Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with Al-AhramWeekly that European foreign policy on the Middle East had become “short-sighted and reactive” and did not suitably address the issues fuelling the increased emigration and terrorism in the region.
Attending the Core Group Meetings of the Munich Security Conference in Cairo recently, he added that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had “essentially won” the civil war in Syria, though with significant foreign intervention, but that the challenge now would be to move forward towards meaningful stability.
A former journalist who has himself worked in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, Barnes-Dacey said that US President Donald Trump had shown himself “unwilling” to confront the Iranians in the region and that this was forcing other actors to look for some kind of accommodation, fearing they could pay a high price for any escalation.
What is the role of the European Council on Foreign Relations?
The European Council on Foreign Relations is a European think-tank with offices across Europe. We work to inform coherent European foreign policy towards the rest of the world, and I work as the director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. Together with my colleagues, we look at what the Europeans could be doing across the Middle East and North Africa region.
In the context of a situation in which the European Union lacks relevance, there is nevertheless a lot happening in the Middle East with severe implications for European interests, and yet the Europeans are standing aside from many of these. So, we are trying to push for the European Union to be more relevant and to play a more impactive role working in the region with regional governments and the peoples of the region to have more positive impacts.
Does the EU concentrate mostly on the emigration issue in its policies towards the Middle East?
I think the key part of the European policy towards the region is driven by issues of emigration and terrorism, and those are the two issues that are dominant across the European political landscape and are shaping European political developments on a day-by-day basis. But, of course, the risk is that European foreign policy towards the region becomes very short-sighted and very reactive as a result and that it doesn’t really address the issues that are fuelling the conditions that lead to increased emigration or terrorism. It means that Europe isn’t really addressing the structural issues that need to be rectified if the region is to be meaningfully stabilised.
You have worked as a journalist in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. How do you view the changes happening in the region?
I think there is a deep structural problem in that countries and governments are struggling to provide for the legitimate needs and aspirations of their populations, whether they be social or economic in nature, to do with the right to a life where your needs are being met, or to do with border issues of dignity and the relationship between state and people. Those are the factors that have created inequality, instability and a kind of vacuum of governance across the region that has fuelled a lot of the conflicts that we are seeing today.
You worked in Syria from 2007 to 2011. How do you view the Turkish intervention in the conflict in Syria and the current situation?
The Turkish intervention in Syria is just the latest in a long stream of interventions by foreign powers. Now that Syria has clearly become a playground for a broader geopolitical war or series of wars that are flooding across the region, Turkey is now clearly motivated by trying to ensure that the Kurds are unable to establish an autonomous entity on the northern piece of the country in the same way as some other countries, whether Iran or some of the Gulf states, have also intervened over the course of the conflict, with the Russians or the Americans also wanting to further their geopolitical goals.
I think it is clear that so long as Syria remains a battleground for competing visions of the region, it will be very hard to imagine any stability returning to that country. Clearly, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has essentially won the civil war, even with the Turkish intervention, and we are seeing a move towards a Russian-mediated accommodation between Al-Assad and Turkey. But I think that even though Al-Assad may have won a victory, moving forward towards any meaningful stability is going to be a big challenge that is likely to elude him and that the sad Syria story still has a long way to run.
I visited the Turkish-Syrian border in 2011 as a journalist. The Turkish side was speaking about a demilitarised zone that it controlled on Syrian territory. Do you think the Turkish military wants to stay in this zone?
I think there are a lot of countries that want to stay in Syria to be honest, which is part of the problem, and I think that so long as competing countries continue to carve out territory in Syria that will draw in other powers and ensure that it will remain a site for regional competition. Clearly, Turkey wants to ensure that the Kurds are unable to establish an autonomous zone there, and I think the challenge now facing the UN and other international actors is how to draw up some kind of political track, even one that accepts Al-Assad remaining in power, that will provide some space for a degree of political participation and autonomy for the different actors that can survive under the umbrella of a Syrian state and also addresses some of the concerns of the neighbouring states.
How do you view the US role in Syria?
I think the Americans are pulling out. I think it’s only a matter of time now. I think US President Donald Trump has made it clear for a long time that he wants to leave Syria: no one should have been surprised by the announcement that he was withdrawing from parts of the north-east of the country. I think that while he has stayed longer to guard the oil facilities, I see that as a short-term measure and suspect that the US presence is essentially not sustainable.
In terms of the broader context, I think Trump has driven a maximalist policy across the region, particularly vis-à-visIran, which has fuelled a very dangerous dynamic right across the region where competing actors have believed that they have had American support to push hard their agendas. So, I am actually slightly hopeful about a US withdrawal from the region and the fact that Trump is now pulling out from Syria and that he did not respond to some of the incidents in the Gulf by forcing regional players to retaliate.
We are seeing a new outreach between the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and we are seeing new contacts between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and I think that these steps have been taken because the Americans have proven themselves incapable of meeting the demands upon them.
You think the American policy has been positive?
I think that the availability of a US withdrawal from the region preceded Trump and that it was already underway under former president Barack Obama, but that the cautious nature of Obama’s policies made that much more dangerous. So, I think that given the polarising nature of the US role in the region under Trump, some form of renewed judgement is probably good for the region if it allows regional actors to take responsibility for assuming their own defence and forces them to reach out and make accommodations even with their adversaries for the sake of some kind of stability.
Do you think the Europeans and the Americans are leaving the arena to the Russians in the Middle East?
I think the Europeans are leaving the floor to whoever wants to fill it, and that’s a real concern. If the Europeans have real interests at stake, then they need to be prepared to put political, economic and even military resources on the line in trying to address those issues.
As the director of a leading European think-tank, how do you view the EU role in the Middle East and Egypt?
Concerning the EU role at large, I think that the Europeans can do much more across the Middle East region. I think we are seeing French leadership, but other than that the Europeans are not relevant. Their interests are not being met by the US, on whom they had traditionally relied, and I think that they need to step up and take more responsibility to try to address some of their interests.
Concerning Egypt, the European-Egyptian relationship is not an easy one at the moment, but the Europeans clearly look to Egypt as necessary for stability across the region and hope that Egypt can play some kind of stabilising role.