The European Role and the Aspirations of the Arab People

07/22/2011 06:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

For Europe, both the declining U.S. interest in international affairs and the fact that Russia's approach to international diplomacy has reverted to the Soviet mentality, represent an opportunity for the continent to play an exceptional and effective role, both internationally and regionally. In truth, the Middle East, the Gulf region and North Africa are all geographically proximate to Europe, in addition to being the theatre where many European strategic and economic interests come together. In the past few decades, the European role was merely that of a proxy, in the era of the American and Soviet superpowers during the Cold War, despite the historical relations between Europe and the Arab region, stretching from the Middle East to the Gulf and North Africa. However, this decade has seen a shift in the relations with Europe, with the wave of change that swept the region with the beginning of the year. Yet the sovereign debt and Euro-zone crises have both held back the European Union, and brought many European countries into a shortfall of, or even to reneging on, the promises and pledges they had made. The idea of applying the principle of a Marshall Plan-like initiative, in order to ensure the success of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, has regressed, leaving only promises behind and an absence of the means to execute them. But the European interest in the events of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Lebanon, as well as in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has not regressed. On the contrary, every time the United States has lagged behind in Libya or in Syria for example, the European countries have helped resuscitate American interest, so that it may not fall into the slumber that usually comes when it fixates itself upon its domestic affairs, especially during an elections period. For instance, when the Obama Administration made a faux pas two weeks ago, which could have otherwise come at an exorbitant cost, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the European Union -- Catherine Ashton -- took charge and succeeded at reversing a terrible draft statement by the Quartet on the Middle East. Further, Europe plays an equally important role in light of that played by Russia in the Security Council and at the regional level, providing, for example, absolute protection for the regimes in Tripoli, Damascus and Tehran, with total disregard for the demands of the people in those countries.

China trails closely behind Russia on these issues, as it, too, pursues a policy of "obstruction", which the Soviets had adopted under Communism, shackling the Security Council either by preventing consensus over a statement or by threatening to use veto powers to prevent the adoption of a resolution. The importance of Europe's role in light of such circumstances -- be they the result of American, Russian or Chinese actions -- lies in preventing submission to the Russian tactic of "obstruction without explanation" (In fact, this tactic stems from a Russian feeling of superiority thanks to its veto powers, and to having the freedom to place national interests above the duties of the countries that have been given veto powers, namely giving priority to threats to international peace and security). The importance of the European role thus lies in either filling the vacuum or coordinating roles with the American ally in supporting fledgling Arab democracies. The importance of the European Union's role also lies in seizing the opportunity of the strategic Palestinian-European partnership offered to the EU, as well as other strategic partnerships with those actively shaping a brighter future for the Arabs. This is an opportunity that serves Europe's interest for numerous reasons, and one that it is accessible today for reasons connected not only to history and geography, but also to Europe's role on the international scene, within the equation for the American-Russian-Chinese relations in the coming era. That does not mean that Europe ought to claim to replace the United States regionally or internationally, nor for the Obama Administration to take refuge in Europe's role to avoid mending relations that are essential for the United States, or to continue hesitating over strategic issues.

President Barack Obama is currently focused on domestic challenges, indeed, and most prominently the debt ceiling debacle. However, this should not blind the U.S. Administration, for example, to the urgent need to correct the strange disrepair in its relations with Saudi Arabia. This is an important country in the region and a communications breakdown between the two countries, at the highest levels, is unnecessary, especially during such a delicate period for the future of the Arab region. The veteran Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees the Endowment's research on the Middle East, considers that the interests at stake between the two countries range from those where their stances are identical to those on which the two countries hold diametrically opposed positions, such as the issue of reform. Mr. Muasher says that "there is an urgent need for the two sides to sit together at the highest levels to resolve all issues", because taking the risk of leaving things as they are would be taking a tremendous risk. The Americans and Saudis have always been engaged in dialogue and have maintained contact over the issues of peace and security. They have also been engaged in a great deal of profound cooperation on, for example, Iran, the peace process and terrorism. Today, perhaps part of what has had a negative effect on their relations or on communication between the two sides is the issue of reform in the Arab region. The Obama administration disagrees with Saudi Arabia in terms of the nature of reform and of the priority of preserving governments through cosmetic or slow reforms. It is inevitable to hold frank talks, and at the highest levels, over such core disagreements. The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia does not have a single dimension, but is a multifaceted relationship, involving issues such as the pace of reform, the fate of governments and regimes, as well as matters of security ensuing from the collapse of certain regimes, or the survival of others. Yemen, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Libya, as well as Egypt, all enter into consideration in American-Saudi relations. The interests that are affected by deterioration or tension in these relations are major interests, and involve both security and economic issues. Here, Europe plays a key role in three important issues, Iran, Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process -- bearing in mind that Yemen is nearly an American-Saudi issue, which in turn needs to be discussed at the highest levels.

