October 28, 2016
In light of the ongoing battle for Mosul and the recent bombing of a school in Syria that killed twenty-six civilians, mostly children, it becomes evident that the actors behind the violence and turmoil must be removed from the conflict before there can be sustained efforts to achieve lasting stability in the region, a senior State Department official said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on October 27.

Anne W. Patterson, assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said “some of the violence is going to get worse before it gets better, but we have to focus on the defeat of ISIS first.” She was referring to the terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Though significant strides have been made in Libya and Yemen, according to Patterson, “the huge contagion in the Middle East is [in] Syria and Iraq.” Iraqi and Kurdish forces are currently recapturing territory in Iraq as part of an offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. Additionally, the Pentagon has announced that it intends to launch an offensive against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, soon, amid concern that the group plans to attack the West.

Emphasizing the importance of US-European partnerships, Patterson said such “cooperation has been really dramatic in the counter-ISIS coalition.”

Besides ISIS, Russia has exacerbated the war in Syria with its bombing campaign in Aleppo.

“You have an increase in the victimization of civilians” due to intrastate wars, according to retired Col. Paul D. Hughes, interim operations chief for the Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. Referring to Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria, he said that, “as more external actors come in and provide support to either side, the value of the people becomes less, and they become a fracture line, a pressure point to be pressed to increase the pain on the other side.”

Patterson and Hughes joined Helena Boguslawska, deputy head of the political, security, and development section at the Delegation of the European Union to the United States; and Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, at an event at the Atlantic Council on October 27 to discuss ways to strengthen US-European cooperation to deal with the violence in the region and steps toward durable stability. Stephen Grand, executive director of the Middle East Strategy Task Force at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.

On October 26, a deadly strike hit a school in Idlib, Syria. The next day, the White House said that either Russia or Syria was responsible for the bombing, though it could not determine which of the two. However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted: “Even if it was the Assad regime that carried it out, the Assad regime is only in a position to carry out those kind of attacks because they are supported by the Russian government.”

Russian has ratcheted up its military role in Syria, tied to its own overall strategy beyond the region, said Hughes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to find a diplomatic solution with Russia. However, the jointly brokered ceasefire quickly failed. Though skeptical about coordination with the Kremlin, the White House believes that working through Russia is the only way to find a solution in Syria and begin to rebuild, said Patterson.

The strength of Russia’s military intervention in the region means “there’s not going to be a military solution,” said Barkey. “The Russians will take Aleppo…they’re going to destroy it,” he added.

Russia has joined the Assad regime in coordinated bombings of Aleppo. Attributing the persistent bombing to the fight against terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia has no choice but to clear out the city. However, many civilians still inhabit the city.

The panelists agreed that once the causes of violence have been resolved, the United States and Europe can begin to work together to address the root causes of instability.

“We need to think not just in terms of security, but also in terms of politics,” Barkey said. He added, “there is a way of fashioning the future, but we seem to be so stuck in the moment in the lanes we are [in].” Ultimately, Barkey asserted that the international community “has to come up with new creative ideas because what we are doing now is not going to work.”

In response to the complex series of issues contributing to unrest in the region, the EU is working to create a new approach, “putting together all the instruments that we have at our disposal,” said Boguslawska. She emphasized the need to work with the governments of individual countries to establish what is at stake, what are the challenges, and what are the changes the country in question would like to see.

According to Boguslawska, the EU solution focuses on the potential for investment in reconstruction, once the conditions are right. The EU has already begun preparatory work with the World Bank. “We are preparing for the day after,” she said, referring to the new start once the conflict is over.

Hughes said that long-term solutions will have to consider education and the job market in order to address the underlying frustration of the younger generations. Instability is tied to economic fear, he said, “people not having a job, feeling like they don’t have a stake in the future of their country.” This needs to be systematically addressed, according to Hughes.

Patterson emphasized that “we should not underestimate the amount of resources we’re going to have to put into this,” claiming it will cost nearly $200 billion to rebuild Syria alone. She called for grand-scale investment in vocational training, skill development, and higher education.

Countries in the region need fiscal and financial management to make reforms, Patterson said, but that change must be leveraged on the government side. Additionally, Hughes claimed that states in the region need to diversify their economies. There is potential, according to Barkey, for Middle Eastern countries to produce goods for Europe, which could help growth. “The expansion of the economies would create jobs in which the semi-skilled university graduates would eventually be absorbed,” Barkey said.

Barkey described how not only economics, but also corruption, lack of social mobility, and ineffective political systems contribute to deeper frustration and instability. “It’s not just one problem,” he said. “All of the indicators are going south at the moment.”

While Barkey referenced the Marshall Plan for its ability to transform Europe through an established zone of stability after World War II, and argued that a similar solution may have a place in the Middle East, every country in the region has its unique set of problems, according to Boguslawska. Therefore, she said, “it has to be a tailor-made solution,” there is no sense in any grandiose plan for the region at large.

Ultimately, “things are changing to some extent in the region,” Barkey said. Attributing the changes in part to new technologies, he said “it is an incipient democracy that is coming, but we can accelerate it.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.