On Hegenomies and Alliances 2.0 – Strategic Competition and Regional Insecurity in the Gulf Region and the Levant

29/09/2016 09:00

The Bruno-Kreisky Forum (BKF), the the Austrian Orient Society (ÖOG), the International Institute for Peace (IIP) and the Austrian National Defence Academy jointly organised a conference on the topic “On Hegenomies and Alliances 2.0 – Strategic Competition and Regional Insecurity in the Gulf Region and the Levant”. Participants and Speakers came from the respective regions.


Venue:                        Bruno-Kreisky-Forum, Amrbrustergasse 15 in 1190 Vienna

Date:                          29-30 September 2016


Insecurity in the Gulf Region and the Levant

Hannes Swoboda

In the EU's - south eastern - neighbourhood it seems that we find much more insecurity today than some years ago. New competition between regional powers in the Middle East, the wars in Syria and Iraq, but also in Yemen and still in Libya do not increase the feeling of security in Europe. We actually can observe quite the contrary.


We should not forget - over our own grievances - that the killing of so many people and the destruction of so many cities brings so much trauma and hardship to the people who stay but also to those who flee. In the following I try to present some personal conclusions after an extremely interesting two days discussion with high level experts from the region, the EU, the USA and Russia at the Bruno Kreisky Forum with the support from the IIP.


1) The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a mixture of religious disputes and the fight for power and influence in the region. We can therefore observe a competition in leadership where especially religion is used with partly aggressive rhetoric but there seems to be also a competition concerning the attributes of national power, like e.g. economic power.

Who speaks for Islam and who is the regionally dominant state? Experts disagree about the relative weight of these two major influences. Some even say that this competition is necessary to improve in this cold-war-like situation. There is also the question, which country is the bigger for the other one and vice versa. It seems that Iran is the bigger – at least perceived - threat for Saudi Arabia than reverse.


An important question is, if the foreign forces like the West should be engaged into taking both powers seriously and try to convince them of cooperation instead of antagonism or if the West should just take this conflict not too seriously. I think the Obama strategy, which already was for a long time and actually still is also the European one, namely strengthening the ties with Iran in order to bring them into a regional dialogue, was and is correct. We need both sides to overcome their resistance to dialogue und coexistence.

Anyway, both principal opponents to each other are affected by the low oil price and that may trigger some pragmatic form of cooperation and might enhance the willingness to help to stop the war in Syria.


2) The Iran – Saudi-Arabia conflict is affecting the Syrian war enormously. The question if that conflict is a proxy war determined by foreign forces like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, respective by the Sunni and the Shiite forces and their allies or if it predominantly is a domestic Syrian war has to be answered, that it is both. It is certainly not only a proxy war, this view would underestimate the cruelty by the Assad regime and the willingness of opposition forces to get rid of that regime. One should not forget that this cruel war started after the inhuman and cruel reaction of the Assad regime to the first peaceful protests. We could not see such a brutal reaction in any other country of the Arab Spring. Experts, however, are still not sure how to end this war. The cases Libya and Iraq led to a very hesitant approach of the West and there is also the question if Russia and the USA would be able to end the war – a question which cannot be answered properly because it would deny all the internal factors leading finally to the situation as it is. A political rather than a military solution seems only possible within the Syrian regime, but we have to be clear that we cannot engage the regime and we will not be able to restore the status quo of 2011.


3) The Syrian war put the Kurdish question anew and with stronger force on the politi


cal and strategic table. But what we call the Kurdish question has to be seen with much more differentiation. There are many groups of Kurds and many different interests even inside the Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and Iran Kurds. But it is true, that a very close relationship exists between the PKK and the Syrian PYD and its military wing. The Iraqi Kurds with their semi-autonomous regional government (KRG) are a factor of stability but are not able influence the other Kurdish groups crucially.


The most important question in this regard is: how to find solutions inside all the countries where we have bigger Kurdish communities and how to create conditions for close exchanges and cooperation between them across national borders. The question is how to handle intern rivalries on a local and regional level but also taking into account that the Kurdish groups do operate also in parallel structures which helped e.g. the Kurds in Northern Iraq to remain stable.  How could these solutions in the end enhance peace and rather than provoke new conflicts? The EU and the West in general have to go far behind the often uncritical and even romantic admiration for the PKK and its leader Öcalan amidst the Kurdish diaspora and some of their friends. Only then we can have a fruitful dialogue with Turkey – one of the most important regional actors. But this presupposes a return to a constructive position by President Erdogan, which we – unfortunately - cannot see at this moment.


4) ISIS or DAESH seems to be on a retreat from dominating and "governing" bigger areas in the region. But the attraction of ISIS is predominately an ideological one rather than the effort to occupy certain areas. What will happen with the fighters they have attracted, including those from Europe, if their strongholds in the region disappear? Will they even step up their terrorist attacks against European targets? That could easily be and we must be prepared by better and closer internationally coordinated measures to fight terrorism. A scrutiny of targeted person's access to certain internet pages and asset freezes will be necessary. What is worrying about terrorist groups is actually not that they pose a real threat to the West but that they create an environment which is challenging Western culture and even basic international human rights. Besides, we have to be aware that governments always instrumentalized terrorists and that they still do. We might even have to consider that the terrorist organisations could be fought from within, which could lead to a success – although we do not have much influence on these developments.

However, without violating fundamental human rights we need to develop coordinated and coherent policies of preventing terrorist attacks as far as possible.


5) Unfortunately we will see for a longer time the dominance of military actions especially in Syria. But nevertheless we have to think about how to rebuild the country and with whom. Of course there are different opinions in how far representatives of the Assad regime or civil society elements who are close to and dependent of the regime should and could be involved in designing and developing Syria's future. Even recognizing how evil the regime is, there seems to be no alternative to find compromises with people whom one would not like to cooperate. The alternative strategy was implemented by the Americans in Iraq with dreadful results.


6) As there is for the moment no unified Syrian state existing, how should the new Syria be constructed? The question of decentralization or federalization is raised again and again in all these discussions. A lot depends on the successes of the Syrian army in Aleppo and other important areas. How can they regain lost territory?

But in all cases, a new construction along a bottom up approach with many cities and their regions gaining competences and power would be helpful to engage ordinary citizens in rebuilding their (!) country. The civil society in its organized but also unorganized form could play an important role. In addition it would need some strong national and international activities of building a viable infrastructure for the economic reconstruction. Fiscal decentralisation could empower groups and help them to move to a more sustainable form of cooperation.


7) Many are still disappointed by the West and especially the US abstaining from a military intervention. But the experience with the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have put a lot of restraint on Western powers and especially on President Obama. I have a strong sympathy for that hesitant position. Furthermore we have no viable strategy what to do with countries before collapse. Still, we need strong efforts to stop the war and prepare ourselves for the reconstruction of the country. With Russia and Iran supporting the Assad regime, that is not an easy task. But efforts should not be stopped.


Of course, as mentioned before, we need coordinated efforts to prevent terrorist attacks coming to Europe, once the battle fields in Syria and Iraq are no longer as ready and successful for ISIS. This must not be a general mistrust against refugees and Muslims, but a much targeted policy against certain individuals irrespective of their status and religious belief.