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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Today’s world is awash with ideas and proposals on how to stabilize the situation in the troubled Middle East. Since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, numerous groups of politicians, analysts, public figures and journalists have been poring over various plans, roadmaps, regional security models and development scenarios for the region.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East has remained complicated over the past several years, to put it mildly.

Today, the Middle East exports not just oil and gas, but also millions of refugees, as well as the seeds of political extremism. This is not a regional problem, one that can be contained or ignored, but rather a global challenge, and our common response to that challenge is critical to the fate of humanity as a whole. Certain progress has been made in stabilizing the situation in individual Middle Eastern countries, but the region’s overall prospects do not appear very optimistic at the moment.

Yet another attempt at formulating the fundamental principles of a new security system for the Middle East has been made by a group of prominent experts, public figures and former politicians from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the UAE and Yemen, as well as from China, Europe, Russia and the United States. The group has convened twice a year since 2012 as part of the international initiative known as the Middle East Dialogue, with support from the U.S.-based Middle East Institute.

The author happened to be among the Russian representatives at several Middle East Dialogue sessions. The latest such event was held at the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna on December 18–20, 2018. One of the session’s interim results was a list of 12 principles (or duodecim in Latin) that could serve as the foundation for a new Middle Eastern security system.

All these principles, in one way or another, reflect the fundamentals of contemporary international law and are consistent with the UN Charter, the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other universally recognized international legal documents. Much of the Middle Eastern Duodecim coincides with the Helsinki Decalogue, the 10 provisions of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe signed on August 1, 1975 by the leaders of 33 European countries, the United States and Canada. There are, however, certain differences. Let us consider the Duodecim’s principles and try to evaluate the degree to which they can be implemented in the current situation.

Today’s world is awash with ideas and proposals on how to stabilize the situation in the troubled Middle East. Since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, numerous groups of politicians, analysts, public figures and journalists have been poring over various plans, roadmaps, regional security models and development scenarios for the region.

The Middle East is very much in vogue right now, with experts on the region cropping up as if out of nowhere, pushing their own sometimes fairly outlandish proposals for building a new, peaceful and prosperous Middle East. Many of these proposals are clearly driven by the current political situation or based on the authors’ personal political leanings, while others are downright naive and quite remote from reality.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East has remained complicated over the past several years, to put it mildly. Armed clashes occur on a daily basis, civilians continue to die and the region’s economic and social infrastructure is crumbling. The combined death toll in Middle Eastern conflicts since the beginning of the 21st century is estimated at 1.5 million people, more than in any other region of the world. Today, the Middle East exports not just oil and gas, but also millions of refugees, as well as the seeds of political extremism. This is not a regional problem, one that can be contained or ignored, but rather a global challenge, and our common response to that challenge is critical to the fate of humanity as a whole. Certain progress has been made in stabilizing the situation in individual Middle Eastern countries, but the region’s overall prospects do not appear very optimistic at the moment.

Yet another attempt at formulating the fundamental principles of a new security system for the Middle East has been made by a group of prominent experts, public figures and former politicians from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the UAE and Yemen, as well as from China, Europe, Russia and the United States. The group has convened twice a year since 2012 as part of the international initiative known as the Middle East Dialogue, with support from the U.S.-based Middle East Institute.

The author happened to be among the Russian representatives at several Middle East Dialogue sessions. The latest such event was held at the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna on December 18–20, 2018. One of the session’s interim results was a list of 12 principles (or duodecim in Latin) that could serve as the foundation for a new Middle Eastern security system.

All these principles, in one way or another, reflect the fundamentals of contemporary international law and are consistent with the UN Charter, the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other universally recognized international legal documents. Much of the Middle Eastern Duodecim coincides with the Helsinki Decalogue, the 10 provisions of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe signed on August 1, 1975 by the leaders of 33 European countries, the United States and Canada. There are, however, certain differences. Let us consider the Duodecim’s principles and try to evaluate the degree to which they can be implemented in the current situation.

1. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the region’s states. This implies the preservation of the territorial status quo, even if it may seem historically unfounded and unfair to some in the region. The countries in the region should abandon attempts to change this status quo through the use of force similar to the Iran–Iraq war of 1980–88 or the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. They should also refrain from interfering in their neighbours’ internal affairs. Iran is historically the usual suspect in this respect, but Qatar has recently been accusing Saudi Arabia of such interference. This principle does allow for the peaceful and mutually amicable resolution of territorial disputes (as was the case in 2016 when Egypt and Saudi Arabia struck an agreement on territorial waters in the Red Sea, under which the former ceded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the latter).

Sceptic’s remark.

Like with other regions of the world, the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Middle East inevitably comes into conflict with people’s right to self-determination. All the more so as many of the current borders across the region were drawn fairly arbitrarily, based on the results of World War I: suffice it to mention the cartographic liberties taken under the infamous Sykes–Picot Agreement.

One potential consequence of adherence to the principle of territorial integrity is that the Kurdish people, whose total population exceeds 40 million, will never have a state of their own. Will the Kurds be prepared to accept such a verdict? Also, it is not entirely clear how the preservation of the territorial status quo could be reconciled with the need for finding a resolution to the problem of the territories occupied by Israel (or, as Israel puts it, the disputed territories), including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights. As for the possibility of peaceful settlements of such territorial disputes (such as the ownership of disputed islands in the Persian Gulf), are the countries in the region prepared to use the existing instruments of international arbitration?

2. Creating an inclusive conflict resolution mechanism. The use of force should be replaced by an agreement on the formation of a representative multilateral conflict resolution mechanism that would facilitate political dialogue and consultations at different levels and help preserve communication channels between the conflicting parties. Ideally, such a mechanism should prevent conflicts by nipping them in the bud, but it could also include “conflict management” – de-escalation, mediation and monitoring – among its tasks.

Sceptic’s remark.

An inclusive conflict resolution mechanism for the Middle East implies the participation of both the Arab and non-Arab countries (Iran, Israel and Turkey). The inclusion of these three states is fraught with serious problems: many in the Arab world would seek to set up an exclusive Arab-only mechanism because, they would argue, the non-Arab countries cannot be trusted. This undermines the whole idea of regional universalism – you cannot build a house without one wall.

In addition, the Middle Eastern countries historically prefer to settle mutual issues bilaterally rather than multilaterally, and also in the format of closed consultations rather than publicly. Personal relations between national leaders always play a much more important role than any multilateral institutions and mechanisms (as demonstrated by the Qatar diplomatic crisis of 2017).

3. Restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of national governments through internal political compromises and national-level reconciliation. National governments need to regain the monopoly to violence and the enforcement of law and order within the borders of their countries, while simultaneously undertaking to observe the international obligations of their countries, including those relating to fundamental human rights.

Sceptic’s remark.

It has been more than 15 years since the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, but Iraq’s statehood has only just begun to revive. This, despite the fact that the U.S. occupation of the country continued for nearly nine years, and U.S. investment in post-conflict reconstruction and state-building in Iraq amounted to tens of billions of dollars.

Currently, none of the external or regional players is prepared for a protracted occupation of Libya or Yemen. Nor is the international community ready to bankroll post-conflict reconstruction on a massive scale, especially now that the potential budget of a region-wide reconstruction project is no longer estimated at tens, but hundreds of billions of dollars. This question as to whether the legitimacy and effectiveness of national governments can be restored under these circumstances, and chiefly at the expense of the region’s internal resources, remains open.

4. Eliminating terrorist organizations (those defined as such by the UN). The countries in the region should commit to cooperating both with each other and with other participants in global politics in order to prevent the movement of terrorist groups and block the financial support that they receive. They should also pledge to coordinate anti-terrorist operations, share intelligence and prevent the emergence, re-emergence and spread of international terrorism.

Sceptic’s remark.

