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What the West Can Do If It's Really Serious About Middle East Peace

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IRAQ REFUGEES
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After weeks of rapid expansion in Syria and Iraq, ISIS announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Their claim is laughable, because the original concept of the Caliphate was based on a pluralistic consultation between the four Sunni schools and their two Shia counterparts.

What is not laughable however are the large swathes of land that have fallen under the control of the militant organization. It is not inconceivable to imagine that ISIS could soon impose their dominion over a stretch of land that extends from the shores of the Mediterranean to those of the Persian Gulf.

To state the obvious, ISIS is not just Iraq's problem. Or for that matter Syria's problem. Or even just the Middle East's problem. In a world where a palm civet in China's Guangdong province can unleash a pandemic that killed people in America, and where a Tunisian fruit seller could bring down a powerful Egyptian dictator, the problems of any one country are more often than not, the problems of every country.

Viewed in this light, Western intervention in the Middle East is not an entirely unwelcome phenomenon. It is undeniable that the Arab nations can learn from the example of the West when it comes to matters of organizing for the public good, politics and commerce and the spirit of open minded innovation in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

What is unwelcome however is the kind of short-sighted series of ill-advised interventions that we have become accustomed to since the Second World War, where every decade has seen one or more Middle Eastern countries embroiled in protracted conflicts.

These regular outbreaks of violence in the region are an aberration in our region's long history. Way back before what I like to call the BC years (Before Churchill), my great grandfather had envisioned a pluralistic Arab world where Muslims, Christians and Jews were all equal citizens of the state. Of course, his vision was betrayed by the Sykes Picot agreement that arbitrarily carved up a land whose people spoke a common language and whose collective unconscious shared memories went back entire millennia at a time.

Since then, a series of short-sighted interventions have created a region where oil from Iraq flows in large volumes to the rest of the world, while the average Iraqi does not have a drop of petrol to put in his or her car.

How can the West then play a constructive role in the Middle East?

It can use its powers of persuasion to promote collaboration on an issue that is the major driver behind a lot of the region's conflicts.

I am talking about water.

Out of 148 countries in the world that share trans-boundary water resources, no two countries that share deep policy level collaboration on water have ever gone to war. There are 37 countries -- largely in the Middle East -- that don't have any collaboration on water. Needless to say, these are the countries that are at greatest risk of war.

This is a dire situation for a region that with a growing population and rapidly rising energy demands has essentially run out of water. Over a quarter million farmers in Syria were forced out of their lands in the build-up to the war. Sadly, by the most conservative estimates, there are many more Syrias waiting to happen.

It is estimated the freshwater resources of Gaza will be rendered unusable by 2020 -- and the situation would be irreversible. If you think the situation in Gaza is tense today, it is nothing compared to what it would be five years from now. Last year, Jordan was the fourth poorest water country in the world. With the large influx of Syrian refugees, today it is the third poorest. There are 45 million people in Iran and a further 45 million in the Nile Delta who are projected to be at risk of permanent displacement in the next 20 years.

Here's where the Western countries could help. They can use their influence to bring different countries to the table to form deep policy level agreements on water.

We've seen it happen before.

In the 1940s, the United States decided to use its good standing with Jordan and Israel to develop a unified plan for the joint development of the Jordan basin. These series of informal "picnic table" meetings led to what came to be known as the Johnston plan. While these meetings never translated into deep policy level agreements, they did usher in a period of collaboration among countries in the Jordan Valley Rift.

In fact, water occupied the central front of the negotiations for peace between Jordan and Israel during the years 1991 to 1994. The treaty and its Annex Two on water-related matters addressed such important issues as water sharing, joint projects, and the control of the level of the Dead Sea.

Our region has always been home to arid lands. However, now it appears that the most arid lands lie in the matter we carry between our ears. The absence of will, the absence of thought and the lack of constructive ideas explain why we are so arid at this time.

However, it doesn't have to be like this. By collaborating on coal and steel after World War II, the nations of Europe united the victors and the vanquished, and moved from an era of war to unification and peace. There's no reason the same cannot happen in the Arab world.

And here's my appeal to the West. Don't divide us in the name of military security. Instead, get us on the same table so that we can talk about human security. So that we can start talking not about Israeli water, Palestinian water or Turkish water, but rather about life giving water. Talking about life in the Middle East would be a welcome development. Talking about life would make for a good first step towards peace.