Middle East: In search of a new order

21.07.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier proposes a new order for the Middle East. Published in the Tagesspiegel on 21 July 2014

Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier proposes a new order for the Middle East. Published in the Tagesspiegel on 21 July 2014.


We Europeans are preoccupied by the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, the Middle East is coming undone. The uprising against the Syrian dictator Bashar al‑Assad first turned into a civil war and then into a regional proxy war. Now the crisis in Syria is affecting neighbouring Iraq and has reignited the smouldering embers of the conflict there, which had not been resolved.

Shiites are fighting against Sunnis, radical against even more radical fundamentalists, Kurds against Arabs, terrorists against democrats and against dictators. Neighbouring countries in the region, as well as major powers, are providing their proxies with money, as well as arms. The international community has not adopted a coherent approach. Some are acting out of a sense of responsibility, while some are reckless, some defensive and others proactive. Neither those involved nor outsiders can say exactly whether the other side is acting out of strength or weakness.

Millions of people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, thus placing a crushing burden on state‑provided services there. The ISIS terrorist group is extending its power base in Syria and Iraq and wants to sweep away the existing states.

That places great demands on regional and international crisis management. It must be made clear to Iraq’s President Maliki that only an inclusive government can overcome the threat facing his country. The channels of support for ISIS must be blocked. Neighbouring countries are in urgent need of more help to care for refugees. All of this is true, but it is not enough. Merely treating the symptoms will ultimately not bring us any closer to a sustainable solution.

Should we not risk trying to raise the quest for solutions to another level? Even if today that is merely a distant idea of the future. We should think about a new order for the Middle East which could re‑define and guarantee the security interests of all parties. In Europe, too, the concept of common security was for a long time an almost inconceivable political utopia. Nevertheless, we succeeded back then in establishing the Conference on Security and Co‑operation in Europe (CSCE) during truly difficult times. With the CSCE, the idea of common security gradually replaced a confrontational conflict logic. That was a difficult process and there were setbacks. However, there is no doubt that in the 1970s and 1980s the Helsinki process made a crucial contribution towards leading the Cold War into a phase of détente.

Of course, that cannot be transferred lock, stock and barrel to another region and to a different time, nor should we try to do so. But remembering Helsinki can help us to understand what the foundation of such an order could be: genuine security with one another instead of a deceptive security from one another, based on gradually growing mutual trust.

A quest for common ground would have to start in the region, without any taboos or pre‑conditions. The aim must be to take stock of interests in order to reconcile them. Parallel interests which could form a basis for a new order are there: all neighbouring countries and the international community are united in their concern that terrorist groups such as ISIS could become a permanent fixture. None of the states in the region want to see force being used to move borders. All of them are afraid that arms could fall into the wrong hands and be used against them. And it is in the best interest of all of them to ensure that minorities within their countries, whether ethnic or religious minorities, do not drift into open hostility towards the state.

No‑one expects such efforts to lead to overnight success. However, a start should be made, and the sooner the better. We owe that not only to people in the regions where tens of thousands have been murdered and millions forced to leave their homes. For this will also help ensure our own security. Syria is a training ground for thousands of European jihadists who practice there what they subsequently want to carry out in our cities. And there is a real threat that Iraq will go the same way.

This cannot be allowed to happen. For this conflict concerns us, and much more so than many want to believe.

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