Dr. Raffaella Del Sarto Discusses Prospects of Middle East Stability


Dr. Rafaella Del Sarto

Dr. Raffaella Del Sarto

With the chaos going on in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen the perspective that security and stability is more important than democratization is becoming prevalent, even if that stability comes at the expense of human rights” says Raffaella Del Sarto, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at SAIS Bologna. Following the sorrowful terrorist attacks in Paris, here are some lucid and eloquent pieces of thought of a SAIS expert.

After the sorrowful terrorist attack in Paris, President of France, Mr. Hollande declared a state of security and urgency. Is the French state’s reaction applicable to the EU in general?

We already had this discussion after the attacks in Madrid and London when the citizens confirmed that they wanted more security. Yet, this raises the issue of civil liberties, which is obviously a much bigger debate. In the name of greater security, after those attacks single member states already changed their laws, for instance on privacy and the lengths of administrative detention. I believe we have a second edition of that discussion today. I believe that most member states and even most societies want more security, because what is happening in Paris and Brussels is truly frightening. But what does security mean and what are its limits? To what extent are we willing to give up our civil liberties and our privacy? This debate will certainly resurface. Also, there is a relatively broad agreement that intelligence should be shared among the member states, an issue that is not very developed so far. At the same time, reintroducing border controls among EU member states, that is, abolishing Schengen, will not really help.

So far, political actors anchor their action against DAESH according to their own political agendas, therefore we had not a united EU foreign policy, is France’s attempts to unite anti-DAESH coalition an opportunity for a united foreign policy?

Solidarity among EU member states with France was very important and Angela Merkel’s decision to deploy German troops to Mali to free some space for French soldiers is noteworthy. However, I am not sure whether people will follow Hollande’s call. We have already seen quite some divergence among member states as regards specific policies towards that region,for instance as regards Libya. There have always been special interests and particular concerns of specific EU member states. As regards Daesh, I do not think that many EU member states will align with the French position and will engage in air raids. I would hope that there will be a more unified stance towards DAESH – which would include Turkey as well. But I do not see all EU member states agreeing  on how to  defeat DAESH. I hope I am wrong.

Although important incidents took place such as the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey, this does not change the vulnerable situation of refugees. Right now what we are approaching (witnessing?) is the use of migration policy as a foreign policy tool by the EU and Turkey. The refugee card is used bilaterally as a tool for accelerating Turkey’s accession negotiations to EU. Of course, in theory European border management does not depend on temporary political developments but on permanent rules and procedures. However, in practice, (what?) do you think on (?) a European border management strategy based on financing the neighbours to take care of the refugees? This question is not clear…

I think this is not new. This is a policy the EU has been engaged in since a long time. The current refugee crisis is different in its magnitude. Important numbers of refugees are being hosted by Turkey, so it is incomparable to other cases; but I think there is a very long history of  trying to co-opt the governments of bordering countries into the European migration management, as they would call in Brussels. We can think of Qaddafi’s Libya who was given some concessions, financial aid, also some equipment to fight illegal migration. Libya hosted a detention centre for irregular migrants, which was co-financed by the EU and Italy. We can think about Morocco and Tunisia as well. So the EU border management certainly depends on the cooperation of these bordering states. However, the moment you co-opt these governments, you give them a greater leverage over the EU. Some countries know how to play the ‘migration card’. Qaddafi, for instance, used to play this card very well. Morocco and Tunisia have been struggling how to play that card because at the same time they depended economically on the EU. Turkey has been using the refugee crisis very successfully – from Turkey’s perspective – in relation to the EU. I suppose that we will see much more of this, as the EU tries to extend the control of its external borders ‘beyond the border’, in order to deal with the refugee crisis. Of course, there are different types of borders, we could think of the different borders for refugees and business people for instance. Altogether, the leverage of bordering countries that are involved in the EU’s border management will increase, , this is very clear.

