The Middle East and Europe in These Turbulent Times
The views expressed in this article are my own and
do not necessarily represent any Albanian government policy or position.
A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the regional transformation underway in the Middle East. From the Arab Spring to the rise of ISIS, to a catastrophic Syrian war, we see a Middle East in turmoil and crisis. While the region’s geopolitical map varies, the root causes of conflict remain the same.
What Is Pan Arabism, Sunni Islam and Shi’ism?
In the early 1960s, Pan Arabism led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt attempted to unite Egypt and Syria as well as other Arab countries in one Pan Arab Union where member nations would be linked by a common language and culture despite differences in their respective religious beliefs. The failure of this noble effort, I believe, resulted in the beginning of radical Islam.
Arabism’s secular ideology that aimed to bring together people of all faiths in a modern Arabic society faced strong opposition from traditional Islam. The Islamic conservative backlash was especially acute in tribal societies and led to the creation of a movement which became known as political Islam.
In subsequent years, Arab countries suffered deep socio-economic and political crises. Rapid population growth and a rural exodus in favor of large cities overwhelmed housing, employment and other resources, leading to social dislocation, instability and political radicalization.
The radicalization of Sunni Muslims became a defensive tool against other religions and sectarianism. Individual Sunni scholars put their emphasis on incorporating Sharia law in all forms of government whereby their Holy Book would be the sole political manifesto. This action created constant institutional ambiguity as there was no recognized clerical religious authority to decide on specific matters of governance.
This vacuum allowed many Sunni organizations, militants, self-proclaimed caliphs and radicalized groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Al Nusra and other lesser known groups to impose their own view of Sharia.
While the Sunnis do not have one supreme authority figure who sets the moral tone, the Shi’ites do. In the Shi’ite denomination, there is one supreme religious leader who unites all Shi’ites together, with Iran as its foremost state and Khomeini as the supreme, undisputed leader.
Iran’s sphere of influence in the Shi’ite world extends from the Strait of Hormuz with Houthis in Yemen, to Lebanon with Hezbollah, to Iraq and Syria. Shi’ite radicals put their emphasis on the character of the ruler who oversees the implementation of Sharia law. Foreign fighters who support Bashar al-Assad in Syria are sponsored by Iran, come in large numbers from Afghanistan and include other Shi’ites from countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union.
Syria is extremely important to Iran. It links Tehran with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it closes the circle of influence in the region, making Iran a regional superpower. Besides the manpower Iran supplies for the war in Syria, it is estimated that Iran has spent nearly $1 billion in cash to prop up the Assad regime.
Lifting the embargo and applying the 5+1 format conditions in the Iran Nuclear Agreement will make Iran economically viable once again. The Agreement is seen as a victory for Iran and its domestic policy, but it will have absolutely no effect in changing Iran’s policy in the region.
Under no circumstances would Iran allow Assad to lose Syria, and that’s where old partners as well as adversaries have found common ground. Last August, Russian aircraft conducted raids in Syria after launching from Iran’s Hamedan military base, sending an important message to the West about this new/old alliance.
Turkey, the Refugee Crisis and the European Union
Iran’s new role in global geopolitics has implications for another key player in the region—Turkey. Turkey’s foreign policy and its international influence has waned as Ankara is faced with growing domestic violence.
The ongoing terrorist threats in Turkey are not only from the Kurdish separatist movement and its Syrian PDY arm but are also from a faction of a radical group that deserted the Assad Army known as the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA). The SLA was originally supported by Turkey, a few European Union (EU) member nations and the Gulf States with the aim of getting rid of Assad.
In part because of these domestic concerns, Turkey failed to recognize Russian and Iranian power-sharing ambitions in the region. The influence of Iran in the Shi’ite world and Russia’s interests in the region cannot be underestimated.
New geopolitical alliances and the refugee crisis in Europe have created a serious dilemma. The European Union’s underlying principles have been called into question. Dealing with the influx of refugees fleeing war-torn areas goes beyond borders. The lack of a unifying foreign and defense policy will remain an EU challenge for the foreseeable future. Moreover, Turkey and Greece and other countries whose Mediterranean shores have accepted waves of refugees cannot face these challenges alone.
Viewing the refugee crises as a regional issue is a mistake. This crisis is certainly a global concern. The European Union is now desperately trying to convince Turkey to shoulder more of the burden even though Turkey has been housing over 2.5 million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
Europe and the whole world were transfixed last year, watching hundreds of thousands of desperate people crossing mountains, rivers and iron fences that were built across Europe. Most of these refugees ended up living in tents provided by the Turkish government.
Turkish concerns about the plight of the refugees, however, fell upon deaf ears. This early warning of a pending humanitarian crisis was something that EU leaders failed to understand.
By closing its borders, the European Union will not resolve the refugee crisis. It may, in fact, lead to bigger problems. Conflicts must be tackled at their origin. The European Union must find a way to balance its economic and security concerns with its inherent humanitarian obligation to help alleviate the suffering of immigrants who have walked thousands of miles in order to reach southeast Europe.
Turkey and the European Union have serious issues when it comes to Turkey’s demand for nine billion euros to keep the refugees inside its borders. It certainly would cost the European Union less to have Turkey become a full EU member rather than continuing to deal with mounting pressure from the influx of refugees from the Middle East and beyond.
Security is a global issue and cannot be handled in isolation. Europe is stronger, safer and bigger with Turkey and the Balkans inside its structures rather than outside. There is no better solution for these turbulent times than a strong and unified European Union.
While the United States is trying to take a leadership role to find a solution, there are numerous bumps in the road. The Iran deal is viewed by some as a good step to satisfy and control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but it is not enough.
Europe is still trying to come to grips with Britain’s departure from the European Union. Russia’s attempts to increase its sphere of influence, on the other hand, makes the landscape even more complicated unless each individual player in the West maintains its geopolitical influence in the region. The U.S. role in the crisis is vital, particularly in convincing the EU partners to stick together.
Ambassador of Albania to the Republic of Turkey, 2013-2016
Ambassador Mucaj was also accredited as non-resident Ambassador to the following posts: Republic of Azerbaijan, Republic of Georgia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.