This principle will inevitably run into the problem of differing definitions: those organizations perceived as terrorist groups by some are considered to be part of national liberation movements by others. This applies to many radical paramilitary Arab movements in Palestine and Lebanon, the opposition forces and Kurdish groups in Syria, a number of Sunni organizations in Iraq, disgruntled Shiites on the Arabian peninsula, etc.

Disagreements over who should and should not be viewed as a terrorist will inevitably reduce the effectiveness of any coordinated anti-terrorist operations, be they regional or global. A list of terrorists that has been approved by the UN would present a rather poor compromise between the permanent members of the Security Council. In fact, individual organizations may be viewed differently depending on the current situation (take the Taliban, for example, which was put on and then removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations). The principle “[Someone or other] may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch” is still widely used in global politics.

5. Integrating or disbanding armed non-state actors. The numerous non-state armed groups currently operating across the region (other than those identified as terrorist groups) have emerged due to the weakening of the states in which they operate. As the latter are restoring their power, such groups should be disarmed and disbanded, or transformed into legitimate units that would be fully accountable to the national authorities.

Sceptic’s remark.

The idea sounds nice in theory, but would be difficult to implement in practice. For example, it would appear that it is impossible to disband the Lebanon-based Hezbollah (which is considered a terrorist organization in most Western countries, but not in Russia) in the foreseeable future. Who would be capable of achieving this objective to begin with? In fact, Hezbollah’s ongoing integration into the Lebanese political system has changed the latter more than it has the former, as is evident from the results of the May 2018 parliamentary election.

Thanks to the weakness of government institutions in many countries of the region, militarized political forces are often able to reshape these institutions to better serve their interests. Or they use the state as a “buffet,” which certainly does not help the national construction process.

6. Ensuring minority rights. The countries in the region should undertake to respect and facilitate cultural, religious, ethnic and political diversity, which is to be viewed as a source of strength and stability, not weakness and vulnerability. Any attempts to discriminate, segregate or forcibly assimilate minorities should be censured and, to the extent possible, thwarted. Existing minority communities should be considered as communities of citizens that are equal in every respect, not as potential turncoats or agents of influence for other states in the region.

Sceptic’s remark.

In our day and age, even the enlightened West is increasingly embracing identity politics. This results in ethno-cultural nationalism, religious intolerance, aversion to migrants, etc. In the Middle East, with its absence of established democratic institutions, protecting and nurturing diversity is virtually an impossible task. One sad example is the fate of Lebanese democracy and the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–1990.

The current crisis of statehood in the region is largely the result of the failed attempts by authoritarian regimes to create universal civic nationalism as opposed to ethnic, regional or religious particularism. The latter won a landslide victory in the region, and is clearly here to stay. Solving this problem by way of creating a motley display of subnational autonomous regions in the Middle East may sound attractive but will absolutely never happen.

7. Repatriating refugees. Recent conflicts in the region have resulted in the appearance of millions of refugees and forcibly displaced persons. All of these should be granted the right of unhindered return to their homes, guarantees of personal safety, and the right to compensation and reintegration. Refugees should not be forcibly returned to areas where they may be exposed to the risk of harassment or discrimination. Any policies aimed at deliberately changing a country’s demographic balance should be resolutely rejected.

Sceptic’s remark.

The first question that always comes to mind in connection with Middle Eastern refugee has to do with the Palestinians. Are they covered by the general right to return to one’s place of abode? Even without the Palestinian problem factored in, it would be extremely difficult to provide any guarantees to returning refugees and forcibly displaced persons. Such guarantees should be provided either by an effective law-bound state and relevant institutions, or by the presence of external forces (as is currently the case in the southwest of Syria).

Neither scenario is feasible in the region in the foreseeable future. Actually, there are simply no strong economic incentives for the millions of refugees to return to their homes: they are more economically secure where they are at the moment, especially those representing ethnic and religious minorities. For example, it is impossible to reverse the continuing de-Christianization process in the Middle East; at best, it can only be slowed down somewhat.

