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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems

On 2 July 2020, the Centre for Geopolitics convened an online panel discussion on the topic of Foreign Intervention in the Middle East, bringing together four experts in the field:  Nikolay Khozanov, an associate researcher at Qatar University and a consulting fellow at Chatham House; Ambassador Hesham Youssef, with a distinguished career in the Egyptian foreign service and currently at the United States Institute of Peace, but speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the institute; Ronen Bergman, an author and journalist at the New York Times based in Israel; and John Sfakianakis, affiliated with the Gulf Research Center and Chatham House after a career as an economist in Saudi Arabia.  The event was chaired by Philipp Hirsch, an Ax:son Johnson Research Assistant in Applied History at the Centre for Geopolitics.  The discussion covered the various kinds of military and economic interventions taken in the region, their outcomes, and the actors involved with these interventions.

The event began with opening remarks delivered by each speaker.  Nikolay Khozanov offered the first set of remarks, focusing on Russian intervention in the Middle East remarking on the role of Russia as having global ambitious but being limited in scope with respect to the interventions it makes.   In his view, Russia’s relations in the region depended on relations with outside actors as well, balancing the use of various types of intervention with its interests around not just the region but the world, using “hybrid tactics.”  However, he felt that Russian domestic political factors, the coronavirus pandemic, and changing situations regarding the availability of resources in the region could alter this dynamic, leaving Russia more active, but active in preserving its areas of influence and minimizing risks and lowering costs.

Ambassador Youssef joined the conversation offering his views on the Middle East as a “historical magnet” for attracting intervention from powers around the world for the past two centuries.  Ambassador Youssef subsequently focused on the role of four major powers in the present, the United States, Russia, the European Union, and China.  United States in particular and its intervention in recent years, highlighting the positives of the fight against ISIS and terrorism, but also the destabilizing effects of cases such as the war in Iraq.  The withdrawal of the US from the stage emerged as a major theme, but with the caveat the US would always remain involved even if it wished to leave, due to its huge interests in the region from oil to the Iran nuclear program to Israel.  The Ambassador argued that Russia entered as a significant player again recently due to the Syrian conflict but found that in general Russia has seen this as a space to challenge the post-Cold War security order.  He then moved on to discussing the challenges facing the EU internally before it could play a more significant external role in the region before moving to an analysis of how China was becoming more active and aggressive on the international stage but remained unready to become a political power in the area on part with the United States.

Ronen Bergman also managed  joined the web event despite being in the middle of a developing news story, focusing on the role of Israel in the region.  He first offered an overview of the world’s response to the annexation of the West Bank, most notably its acceptance by the United States and opposition by the rest of the world.  Domestically, he found that the presence of the annexation had declined domestically and wondered whether implementation of the annexation would fade in the face of opposition from Europe, the rest of the world, and domestically too much to surmount.   Moving the conversation to Lebanon and Syria, Ronen assessed that, Israel aimed to continue at a low-level presence in Syria to interfere with Iranian supply to Lebanon and Syria without escalating the conflict into an open war.  In his view, Israel wants the low-level intensity conflict, all while knowing an all-out war will eventually break out in the region, calling it the “next war” or the “first northern war” between Israel on one side and Syria, Iran, and Hizballah on the other.

John Sfakianakis offered his thoughts from his perspective as an economist, highlighting that the region has not faired well during the Covid crisis, particularly the Gulf States that had not diversified their economies facing the collapse in the price and demand for oil.  This has impacted the region outside the Gulf as migrant workers have returned home and remittances have dropped as a contributor to their economies.  He argued that in the end the Arab world had not constructed a successful economic model, in conjunction with political factors leaving the region behind in attracting international investment.  Unfortunately, he found that these challenges were likely to intensify over the upcoming five years.

The Centre then opened up the conversation to questions from the audience, leading to a vibrant discussion for the remainder of the event.  Questions focused on issues ranging from the role that foreign intervention or support might play in solving crisis in Lebanon to a range of questions regarding Russia’s views on conflicts in the region, including rivalry between Iran and Israel and Turkey’s role in the Libyan crisis.  The audience found the issues around the Iran-Israel rivalry particularly engaging and asked the panel numerous questions on the issue.  The group discussions revealed interesting links between the diverse perspectives the panel brought to the event, and the future role of the EU and the United States of course also remained an inextricable part of the conversation.  The lively discussions and the range of topics covered highlighted the sheer amount of work needed in understanding the conflicts of the region and in finding a way forward.

The video of the event can be found here

Report by Arjun Sharath, Ax:son Johnson Research Assistant in Applied History, Centre for Geopolitics