The EU showed a very clear stance against autocratic governments. But there havebeen some controversial consequences which paved the way for the emergence of fundamentalist organisations. Is DAESH a reason or a consequence of certain developments such as Syrian autocratic government and the Western engagement with the politics of the Middle East?

This is a very good question. The reasons for the beginning of the Arab uprisings are complex and multi-causal. European governments, especially the southern EU members, were actually very happy with stability in the MENA region, even though they had to deal with authoritarian regimes. Democracy and human rights were very important rhetorically but not in practice. The logic is that stability in your periphery is of key importance, while transition processes can be very messy. Now, as for the question of whether support for those autocratic regimes actually caused the emergence of extremism and terrorism, well, to a certain extent, this may well be true. On the other hand, specific political and socio-economic condition may in those countries may foster extremism and terrorism, , but I am not sure there is an automatic correlation between this and that. As for the rise of Daesh, some of the uprisings could have taken a different direction. There certainly are a number of endogenous factors that explain the emergence of fundamentalist organisation, apart from what the EU did. The rise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq is to a large extent a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in particular the lack of a proper plan of what would happen afterwards. Regime change and democratisation are possible, but if you want to achieve that, you need quite some investment. There are also additional endogenous factors that explain the rise of Daesh, for instance the way the al-Maliki government in Iraqconducted Iraqi politics, the role of regional powers, etc.. Altogether, the picture is much more complex.

What is the major motivation (reason?) of political instability with regard to Syria for instance? What was the major motivation behind the sectarian tension occurring right now, not before, because the Baath Party and the family of Assad has been in power for decades. Why now?

I think this has a lot to do with the politics of these countries: suppressed minorities, autocratic regimes etc. But the timing has much to do with the political management of these differences, which is related to Bashar al-Assad’s lack of skills (as compared to his father) in co-opting different sects and segments of society. In addition, it is related to the events in Iraq, including the involvement of regional powers. Of course, the Alawites are a minority, ruling over a majority with authoritarian means, no doubt. But the framing of the conflict in terms of the Sunni- Shia divide is, I believe, the result of a political manipulation and exploitation . Alawites were traditionally not defining themselves as Shia, and I am not sure there are defining themselves as such today Particularly the involvement of regional powers in the Syrian conflict fuelled the sectarian divide. It is worth reminding that the conflict started as a peaceful demonstration against authoritarian rule; there was no talk of sectarian differences.

It would not be wrong to claim that the restructuring of peripheral countries in primarily MENA region by the Western powers displayed a series of failures in the last twenty-five years. Given this, after the Paris attacks, are we more confident to say that replacing legitimate but autocratic governments in the MENA may be very costly?

I think there has been a rethink of this issue. It may not been said openly, because, it does not sound politically correct. Although John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN under the Bush administration, openly argued in The New York Times that this is a region where alternatives to military or semi-authoritarian governments are scarce. With the current chaos in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and considering the recent terrorist attacks in Tunis and Beirut, the perspective that security and stability are more important than democratisation is undoubtedly becoming prevalent, even if that stability comes at the expense of human rights. In order to change these priorities, you would need some long-term and sustainable policies in support of democratisation. You would need to address some fundamental socio-economic problems in the region. You would need a policy with clear objectives. And you would need to invest considerably in the region. . Thinking about the crisis of the Eurozone and the current political and economic situation in Europe, I really do not see anyone wanting to invest in the region. I do not see the US willing to do this. I do not see any ong-term vision. Short-term policies based on the principle that keeping the area stable is preferable will prevail. The case of Syria may be a bit different. However, what should happen once and if Daesh is defeated, is a big question. Bolton suggested the redrawing of the map in Iraq and Syria, establishing a small Alawite state, a large Sunnistan, a Shia’ state, and a Kurdistan. However, I can’t see anyone taking the lead behind this kind of policy, also because it potentially has a great potential for even more conflict.

I am sorry I cannot give any better news!

Editor’s Note: Wording changed on February 28, 2016 @ 15:33 GMT