EGIC probes policy on Mideast non-state actors

Michael Stephens, Alessia Melcangi and Alessandro Minuto Rizzo. Photo credit: EGIC/Twitter

 ROME – At a conference held by the European and Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) emphasis was placed on the lack of clarity of European and American policy on non-state actors in the Mediterranean and Gulf region.  The conference's second panel, in particular, explained how in Europe and the USA, even within NATO, there is no consensus on how to react to non-state actors in the region, and how their treatment of such actors can and has led to unexpected difficulties.

 The European and Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) held the fourth conference in their “The Great Rivalry” series on Wednesday, focussing on issues of legitimacy and the state and non-state actor nexus in the Middle East.

 The conference, which took place in the beautiful surroundings of the Centre for American Studies on Via Michelangelo Caetani, Rome, was opened by Mitchell Belfer, the director of EGIC.

 Discussions focussed on the interplay between state actors, including governments external to the Middle East such as the US, and non-state actors in Libya, Syria and Iraq, such as the Kurdish YPG militia, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

 Belfer’s introduction showed how important the events taking place in the Middle East are for Europe in a world in which it is no longer possible for a country to isolate itself from international affairs.

 Although political analyst Ali Bakeer was unable to attend the conference, Belfer provided an engaging talk in his place for the first panel, which was entitled, “War of ideas: Losing the jihad for legitimacy.” 

 His analysis of the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran argued that Iran is testing the limits using asymmetric warfare, and that the sectarian discourse did not adequately explain the situation, as is shown by Iran, whose allies are not exclusively Shia Muslim groups.

 Daniele Raineri, journalist for Il Foglio and specialist on terrorism, described the efforts of so-called Islamic State to establish their own legitimacy, especially by taking advantage of power vacuums, and how they had failed.

 He described how the group had tried to create legitimacy by targeting places where people felt disconnected to government and by quick displays of violence and propaganda.  Yet as he commented, the group is fast losing support and interest: “people are tired” of the ideas they offer, especially in Libya.

 The second panel, “Fights on the ground: non-state actors and sovereignty in Libya, Syria and Iraq,” was moderated by Alessia Melcangi of La Sapienza.  It featured Michael Stephens, a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, and Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, President of the NATO Defence College Foundation.

 Minuto Rizzo stressed the problem of fragmentation in the Gulf region, which he said had not fully emerged from the consequences of the Arab Spring of 2011.  He highlighted the dangers of the mercenary groups being created in Libya, and the lack of political consensus within NATO on how to deal with the situation there.

 Stephens described the historical lack of clarity in western policy towards non-state actors in the region, with western countries unable to define what they considered a legitimate non-state actor and what their goals were in making use of such actors.

 He underlined how western governments may engage in proxy wars but fail to anticipate the consequences of their engagement with non-state actors, drawing attention to the example of the how Kurdish groups have been treated in the Middle East by western governments.

 He could offer little optimism on the situation, saying that although western states would like stability, the competing interests in the area made that impossible.

 “I think we’re going to have to live with this for a while,” he said, emphasising that western countries had no clear lines about what they would tolerate in the area, and no alternatives to offer.

 The discussion then moved on to the roles of China and Russia in the region.  Stephens argued that Russia was looking opportunistically for economic advantage and a chance to disrupt the West, while China was far more willing to play a strategic game but would eventually be unable to maintain its policy of neutrality.



Mitchell Belfer. Photo credit: EGIC/Twitter