The Middle East Dimension of the Standoff at the Belarus-Poland Border

November 15, 2021

The standoff over migrants on NATO’s and the European Union’s eastern flank is turning into a wider political conflict. For Belarus’s EU  neighbors this is a deliberate retaliation for EU sanctions. Ukraine is reinforcing border guards to prevent any attempts by migrants to enter the country since it shares a 1084-kilometer border with Belarus. According to the Kremlin readout of a call between President Putin and Chancellor Merkel, the former supports the restoration of contacts between the EU and Belarus with a view to resolving the problem. It appears that parties most directly involved in the conflict also have domestic policy considerations in mind. Most of the initial reporting on the crisis referred to “a standoff at the EU-Belarus border”,  but this is the NATO-Belarus border as well. And Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia are now considering asking NATO to hold emergency talks under Article 4 of the treaty which says that “the Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

In the past decade, migration has become the EU’s major headache. Underlying the problem are Western interventions across the  Middle East and the failure of Middle East leaders to offer their people hope for a better future. During a trip to Central America, Vice President Kamala Harris underlined the importance of fixing the “root causes” of migration to address the surge of migrants at the southwestern border of the US. This is exactly what Europe needs to focus on in dealing with its migration challenge.

The Middle East, in the grip of polarization, is going through a violent period. Yes, there are other regions of the world, also characterized by poverty, authoritarian rule, inequality, and conflict but none has been a war zone for decades. Syria is being torn apart. Iraq is far from lasting peace and stability. Egypt remains unsettled. Tunisia continues to face a multitude of challenges. Libya remains a failed state. Yemen is being devastated. Behind their façade of stability and affluence, Gulf States are nervous. Iran is under the pressure of sanctions. As for Turkey, these are stressful times, to say the least. Thus, according to AP News, “many of the migrants are from Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East, people seeking to flee conflict and hopelessness for the prospect of better lives in Europe.”

Yet, Middle East leaders cannot come together around a table to see how they might end the region’s fratricide and adopt an agenda of peace and progress. Because they thrive in conflict. In the past, many used the Palestinian issue for domestic politics. Today, for some it is Iran. For Tehran, it is the US and Israel. For the Turkish government, the choice of an adversary depends on the ideology and domestic policy needs of the day.

On February 12-13, 2002, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the OIC member states and observer countries and the EU members and candidate countries had come together for a Joint Forum in Istanbul at Turkey’s invitation, to share their assessments of the world’s political situation and to promote understanding and harmony among civilizations.

On January 23, 2003, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey meeting in Istanbul at Turkey’s invitation, had urged Baghdad to enhance cooperation with international weapons inspectors and strictly comply with UN disarmament demands. In a message to Washington, they had also stressed the central role of the UN Security Council in legitimizing any possible war.

Unfortunately, such initiatives are no longer on anybody’s agenda. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation passed their expiration dates with the Arab Spring turmoil.

The multidimensional failures of the Middle East need to be addressed with a collective approach.

First is convincing the Islamic countries of the need to get together to address the challenge posed by sectarianism and radicalism.

Second is making sure that this is supported not only by the West but also by Russia and China because without international cooperation the effort would be doomed to failure.  

And third is dealing with the immediate threat posed by terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al-Qaida, and their likes with emphasis on the ideological dimension of the problem.

The question is “who is to lead the effort?” Unfortunately, the Islamic world remains divided. Many Islamic countries are part of the ongoing sectarian strife. None of them has the capacity to assume a leadership role. Some have internal vulnerabilities. So, it is up to others to convince Islamic countries to come together because without their united condemnation of sectarianism and terror little can be accomplished. For once they must agree to become part of the solution rather than the problem and act accordingly.

Since Europe is the preferred destination for Middle East migrants, the EU must rise above narrow selfish interests and take a leading role in the search for the region’s stability. For leading members of the EU, this is also a historical responsibility. Paying the Turkish government to keep the refugees there is an easy way of avoiding the root causes of the problem.

As for the region’s democratic evolution, this is a very long shot and will have to wait for some semblance of stability.

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