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Monday, 29 May 2017

INTERVIEW: Geopolitics expert Michel Foucher on border challenges, Middle East stability

The French former diplomat spoke to Ahram Online about cross-border challenges the region must resolve for long-term stability, saying Egypt has a key role to play

Dina Ezzat , Monday 20 Feb 2017
Michel Foucher
(Photo: ministry of foreign Affairs)
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“I am a pessimist when it comes to the idea of the two-state solution; I think that Palestinians are aware that what they have to stress most today is their legal rights – beyond any immediate take on the two-state solution,” said Michel Foucher a prominent French political analyst, former diplomat and assistant minister of foreign affairs.

Foucher spoke to Ahram Online only a few days before US President Donald Trump said in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu that a two-state solution might not be the way forward to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The expert in geopolitics visited Egypt last week to give two lectures on the state of borders in the region almost a century after the Sykes-Picot agreement — signed secretly in 1916 to determine the modern borders of Middle Eastern states, according to the interests of the region's main former colonial powers: England and France.

For the most part these borders remain, Foucher told Ahram Online, despite so many challenges to their integrity and very logic.

“The nation states are still holding their borders; they face internal problems, including issues that cross their borders to neighbouring countries. They also face pressure from regional and international powers, but the borders are holding,” he said.

For Foucher — a geographer by training, who focuses on the politics of national boundaries in Europe and the world — it is the undefined borders in the region that pose the biggest problems.

“This is not just about the borders, say, between Israel and a would-be Palestinian state but also between Israel and Lebanon for example,” he said.

The Middle East persists as one of the largest regions in the world with such clearly undefined borders in several areas, Foucher observed. 

With the current state of international affairs, Foucher said, it seems highly unlikely that these “critical border situations” will be resolved any time soon.

Foucher said there are multiple challenges to border stability, which the region's states will have to address to bring lasting calm to the region. These include the fate and hopes of the Kurds, the influence and threat of the Islamic State (IS) group and the Sunni-Shia balance of power.

"In addition to the Kurds and the Jihadists there is also the issue of the refugees which is posing some serious questions in the Middle East today," Foucher said.

On the "Kurdish issue," Foucher said there is already a strong tendency towards partial independence in Iraq. There is also an eagerness among the Kurds to establish a similar status in Syria.

"But in both cases, of Iraq and Syria, there is a strong Turkish influence among others, including Iranian [influence] in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, that would resist a fully independent Kurdistan," he said, adding that "The Kurds would have their semi-autonomy but they would not have their own state with a passport and a currency."

"The borders of both Iraq and Syria might be considered to be a bit more flexible in allowing for an interaction between the Kurdish zones, but they would hold as the sovereign borders of sovereign states."

IS, Foucher said, is another "unlikely influence" on the borders of the Arab Mashreq. Despite its presence, and that of Al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Islam, among other Jihadi groups, IS is not making larger territorial conquests. Rather, the group is "actually losing territorial control and could well be defeated in a year or two."

“I am not sure how [the borders would be affected] exactly with the war against IS and other Jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria particularly, but certainly they are losing and they would probably continue to lose,” he said.

"In fact, the Jordanians have managed to consolidate their borders against the penetration of IS, which is also an important sign to look at," he added.

The future, for Foucher, is more dependent on the established and almost integrated groups that are actually acting across the borders of sovereign states. One "clear example" for him is Hezbollah, which plays a key role in the conflict between the Syrian ruling regime of Bashar Al-Assad and his opponents, supported by Ansar Al-Islam.

What role does Hezbollah, given its unmasked ties with Iran, have in the future of Lebanon and Syria?

This question, Foucher said, leads to another, about the role of the region's two heavyweights: Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the countries of the region. Then we must consider the "obvious Shia-Sunni questions that this brings to the table."

"So you have the countries of the region, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, for example, holding on to their borders as sovereign states, but you also have a Sunni-Shia interaction that reflects a cross-border influence," Foucher said.

According to Foucher the challenge to national borders is not related to the waves of the Arab Spring. "Not as I see it because the Arab [revolutions] took place within the context of the concerned national states," he said.

Even in the case of Libya — the only Arab country, Foucher believes, whose traditional borders could be challenged by the wave of internal fighting that followed the ouster of dictator Muammar Qaddafi — the beginning of the Libyan Arab Spring was designed for all of Libya.

The influence or role of Hezbollah in Syria for example or the Saudi role in Yemen is also unrelated to the Arab Spring.

In terms of challenging borders, an actor like Hezbollah is fundamentally different from IS because while Hezbollah acts on behalf of or in-line with a particular regime, it seeks only cross-border influence, not the near-term re-drawing of national borders. IS, on the other hand, seeks not only to over-throw a regime, but also to eliminate the sovereign borders "as established by Sykes-Picot and to pursue the Islamic Caliphate – or in any case this was the excuse they were acting upon."

Assuming IS' eventual defeat, Foucher said it is the Sunni-Shia matter that needs to be addressed "all without any attempt to tamper with the existing national borders of the respective sovereign states."

"There has to be a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia; this deal needs international support, but it also needs a regional broker," he said.

Despite many internal concerns, which have consumed much of its political energy over the past five years, Egypt remains to be best placed to play this role.

"But of course this means that Egypt would have to consolidate its political rapport with both Iran and Saudi Arabia," Foucher said.

He argued that "Egyptian diplomacy is capable" of this, despite long-standing or recent disagreements Cairo has developed with either Tehran or Riyadh.

"Cairo has a certain centrality and it could use this centrality to help with regional stability."

Regional stability, Foucher believes, demands more than the "essential deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia."

It requires, for one, a vision for dealing with refugees, which pose obvious cross-border questions for countries like Jordan and Lebanon which are inundated with people fleeing strife in neighbouring countries. Refugees themselves may tip the scales of "regional influence," particularly for a state like Turkey, which currently hosts around 2.7 million Syrians, according to UNHCR's January statistics.

Clearly, Foucher argued, the answer to the refugee crisis is essentially depends on the settlement of political conflicts – and this is in large part dependent on a settlement of the tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In other words, he suggested, the leading countries of the region, predominantly, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia need to establish working relations that can accommodate interests, concerns and realities on the ground.

"For its part, Israel is not really party to this conflict; it is not influenced by the regional chaos except if it has to face direct threat - and in any case it is pursuing defensive policies," Foucher said.

However, he added, there will come a time when the Palestinian-Israeli struggle that "started in 1948" will have to be addressed. Without this, stability in the region will never be assured.

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