Only a full and proper understanding of the root causes for the crisis affecting the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East – with dramatic consequences for the rise of IS as a terrorist threat as well as for immigration flows – will allow officials to identify appropriate policy options to tackle such a crisis.
It is generally accepted that the most impressive feature is the gradual disintegration and imperilment of the regional architecture established after the First World War. One that, up until just a few years ago, represented a pillar in international order. This process can be attributed to the explosion of historical religious fractures as well as long-lasting power clashes: the profound rift between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as the rivalries inside the Sunni world itself.
It should also be recognized that external interventions – with Iraq and Libya coming to mind – have proven to be an additional destabilizing factor, and this is contrary to expectations. The latter element cannot be neglected in the search for appropriate remedies.
The emergence of Daesh, which purports to anticipate the resurgence of the Islamic Caliphate, appears to be, therefore, the by-product of several causes, including the socio-economic problems out of which migratory pressures emerged from various Arab countries, marked by long-lasting dictatorships and violent regimes.
The unraveling of established states and the ensuing power vacuum have exacerbated competition, on concentric levels. The outermost circle encompasses the rivalry in the region between the United States and Russia. Despite President Obama's non-interventionist philosophy and his "leading from behind” stance, US interests in the Middle East remain crucial, not least because of Israel, even though some argue that the discovery of shale gas in the North American continent will somehow realign Washington strategic priorities. Russia, as usual, seems intent on containing the expansion of American (Western) influence and, wherever possible, expanding its own. Syria is a case in point. The inner circle includes the rivalries between Shiite and Sunni countries (“championed” by Iran and Saudi Arabia) and within the Sunni galaxy itself (Turkey and Qatar on one side, with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on the other).
This is the breeding ground of two extremely serious phenomena: the threat of terrorism and the humanitarian problem of refugees. They are totally different issues, although they often tend to be wrongly mixed together. In addition, Daesh, unlike Al Qaeda, is not only a terrorist organization, but it has conquered, and embedded itself in, a territory straddling two countries, Syria and Iraq. Not to mention Libya, another highly fragmented country where Daesh has already taken hold of various areas and is seemingly expanding.
Given these premises, it follows that a comprehensive policy has to stem from the convergence between the external actors (mainly the USA, Russia and, hopefully, the European Union) and the major regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar). Only thus will they not reciprocally hamper efforts towards overall regional stabilization and institutional, political and economic reconstruction of the failed states – Syria and Libya – or the consolidation of fragile Iraq.
To achieve this ultimate goal a number of players must be involved, including relevant domestic actors, as much as possible in a bottom up approach. An incisive UN role would add inclusiveness and legitimacy. External support in terms of security, economic and institutional support will be inevitably required.
A long-term view and the need to design a comprehensive strategy mustn't blind anybody to the fact that the immediate imperative is to fight Daesh and eliminate its territorial conquests. The territorial dimension sustains the claim, however outlandish, that the Caliphate is being reconstituted and represents a source of inspiration for Islamists everywhere. In this respect, the Islamic Countries, with no distinction between Shiites and Sunnis, should come out forcefully and unambiguously in their condemnation of Daesh.
Furthermore, it is crucial that Sunni Arab Countries join military actions against Daesh. Any intervention, in particular if (or rather when) “boots on the ground” will be necessary for the final push, cannot lend itself to the propagandistic accusation of the terrorists that it is a Christian crusade against Islam.
Over the last weeks, a debate has arisen about the use of the word “war” Oapplied to military actions in Syria and Iraq against Daesh or, in a more general sense, to combating these extreme forms of terrorism anywhere. Some believe that by refusing to label Daesh a "state” and by using the term “war”, the international Community would send a signal of weakness, underestimating the military effort required. Yet, these arguments are not convincing. Nobody seems oblivious to the fact that countering such a threat requires major effort and large resources, including military. However, when speaking of war in such circumstances, we should qualify the term.
On a separate issue, peace and stability in the Middle East will not be consolidated until a settlement is reached in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it may currently seem relegated to the background, it still constitutes a major source of violence and instability, exposed to the larger regional turmoil.
Islamic terrorists in the EU countries (the Paris assassins were mainly European citizens) draw inspiration from events in the Middle East, where they get training and vital support. However, Islamic radicalization in Europe, to some extent, is also linked to complex social, cultural and economic problems in western countries. These often seem to lead to identity problems especially for second, even third-generation-young people. In this context, Olivier Roy's theory that Islamic fanaticism is taking hold on a well established ground of western radicalism, appears intriguing. He calls it the “Islamization of radicalism”, rather than the “radicalization of Islam”.
Given the great challenge at hand, ISPI, with the generous encouragement of the Italian Foreign Minister and the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, has planned the MED Dialogues as an opportunity for governmental leaders, business community and experts to debate how to develop a positive and comprehensive agenda in a less constraining atmosphere. We hope it will contribute to progressive steps.