8. Creating a system of confidence-building measures for the region. In order to create an environment conducive to bilateral and multilateral cooperation on security, a set of confidence-building measures needs to be implemented first. This would include: sharing information about military construction and military doctrines; setting up hotlines at various levels; thwarting the illegal transfer of arms within the region; implementing arms control agreements; jointly ensuring the freedom of navigation; jointly fighting piracy, cross-border crime (including human and drug trafficking) and terrorism; and coordinating emergency relief efforts.

Sceptic’s remark.

History demonstrates that confidence-building measures are only resorted when both parties to a conflict realize the risks of a possible escalation or suffer from the growing burden of an arms race. Neither is currently observed in the Middle East. Most of the countries in the region are guided by the principle of “escalation for the sake of subsequent de-escalation.” This is due, in part, to the fact that, with the exception of Iran, Israel and Turkey, there are no countries in the Middle East that would be capable of independently ensuring their own security. Decisions on the procurement of arms in the regions are dictated more by geopolitical considerations than by national security imperatives.

Middle Eastern politicians still do not feel a sense of historical responsibility for their strategic military decisions. More often than not, they tend to shift this responsibility onto their foreign partners, allies and patrons. For this reason, it is most likely that the region will replicate Europe’s experience during the last phase of the Cold War soon. That said, just like with Europe, the first step in the right direction for the Middle East could be a dialogue on how the region’s different countries assess the threats to their national security.

9. Creating the preconditions for regional-level economic integration. Historically, sustainable regional security systems require an appropriate economic component. Consequentially, any post-conflict reconstruction programmes need to be aimed at developing intra-regional economic relations: in trade, investment and labour migration. This would require talks on dismantling barriers to trade, eliminating dual taxation, etc. It would be particularly important to create a region-wide economic infrastructure to cover transport, energy, water resources, information and communications.

Sceptic’s remark.

It is likely that the region’s short- and medium-term access to external and internal sources of funding for integration projects will remain very limited. The United States is not going to invest in the Middle East under President Donald Trump. Quite the contrary, Trump will do everything within his powers to lower global energy prices, resulting in an even smaller influx of finance into the region. The EU, riddled with numerous financial problems, will be unable to allocate any significant funds for the reconstruction of the Middle East. China, for its part, will pursue investment opportunities as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Iran, Russia and Turkey do not command sufficient financial capacities. On top of that, the likely dip in energy prices and further exacerbation of socio-economic problems at home will restrict the financial assets available to the Gulf states, which could otherwise have become an alternative source of funding.

Even if the necessary funding is found, the possibility of its being used efficiently and effectively in the region is slim. The Middle East lacks a potential powerhouse of economic integration similar to Germany and France that the European Union boasted back in the 1960s and 1970s. Egypt or Saudi Arabia could theoretically fit the bill but will be unable to act as such in practice, for various reasons.

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10. Promoting cultural and humanitarian cooperation. The only way to set up strong barriers to the resuscitation of erstwhile prejudices and negative social stereotypes is by dramatically expanding scientific, educational, cultural, social and humanitarian ties. It is extremely important to minimize barriers to mobility and communication, promote the study of the languages and cultures of neighbouring countries, confront negative historical myths and prejudices, and revive the traditions of the Middle East as a cosmopolitan and tolerant region.

Sceptic’s remark.

Let us turn to the experience of Europe once again. The end of the Cold War was followed by an unprecedented increase in the level of educational, cultural and humanitarian interaction between Russia and the West. It appeared back then that both sides had turned a page on old prejudices, stereotypes and prejudices, and that the new generations of Europeans had overcome the phobias of the 20th century. However, the dramatic 2014 political crisis involving Ukraine promptly brought back to life most of the myths and narratives pertaining to the recent past.

It is highly unlikely that expanded cultural and humanitarian cooperation in the Middle East will result in anything different in the face of a new acute political crisis or a military escalation. Ironically, Tunisia is currently at the forefront of the region in terms of cultural and humanitarian development, but at the same time remains the largest supplier of “jihad warriors” to conflict zones across the Middle East.

