11th President Abdullah Gül's Article "Middle East Points of Light" for Project Syndicate

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11th President Abdullah Gül's Article "Middle East Points of Light"  for Project Syndicate

ISTANBUL – I started my political career in 1991 – the same year as the first Gulf War and the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid. The leaders of the time were well aware of the complex links between the Palestine problem and other challenges in the Middle East. Unfortunately, those links remain.

Since that time, I have witnessed many initiatives, plans, and projects for resolving various Middle East conflicts. Needless to say, my country, Turkey, has always been at the forefront of the international community’s efforts to secure peace, stability, and cooperation in the region, and I contributed to some of them as a member of parliament, prime minister, foreign minister, and finally as President.

Unfortunately, despite an immense expenditure of energy and resources spanning a quarter-century, these efforts have not yielded the desired results. Modest progress has been either sabotaged or insufficient, even as thousands of innocent people, both in the Middle East and beyond, have fallen victim to violence, hatred, and vengeance. The massacre of civilians (including many children) in Gaza last summer, the barbarity of ISIS, the murder of rabbis at a Jerusalem synagogue, and the terrorist attack in Ottawa last October – all convey a simple truth: violence is contagious.

In 1991, Saddam Hussein was the only regional threat; today, the threats have multiplied, with cumulative effect. In 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union jointly sponsored the Madrid Peace Conference; today, the US and Russia are barely on speaking terms.

But, though regional and international actors are deeply frustrated by the further aggravation of the Middle East’s problems, more pessimism will only make matters worse. So let us try to draw some lessons from a scattering of positive signals and trends in recent months.

For starters, the removal from Syria of the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons shows that joint efforts can yield positive results. Likewise, by agreeing to extend the international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, the parties to the talks have kept alive the promise of a final deal, which would be a great victory for multilateral diplomacy.

Successful nuclear talks with Iran (in which I have been involved, as Foreign Minister and President, at various stages) would have major strategic, political, and economic consequences for the Middle East and the world. A solution might motivate Iran to facilitate the resolution of other regional problems. Moreover, other powers in the region that have or are believed to have a nuclear arsenal will have no excuse to oppose disarmament.

The establishment of a more inclusive Iraqi government – enabled by the common sense and coordinated efforts of actors within and outside of the country – is also a positive sign, as are steps toward resolving disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central authorities in Baghdad. The KRG’s decision not to insist on holding a referendum on independence augurs well for stability in Iraq and the region.

The same can be said of the coalition formed against ISIS. But, though military gains are now visible, “hard” power alone will not be enough to defeat the group. Ultimately, the solution lies in patiently building an inclusive political framework that wins the support of local people and leaders who, despairing and fearful, have been lured to the extremists’ cause.

Though the use of hard power against ISIS may not have run its course, the mistakes made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria must not be repeated: strategies for military exit and political transition must be considered without delay. Moreover, because ISIS is a phenomenon that crystalizes all of the region’s political, ideological, economic, and social pathologies, possible solutions must be bold and comprehensive.

Likewise, the decision by some European governments, parties, and parliaments to recognize the state of Palestine is a welcome development. This trend reflects disappointment with the current diplomatic deadlock, for which the blame should be squarely on Israel, not the Palestinians. The hope is that this trend will encourage the efforts of parties in Israel and Palestine that want a just solution. It is in everybody’s interest that Israel’s government acts with restraint regarding West Bank settlement and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

Finally, though the Arab Spring has been stifled everywhere (with the sole exception of Tunisia), the expectations, yearnings, and concerns of the region’s people remain alive and valid. The demands that defined the Arab Spring – for democracy, good governance, human rights, transparency, gender equality, and social justice – will continue to shape the regional agenda.

The question is how to consolidate these gains and nurture progress. One potentially constructive initiative would be to establish a security system similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This vision, which has been around since the 1980s, should be kept alive, despite – or precisely because of – the unfavorable conditions for its creation. Because such a mechanism would require a strong economic-cooperation dimension, encompassing energy and water issues, it would encourage long-term strategic thinking and anchor multilateral efforts to resolve problems as they arise.

For now, the turmoil engulfing the Middle East is like nothing we have seen before. That is why optimism is needed more than ever. Only by building upon positive developments and visions can regional peace and stability be restored and secured. The alternative may be too grim for even a pessimist to imagine.


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