As dire as today’s headlines from the Middle East seem, things could still get far worse, according to a new report. The region’s civil wars could grind on for years, which would deepen a humanitarian crisis and promote mass migration, straining not just the political systems of neighboring countries, but Western governments and international institutions as well, says the Final Report of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force. The lack of security in the region would discourage even forward-thinking governments from undertaking needed political reforms, fearful of creating any opening that bad actors might exploit, it adds.
“The Kremlin is now skillfully exploiting the problems of the Middle East—including the refugee crisis—to serve its own interests on its western front, accelerating what it hopes will be a panic-driven turn inward by the world’s liberal democracies,” the report notes.
The authors propose a New Strategic Approach emphasizing partnership:
Under this New Approach, the leaders and peoples of the region must take full responsibility for charting a new, positive vision for their societies. At the same time, outsiders such as the United States would work to help resolve the violent conflicts that currently stand in the way of achieving any region-led vision…..The partnership that it envisions reaches out to the full range of regional actors, not just governments. Youth, women, private business, local civic groups, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, educators, and engaged citizens all have a role to play. What is required is a Whole-of-Region approach.
The New Strategic Approach envisions a two-pronged action agenda, implemented simultaneously:
External powers will take the lead along with regional actors in winding down civil wars, mitigating human suffering, and relieving the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Daesh2) of its territory. At the same time, regional actors, with support from external powers, will work to unlock the region’s rich, but largely untapped, human capital—especially the underutilized talents of youth and women.
This complementary division between external and internal actors represents a Compact for the Middle East:
It abrogates outdated assumptions that countries and peoples must choose between security and more open societies. The more steps countries in the region take to improve their governance and the lives of their people, the more legitimacy they will have, and the more support they can expect from the United States and its transatlantic partners.
The report’s working group members included Laith Kubba – Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Endowment for Democracy; Leslie Campbell – Senior Associate; Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute; Larry Diamond – Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Amy Hawthorne – Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy.