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Experts discuss the challenges—and potential solutions—ahead in the Middle East and North Africa

Ian Livingston

What kind of policies should we support vis-à-vis the Middle East and North Africa, and how can the United States play a constructive role? These were the central questions facing experts at a Brookings event on October 5. The Center for Middle East Policy and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings convened a group of experts to discuss current challenges in—as well as possible futures for—the Middle East and North Africa. Panelists included Brookings Distinguished Fellow John Allen, Senior Fellow Daniel Byman, Nonresident Senior Fellow Mara Karlin, and Nonresident Fellow Federica Saini Fasanotti. Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon moderated the discussion.

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Allen, who was recently named the next president of the institution, compared the Arab Spring to a tsunami. “Tsunamis are characterized by not the first wave but by multiple waves,” he said. WATCH:

Allen went on to state: “It is the damage of the follow-on waves that is really the lasting damage. I think we have not seen the end of what began as the Arab Spring.”

He also discussed how the conditions that fostered uncertainty and violence in the region persist today. There have not been major changes in the conditions that sparked the Arab Spring: Many governments remain weak, economic prospects remain unpromising for the region’s huge youth populations, and civil wars continue to boil.

Allen also said: “Civil wars have created, in and of themselves, incubators for the expansion of Salafi jihadism [and] also continued and expanded social instability as well.”

Looking to the next wave, Allen wondered about additional states that could suffer weakness or collapse. He also raised that spillover effects from one place could destabilize other countries in the region, as well as Europe, where many refugees have already headed. The strategic implications are huge, according to Allen. WATCH:

Karlin spoke about the nexus of Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  While she sees debate over re-certification of the nuclear agreement a “bit of an inconvenient distraction,” she finds Iran’s “meddling behavior across the Middle East” to be a much bigger problem. WATCH:

On the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias and other paramilitary groups in Iraq, she said Baghdad should be “ensuring you have some sort of meaningful integration of these various militias into the Iraqi military.” And going further, she noted the need for U.S. “economic assistance and a long term security relationship.”

Looking to Iraq’s neighbor, Syria, O’Hanlon wondered how the international community might imagine helping to rebuild that country. Following up on Karlin’s thoughts earlier in the discussion, he said he’d like to see a space where “multilateral aid organizations and the United States can try to help with reconstruction, in parts of Syria that are not under Assad’s direct control.” Indeed, with this approach, we might be able to use economic leverage over time to help ease Assad out of power.  WATCH:

This could both create space for “humanitarian relief, but even some beginnings of governance structures,” O’Hanlon said.

John Allen further pointed out that “we have a huge blind spot on Africa.” This has especially been seen in the mixed response to a chaotic situation in Libya over the years.

Fasanotti, an expert on that country, explained why Libya is so complicated. One major problem, she said, is that it’s not a cohesive state, and perhaps never has been in the way we tend to think of states.

She described how Libya’s governance structure needs to be reworked, in more of a bottom up fashion, to function better. She also suggested that perhaps what the country really requires is some sort of loose federation. WATCH:

Byman focused his remarks on the broader counterterrorism challenge. Much of his commentary suggested that the United States and its allies need to beware spillover and contagion effects by which problems in one country affect the broader region.  “You can have a country that is doing reasonably well but it gets swept away by the forces in its neighborhood,“ he noted.

Specifically examining a dispute between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, he thinks that our attempt to move Qatar away from the arms of the Iranians has backfired. He also believes the United States should use its influence with Riyadh to persuade the Saudis to change their approach in Yemen.  WATCH:

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