Syria figures highly when it comes to reassuring the Gulf, especially with regard to Iran, knowing that the fall of the regime in Damascus would be a major loss for Tehran, and would weaken the Islamic Republic. The Syrian regime provides a safe conduit for Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, in terms of weapons and political influence. It is also a starting point for Iran towards Iraq, thanks to the important border through which instability is often exported. Then there is the Palestinian angle, which is important for the regime in Tehran. The regime in Damascus controls Palestinian factions working in Lebanon, and holds other means of influence useful for the goals pursued by Iran, in defiance of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, for Iran's own aims and regional ambitions. Thus, containing Hezbollah, weakening Iran, reassuring the Gulf, and liberating Palestine from the hegemony of Iran and Syria has as its fundamental basis the fate of the regime in Damascus. In fact, the U.S. Administration's hesitation to take firm and decisive action against the Syrian regime is due to pressure from Israel, which sees the latter as a security valve. To Israel, the regime prevents some of the scenarios Israel has been promoting, for example, of Islamists seizing power in its neighboring country. Yet even within Israel, there is division over this issue, especially after it was concluded that it is impossible for things to return to normal in Syria, and that the fall of the regime is now only a matter of time.

The Europeans have begun invoking the language of President Bashar Al-Assad "stepping down", and there are reports about back channels offering the president a safe exit and a dignified departure. The U.S. Administration insists that its overt position was expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, when she spoke last week of Assad losing the "legitimacy" to rule, and warned him of the consequences of assuming that he was indispensable. Any interpretation of what she said later in Istanbul as backtracking on the stance expressed in Washington is, according to the American assertion, mere speculation, and what is happening in reality is a stepping up of American, European, and Turkish, pressures on the regime in Syria. What is happening behind the scenes includes precise and critical coordination between the US Administration, the Turkish government and the European Union, including conveying stern messages to the Syrian government. Turkey today is part of the partnership with the European Union and the United States on Syria, while the Arab League is excluding itself from the future and reiterating outdated expressions and stances that oppose people and defend regimes and their oppression. The new Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil El-Araby has done himself harm as he has done harm to the Arab people and to the Arab League, through his insistence on belonging to the past, while he himself has come to this post as a result of being revitalized by the Egyptian uprising for reform.

There are perhaps today two major camps, one being the partnership between the Arab League, Russia and China in protecting the regimes from being held to account for oppressing their people; and the other being led, locally, by Turkey in partnership with the European Union and the United States. The latter also includes partnership with the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that have understood the importance of listening to the people, and have also understood that stability has a new meaning after the eruption of the Arab uprising. Everything is temporary and provisional until the events in Syria unfold clearly. The panic of the leaders of the regime in Damascus is such that they have come up with the novelty of recognizing the Palestinian state, while the flames of protests are engulfing Syria's cities. Meanwhile, in spite of all the weakness and disorder within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, its insistence on change and accountability is unwavering, as lives are put on the line in the battle for change and freedom.

The courage of international and local human rights organizations is, too, unparalleled and they deserve all the support they can get from the Europeans, the Americans and the Arabs. They are operating in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine and Israel. Their natural ally is Europe, which has a special role to play during this period of American regression, Russian reversion and the reactionary positions of the Arabs as represented by the Arab League. It is a strategic partnership of a different kind.

Meanwhile, Catherine Ashton is competent and capable of charting a role for the European Union to play, one that would serve democratic aspirations and place Europe on the map as a political player and as a partner, not merely as a fund or as a proxy as in the past.