From Failure to Engagement: A new western strategy in the Middle East

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

The Western vision of a post-Cold War democratic world order broke down in Syria, crushed brutally in the ruins and bloodbath of Aleppo in 2016. The main picture that emerges is that Western military interventions that sought to coerce or change regimes, despite reaching some goals occasionally or partially, have produced disastrous unintended consequences. States disintegrated instead of improving; the intended democratic states in the Western image failed to materialize. Instead, there is a contiguous political and humanitarian catastrophe from Libya to Pakistan.

A new authoritarian block in charge
States that reject the Western designs of a new world order now fill the vacuum left by those states that are disintegrating after Western interventions. After years of destruction, bloodshed and ensuing mass migration, authoritarian Russia, not the democratic West, finally seems to be in a position to negotiate ceasefires and broker a political solution. Therefore, we are now, at the beginning of 2017, at a critical crossroad. The old approach is no longer viable. What strategy can we devise in its place?

Only in cooperation, by building broad ownership, are the goals of humanitarian interventions, democracy and human rights, now realistic. Therefore, seeking common ground with those that now decide must be the new strategy. No other way is feasible. A starting point is to study a joint report just issued by a Russian and Iranian think tank. 

Common ground? Main Russian-Iranian views
The Russian-Iranian report offers a good insight into how the new authoritarian block envisages a new regional political order from Syria to Afghanistan:

  • A clear message is that Russia and Iran share the Western perception of the main threats: political chaos, extremism and terrorism. If ignited, many separate crises could merge into one big regional crisis. They find that the greatest danger of ignition emanates from Pakistan, now on the verge a big crisis that can only be coped with by a concert of all powers.
  • The crisis in Pakistan is closely related to the crisis in Afghanistan. There, the report foresees a solution forged by an alliance patterned on the old Northern Alliance, supported by Russia, Iran and India, but now also including the US and Pakistan. Such an alliance would have to resolve the confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
  • Even if they hold the US and the West responsible for the current threats, by regime change and expansion of military force, they agree that Washington is a necessary partner in establishing the new political order. The US is weakened, but still the most powerful state in the world.
  • Significantly, the report also explicitly addresses the issues where Russia and Iran diverge. Specifically, Russia wants good relations with Iran’s defined enemies in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. In Syria Russia wants a secular state accommodating all religions and groups, not the current minority regime of Alevites supported by Iran.

This Russian-Iranian report should offer a sufficient degree of common ground for the West to engage Russia and Iran on forging a new political order.

Human rights agenda missing, but imperative
Important to address in the Russian-Iranian agenda are, above all, the missing human rights issues, in particular the protection of the individual through the concept of individual citizenship. In the polarization generated by conflict, confrontation and war, women and minorities have become especially vulnerable. To be sustainable over time, any political order must build on a social contract in which citizens offer their support only in exchange for protection and welfare.  Russia and Iran, as authoritarian regimes, need to be convinced of that, since, to them, this insight probably appears counterintuitive after the Arab Spring.

Torgeir E. Fjærtoft is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies (CIMS), University of Oslo. He has many years of experience as a diplomat and was most recently posted to Saudi Arabia.