On 28 April 2016 the conference titled “The great rivalry: great powers, politics and strategy in the New Middle East” and jointly organised by IsAG ((Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliarie) and EGIC (Euro-Gulf Information Council) has taken place at the “sala del Refettorio” in the Library of the Chamber of Deputies at Palazzo San Macuto.
Cinzia Bianco opened the conference by shortly introducing the topic as well as the speakers who intervened during the two sessions of the conference. Afterwards, she invited the conference guests to speak.
The Hon. Carella took the floor and started by highlighting nowadays importance of the Middle East and how it’s causing international concern. Afterwards, he has remarked what’s happening in the area and how some powers are trying to maintain their supremacy while others are trying to gain it. He concluded by underlying that for those who hold institutional positions, in particular within western institutions and decision processes, being informed about the evolution of the middle-eastern situation is of great importance, since they’re expected to take initiatives and try to stabilise the area.
Subsequently, Daniele Scalea took the floor and started his speech quoting Eric Hobsbawm, underlying the fluidity of the period we’re living in and defining “interesting years” what’s happening from Europe to the Middle East. He as well remarked the relevance of what’s going on in the middle-eastern area, where massive forces are moving and trying to revolution the social and cultural background in the countries involved. Some nations are collapsing, he argued, others are in crisis and there’s a new actor, a caliphate, that has been rapidly rising in the last years. Lastly, Scalea focused on the Italian role: due to its position in the Mediterranean Sea, it has to take many decisions. He, than, concluded drawing a parallel between nowadays and the Cold War, claiming that in this particular moment the future evolutions of the situation are less predictable and more uncertain due to the alliances, which are less solid than those which used to characterise the two blocks in the past.
Belfer’s intervention concluded the session dedicated to the opening remarks and greetings. He took the floor as a member of EGIC and started his speech referring to the complexity of the international political context, where a progressive fragmentation is associated with important challenges, and wars are accompanied by a growing gap between rich and poor within the countries as well as amongst them. He claimed that this regards mainly the Middle East and he referred to the western role in the area: in this regard, he stressed the differences between the process of nation building in Europe and in the Middle East. He concluded his speech with a future prospect, highlighting the necessity to study and comprehend problems in order to elaborate possible solutions, fact that is even more important as regards the situation in the Middle East.
Professor Cordesman opened his keynote speech stressing the importance of being careful when analysing the present situation in the Middle East, due to its complexity and to the presence of massive forces pushing for change along with the limited effectiveness of foreign interventions: thus, he claimed, the ongoing war can’t be stopped, but contained. Professor Cordesman highlighted the different roles played by external powers: whereas US campaigns are extremely contained, though a rebalance of its army in Asia can be observed after it has reinforced its presence in Iran, Russian and Iranian interventions are heavier and more evident. He, than, analysed briefly though exhaustively the situation in Syria and Iraq, which he defined as “failed states” and where the war, he claimed, isn’t mainly against ISIL as it is a civil war between political and social forces fighting for different reasons. In Syria, professor Cordesman argued, there are nearby 40 rebel groups involved and the most critical question is how to create a state by balancing between antagonist forces, once ISIL has been defeated, without creating the premises for another civil war. Rebuilding Syria, he concluded, is going to be very difficult. As regards Iraq, the situation, he said, is marginally better and the main problem is how to settle the state amongst its different ethnic and religious groups (Shia, Sunni, Curds). As professor Cordesman pointed out, extremism spread in those failed states leading to sectarianism and terrorism, which is often the result of counter-armed insurgency. Other problems he pointed out are corruption, governance failure, massive military spending, massive demographic increases, hyper urbanisation and low levels of youth employment. Concluding his speech, professor Cordesman claimed that in such a scenario military competition and confrontation between superpowers can’t lead to a solution for no combination can win and “the only winning move is not to play”.
