Protesters in Cairo, Egypt

GIS Dossier: Europe as a global player – the Middle East and North Africa

  • The Arab Spring’s upheavals removed a row of stable dictatorships to the EU’s south
  • Europe’s response was passive in Syria and aggressive in Libya; neither worked
  • The growing EU-U.S. rift over the Iran nuclear deal will be a key barometer

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey, the third in a four-part series, considers whether Europe (primarily, the European Union) can stand on its own as a global power. Part One examined the basis and instruments of European power. Part Two looked at where and how this power has been applied in Northern and Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and Turkey. Parts Three and Four cover the Middle East and Africa.

While Europe’s strategic focus was directed east during the Cold War and its aftermath, over the past two decades its gaze has shifted south. The long-term security threats – from political instability, terrorism, armed conflicts and population movements – are broader and more complex than anywhere else on the EU’s perimeter.

In fact, the Middle East and Africa make up not just the most volatile part of Europe’s neighborhood; they compose one of the two dangerous geopolitical rift zones in the world (along with the 6,000-mile arc around China running from Japan and Korea, through Taiwan and the South China Sea, to India and Pakistan).

Demographically, the region contains 49 of the 50 fastest-growing countries in the world (the lone exception is Afghanistan, another key source of migrants to Europe), according the United Nations estimates for 2010-2015.

It also has the highest incidence of armed conflict, accounting for 15 of the 19 civil wars and insurgencies currently raging in the world, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker.

In sub-Saharan Africa, especially, many other countries are dealing with political instability that could quickly escalate into civil war, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi, as GIS expert Teresa Nogueira Pinto has examined in a series of reports. The conflicts generate refugees and worsen famine conditions caused by recurring droughts, which spur more migrant flows to Europe.

Open borders

The Mediterranean has always been more a highway than a moat, joining North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. As GIS expert Bernard Siman pointed out in a July 2017 report, the “Mare Nostrum concept of that sea as an internal lake” has long been neglected by EU leaders:

Present policy, focused on technical details such as migrant quotas, completely misses the big strategic picture as Europe gears up for the next tidal waves of migration. If you fail to deal with the problems “out there,” they tend to wind up on your doorstep and in your living room.

Moreover, technological change over the past quarter-century has virtually destroyed the efficacy of the great natural barrier to population movements from the south – the Sahara Desert. As GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein pointed out in December 2015, “modern transport and telecommunications” have made it easy for people to learn about opportunities in the North, and then to go there. Jetliners, four-wheel drive pickups, cell phones and the internet mean that “Europe, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are now all close neighbors.”

Decision makers erred in comparing the Arab Spring with the democracy movements that overturned the Soviet bloc

The conclusion drawn by both Prince Michael and Mr. Siman is that Europe needs to engage. By shrinking from commitments, the EU surrenders any opportunity “to promote and defend its strategic, long-standing interests” in the region. Until recently, as Prince Michael noted, only France and the Vatican seem to understand this imperative.

Now that geography has failed as an effective barrier, Europeans should shed their blinkers. Europe must engage in Africa instead of using poorly directed foreign aid as a sop to its guilty conscience.

Arab Spring

Europe’s strategic buffer was also weakened by an unexpected series of events in 2010-2011 – the popular upheavals in the Middle East and Africa that became known as the “Arab Spring.” In rapid succession, mass protests toppled long-entrenched rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hung on, but his country plunged into a seven-year civil war.

The fateful miscalculation of Western decision makers, based on an analogy with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991, was that this was a “pro-democracy movement,” as Prince Michael noted in October 2016. While it may have been just that for frustrated members of the urban elite, for the Arab street, power was soon captured by strict Sunni Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or by anti-Western Jihadists, as GIS expert Charles Millon wrote in October 2012.

Map of migration routes from the Middle East and Africa to Europe in 2015
Libya, then in the throes of its second civil war since Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, was a crucial gateway for the great immigrant wave of 2015 that rattled Europe’s sense of security (source: macpixxel for GIS)

With the collapse of this “row of stable dictators who tended to favor secularity,” in Mr. Millon’s terms, a power vacuum arose. Political instability spread from North Africa’s northern tier south into the Sahel and east to Sinai, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. This may have been inconvenient but acceptable to President Barack Obama’s administration, already retreating from its Middle Eastern commitments, but it was a disaster for Europe, as Prince Michael wrote in March 2017:

The Middle East is not as crucial for the U.S. as it is to Europe. Europe, however, is not a real player there. Its role in the region is reduced to moralistic pontificating, which often brings results contrary to what is expected. Europe appears to ignore the brutal reality that a further weakening of the governments in the Middle East and North Africa will result in increased migration to the rich countries across the Mediterranean.

