consent of the governed and economic advancement? Can it organize effective help for those states in which reforming political elites appear to be making real efforts to build systems reflecting genuine legitimacy?

It seems to me that the transatlantic community has no real choice but to try to promote the growth of legitimacy. We are, to be sure, powerless to do so without regional partners; without leaders willing to take risks for the greater good, as has occurred in Tunisia. But for us, disengagement is not an answer. Europeans know this intimately: a Syria that progressively empties itself will not be permanently contained by Turkey. And American politicians attracted to building walls will come to realize—if they do not know it already—that North America will not be spared the consequences of MENA’s legitimacy crisis. Americans cannot immunize themselves from the kinds of outrages that took place in Paris and Brussels.

The top priority for key stakeholders in and outside MENA is first, to end the violence now roiling the region. This means resolving the four civil wars, ousting ISIS and al-Qaeda from their strongholds, and addressing the humanitarian crises these conflicts have generated. Second, internal and external stakeholders must grasp the challenge of political legitimacy and help reforming elites achieve competency and success in matters of security and economy. As the transatlantic community—ideally operating in close coordination—devises security assistance and economic support initiatives for individual states, we must keep our eyes on the prize: political systems regarded by citizens as legitimate and worthy of voluntary consent.

The people and leaders of the region must provide the vision and bear the heaviest responsibility for building a new, legitimate regional order. The Middle East Strategy Task Force has found within the youth of the region—particularly educated millennials with entrepreneurial, innovative skills—reason for hope. For young Arabs to succeed, non-predatory governments and systems are essential. ISIS, al-Qaeda and others—the ultimate predators—rely on bad, illegitimate governance to help make their case.

I believe that the transatlantic community represents that part of the international community most willing and best able to assist the struggling states of MENA. I do not rule out in advance positive contributions by Moscow. By intervening militarily in Syria, Russia has presumably taken on a major financial obligation for the country’s eventual reconstruction. A nearer-term indicator of its intentions, however, will be its willingness to facilitate genuine political transition in Syria from brutal family rule to a system reflecting pluralism and consent of the governed.

For outsiders to devise and implement policies to promote legitimacy is tricky and problematical. Surely the days of the West dictating to MENA countries are over. But it strikes me that the transatlantic community and others, as a matter of self-interest, have no choice but to try to help. Partnership within the transatlantic community and with regional actors—including youth—is essential. Disengagement is simply not an option.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and United Nations special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) attend the ministerial meeting on Syria in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger