As civilization’s cradle, the Middle East naturally has a turbulent history. For thousands of years, no shortage of peoples with different cultural, religious, linguistic, and ethnic identities have lived, fought, and blended with and alongside one another. Though religion, literature, art, and learning have emanated from the region, it has rarely been spared violence.
While the nature of that violence has evolved, it still plagues the Middle East today. The region’s brief colonial history from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire through the end of the 1940s paved the way for its current violent divisions. Since the end of World War II, the turmoil in the Middle East has primarily affected America, but Western Europe has been drawn into the violence as well, and already France has suffered heavily.
I have written previously about why inaction will not lead to better outcomes for the West or the inhabitants of the region. Instability and violence in the Middle East have historically affected Africa, Europe, and Asia. Neither the people of the region nor those of us outside it will benefit from inertia. A lethargic response to the Arab Spring and the escalation of hostilities in Syria have allowed the rise of Daesh and facilitated the exportation of violence.
The West needs a new plan for curbing violence and increasing stability and prosperity in the Middle East. We have decades of experience from which we can learn in order to map out more effective future strategies. This article details a new 5-point plan for promoting peace, prosperity, and stability in the Middle East.
I should stress two important aspects of this proposal. First, many Americans and Westerners are understandably wary of further involvement in the Middle East after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. People will rightly ask what makes the interventions I propose here any different from past, failed attempts.
I view the current impetus for action in the Middle East through the lens of the Arab Spring, the ripple of authentic and largely peaceful pro-democracy movements that began years ago, and have since devolved into the quagmire of violence that exists today. We were told that in Iraq we would be hailed as liberators. I do not make such a claim about our future involvement, but I also see a profound difference in the invasion of Iraq and the need to involve ourselves in the humanitarian crisis in Syria. If, in Iraq, we imagined a stable democracy, we first had to tear down an autocratic structure in order to create it. My plan, on the contrary, is predicated on the fact that the Arab Spring has unleashed forces that are challenging unsustainable autocracy--so long the supposed linchpin of stability in the Middle East! We are not creating instability; unfortunately, that has already occurred. We must now offer a helping-hand in the rebuilding process; the void of leadership will be filled with or without our involvement, and if we act as legitimate partners we will build friendships and shape the outcome in line with our values.
Secondly, the five points I lay out below are part of a comprehensive package, which must be implemented as such to be effective. This is not a pick-and-choose buffet of suggestions for action. In fact, some of what I suggest is not new at all. For example, re-committing to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine has been on the international community’s to-do list since 1948. As a standalone issue it has bedeviled Western leaders for decades, and it has stagnated into a process that stretches out not in search of an outcome, but for fear of an alternate reality. In some instances previous poor results should give us pause and make us question the efficacy of the ideas themselves, but not all past failures reflect poor ideas. There are other reasons past actions have gone awry. That we remain frustrated in the goal of a peaceful, two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is not a reason to give up on that vision. While we must learn from past mistakes, a thorough analysis may reveal whether the ideas themselves were bad, or the implementation, circumstance, or other factors caused their failure.
When I examine our past actions and interventions in the Middle East, what I primarily see are naked self-interest and a failure to address problems in a long-term, sustainable manner using the extant military, diplomatic, and economic tools at our disposal. What therefore follows is my plan for how those tools must be used together to help build a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East.
1) The ideological schism driving the violence is an intra-faith split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, typically represented by Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. This rift must heal at least enough to prevent bloodshed if stability is to be realized. While it is not the place of Western governments to wander into theological debates, we do have the ability to create conversation and cooperation around geopolitical issues. Daesh presents a threat to regional stability that is unacceptable to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus creating a condition for possible collaboration. The civil war in Yemen, into which Saudi Arabia has been drawn, is another conflict in which the competing interests of the two nations converge again, but in a counterproductive and competitive manner. The West should pressure both governments to engage diplomatically and collaboratively in the former and proactively mitigate military competition in the latter.
As the West and its allies in the Middle East, including Israel, look for enforcement of the Iranian nuclear accord, any room for dialogue, transparency, and cooperation will be meaningful and enhance our ability to hold Iran accountable. To achieve this, the West must work with regional allies and international bodies to foster dialogue and cooperation among competing stakeholders now facing common threats. The U.S. should immediately work to convene a regional security forum with both Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss the threat of Daesh, the war in Yemen, and how to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction, particularly to areas controlled by Daesh. These are concerns shared by both nations, and provide an opportunity for constructive dialogue. Because of the nature of the issues, these can involve diplomatic and low level military officials.
2) The West must reevaluate its relationships with traditional allies. While seeking the ouster of Assad in Syria — a worthy goal — the West simultaneously gives weapons and military aid to other secular Arab strongmen under the false premise that they were the best bulwark against Islamic terrorism. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the militaries fly American jets and use American missiles, yet these two nations produced the majority of the 9/11 bombers. The armies of the Gulf monarchies, Jordan, Israel, Pakistan, and of course, Afghanistan and Iraq, also tote American military hardware into battle and are often trained by American or other Western forces. The U.S. must reconsider this mode of “aid.” Though nation-building efforts are often considered—and have lately often been—failures, there is also evidence they work. After World War II the Marshall Plan helped European countries—including West Germany—rebuild themselves and served as a bulwark against more bloody conflict in Europe. Similar investments in Asia spurred growth there as well, and today Germany, Japan, and Korea are among the largest economies and wealthiest nations in the world. It is true that Germany and Japan had pre-existing infrastructure and institutions that made their transformations rebuilding processes as opposed to the nation-building endeavors we see today. This is not true of South Korea, however, which was a poor, rural nation but is now a tech-producing, innovating leader in the global economy.
America spends $14 billion on foreign military aid each year, and it seems all there is to show for it is dead Americans. The military aid should be rerouted into local infrastructure and micro-finance spending, with a certain portion earmarked for weapons only if the nation meets certain human-rights benchmarks. We ought to be building mores schools, hospitals, and roads while giving fewer tanks and helicopters. The appropriate agencies and governing bodies, such as the Departments of State and Defense need to re-prioritize how they spend foreign aid to emphasize that America is interested in creating stability through shared opportunity, not fearful obedience.
3) By itself, a Kurdish state could be a stabilizing factor in the Levant, but in conjunction with other steps laid out here such a state would be a linchpin of stability by serving as a true democratic and pluralistic society alongside Turkey and Israel. Just the symbolism of an authentic Kurdish and largely-Muslim democracy abutting a democratic Jewish state is a powerful statement, and would help foster the resolution of the decades-old conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Kurds already enjoy semi-autonomy in a region that runs from the southeastern border of Turkey through northern Syria and Iraq into Iran. Recognized as a distinct ethnic group with a history and culture as old as that of the Jews and Persians, the Kurds not only have a strong historical claim to statehood, but they have proven worthy of the task.
To date, the Kurds have demonstrated they are the only reliable ground force in the war against Daesh. Furthermore, the Kurds have shown a willingness and ability to build an inclusive, tolerant society. Women serve in the Kurdish military — the Peshmerga, the Kurds govern themselves democratically, if imperfectly, and last year the Kurds sent troops to rescue a religious minority, showing no signs of the religious extremism that drives many other regional players. The West should work with the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Israel to create a Turkish state within the following geographic boundaries: Kurdistan will abut Turkey, Iraq, and Syria as well as potentially Israel, Jordan, or Lebanon. The state will be located within boundaries of land that is currently held by Daesh in both Iraq and Syria. Territory seized from Daesh, but not from Assad or other rebel groups, will belong to the Kurds.
The U.S. must aid the Kurds in drafting and ratifying a constitution that protects human rights. Furthermore, we must enable and incentivize Kurdish non-aggression treaties with Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Iran in exchange for international recognition and sufficient aid to achieve statehood. Many of those nations have longstanding concerns and opposition to Kurdish nationalism and aspirations of statehood, but rather than an obstacle, this should be seen as an opportunity. Turkey, a nation at violent odds with its Kurdish population, would have a real opportunity to engage in meaningful ways to put an end to the violence that fuels their opposition. If violence and instability within Turkey and other nations that have traditionally opposed Kurdish dreams are fueled by the inability of the Kurds to fulfill those dreams, the natural solution to ending violence is to help the Kurds realize their goal via statehood. The dissolution of the modern nation-state of Syria and the rise of Daesh as a pseudo-governing body controlling territory with that nation’s borders present a unique and heretofore non-existent opportunity to address the question of a Kurdish state. Non-aggression agreements as pre-conditions for statehood address the violent reality that failure to solve this problem has fueled for centuries.
