By Abdullah Gul
Middle East conflicts are affecting the world by exporting terrorism and refugees—products that are contributing to populism and authoritarianism in the West.
In 2016, conflicts in the Middle East continued to proliferate far beyond the Israel-Palestine issue that had dominated regional politics for so long. Heading into 2017, four key countries—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—are tearing themselves apart in civil wars.
These conflicts are directly or indirectly affecting the rest of the world, by exporting terrorism and refugees—products that are contributing to resurgent populism and authoritarianism in the West, from which almost no country has been spared. In the coming year, the world will find itself under more pressure than ever to start resolving the Middle East’s conflicts and their dangerous spillover effects.
For starters, reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process must be a top priority. Though the conflict has not drawn as much attention in recent years as it once did, it is no less important to bring the occupation of Palestinian territories—and the attendant humanitarian crisis—to an end.
An agreed settlement—based on clear terms, and backed by the United Nations, the European Union, and the rest of the international community—would ensure Israel’s security and normalize its relations within the region, particularly with its Arab neighbours. This would create opportunities for regional and global cooperation while restoring much-needed credibility to the international system itself.
We can only hope that President-elect Donald Trump will resume the United States’ peacemaking efforts, and that his campaign rhetoric about Palestine and the status of Jerusalem were not policy proposals. France, to its credit, has shown an interest in reviving the peace process, even as it endures Islamic State-sponsored terrorist attacks. Russia, too, recently attempted to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the table in Moscow, even as it aids Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war.
These countries’ recent overtures imply that the international community is impatient to resolve the Middle East’s oldest ongoing conflict, in order to help stem the tide of terrorism and other global problems emanating from the region. To advance the peacemaking process in 2017, the international community should embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented in 2002. The API has already been well received by all parties in the conflict, and has been endorsed by the Arab League.
With respect to Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the international community must continue to coordinate joint military campaigns against terrorist strongholds in each country. But resolving these conflicts will require political solutions. And while proposals to partition these states have already been made, they cannot be implemented until all parties have agreed to them. In fact, it is not obvious that the formation of new states would be any easier than trying to hold together the existing ones.
Foreign interlocutors and irresponsible former Middle Eastern leaders opened a Pandora’s box in the region, starting with the war in Iraq. One thing the world should have learned from that debacle is that splitting countries up can have far-reaching, unpredictable geopolitical consequences. Certain factions in Iraq and Syria are still capitalizing on power vacuums in those countries, and are pursuing maximalist goals that will only incite further revanchism and irredentism in the region. Any settlement that forced people to hand over territories or resources that they consider to be part of their national patrimony would only make a bad situation worse.
The ongoing proxy wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are often described as sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims. But a major factor underpinning sectarian fighting is the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Settling these two regional powers’ differences would have positive downstream effects on many of the region’s local feuds.
Sectarian conflicts should thus be resolved through high-level political efforts that embrace conciliatory models such as the “Islamic Proximity Initiative” put forward in April by Turkey and Kazakhstan at the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit in Istanbul. To be sure, the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is tense; but the two countries have agreed on many issues in the past, and there is no shortage of historical examples of peaceful Shia-Sunni coexistence.
Without an ambitious effort at rapprochement, civil wars and terrorism will continue to inflict immense destruction on the Middle East. Trade, industry, and transportation have come to a standstill in much of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, hurting the wider regional economy. A recent International Monetary Fund report describes how armed conflicts are hindering growth and driving up inflation across the region, and warns that, while these costs can be contained with certain policy interventions, there is no “silver bullet” solution, short of ending the violence.
The Middle East’s conflicts are not only destroying economic infrastructure and industrial plants; they are also laying waste to health-care systems, education services, cultural heritage sites, and many other social institutions. According to an alarming Unicef report, millions of displaced children and youths have been left uneducated and idle, which could render them unemployable, implying untold economic and social costs in the future.
Any successful effort in the coming year to end the Middle East’s conflicts will have to be accompanied by a large-scale reconstruction project—based on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II—to prevent countries from backsliding into war. And political reformers in the region must place principles such as human rights, the rule of law, transparency, and good governance at the top of the regional agenda. In 2017, it will be incumbent upon those countries that have managed to avoid armed conflict to preserve their relative stability, so that they can help restore stability to the entire region.
Abdullah Gul is a former president of the Republic of Turkey.