In part, this naivety about Sunni Islamists reflected a political calculation that it was better to “keep them inside the tent rather than risking them attacking from outside,” as Mr. Siman noted in a November 2011 report. The idea was to avoid “the bloody and devastating Algerian scenario of the early 1990s, which led to a 10-year civil war.” But the East European analogy missed the very different cultural and social structure of the Middle Eastern movements.

In other ways, Europe was also mentally unprepared for the end of “an era of convenient stability” in the Arab world caused by the wave of regime changes, GIS expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich wrote in July 2011. Clearly, policymakers needed to modify their strategic framework, though Dr. Nerlich predicted military intervention of the scale seen in Iraq and Afghanistan was highly unlikely. What the upheavals made obvious is that “stability by repression” cannot work indefinitely against demographic and economic pressures, he wrote. Instead, Europe should step in to help finance “win-win” projects such as desalination and solar power.

‘Geopolitical vacuums’

The consequence of misguided Western backing for Sunni Islamist revolts was a series of disastrous regime changes across the Middle East and Africa, as Prince Michael noted in April 2015. In polities that are often artificial relics of the colonial era, a common result is state failure, as the whole administrative structure collapses and local warlords take over. We have seen such outcomes in Somalia (which has been in disorder for almost 30 years now), South Sudan, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

These “geopolitical vacuums,” as Mr. Siman noted in a November 2011 report, create ungovernable spaces that provide havens for terrorist and criminal groups – such as pirates, drug smugglers and human traffickers.

Syria’s civil war was an instance where Europe followed the lead of a hesitant United States

The worst-case danger to Europe is that this process of implosion spreads to countries that are cornerstones of the region’s geopolitical and security architecture (such as Saudi Arabia) or whose size could create a migration crisis so vast that it could swamp the EU (Egypt).

Bad template: Syria

Syria’s civil war was an instance where Europe followed a hesitant U.S. lead – contributing to a limited military intervention against Islamic State – while lending support to Islamist rebels by making unrealistically maximalist demands for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for peace talks. As Prince Michael pointed out in December 2017, this wasted a good opportunity to work out a federal solution in Syria back in 2014-2015.

As GIS has consistently argued since the start of the conflict, what was needed was a new Peace of Westphalia, allowing for “an orderly dismantling of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that arbitrarily divided these lands into French and British zones a century ago.” A comprehensive settlement to the war would require a major diplomatic effort, enlisting Russia along with all of the “stable regional powers” – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey – according to an October 2015 report by Charles Millon.

French fighters take off to bombard Islamic State positions near Raqqa, Syria
French Rafale fighter-bombers take off from an air base on the Persian Gulf to bombard Islamic State positions in central Syria, October 2015 (source: dpa)

The failure to take this chance – due perhaps in part to a mistaken sense of moral superiority on the part of Western policymakers, who embraced a “value-driven approach” in foreign policy – has left Europe without influence as Mr. Assad reconquered the country with Russian and Iranian help. Now, instead of the Geneva Process or a UN-brokered settlement, there may well be a solution in Syria without the West’s involvement.

Even worse is a situation in which the EU’s major allies – the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – do not accept peace in Syria if it means maintaining the Assad regime with Iranian influence. That could mean internationalizing and widening the war with new combatants (including Hezbollah, Iran and Israel), destabilizing the region and potentially generating millions of new refugees.

Worst case: Libya

In Libya, EU leaders took the opposite course, intervening militarily to assist the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi (1969-2011). As GIS’s Charles Millon observed, it was virtually a personal war waged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who managed to drag in NATO (over Italian objections).

Seven years and two civil wars later, Libya has become “the main transit country for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” and “Europe still has no solution,” Prince Michael wrote in March 2017. The internationally recognized but “toothless” Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is largely controlled by local militias, and continues to haggle with the Tobruk government and its military commander General Khalifa Haftar for control of Libya’s oil and gas industry.

France is pushing ahead with a peace deal in Libya, while Italy is convinced elections are premature

France and Italy, which both have direct stakes in these operations, remain at loggerheads over an “electoral process” that was supposed to unite the country with elections in December 2018, GIS expert Ambassador Zvi Mazel noted in August 2018. While French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing ahead with the peace deal, Italy is convinced elections are premature and may even reignite the civil war. “In a country completely controlled by militias, holding elections too soon is playing with fire,” GIS expert Dr. Frederica Saini Fasanotti wrote in a September 2018 report.