Working to create Kurdistan would facilitate even more room for conversation between Iran and other regional stakeholders. It would give Turkey, Iran, and their respective Kurdish populations a chance to resolve longstanding disputes by allowing Kurds to emigrate freely to a new homeland in exchange for repatriations from their former countries. Finally, it would provide stability on Israel’s northern border and act as a proof point for what a secular, but majority-Muslim country can achieve.
4) For a century, the West has viewed the Middle East as the world’s source for oil, but historically and currently there are many other possible economic drivers. Many parts of the region are ideal for different types of agriculture. The rich historical traditions of the Middle East are ideal for tourism if stability and safety were only assured, and already present opportunities for exporting cultural goods. Most importantly, green and sustainable energy can replace oil as a source of revenue and prosperity.
Diversifying economically will decouple wealth from one precious resource and alleviate some of the geographic and economic pressure for conflict. Spread more equitably, wealth will create a measure of prosperity that further undermines the ideology of violent extremism. With increased stability, much of the budget allocated to arming foreign militaries can be diverted into micro-finance and other economic empowerment projects that may further mitigate grievances of inequality and provide meaningful, new economic opportunities.
Unlike oil, the most precious natural resource in the Middle East—human potential—is largely wasted. Women and minority groups are repressed, and without full civil rights they are unable to offer their maximum contribution to economic and social health. Both Queen Rania of Jordan and Princess Reema of Saudi Arabia are champions of women’s health and economic issues. These are the types of leaders who need support and investment to improve their nations. Working with local governments and NGOs, the West should encourage micro-economic development and local prosperity, which will also support the empowerment of women.
5) Finally, a complete reset and re-commitment to the two-state peace process between Israel and Palestine is extraordinarily important. The formation of the current Middle East was catalyzed by the creation of Israel, and a firm and final resolution of the seven-decade conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is necessary to eliminate the impetus for future conflict.
It does not serve the West’s purposes to arbitrate a conflict that neither side seems interested in resolving. The U.S. must be firm with our expectations for both parties. To Israel, no more military aid without a complete halt on settlement construction, and a plan for scaling back settlements in anticipation of two states. However, the U.S. should also provide more direct military aid to Tel Aviv if it is attacked by Palestinian terrorists. This promise shows the Palestinians that Americans are serious about their statehood, but will not tolerate violence against Israel. Undoubtedly there will be extremists on both sides who will use violence to undermine this project. Sadly, some do not want peace, but their existence does not preclude it. Good behavior and relations will not replace bad habits overnight, but if we set high expectations and hold both sides accountable transparently and as equal partners, we will empower those peaceful and diplomatic factions on both sides who will be able to make peace a reality.
By withholding military aid to Israel so they will abandon settlements, but playing a more active role in Israel’s domestic defense against terrorism if needed, the United States can influence both sides to cooperate and set firm boundaries for a future Palestinian state. The ongoing cycle of violence and encroachment will only continue to erode further if forceful action is not taken. It is time the West made its non-negotiables clear to both sides.
To many, these ideas may seem idealistic, and a complicated history with the region may be a deterrent for taking action, but no matter how much or little blame the West deserves in creating the current reality in the Middle East, inaction will not absolve western nations of having to grapple with what happens there. The Middle East needs and deserves a better and more prosperous future. By helping build a better Middle East, America and the West will also be helping themselves by investing in friendship instead of enmity, broad prosperity rather than concentrated oil wealth, and universal civil rights over repressive, hierarchical regimes.
Will Staton is an independent education consultant and free-lance writer. Formerly a history teacher, as well as a religious studies and history major, Will remains passionate about international affairs. When he’s not traveling the country to deliver career readiness professional development, Will maintains his website, serves on the board of a charter schools, and does community organizing work in New York. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense of the U.S. Government
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Header Image: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II walk to East Room of the White House before making statements on the Middle East peace negotiations in Washington | Charles Dharapak, AP