Thursday 16 June - 0945-1045

How can international and regional actors address the political and sectarian conflicts threatening to further destabilize the Middle East?

No region exemplifies more powerfully the fragility of traditional borders today than the Middle East. From Syria and Libya to Iraq and Yemen, political conflict, geopolitical competition and sectarian dividing lines are undermining the boundaries of established states.

The danger is that current conflicts might spread further across the region, increasing instability in one of the most youthful and populous regions of the world as well as one which is central to global energy security. How can actors inside and outside the region help turn the tide?

Session Report

The session focused on key factors such as Syria and ISIS, but also tackled issues of wider context such as authoritarianism, the role Western countries should (and should not) play, and the need for economic opportunities, especially for young people and women.

Initial discussion focused on Syria's future as a single state or a divided entity. Looking long-term, perhaps its future lies in a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system, but it was also noted that the financial resources needed to return it to true stability as a single state are enormous.

Authoritarian leadership was a running theme throughout, with panellists noting that an entire generation of young people have grown up without basic freedoms and human dignity, and that the states they live in are currently failing to provide attractive opportunities to win their support.

Tackling ISIS brought a range of insights, including the need to consider wider problems in Iraq and Syria rather than specifically targeting ISIS itself, and also to understand that the organisation has been able to build by simply attracting those who have suffered military defeats, rather than needing to provide political solutions.

The role of Western countries was also debated, and it was stressed how important it is that they must not view everything through the dual lense of migration and terrorism, and strive to preserve and protect the good initiatives that have already developed within the region.

In terms of the region's own leadership, there was a call for wealthier states to help create opportunities across the whole of North Africa and Middle East, and that it is crucial for a strong civil society to be backed by a strong political state. But the region will only be ready for democracy once it is economically prepared.


Key Quotes

'It would be wrong to analyse the region just through the security lense. There is a security crisis but there is also a political crisis of legitimacy. For many young people, they have grown up in a generation where inequalities are rising, opportunities are shrinking, and there is a basic lack of freedoms and human dignity. We really need to address these political and economic questions of exclusion. We can do that by providing alternatives and that is what the state is not doing in the Arab world unfortunately.'
Intissar Kherigi

'There is a crisis of leadership across the region. Most of the leaders are either very old, very ill, or very illegitamate. What worries me is the rise of sectarianism, and unfortunately sectarianism has a lot of powerful backers in the region, and to them I would say, be careful what you wish for because you might actually get it. It is going to rip the region apart if we don't do something about it.'
Sultan Al Qassemi

'There is no consensus on how to approach Islamic State, at least at the regional level. The focus should be on Iraq and Syria. ISIS is an institution that can be eliminated or weakened through other means in Iraq and Syria, and we cannot have a strategy to combat ISIS per say. We need to look at Iraqi security and the final Syria political settlement.'
Mahmood Sariolghalam

'If you are very confident, you don't have to be mean. These are states that are not confident in their own capabilities, and correctly so, they typically aren't very effective, they don't have great reach into society and, as a result, they tend to have to be draconian in what they can accomplish. So what you do have to do is think about the construction of institutions that are stable. You really want state institutions that are accountable and relatively transparent. What are the mechanisms by which you can accomplish that?'
Lisa Anderson

'ISIS has more to do with the cyber world than the outer world. It has an incredible capacity to mobilise defeated people, it is a magnet for something very specific - military victory not political solutions. When you have this combination, expect something nasty to happen a few years later. That is the big lesson of ISIS. Those who talk about ISIS belonging to Islam or religion miss the central point.'
Ghassan Salamé