Meanwhile, the knock-on effect of Qaddafi’s collapse gave Muslim fighters and nomadic separatists free rein to roam across Niger, Mali and Mauritania, as described by GIS’s Charles Millon in an April 2012 report. It allowed jihadis to smuggle arms and explosives to fuel an insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while allowing smugglers to get rich from exploiting Europe-bound migrants.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia

If Libya is a cautionary tale, Yemen could be worse. The country has plunged into a three-way civil war after the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1990-2012). Like Syria, it has become a battleground between Iran – which backs the Shia Houthi rebels – and Saudi Arabia, which has intervened to prevent the country from fragmenting and falling into the hands of its archenemy in Tehran.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is conducting a high-risk campaign to modernize the kingdom, has staked virtually everything on an aggressive campaign to break the Iranian encirclement. However, the war is not going well, and the strain it is placing on Saudi finances and relations between the Gulf States is considerable.

Yemen’s location at a highly strategic spot on the approaches to the Suez Canal and next to Saudi Arabia – the linchpin of the world oil market and the anti-Iranian Sunni coalition – increases the potential for dangerous contagion. In the event of a total collapse, its population of nearly 28 million could create a refugee problem matching Syria, which is only two-thirds Yemen’s size.

Differences over Iran

While Europe has its own traditional interests and sympathies in the Middle East (including a more reserved relationship with Israel), it generally deferred to U.S. policy during the later stages of the Cold War and especially during the “war on terror,” which spawned military interventions by NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Like much else in transatlantic relations, that has changed with the administration of President Donald Trump. His decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resulted in the reimposition of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and would cut off all oil and gas shipments from that country in November, once a 180-day cooling-off period ends.

These steps have driven another wedge between the U.S. and Europe, which remains committed to the JCPOA and is working on ways to salvage the agreement. Most worryingly for the cohesion of the Western alliance, that might include financial work-arounds – possibly including a new payments clearing system being promoted by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – to allow EU companies to avoid American sanctions for conducting business with Tehran.

Iranian and EU officials meeting in Vienna to discuss the Iran nuclear deal
July 4, 2018: EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini (L) with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) at a JCPOA meeting in Vienna. Europe’s efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal over U.S. objections will be an important test of its credibility (source: dpa)

While Europe has the weaker cards in this dispute, it is clearly trying to become an independent player, as GIS expert Dr. Udo Steinbach noted in a September 2018 report. The conflict will be an important test “for the independence and credibility of European policymaking,” he wrote, and could also have an important impact in Iran, where President Rouhani’s government may continue to abide by the JPCOA and use EU support as “an important card in the domestic power struggle with the hardliners, who want to end the deal and are seeking a showdown with Washington.”

How the EU and its member countries decide to handle Iran could have broader implications. Geopolitically, a decision to defy the U.S. on sanctions would set Europe against the emerging Sunni-Israeli coalition in the Middle East, which appears to be the new linchpin of American policy, Prince Michael noted in January 2018.

Neglected pillar: Egypt

One of the main casualties of American disengagement from the Middle East under President Barack Obama was one of the U.S.’s closest allies and strategic partners: Egypt. Washington’s willingness to let a popular revolt topple longtime ally Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) and accept the election of President Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, rankled with the political elites in the Sunni Arab world. After army commander Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ousted Mr. Morsi in a coup, Washington left him more or less on his own as he sought to stabilize the country and pull it out of a catastrophic economic downturn.

For Europe, the stakes in Egypt are high. As early as July 2013, Bernard Siman was warning that “prolonged political instability or even civil war” in this nation of 92 million could produce a refugee crisis that would dwarf Syria’s. For the next five years, Mr. El-Sisi carefully kept Egypt out of the armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. As noted by Ambassador Mazel (a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt), he made this decision to focus on “immediate and proximate security threats to his country” and to prioritize economic growth.

Egypt has embarked on bold and risky economic reforms that increase the cost of living for ordinary people

This demanded bold and risky steps, such as cutting energy subsidies, introducing a value-added tax and floating the Egyptian pound – all of which increased the cost of living for ordinary people. President El-Sisi also became one of a handful of Arab leaders – along with Tunisia’s President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia – to push for religious reform and a more moderate interpretation of Islam suited to the modern world, as Ambassador Mazel pointed out in an October 2018 report.

Egypt continues to face security threats from jihadi groups and Hamas, which have helped sustain a stubborn insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Another major concern is with its southern neighbors. Ethiopia’s project to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile could severely curtail Egypt’s water supply – a matter of life or death. As Ambassador Mazel noted in a May 2018 report, this could literally set off a water war, with scenarios including the dispatch of Egyptian air force jets to destroy the dam.

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