Event Reports

Challenges for the Stabilization of the Middle East

KAS and MERI Organize Annual "MERI Forum" with Focus on Instability in the Middle East and Solutions to this Challenge

With support from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Syria/Iraq office, the Middle East Reserach Institute (MERI) organized the annual MERI Forum in Erbil on October 23 and 24. High-level decision-makers from Iraq as well as experts and diplomats from the Middle East, Europe and the United States attended the event.

The Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region (KRG), Qubad Talabani, opened the conference with a speech on the political situation in Iraq and in the KRG. The event focused on the continuous instability in the Middle East. The various panels discussed both the causes of the problems that the region is facing and possible solutions to these challenges.

Challenges for Iraq and the Kurdish Question

On the first day of the forum, four panels were set to address the following topics: (1) reform of the Iraqi government system with an emphasis on decentralization efforts; (2) challenges for state and nation building in Iraq; (3) the Kurdish question in the Middle East; (4) the European Union’s (EU) external actions with the aim of reducing ideologically motivated violence. The first panel reaffirmed that the implementation of decentralization measures in Iraq was crucial for efficient and effective governance and that the new Iraqi government should take effective steps in this direction. The participants agreed that, above all, competencies and responsibilities should be more clearly defined and enforced among the various administrative levels in the country. The second panel emphasized that the lack of a strong Iraqi national identity was a burden on the country, which particularly reinforced the lack of social cohesion that is prevalent in the country. In the third panel, panelists reiterated the need to strengthen cohesion between the Kurdish areas of the Middle East; i.e. the individual regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, where Kurds constitute the majority of the population. To achieve unity among the Kurds, however, armed struggle is no solution. Rather, dialogue, negotiation and the democratization of societies in the Middle East could solve the Kurdish question.

The EU as a player in the Middle East and violent extremism in Iraq

The fourth panel discussed the EU’s role in the region and its capabilities to act effectively as a foreign policy actor. In this regard, the EU faces several key challenges. One of these is the issue of donor coordination where the EU has significant difficulty in finding a common position. As a result, the EU often appears in conflict countries far too late as an actor with its own agenda. Moreover, the issue conflict sensitivity, which is predominantly driven by the member states, presents problems. With the rise of populist parties, it is becoming increasingly difficult to adequately address urgent foreign policy issues. In this context, the crisis of liberalism in Europe makes it increasingly difficult for the EU to act as an advocate of fundamental rights and freedoms in the world. This problem also includes the difficult task of balancing interests and pragmatism on the one hand, and the commitment to certain values, on the other. Especially in the Middle East, this dichotomy often presents challenges to the EU.

The fourth panel also addressed the issue of violent extremism in Iraq. In Iraq, policymakers often do not distinguish between violent extremism and terrorism, although both problems are of a different nature and, therefore, require different approaches. The country is, in fact, too focused on the fight against terrorism, in which security is ensured through a top-down approach (hard security approach). In doing so, the fight against violent extremism, which is practically the basis for terrorism, is neglected. The fight against violent extremism requires long-term, bottom-up approaches, which empower local communities and stabilize the society as a whole. Since Iraq plunges from one phase of conflict into the next by default, such long-term approaches are subordinated to hard-security approaches. The panel concluded that stabilization efforts are over-militarized by such an approach. The result is the absence of any sustainable fight against either violent extremism or terrorism.

The role of regional and global powers in the Middle East

The second day of the conference addressed the role of regional and global powers in the Middle East. The three panels dealt with the following topics: (1) stability in Iraq and the role of the international community in ensuring a stable country; and (2) conflict and cooperation in the Middle East in light of the influence of regional and global powers in the region. In the first panel, the participants emphasized the importance of security sector reform and economic development for the sustainable stabilization of Iraq. In addition, they emphasized the role of human rights and the need to better integrate women in the political process.

The second and third panels discussed regional and global power dynamics in the Middle East. In particular, the geopolitical dispute between the United States and Russia, and the regional conflict between Israel and Iran continue to have a negative impact on the entire region. Similarly, the proliferation of non-state armed actors – especially those militias controlled by Tehran – creates key problems across much of the region, to which there are no plausible solutions. Thus, the main conclusion was that the Middle East is facing an ongoing period of instability.

Similarly, in the Middle East, there is a lack of sustainable dialogue about a peaceful resolution of conflicts. The international community can only create stability in the region if it counteracts this deficit. The creation of inclusive institutions (both state and society) is a prerequisite for stability. It is important to strengthen civil society in the Middle East.

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Laure-Maïssa Fargelat

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