Europe and the Middle East

Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 

Europe and the Middle East




The Middle East is a region of turmoil, whose complexities trouble all who seek to cure its ills which, left unchecked, will grow and intermingle leading to chaos. To add insult to injury, there are additional events which could occur creating more havoc, namely:

  • Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 77, is reportedly suffering health problems. His death would prompt Iran’s Assembly of Experts to appoint a new ruler who will likely be a conservative leader;

  • Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, 76, is also suffering health problems. With no sons of his own and no succession plan, his death could destabilise the country.

The spillover effects of crises taking place in the region, combined with arms trafficking and trafficking in human beings, show the growing interdependence between European and Mediterranean security. Being security a global issue requiring global answers, Europe must develop a profitable dialogue with the Southern Mediterranean countries.


Current situation


Not everything about Middle East is necessarily disastrous. There is some light at the end of the tunnel if we accept that ISIS would be defeated militarily and driven from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, that a sustained international and regional commitment to Iraq and Syria not just militarily, but economically and politically will be available, that Saudis (after having failed miserably at every single step of their foreign policies) have realized that the involvement in the Yemeni civil war has been a mistake.

The actual reality is, nonetheless, governance failure combined with social, economic, environmental and demographic conditions which fostered the rise of highly heterogeneous non-state and quasi-state actors in the ME.

Early warning signs indicating multiple power vacuums and crises that are currently affecting the region were not taken into due account. There is surely the need to understand the root causes of the current situation which date back to the early years of the 20th century, beginning with the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916). The Arab states were established without any serious mechanisms to guarantee citizen rights or the application of the principle of the consent of the governed. Independent Arab states were thus defined by rule by unelected and unaccountable elites and minorities, whether they were self-imposed through conquest or put in place by the colonial powers.

The competition for influence in the region is nowadays playing out primarily in and around the Syria-Iraq battlefield with the implication of neighbours and countries much further afield.


How about ISIS?


Listed terrorist organizations and other non-State actors have thrived in the climate of weak governance and the absence of human rights that pervade the region. It is estimated that over 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 100 States have travelled to the Middle East in recent years to join such groups.

ISIS, the largest terrorist group, will lose power: military campaigns in Iraq and Syria will degrade the group and its revenue raising capabilities, but will do little to degrade it as terrorist or insurgent force. Militants returning home from Iraq and Syria are certainly a risk for Western countries, possibly mitigated by heightened awareness and intelligence oversight: but the bigger threat will be constituted by terrorists not relying on extensive networks and capabilities. This will result in an increasingly decentralised organisation with “lone wolf” terrorism especially prominent in countries with rising anti-Islam movements, where ISIS will want to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

In today's world there is no justification for terrorism, but without justice, dignity and the protection of human rights, communities will continue to fracture and provide fertile ground for extremists.

ISIS will only disappear when the driving forces in society that have generated support for it are reformed and removed, which will take time.

To this end the fragility of states must be addressed. Governments need to respond to the legitimate demands of their people and strengthen social cohesion and reconciliation.


A reconfiguration of the Middle East?


Today some are suggesting the necessity of stemming the frailty of authority through a more natural reconfiguration of the region's borders, a sort of Balkanization that could mirror the true ethnic and religious local context. This approach is motivated by the belief that the region and its borders are largely deprived of historical precedents, and therefore of legitimacy. For instance, borders could be redrawn in Syria with a subdivided state representing a possible solution for a profitable peace process. But these options do not appear valid and such approach could generate counterproductive effects, not taking into account the interests of those living in the region.

In fact, how to identify the criteria of determining new borders: by using ethnic groups as a basis for new nation states, or are religious groups considered to be more close-knit and therefore more likely to become stable? In either case, you would see the forced displacement of large groups from areas where they are not considered part of the majority group. And this type of border change would probably cause more ethnic/religious conflict in the long-run.


The migration phenomenon

Millions have been displaced in the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Several states in the region continue to bear a massive burden from the flood of Syrian refugees. While the international community must do more to stand in solidarity with Syria’s neighbours by increasing assistance and burden sharing, the underlying causes of displacement must be addressed through a political solution to the ongoing crisis.

