‘The Middle East is at a crossroads and it is worth considering new approaches in the region.”
“A confederation involving Iraq, Syria, or even Jordan and Israel might harness the unique qualities of each while giving space for all the different groups and their agendas to be heard.”
These were some of the ideas that emerged from a unique event last week at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), where a group of Israeli, Arab and Kurdish speakers – some speaking via Skype from abroad – discussed the current state of the Middle East and its future.
“These kind of meetings are of great importance, to gather Israeli experts and former diplomats together to create a common understanding,” said Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
Dan Diker, director of the Political Warfare Project at the JCPA, was enthusiastic after the meeting, saying that it provided a space to talk about ideas such as federalism in the Middle East. Convened as the Wechsler Forum for Innovative Regional Diplomacy, Diker said the roundtable discussion is important in light of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, which “may have created new opportunities for rethinking security and stability across the region.”
JCPA president Dore Gold, Pinhas Inbari and Diker have all pushed for assessing federalism’s relevance for the region today.
The meeting was a closed-door session and some of the participants did not want to be identified because they are from Middle Eastern countries that do not have relations with Israel. The main point many of them wanted to get across is that it is important to meet with Israelis and for both sides to share their views.
For much of the last century, most of the Middle East has been led by dictatorships and monarchies. In recent years there has been several divergent trends. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, there was a trend towards the Arab Spring and demands for democracy.
That all came crashing down with the rise of Islamic State and the instability that spread across Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Today the region has a new authoritarianism
and ideas of a “spring,” or democracy healing its wounds seem far fetched.
One idea that emerged is that some of the root causes of conflict in the region result from numerous groups with disparate agendas pursuing them differently and clashing.
For instance, Sunni Arabs, the majority of Syria, formed the backbone of the rebellion against the Assad regime. Kurds in Iraq and Syria played a key role in fighting ISIS. Shi’ites have their own sectarian parties in Lebanon and Iraq.
Large tribes play an important role in each state. What if these different groups could find expression in a federal or confederal structure, sharing commonalities with such countries as Canada, the US or Switzerland, where states or territories have some powers devolved to them? There is a drive towards a confederation structure in Belgium, for instance, but what about in the Middle East?
“My suggestion during the conversations was that Israel should not be afraid of a confederal unit of Iraq and Syria,” one participant said after. “Dream palaces can find traction,” the attendee said, arguing that despite the conflicts of recent years, it is worth thinking out of the box. “The conference was useful in taking stock of how much the region has changed and continues to change, opening up some space for creative ideas.”
Over a dinner, Diker, Inbari and Dr. Kamal Allabwani, discussed some of the issues facing the region. With Iran and Turkey working more closely together and both having negative views on Israel, there is an opportunity for Israel to work more closely with Sunni Arab neighbors.
This has been a difficult period for many Arab Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq they have lost out at the hands of a Shi’ite dominated government that is close to Iran. In Syria millions have fled their homes from the fighting.
“We need to fill the vacuum by a strong local coalition,” said Allabwani, a Syrian intellectual who has opposed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “We didn’t have unity [in 2011] because we just wanted to destroy the prison [of the dictatorship].” Opposition to Assad was a unifying moment, but since then the Syrian rebellion fractured and it is now completely altered. Part of it is under Turkish influence in the north, while part of it ended up with the US-led coalition in eastern Syria, and some joined ISIS, which still holds a bit of territory in the Euphrates valley.
Some participants tended to see the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and the Iranian regime as major threats to the region today. But they have also been disappointed by the stance of the Western powers, particularly the US, which sought out the Iran deal under the Obama administration and also portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as a “moderate” alternative to the dictatorship in Egypt in 2011.
They were also critical of western support for dictatorships in the region, arguing that western countries, some of which have federal structures like the US, tend to oppose the same structures in the Middle East.
The participants appeared interested in the idea of discussing some kind of political structure that might unite Syria and Iraq, but they also felt there were more pressing, immediate concerns. For instance, Turkey has sent its army into northern Syria and looks set to stay there, creating another version of northern Cyprus, where what seemed like a temporary Turkish role became a long-term separation. But one participant felt Turkey was not as much as a threat as Iran because Turkey is a democracy and it might change its position in the future.
The Gulf states have also played an outsized role in the region, several participants said.
“But they don’t give their support for free,” one man said. “They think if they give money they will get friends,” but the reality is the opposite. One man pointed to Syrian rebel groups who had accepted Qatari money to form various rebel “councils” and then taken Saudi money to form various rebel “fronts,” changing their names back and forth to get more financing. Qatar has tended to support groups closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, while the United Arab Emirates has opposed them, the men agreed.
One of the problems with convincing states in the region that a confederation is in their interests is that most see themselves losing power with any change. For instance, a confederation of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, even including Israel, would reduce the power of Hezbollah and create a new regional identity.
Any connection with Israel is still viewed as controversial but the Jewish state’s humanitarian aid for Syrians during the war has brought it a more positive image.
“I deem the meeting very important, regardless of the individual participants and their relative influence in their countries,” says Sagnic. “The federal and confederal issue is worth discussing but it doesn’t touch upon the deep rooted issues in Syria and Iraq.”
Iraq has a federal system with the Kurdistan Regional Government. But Iraq has faced challenges with this model because each group wants to advance its own agenda. “I think western experts are missing that every participant in these governments seeks to advance their own agenda and the solution should be adjusted in accordance with these agendas,” says Sagnic.
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