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Jun 06

[:BG]Tectonic Changes in the Middle East and How They Resonate in Europe: A View from Sofia[:]

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2016

By H.E. Mr. Daniel Mitov

It is always a pleasure for me to visit this country, not only because of the great tradition of friendly relations between our peoples but also because of our respect-ive governments’ similar perspectives on a variety of issues. One of those is the heightened threat to our security stemming from the turbulent developments in the Middle East. The struggle against terrorism, together with the tremendous wave of migration arising out of the activity of ISIS and the ongoing civil war in Syria, poses challenges to our national as well as collective wellbeing. I believe that discussions such as the one we are holding today can be particularly useful for identifying current challenges and for outlining their possible solutions.
Today, the situation in the Middle East has captured the attention of the entire world. State failure and the bankruptcy of the 1920 Sykes-Picot Agreement is manifested in many ways, most notably through violated borders, mass migration and displacement, terrorist attacks, and vast numbers of civilian casualties. These phenomena have led to a reordering of the sociopolitical “tectonics” of the Middle East, but they also resonate deeply across various neighboring geopolitical layers. Sectarian policy and proxy wars have managed to disturb the region’s very sensi-tive political contours. We are witnessing the loss of territorial integrity and the rise of pseudo-state formations. There is growing competition between Sunnis and Shi’a resulting in the formation of opposing blocs and groupings. The situation is further aggravated by the military intervention of forces alien to the region, which are trying to take advantage of the situation in the Middle East to advance their own international rehabilitation.
Against this backdrop, the struggle against ISIS is often overshadowed by other priorities stemming from private interests. Bombs keep falling on terrorists, but, sadly, also on hospitals and schools. Military operations persist, but they seem to be focused on political opponents more than on radical Islam. Coordination has hardly been achieved, especially given the lack of consensus on which group is the enemy and which is the ally.
All of this affects the political tectonics of the Middle East, emitting shock waves that cause tension throughout multiple layers (economic, ethnic, and religious) and in mul-tiple directions on the local, national, regional, and even global political level. Diver-gent state concepts, arising from varying ideological compositions and interests, further exacerbate this volcanic activity. And, as is well known, once a volcano has erupted, the lava pouring forth leaves an entirely new topography in its wake. Having said that, Israel is a state characterized by internal political stability and principled foreign policy. As such, Israel addresses the issues of the region and is itself among the factors for stability. As I have heard my Israeli friends say: “You should not live in a city with no doctors.” If we apply that dictum metaphori-cally to the Middle East, then Israel is one of the physicians.
As for Europe, the aftershock of the intense conflicts in the Middle East comes in the form of refugee waves and terrorist activity. From the tension on our borders to the Paris nightmare in November of last year, the way in which turbulent events in the Middle East can shape the European agenda is evident. We must acknowledge that the requisite consent and consensus to counter common threats have not always been present. As a result, isolated and unilateral decisions are being taken. This signals that Europe’s mechanisms for addressing its challenges do not always correspond to the dynamics of the challenges themselves, and do not always reflect the EU spirit of unity laid down by the founding fathers. As a result, voices are emerging for the revision of Schengen, which legitimize the “brand-new fear” of otherwise old and wise Europe.
We also have to admit that the attention and focus of European policy have not always been pointed in the right direction. For too long, we have been focusing on how to deal with the consequences of migration and terrorist activity instead of on how to address their root causes. We have been treating the symptoms but not the disease. Yet, regardless of how many resources we allocate to assisting the countries of origin and transit, the refugee flow and terrorist channels will not disappear as long as ISIS and similar actors exist on the ground. Meanwhile, any time spent in disagreement among the anti-terrorist forces is time lost, to the benefit of radical groups. I have no doubt that the fight against terrorism will be won, yet any delay will not be measured in days, but rather in civilian casualties.
At the same time, we must realize that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is to blame for the deaths of more Syrian citizens than Daesh, cannot be viewed as having a place in a long-term plan for the country. Even if Assad were to regain full control over Syria, violence and the incentive for migration would not necess-arily disappear.
The meeting in Vienna last year and the Munich Security Conference earlier this month outlined useful guidelines for addressing the conflict in Syria. On a theor-etical level, there is a consensus that the situation in the country must be resolved through political and diplomatic means so that the territorial integrity of the state and its secular character are preserved. The established conceptual framework for negotiations between the opposition and the pro-government forces, the possible formation of a national unity government, and the holding of elections under the UN mandate are all efforts toward this end.
In practice, however, we are witnessing actions in dissonance with these efforts, and not for the first time. We see intensification of military actions by Assad’s ground troops, accompanied by the Shi’a militia of Hizbullah and the military air raids of the Russian air force. These offensive actions give the impression that Assad wishes to undermine the negotiations by preemptively curbing the influence of his opposition. The attempts to change the demographic balance in certain regions and to complete the so-called Shi’a Crescent are more than obvious. The latter will help Assad’s regime create the necessary conditions to ensure its monopoly over the future political and electoral processes of the country. However, this would be a forced manipulation of the Syrian people’s future, and, hence, a likely cause of further conflicts and refugee waves.
In reality, the diplomatic tension and military clashes we are witnessing in the Middle East have deeper roots in the religious and political tectonics of the region. Although it is being fought by new means, this is an historical and ideologi-cal conflict, which will continue to manifest itself until countries in the region begin engaging with a new conceptualization of power that places religion in a different category. The teachings of Islam could be directed toward civil activity instead of toward politicization and, consequently, radicalization. Western countries can assist in this process, but cannot implement it in a region that knows best its own traditions and particularities.
