Stabilizing the Middle East

06/01/2015 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

The clearest lesson of the 9/11 attacks was that global security cannot be disentangled from security everywhere across the globe. Inattention to the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to rise, and later their myriad offspring such as Da'esh (also: ISIL, ISIS, IS), al Shabab, Boko Haram, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, etc.

The alchemy of anarchy

The Middle East, beyond its vast energy resources, which are so tempting to voracious global appetites, is a region of resplendent ethnic variety and cultural riches, with a multi-millennial history and myriad archeological treasures. It should be one of the most prosperous and stable areas on the planet. But in a terrible kind of reverse alchemy, it turns its gold into lead, in the form of perpetual instability, inequality and sectarian divisions. Primitive ideas become nihilistic ideologies -- truly "weapons of mass destruction." Citizens are suffocating, economically and politically, minorities are persecuted, populations displaced in biblical dimensions, military budgets devour resources, and civil rights are thwarted.

States directly or indirectly associated with various militia or state-like groups compete where they could instead collaborate. Authoritarian, failed and weak regimes consume security instead of producing it, while some export terrorism instead of fighting it. Global competitors continue their zero-sum geopolitical calculations, while international organizations such as the UN are marginalized. As the needs of the people are ignored and abandoned, stability and security fade.

Multiple wars and divisions

There are four official hot wars being waged -- in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen -- with no solution in sight. These wars are the outcome of broader competition and division:

1. The competition between Iran and its regional adversaries, which some analysts would ascribe to Sunni-Shia sectarianism; and

2. A new division within Sunni Islam itself, pitting Muslim Brotherhood oriented regimes such as Turkey and Qatar against Saudi Arabia and its allied sheikdoms.

The warm hopes of the Arab Spring died in a cold blast of petrodollars, military coups and the restoration of old-guard regimes. As civil wars intensified, beheading machines such as Da'esh emerged. Meanwhile, the Palestinian tragedy continues unabated, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies closing off the search for a balanced solution.

Numbers tell the story: Arab countries constitute about 5% of the Earth's population, but produce something approaching half the world's refugees. Although the precise number of victims of repressive regimes and terrorist groups is hard to determine, the use of chemical weapons in the region is confirmed, as are the widely practiced enslavement and trading of women and children, as well as punishments like stoning, crucifixion and beheading. Regional politics are dominated, if not monopolized, by petro-aristocrats, military oriented elites and "reformers" who use the vote as a mandate to force a return to past epochs.

Myth and miscalculation

The ideological and financial wellspring for the terrorist groups is the myth of the Caliphate. The Caliphate mythos is deeply linked to the soul of certain societies and subcultures, rendering them incapable of understanding the modern concept of the State based on inclusiveness and the rule of law. The havoc that held to a relatively limited geographical context is nowadays global in scale and scope, menacing security and civilization everywhere.

Despite this clear threat, and in the face of all logic, several governments persist in acting from a dangerously narrow, zero-sum economic mindset by selling sophisticated weaponry to regimes that in some degree support extremism. Some even seem to regard terrorists as a geopolitical tool, much as the US saw Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation as a useful anti-Communist force -- a misplacement of support that helped give birth to al-Qaeda. More recently, those eager to end the Syrian regime put their faith and funds with the opposition, a misplacement of resources that helped give birth to Da'esh.

Iran is uniquely placed

Although considered multi-centered and pre-democratic, Iran, by its geography, history and a solid civil society, has since antic times a predilection for stability and security. With its crucial geostrategic position, energy-rich Iran has links to both East and West, but historically and culturally it peers westward. The current negotiations among five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the 5+1) and Iran provide an important opportunity to boost stability throughout the region. Agreement on the nuclear issue has the potential to become a milestone on the road to regional security, and would encourage Iran to open itself to the world further. Allowing Iran to reach global markets by lifting the sanctions would improve its economic situation, boosting Iran's moderate faction and inevitably tempering its residual revolutionary ardor. If the 5+1 can draw Iran back to its historical affinity for stability and security, it will open the way to resolve several regional issues, including the tragic mess in Syria. Most importantly, it would help stem the devastating expansion of terrorism, which thrives on instability.

The bottom line

The cancer of terrorism is the symptom of society's unresolved problems, festering in the swamps of economic inequality, authoritarianism, suppression of civil rights and retrograde creeds. It is not difficult to locate the ideological swamps where extremism breeds, nor the financial sources that feed help the monster thrive. As long as the swamps are not drained and zero sum geopolitical ardor is not tempered with selective collaboration, the monster will continue to grow, metastasizing across borders like an epidemic.

Draining the swamps will not be easy. It is necessary to drain the no-rights swamps, the extremist mythology swamps. Recognizing current borders and promoting policies of relative inclusiveness through international institutions such as the UN would be a first step towards a modern state, a first assault on the jihadi terrorism that promises to plunge the world into a new dark age.

A few prescriptions

1. Work more intensely towards a Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement and nurture Iran's historical predisposition for security by helping it to re-enter the global economy. To reach this milestone of stability in the Middle East will take political will, especially in Washington and Tehran. It will also require persuasive US diplomacy with the Saudi-led GCC to defuse tensions in the area, perhaps by following the example of Oman.

2. Fighting al-Qaeda and Da'esh by supporting the Iraqi government with help from Iran, the main supporter of the Kurds and other anti Da'esh forces, hopefully "will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL" in Iraq, as the US president famously put it. Yet it is not clear how demanding a change in current Syrian political structures would advance this agenda, where Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and Da'esh itself are the strongest forces in opposition. Moreover, segments within NATO member Turkey's Muslim Brotherhood oriented government, along with the Saudi-led GCC, are arming the extremists. The US should look to define a clearer, less contradictory strategy against al-Qaeda and Da'esh.

3. The EU should discourage the spread of the ideology of the mythic neo-Caliphate in Turkey by being more open to entertaining that nation's desire for membership. Either democracy must expand eastward, or the neo-Caliphate myth will expand westward.

4. Acknowledge the sovereignty and all current immutable borders throughout the Middle East. Al-Qaeda, Da'esh and such trans-national entities cannot be allowed a safe haven, regardless of the political terrain of any country. The recent conquest of Palmira in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq demonstrates that Da'esh is not receding but expanding and reinforcing its claim of building a trans-national Caliphate. The UN should encourage Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to promote a selective collaboration in the interests of regional stability.

5. The US-EU axis and the Russia-China axis should similarly collaborate on economic incentives to encourage Ankara, Tehran and Islamabad to form a possible axis of security that would benefit all three nations, as well as the entire region. Unlike the Saudi-led GCC where power is closely held within certain families, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan possess some institutions that, at least by regional standards, are modern; they also possess important civil societies capable of influencing the political attitudes of their respective governments.

6. Reform should be encouraged in the countries of the Saudi-led GCC, which still control 24% of the world's oil reserves and use their wealth to preserve extreme internal inequality and external expansionism. The absence of reform at home and the export of extremist teachings of clerics who back slavery and regard any diversity as apostasy ("an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic" as US President Obama has described it") will only serve to further boost al-Qaeda and Da'esh ( ISIL,ISIS,IS) by leaving them as the unique alternative.