1 June 2015

Dahrendorf Lecture “The politics of conflict in the Middle East”

Location Hertie School of Governance, Berlin
Beginning 17  Ending 19

The Politics of Conflict in the Middle East

Discussion with

Claus Offe, Professor of Political Sociology, Hertie School of Governance

Lina Khatib, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center Beirut

Cilja Harders, Professor of Political Sciences, Free University Berlin


On June 2nd 2015 the Dahrendorf Working Group ‘Europe and the MENA region’ invited Lina Khatib, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, to present a public lecture on ‘The Politics of Conflict in the Middle East’. After a brief introduction by Working Group Chair Claus Offe (Hertie School), Khatib provided her take on the actors, developments and dynamics fueling the numerous conflicts within the region. Khatib’s critical analysis and her call for a Western intervention in Syria was followed by a vivid discussion.

Developments in the region are highly interconnected

In her introduction Lina Khatib warned against the danger of thinking in simplistic terms when it comes to analyzing the dynamics of the Middle East and its contemporary conflicts. She emphasized that one cannot understand political developments in a specific country without looking at the actors and developments in the region as a whole. Political developments in one country are highly dependent on developments in other countries. She pointed out that this interconnectedness has always been a constant feature of the region. Yet, until the ‘Arab Spring’, analysts constantly overlooked this fact – given the relative stability of the region and its authoritarian regimes. Khatib unveiled this stability as “pseudo-stability” and argued that the conflicts had been simmering for years – albeit beneath the surface. She argued that it is wrong to believe the ‘Arab Spring’ came out of the blue.

Simplistic thinking prevails in Western policy circles

Khatib warned against new simplistic takes by Western policymakers. The “West” should not expect political change in the Middle East overnight. It should keep its expectations of a swift democratic development of the region realistic. Real political participation has not been allowed under the authoritarian regimes and, accordingly, has not been learned. The establishment of a democratic political culture requires not only time but strong political participation. In this context, she blamed the West for focusing mainly on security questions and the subsequent empowerment of security forces in the region in the name of stability but at the expense of political participation and reform. According to Khatib, “the West” is inattentive to ‘good governance’. She demanded a much more differentiated thinking by Western policymaker. “Syria is not Iraq, Iraq is not Libya and so on”. In a similar manner, Westerners should not perceive religious groups such as Sunnis as being coherent Groups.

The West has no coherent Approach

In addition, she argued that “the West” overlooks how its interventionist policies in one country affect the political development in another country; not only a more sophisticated understanding of the region but also a coherent approach is needed. Finally, she blamed the West, in particular the US and the EU, for its retreat from the region after the failure in Iraq and Libya. The resulting political vacuum is increasingly filled by the Gulf countries, Turkey, Iran, Russia, China and non-state actors such as ISIS now. Khatib argues that the new multiplicity of actors further destabilizes the region and contributes to the overall disorder of the Region.

Syria as key country for the future development of the region

Khatib identified Syria as being at the core of the politics of conflicts in the Middle East. Different external actors with different interests have all interfered and contributed to a state of chaos and insecurity characterizing the country. The situation of fragile statehood offers an excellent environment for extremists and has led to rise of ISIS – a rise which, according to Khatib, has been fueled by Assad but that the West has indirectly contributed to due to its insufficient action. Assad sought to instrumentalise radical groups for his own political purpose, while the West wrongly decided not to intervene in the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

 The West should put the promotion of ‘good governance’ at the core of its policies

Lina Khatib concluded that we now find ourselves at a critical juncture in Syria. She argued Syria will end up being completely fragmented, if “we” do not come up with a political plan. The Western strategy however remains inadequate and simplistic. The people in Syria feel left out by the West. Khatib argued that the promotion of “good governance” is the only solution to cut off the supply to extremists who thrive on chaos and fear. She demanded a strong political engagement from the West, in particular the support for moderate forces in Syria, in order to end the state of disorder and violence. In the following discussion moderated by Working Group Chair Cilja Harders (Free University Berlin), Khatib however acknowledged the value of pragmatism embraced by politicians, especially in such messy situations. With regard to Syria, Khatib, once again, stressed how the self-interest of regional and external actors, above all the United States and Saudi Arabia, only worsened the situation. She pointed out that the lack of a political intervention in the very beginning led to the state of the conflict and the half-baked military intervention we see today. Being challenged on her call for a Western intervention, Khatib stressed that interventions should not always be seen as military and neo-imperialistic. She clarified that the “West” is not a coherent entity and that Western countries should intervene in the context of its capacities and act in a coherent manner. While she sees the main responsibility regarding security questions still with the US as the ‘world’s sole policeman’, Germany could, for instance, concentrate more on supporting the Syrian civil society. She demanded country-based foreign policies and, in general, the support of “good governance” initiatives. In this context, she emphasized the importance of local ownership and mentioned some civil society platforms in the South of Syria that deserve support.

Overall, Lina painted a rather dark and grim picture of the region. The prospect of future interventions was vividly discussed and the idea of supporting good governance initiatives found general approval by the audience.