The next speaker was Andrea Gilli who highlighted the importance of comprehending how technology is affecting military balances in the Middle East, considering the present sources of instability. ISIL, just as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, for example, are using technology and redefining balances in the region. He asserted that there are important reasons for analysing these aspects. Indeed, he claimed, nowadays we can observe a great transformation and this changing is due to technology: big data, new materials and new robotic technologies. Therefore, the central question in Gilli’s speech was: to what extent will these evolutions affect the situation in the Middle East? He started highlighting some historical elements. A hundred years ago, he said, we were fighting in the First World War and the technology used during the war lead to the growing of the largest technology companies. Nowadays, wars are decreasingly bloody: thanks to the use of drones, indeed, collateral damages are reduced. Afterwards, he explained the American point of view on this issue: US are quiet pessimistic at this regard, he argued, and they fear that Iran and Saudi Arabia may be able to buy arms at low prices and that non-state actors, as well as rebel groups, may become more powerful and dangerous thanks to the new technologies. Anyway, he asserted, technology won’t worsen the situation in the short-term. These technologies, he clarified, require extensive skills and high industrial capabilities to be developed and implemented, requirements that even European countries don’t always have; therefore, for many middle-eastern countries those requirements are even harder to achieve, since they don’t possess sufficient resources. He remarked that, regardless of the facility or difficulty of their realisation, they require also outstanding infrastructures, human skills and specific eco-systems. Therefore, it’s dubious that ISIL will be able to use such a destructive technology. Middle-eastern countries, he concluded, will use part of their budget for defence expenses but they will largely depend on the West as regards armaments.
Michal Mei Dan
Mei Dan presented the Chinese views and prospectives on the Middle East. Currently China is a reluctant actor. As she showed, the interpretations of the Chinese approach to the region refers to two different views. According to the first one, she explained, China is being more active in the region due to its important energy interests. Its economic presence will turn into geopolitical, especially after the US shale revolution. The second view, instead, foresees that Chinese foreign policy has no alternative but replacing the United States, i.e. becoming the guarantor of the global order. However, according to Mei Dan both interpretations are wrong and China has no interest in replacing the United States. As regards the first view, she claimed that the energy relationship is undoubtedly fundamental, since China imports nearly 50% of its total needs from the M.E. In 20 years, China has become largely dependent on middle-eastern oil, it has accords in Iraq, relationships with Iran and assets in Libya and Syria. However, she continued, the energy relationship doesn’t represent the totality of Chinese involvement in the region. Since the 80s China has workers in the M.E. and refurnishes armaments. In the 90s it has developed strong relationships with some countries, with which the relationship is still strong. It’s true, Mei Dan said, that China is highly involved in the Middle East and it’s one of the biggest consumers of middle-eastern oil, but the Middle East doesn’t represent its priority. As regards the second interpretation, she highlighted that Chinese strategy has been that of observing without intervening. However, with the presidency of Xi Jinping this approach drastically changed. In order to make China become more active and globally involved, Xi Jinping has been in more countries than any of his predecessors. This implies a more ambitious approach in Asia as well, where China is trying to reduce the US presence.
In general, she underlined that Chinese approach aims not to be more engaged outside but to ensure internal stability. It’s certain, anyway, that China will adopt a different approach if it decides to engage.
Nikolay Kozhanov analysed the Russian approach to the Middle East and how it changed after 2012. Before that date, he claimed, Russia considered the region basically as a trading point, but this approach changed after three main events: Arab Spring, which represented an alarm bell for Moscow; the reelection of Putin, who proved to be more oriented towards non-European targets; Euro Maidan. Kozhanov claimed that the new strategy aims to reach three main goals: on the political level, Moscow wants to avoid international isolation by cooperating and pressuring on the region; on the economic level, Russia is aiming at diversifying its supply and is now considering the Middle East both as a challenge and an opportunity; lastly, Russia fears that being too involved in Ukraine may lead to loose Syria. Russian means in this new strategy, Kozhanov claimed, are limited though they are being widely used: balancing between the powers, anti-amercanism based on the exploitation of American mistakes in the region, pressuring economically in nuclear and armament sectors with “Chinese prices and European quality”. At the conclusion, to the question if Russia is challenging the West with its new approach, Kozhanov said that due to the complexity of the situation Moscow is perhaps understanding that without cooperation nothing can be done.
Both panels ended with a Q&A session between the audience and the speakers.
(Claudia Candelmo, Fatima Ezzahra Ez-Zaitouni)