The humanitarian and social impact of the conflicts in the Middle East is catastrophic. In Syria, the most affected country, hundreds of thousands have been killed since 2011 and approximately half of the population is displaced. Over five million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR with nearly three million in Turkey, over one million in Lebanon and more than 650,000 in Jordan, putting a huge socio-economic and security strain on these societies.

Migration has long shaped the Middle East and North Africa, with countries in the region often simultaneously representing points of origin, transit and destination. Demographic and socio-economic trends, conflicts and climate change are among the multitude of factors that influence migration dynamics in the region.

The migration context in the Middle East and North Africa can be broadly characterized as consisting of three closely interrelated patterns: (a) forced migration and internal displacement as a result of multiple, acute and protracted crises across the region, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya; (b) complex irregular migration flows, driven by a mix of economic and other factors; and (c) the movement of (regular and irregular) labour migrants both within and from far beyond the region. What is badly needed across the region is a plan including: movement and resettlement; emergency preparedness and response; post-crisis transition and recovery; migration health; counter-trafficking and migrant assistance, immigration and border management; and migration policy and research.



On 12 April 2017 UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura stressed that there can only be a political solution to the bloody conflict in Syria.

UN Secretary-General Guterres keeps on maintaining that the region requires a surge in diplomacy for peace. Member States, especially through a united Security Council, will have to assume the leading role, including by advancing the implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions.

Let us not forget that behind the images of savagery, behind the shocking statistics of human suffering, there are millions fighting every day not only for their own survival, but for the true humane essence of their cultures and societies. They are the true faces of the Middle East, who necessarily must be helped.

Twisted religious claims mixed with irredentist ideologies contribute to the bloodshed in the Region. Religious leaders should speak out against such terror and control effectively their followers who are reprehensibly claiming to act in God’s name by means of terror. No religious leader should tolerate using religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights to life and to religious freedom.


Political talks are necessary to resolve Sunni-Shia divides. And while Europe is witnessing a crisis of identity and citizenship for second and third generation citizens of Arab descent, in the Arab region there is a general crisis of malaise with dysfunctional Arab governments. It is injustice and abuse by Arab authorities, and not just poverty, that are driving disenfranchised individuals toward radical extremist ideology.

In Europe, this means accepting refugees fleeing the horrors caused by ISIS and addressing the sense of exclusion and alienation that drove thousands of its own citizens to join ISIS.

In the Arab region, it means engaging with the root causes for ISIS emergence by tackling the political and socio-economic exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis, addressing the Syrian conflict and working to end the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is fuelling the current struggle.




Never in modern history the Arab world experienced such conditions of warfare, terrorism, mass human displacement, and broken states. In recent decades too many early warning signs, signalling structural problems and deep injustices in the Arab world were never recognized by the Arab ruling elites, or by the external and regional powers. And those who saw the early warning signs (political parties, social movements, activists, civil society groups) lacked the ability to do anything about them, because of the total control of power in their societies by the ruling elites.

Nowadays, coping with such an explosive situation requires a joint vision and common response. There is the need to rethink the role of multilateral, regional and sub-regional organizations by making them better equipped to respond properly while addressing the pressing demands of Mediterranean societies all around the basin.

A priority is to promote a non-Eurocentric vision of the region, taking mainly into account views from the countries affected by the migration crisis and suffering further strain on their fragile economies and political systems.

It is important to support the Arab youths pushing for a renegotiations of the social contract based on a new vision of power relationships, more inclusive citizenship and equity before the law.

There is an urgent need for an intellectual sea change among both European and Middle Eastern states in their approach to the problems of the region. There is the need for far-reaching political, economic, and social reform to finally address the structural flaws that had brought down the regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen and threatened those in Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman.

Both European and Arab governments can no longer ignore or repress these problems, but rather need to commit real resources to try to overcome them.

The primary challenge for the international community is to bring legitimacy to the governing process: a stable country can only be built on strong national institutions and the EU can play a pivotal role by helping in nation rebuilding and in the economic issues it knows best, such as youth unemployment.

Bottom line is: the complexity of the region means that political solutions based on justice, dignity and social cohesion are required to achieve and sustain peace.