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The attendees of the EU Arab League summit pose in front of the logos
Image: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

Opinion: The price of the EU's inaction in the Middle East

Loay Mudhoon
May 22, 2019

As the EU has adopted a noticeably more pragmatic stance towards Arab autocrats, shifts in the balance of power within this strategically vital region are ­triggering realpolitik, says DW's Loay Mudhoon.


The joint EU-Arab League summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in February was the first of its kind. Cited as "historic" by several observers, European heads of state and top EU functionaries met with Arab autocrats with the aim of "strengthening the desire for closer cooperation and coordination," as the summitʹs final declaration put it.

In the end, however, the only historic thing about the summit was that it took place at all. Its resolutions were so non-binding that they were consigned to oblivion almost as soon as they had been announced, their significance largely symbolic.

Artikelbild Weltzeit 2 | 2019 | Donald Tusk, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the press conferenceImage: European Union

Moreover, despite all the harmony that was on display, the closing press conference witnessed a head-on confrontation on the topic of human rights. President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker felt compelled to vigorously challenge the assertion by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that no one had questioned the human rights situation in his country.

A fraught exercise 

The fact that the EU, the worldʹs leading economic bloc, agreed to this unconditional meeting with incorrigible, corrupt autocrats and ruthless tyrants, none of whom could care less about democratic values and the rule of law, had little to do with the realization of a need to improve cooperation with its immediate neighbors. This intensive and at times fraught exercise in realpolitik had more to do with the EUʹs own shortcomings and with the weakness of the West as a whole.

Read more: Saudi Arabia executes 37 citizens for 'terrorism'

Unarguably, the first European-Arab summit revealed just how the balance of power has shifted in recent years with regards to relations between Europe and its Arab neighbors. These days, regional players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia bristle with self-confidence when negotiating with western countries and lectures on questions of democracy and human rights are sharply rebuffed. What these states expect is unconditional cooperation, especially with the EU. In Trump — with his penchant for authoritarian strongmen — they feel they have found an ally.

This development, though of international geopolitical significance, cannot mask the fact that the major shift in power in the Middle East has been to the detriment of both western and Arab states. Russia, Iran and Turkey have all advanced to become those calling the shots in the region.

The reasons are obvious: The U.S. is war-weary. Having lost two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has been successively withdrawing its military operatives from the Middle East. Iran, of all countries, was the beneficiary of the abrupt departure of American troops from Iraq in 2011, quickly rising to become the dominant influence in Mesopotamia. In the years prior, the Bush administration had conquered Iranʹs "natural enemies," the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Husseinʹs Baath regime in Iraq, as part of its "war on terror."

Two medical personnel with a woman on a stretcher
The use of chemical weapons by Assad forces in Syria continues todayImage: Reuters/Sana

The Westʹs feigned impotence

With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, which has since seen violence develop its own deadly dynamic, it quickly became apparent that western foreign policy would not be able to do justice to the new realities emerging on the ground. While Assad was able to count on massive support from Russia, Iran and Shia factions in Lebanon and in Iraq, the West proved incapable of formulating a common policy on Syria.

Read more: Eyeing end of war and Iran, Arab states move to reconcile with Syria 

The Westʹs feigned impotence particularly manifested itself in the watering down of the "red line doctrine" by the Obama administration. Instead of reacting with military force to Assadʹs use of chemical weapons in 2013, Obama reached an agreement with Russia that led to a resolution under international law obliging Syria to destroy all chemical weapons. However, as anticipated, it proved impossible to monitor its implementation credibly. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this failure to engage inflicted huge damage on the Westʹs credibility and assertiveness.

More or less from the outset, decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic decided not to intervene in Syria, preferring instead to let the conflict "bleed to death." A fateful miscalculation that ultimately gave Russia, Iran and Turkey free reign in Syria.

USA Washington - Donald Trump verkündet neue Einwanderungspolitik
President Trump has had little to say about the current situation in SyriaImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

The decision of the incumbent U.S. president to pull American troops out of Syria, without consulting allies on the ground and against the advice of his advisors and leading members of the American administration, rightly shocked many U.S. allies in the Middle East  the Kurds in particular. Undoubtedly, it has also compounded the loss of influence of Western regulatory policy on developments in the Middle East.

The U.S. withdrawal and the significant shifts of power within the region mean that the EU urgently needs to come up with a common policy for the Middle East, something more than merely strengthening European military capacity and cooperating with autocrats. Bearing in mind the challenges posed by failed states and mass migration, not to mention the inherent weakness of the Arab countries, a comprehensive European answer to these historic processes of transformation would appear to be in all our interests.

Loay Mudhoon is DW's Near-East expert and the editor of Qantara

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