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Different views of Middle East at Munich Security Conference

Lewis Sanders IV
February 19, 2017

Heading home after the Munich Security Conference, political leaders leave behind diverging ideas of how to reduce conflict in the Middle East. With no easy solutions, prospects of peace remain elusive as ever.

Syrien Krieg - Kämpfe in Daraa
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Abazeed

The Munich Security Conference aims to be a space of dialogue between allies and rivals, friends and foes. The weekend witnessed frail affirmations and sharp rebukes on how international relations should be handled and under which framework.

Despite the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency overshadowing discussions of Europe's future and the state of global affairs, it appeared as if the organizers saved the most challenging topics of discussion for the end: tensions in the Middle East and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Fraught with conflicts, exasperated by regional feuds, and subject to foreign interventions, the past year marked a significant shift in the prospect of stabilization in the Middle East. With the Trump administration taking over the helm of a frail international system, seismic shifts in US foreign policy may serve as fuel for the fire.

In a sign of the tumultuous debate ahead, a last-minute change of plans moved Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to the opening spot on the last day of the conference.

Flagge USA und Iran
The US was one participant in the Iran nuclear dealImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP Photo/F. Franklin

During his speech, Zarif defended Tehran's position on the nuclear deal negotiated in 2015, which traded sanctions for curbing the Islamic republic's nuclear program.

"We are not going to produce nuclear weapons. Period," Iran's top diplomat said. He accused regional actors of fomenting unrest across the region by funding the proliferation of takfiri ideologies, an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.

Different views on Iran

The new US administration's policy on Iran prevailed in consolidating support among its key allies in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia.

"For the first time since 1948, the moderate Arab world, the Sunni world … understands that the biggest threat for them is not Israel … but Iran and Iranian proxies," said Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

The three focal challenges posed by Tehran stem from its nuclear weapons program, efforts to destabilize the region, and proxy wars, he then added.

Reiterating the Trump administration's stance, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir described Iran as the "biggest state sponsor of terrorism," saying the Islamic Republic is bent on exporting its revolution.

"Eventually, every revolution comes to an end," al-Jubeir said.

Deutschland Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz 2017
Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir had sharp words for IranImage: Reuters/M. Rehle

The terrorism facet

Amid a weekend of discussions on the future of transatlantic relations and the challenges brought on by a seemingly "transactional" US administration, political leaders and high-ranking service members cited the terrorism as the biggest external threat.

For the conference participants, the root of this seemingly existential vulnerability was the "Islamic State" militant group.

"We can defeat Daesh," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym. "We need to kill their ideology … which has nothing to do with Islam," he added, echoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statements from earlier in the conference on the importance of separating terrorism from Islam.

The "Islamic State" rose to notoriety in 2014 when it seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the occupation of Mosul.

Since then, a US-led coalition has provided support for on-the-ground operations aimed at uprooting the militant group from its bastions in the region.

However, even a vision for defeating the militant group has fragmented with regional and international actors, including Russia and Turkey, backing various armed militias and government forces claiming to be the guarantors of their defeat.

Syria - a stale prospect

The concluding session of the conference turned its attention to the conflict in Syria, the most topical theater of violence in the current era.

Despite numerous attempts to secure a "cessation of hostilities" in the country over the past year, casualties on all sides of the conflict have continued to surge, with civilians comprising a significant proportion.

Syrien Gefechte um al-Bab
Ground fighting in Syria has been ongoing since 2011Image: Reuters/K. Ashawi

More than 300,000 people have been killed and over half the population displaced since 2011, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government forces launched a brutal campaign against peaceful protesters calling for democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners.

Six years later, the result is a multifaceted civil war in which international actors and local forces continue to lay waste to Syria in a bid to secure their respective interests in the country.

"I have never seen a war so cruel in my life," said Staffan de Mistura, the UN's Special Envoy for Syria, who has worked on conflict resolution for decades.

De Mistura noted that the current ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey in Astana had provided a working foundation for the peace talks slated later this month in Geneva. But others cast doubt on the potential for success using this approach.

"If we're going to progress on peace talks, we need to move past diplomatic defeat," said Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth. "Peace cannot be made in a conference room."

Indeed, political leaders represented at the discussions provided everything but a fresh perspective on the challenges that face the region and its future.

When historians look back, the Syrian conflict will remain a blemish on the 21st century, a sign that the modern framework for global affairs may be less successful than imagined in the wake of World War II.

The Munich Security Conference served its purpose, however: to be a space of dialogue. But collective solutions to the greatest challenges of our time remain an elusive feature of a global system in disarray. Despite the promises of diplomacy, national interests continue to prevail.