The realization that the relationship between Islam and power needs to be rede-fined can only be made by the relevant countries. It is not something that can be imposed from outside. It will be impossible to redefine this paradigm and shift the understanding of the relationship between Islam and power by means of imported wisdom; it needs to be generated here in the region. I know efforts already exist, and Jordan has tried to launch such a dialogue already.
Up until now, these efforts have been quite modest, but I think that the instability wracking the region and the ensuing calamities will inevitably lead to such an understanding. I hear this from intellectuals and politicians in the region in each and every country. It does not only come from the Sunni or Shi’a parties, both of which maintain that efforts in this direction must be nurtured.
Even though I have lived in the region for some time, I cannot say that I completely understand the situation. Nor do I believe that it can be changed singlehandedly. But what I can say with certitude is that the push for change already exists; it simply needs to gain momentum. We can help with that. Europe can certainly play a role in the conversations without imposing solutions.
Europe itself has gone through many, many turbulent times. You know all too well what kind of horrifying political concepts were born on our continent and resulted in unimaginable catastrophes. The Middle East is in a comparable situation. The countries in the region need to be legitimized through the paradigm shift I am talking about. They need to delegitimize radical ideologies. Those radical readings of Islam need to come out of the framework, making way for legitimate political concepts.
Apart from terrorist activity and migration, the security of Europe is also affected by other factors in the immediate scope of the Middle East, such as the need for energy diversification. There is hardly anyone who understands this need better than Bulgaria, as my country is highly dependent on the monopoly position of its energy supplier. This is why energy diversification of the continent, and of the Balkans in particular, will provide alternatives to the buyer and fairer prices to the consumer.
This is yet another reason why the normalization of relations in the Middle East, home to many of the world’s key energy producers, is so important to Europe. Lifting some of the sanctions on Iran, the gradual recovery of control over natural resources and infrastructure by the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army, and the investment initiative of Saudi Arabia in the region’s energy sector are also beneficial in terms of Europe’s energy diversification.
Europe has already clearly demonstrated that commercial and other practical interests will not come at the expense of higher considerations. Values, politics, and security come first; business comes second. The EU sanctions on Russia are a current example of this prioritization. It is therefore appropriate to clarify that the cooperation between Europe and the Middle East will be put to a real test if the money of the European taxpayer used to purchase energy resources is then used to subsidize terrorist factions or sectarian policies.
Any reshuffling of layers causes tremors on the surface. We cannot prevent an earthquake, but we can build safer homes. Likewise, in politics there will always be conflicts, but it is up to us to keep them to a minimum. This is especially impor-tant for a dynamic and interconnected world in which a conflict can very quickly turn into a religious or ethnic conflagration. That fire may be in the Middle East, but its smoke will be felt around the world.
Today, the effects of the existence of ISIS, proxy wars, and sectarian policy in the Middle East have collective dimensions. We know that every step toward violence means territory lost to security. Guaranteeing security, however, is one of many shared interests of Europe and Israel, and that is why there is a strong partnership and cooperation between us.
At the present time, in some respects, the European Union is being shaped by cir-cumstances and events in its vicinity. But it has to think in terms of making history, not being molded by it. As Robert Kagan said, if you stop making history, someone will make it for you. When it comes to the EU, Brussels functions brilliantly in calm and peaceful times, but in times of crisis, we have to work harder on our reaction.
Of course, we are trying to react to events within the existing legal-institutional framework. In the meantime, certain tendencies have emerged. Some countries want to eliminate previously gained freedoms, especially the freedom of movement. My belief is that Europe needs to stay whole, free, and solid.
The various initiatives in this case are a result of the absence of a unified approach to the present crisis. The Bulgarian position has always been clear. For more than half a year now, we have maintained that Europe needs to focus all its efforts and resources on securing its external borders. Europe does have external borders and European citizens want us to regain control over them.
Turkey needs to implement the agreement it signed two months ago, and begin the process. Of course we need to help Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, the three countries most heavily affected by the wave of migration. That is why the confer-ence just held in London was focused on fundraising, so that that our aid will have practical dimensions.
It is well known that less than half of the migrants are actually refugees. We have an obligation toward those who are bona fide refugees, of course, according to all the conventions to which we are signatories. However, the others need to apply through standard readmission and repatriation policies, which presently are in the hands of the member states themselves, at least technically. The EU has to place this issue at the top of its agenda. Member states do not have enough resources to cope with this alone. But the combination of national diplomatic resources and pan-European diplomacy could achieve effective results.
Many people are curious about the Muslim population in Bulgaria and how it has been affected by the present situation. Approximately 10 percent of the population is Muslim, and in modern times there have never been problems. Bulgarian Muslims are our brothers and sisters. They are Bulgarian citizens, and, as such, citizens of the EU. The rights and obligations of Bulgarian citizens are enshrined
in the Bulgarian constitution, which does not recognize religious differences among citizens. I am particularly proud of the fact that not a single Bulgarian has been charged with involvement in Islamic terror. Our neighbors have not been as fortunate. Some of them have hundreds of citizens fighting for ISIS. But we cannot be complacent, because radical influences are constantly lurking. We need to take whatever measures we can in order to prevent radical ideas from spreading to Bulgaria.

Daniel Mitov is the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria. This article is adapted from his address to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations on February 26, 2016.

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