11. Creating a system of regional institutions. Building effective, legitimate and inclusive institutions in the Middle East is one of the most important elements to ensuring regional security. This process could be launched by analysing the similar experience of other regions (for example, the experience of the OSCE in Europe). Such institutions need to involve both the region’s Arab and non-Arab countries. Non-regional actors could participate as observers at the request of regional nations.

Sceptic’s remark.

Even the attempts to create institutions representing purely Arab nations – the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council – can hardly be described as completely successful. Neither organization has come to be a multilateral platform for resolving crises or a mechanism facilitating regional stability. The plan to set up an Arab equivalent of NATO was never implemented. The EU Mediterranean Dialogue initiative and NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, the multinational platforms set up for the benefit of the Middle East, have not been particularly fruitful either.

It would be even more difficult to imagine inclusive organizations that would encompass all the Middle Eastern nations. The region has depended for too long on external actors for its security, from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century to the United States today. A “Middle Eastern OSCE” could perhaps be created, but it would need to have a very limited mandate and offer a low entry threshold for the region’s countries.

12. Relying on the UN and existing regional treaties. The UN Secretary-General should be the one promoting a new regional security system and initiating the preparation of a relevant roadmap by the region’s countries. At the same time, the new security system should not replace the existing regional multilateral structures (the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council) or any bilateral agreements and alliances in force between individual countries of the region. On the contrary, the new system should rely on the existing bilateral and multilateral institutions as the foundation for its further development.

Sceptic’s remark.

The UN Secretary-General will hardly be able to propose any meaningful initiative without the consent of at least all the permanent members of the Security Council. This would require a consensus similar to the one reached in the course of work on the nuclear deal with Iran. It will, however, be much more difficult in the current situation to secure a consensus on setting up a collective security system in the region (to which Iran would logically need to be party). To compare, the Security Council has repeatedly failed over the past eight years to reach a consensus on a much more specific problem of Syrian settlement, with the parties further away from an agreement today than they were back in 2011.

As for the regional multilateral structures, their exclusivity and low efficiency make them more of an obstacle to building the new system than its potential capstone. There region can boast very limited experience of true multilateralism; indeed, there appears to be no demand for multilateralism in the Middle East.

Sceptic’s conclusion

The Middle East in 2018 has little in common with the Europe of 1975, when the Helsinki Decalogue was signed. To begin with, the reduction of tensions in Europe was part of a global detente in what was then a bipolar and strictly hierarchical world. Today, any resolutions of security problems in the Middle East will have to be achieved amid growing tensions in a world that is losing its former hierarchy and controllability. Second, there were no flows of refugees in Europe back in 1975, nor were there no territorial disputes or fierce religious confrontations (the secular communist ideology had already run out of steam by then). All these phenomena are thriving in the Middle East of today. Third, in 1975, the line between states and non-state policymakers in Europe was clear-cut and unambiguous. In the Middle East of today that line is blurred and sometimes almost imperceptible. In other words, the Middle East is in a much more complicated and difficult situation now than Europe was back in 1975, and it appears that replicating the Helsinki Decalogue in the region would be unproductive.

Optimist’s postscript

It is always easy to be a sceptic. However, as the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev put it, “scepticism is always characterized by barrenness and impotence.” If we are to proceed from the premise that the Middle Eastern challenges require multilateral solutions, then there is a finite number of possible multilateral models. In terms of the combined total of its characteristics, the OSCE model (perhaps alongside the ASEAN model) appears to be more relevant to the Middle East than the NATO or EU models. Even the obvious weaknesses of the OSCE, such as its somewhat ambivalent legal status (the OSCE holds a very specific position between intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs), could make its experience more appealing to the region. One other important advantage of the OSCE is that, back in 1975, the Helsinki Decalogue and associated mechanisms were introduced for the benefit of countries that were, at the time, divided by profound contradictions. The idea of the pan-European process (at least prior to the signing of the 1990 Charter of Paris, was not to achieve harmony among the member states, but rather to find a mutually acceptable balance of interests between the potential adversaries. Despite the current obvious incompleteness and vulnerability of the Middle Eastern Duodecim, work should continue to improve the document.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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