Abdullah Gul

Middle East's points of light

Lessons can be drawn from recent positive signals

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Sinjar last week. Because ISIS is a phenomenon that crystalises all of the region’s political, ideological, economic and social pathologies, solutions must be bold and comprehensive. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Sinjar last week. Because ISIS is a phenomenon that crystalises all of the region’s political, ideological, economic and social pathologies, solutions must be bold and comprehensive. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

I started my political career in 1991 - the year of the first Gulf War and the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid. The leaders of the time were well aware of the complex links between the Palestine problem and other challenges in the Middle East. Unfortunately, those links remain.

Since that time, I have witnessed many initiatives, plans and projects for resolving various Middle East conflicts. My country, Turkey, has always been at the forefront of the international community's efforts to secure peace, stability and cooperation in the region, and I contributed to some of them as a member of Parliament, prime minister, foreign minister and president.

Unfortunately, despite an immense expenditure of energy and resources spanning a quarter-century, these efforts have not yielded the desired results. Modest progress has been either sabotaged or insufficient, even as thousands of innocent people, both in the Middle East and beyond, have fallen victim to violence, hatred and vengeance. The massacre of civilians in Gaza last summer, the barbarity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the murder of rabbis at a Jerusalem synagogue, and the terrorist attack in Ottawa - all convey a simple truth: Violence is contagious.

But, though regional and international actors are deeply frustrated by the further aggravation of the Middle East's problems, more pessimism will only make matters worse. So let us try to draw some lessons from a scattering of positive signals and trends in recent months.

For starters, the removal from Syria of the stockpile of chemical weapons shows that joint efforts can yield positive results. Likewise, by agreeing to extend the international negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme, the parties to the talks have kept alive the promise of a final deal.

Successful nuclear talks with Iran would have major strategic, political and economic consequences for the Middle East and the world. A solution might motivate Iran to facilitate the resolution of other regional problems. Moreover, other powers in the region that have or are believed to have nuclear arms will have no excuse to oppose disarmament.

The establishment of a more inclusive Iraqi government is also a positive sign, as are steps towards resolving disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central authorities in Baghdad. The KRG's decision not to insist on holding a referendum on independence augurs well for stability in Iraq and the region.

The same can be said of the coalition formed against ISIS. But "hard" power alone will not be enough to defeat the group. Ultimately, the solution lies in patiently building an inclusive political framework that wins the support of local people and leaders who have been lured to the extremists' cause.

Though the use of hard power against ISIS may not have run its course, the mistakes made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria must not be repeated: strategies for military exit and political transition must be considered without delay. Moreover, because ISIS is a phenomenon that crystalises all of the region's political, ideological, economic and social pathologies, possible solutions must be bold and comprehensive.

Likewise, the decision by some European governments, parties and parliaments to recognise the state of Palestine is a welcome development. This trend reflects disappointment with the current diplomatic deadlock, for which the blame should be squarely on Israel, not the Palestinians. The hope is that this trend will encourage the efforts of parties in Israel and Palestine that want a just solution. It is in everybody's interest that Israel's government acts with restraint regarding West Bank settlement and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

Finally, though the Arab Spring has been stifled everywhere (with the sole exception of Tunisia), the expectations, yearnings and concerns of the region's people remain alive and valid. The demands that defined the Arab Spring - for democracy, good governance, human rights, transparency, gender equality and social justice - will continue to shape the regional agenda.

The question is how to consolidate these gains and nurture progress. One potentially constructive initiative would be to establish a security system similar to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This vision should be kept alive, despite - or precisely because of - the unfavourable conditions for its creation. Because such a mechanism would require a strong economic cooperation dimension, encompassing energy and water issues, it would encourage long- term strategic thinking and anchor multilateral efforts to resolve problems as they arise.

For now, the turmoil engulfing the Middle East is like nothing we have seen before. That is why optimism is needed more than ever. Only by building upon positive developments and visions can regional peace and stability be restored and secured. The alternative may be too grim for even a pessimist to imagine.


Abdullah Gul is a former president of the Republic of Turkey.