This was a central theme of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 10th Annual Rome Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group Seminar held in Rome on 25-26 November.
Throughout the course of the proceedings, NATO member as well as invited partner and observer parliamentarians from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East discussed a range of issues affecting Mediterranean states, the broader Middle East, and the Sahel with assembled panels of regional experts, diplomats and academics. Federica Mogherini, the head of the Italian delegation told parliamentarians “the security challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa affect all of our states present here today, and it is up to all of us to work together to solve them.”
The seminar covered a broad range of issues that allied countries are compelled to monitor in the region. The P5+1 agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, reached one day before the seminar elicited cautious optimism from many of those who attended. Experts and parliamentarians also explored the notion of a Responsibility to Rebuild in Libya to help that failing state wrest back control from armed militia groups that are gravely complicating efforts to unify that country and begin the difficult process of building a viable state.
Syria’s civil war and the devastating impact it is having on the region were central themes of the first panel. Experts from regional think tanks, international organizations and state militaries all sounded general pessimism for a near-term solution to the Syrian crisis. As Lt. General Claudio Graziano, Chief of the Italian Army General Staff and former UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander in Lebanon noted, “governments should look to help shore up neighbouring countries’ first, particularly Lebanon as this is the area where we are most likely to see the outbreak of new violence resulting directly from the war in Syria.” One solution Lt. General Graziano offered was an expansion of the UNIFIL mandate through the Security Council to increase the amount of international forces along the Syria-Lebanon border to halt the flow of arms and fighters in and out of the Syrian war.
Members also discussed the increasing burden upon resource-strained frontline states from a mounting influx of refugees, the potential for knock-on effects of violence throughout the region and beyond, and the prospects for Syrian state failure and the real risk that this will create a security vacuum with extraordinarily dangerous implications not only for the region but also for Europe. Indeed, the mounting radicalization of rebel forces in Syria is gravely complicating the task of Western policy makers who assert that President Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people – with the extremist groups increasingly carrying the momentum of the rebel forces, it is difficult to point to a viable alternative. Several parliamentarians from North Africa and the Middle East called for NATO member governments to do more to support Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, all of which are hosting significant number of exiles. The discussions focused on the possible modalities of negotiating a cease-fire and the preconditions of finding a lasting political solution to the conflict.
In the midst of the Rome Seminar, the P5+1 reached a short-term agreement with the Iranian government to halt portions of its nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief of the international sanctions while a longer-term agreement is negotiated. Despite strong reservations from several participating parliamentarians, there was a sense among many other participants that the agreement represented a positive step, although a final agreement will require more substantial concessions from the Iranians. Heather Williams, Research Fellow in Nuclear Weapons Policy at Chatham House in London stated that, “though there is still a long way to go to reach a final settlement, there is reason for cautious optimism.” Several delegates suggested that the potential benefits of achieving a lasting settlement of the nuclear question outweigh the downside risks that Iran will violate the spirit of the agreement to which it has just agreed.
Panel experts and parliamentarians also discussed the difficult security situation in Libya in the wake of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in 2011. Several members noted that, while that operation may have protected Libyan civilians from an imminent regime-led massacre, the international community largely abandoned the country afterwards. The ensuing chaos has gravely complicated efforts to constitute legitimate state authority in that country. This failure has complicated security implications. Panellist Ethan Chorin, author of Exit The Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution, noted that: “While it was noble to uphold the new norm of the Responsibility to Protect, the international community would do well to now focus on its Responsibility to Rebuild. Failing to do so will result in security challenges not only in Libyan but in the Sahel, Europe, and the Middle East as well.”
A detailed report of the proceedings of the seminar is forthcoming and will be published on the website of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.