The Eastern Mediterranean, the region heralded as the birthplace of civilization and culture, is now the center of destruction and displacement. To many, the conflicts afflicting the area seem insurmountable. The Syrian Civil War has lasted for five years, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained unresolved for fifty. Op-eds attempting to answer the question “Will peace ever come to the Middle East?” have littered the internet.
In the midst of widespread concern with the region, the MacMillan Center hosted a roundtable on the topic “Global Peace and Regional Risks: Challenges to Peace and Security in the Eastern Mediterranean” (watch video) with Ambassador Catherine Boura, Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations; Ambassador Nawaf Salam, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations; and Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Cyprus to the United Nations. The discussion was moderated by Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, former Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations and the Rice Faculty Fellow in the European Studies Council and a Senior Fellow at the MacMillan Center.
Ambassador Emiliou began the roundtable by laying out the various issues plaguing the Eastern Mediterranean. He mentioned that Cyprus, keen on protecting its sovereignty, is the perfect country from which to observe regional conflicts and developments.
“Cyprus was always under the influence and occupation of the big powers of each era — starting as far back as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Germans, Ottomans, and finally the British,” he said.
Ambassador Emiliou outlined the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egyptian political instability, and the discovery of hydrocarbon deposits as the major challenges of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Wary of characterizing the Middle East as inherently unstable, he reminded the audience: “Don’t forget that most of the states are artificial units, created as part of the settlement of the first world war. A century later we are feeling the consequences.”
Ambassador Salam added that the proliferation of radical Islamist groups, such as ISIS, has also lead to negative perceptions of the Eastern Mediterranean.
“We need to stress that though very powerful, the Islamists remain a marginal minority among Muslims,” he said.
According to Ambassador Salam, the only way to bring peace to the region is to address the root causes of conflict. He explained that Lebanon, a country with a population of 4.5 million, has become home to 1.2 million Syrian refugees, 50 percent of which are children. In order to provide education to this influx of young people, Lebanon haphazardly reworked its public school system to provide three separate sessions of school: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. To Ambassador Salam, these stopgap policies to accommodate refugees will be too burdensome in long run. Diplomats, instead, must focus on permanent solutions that will end the civil war in Syria and allow refugees to return to their homeland.
Ambassador Catherine Boura told the audience that cooperation and dialogue can provide these comprehensive solutions.
“After five years of war, we have learned some lessons. One is that recourse to a concept of military might cannot be helpful. Political solutions must be found,” she advised.
Greece is currently working to establish trilateral cooperation schemes to create a network of stability in the region. Each of these schemes involves negotiations between three different countries with the intention of brokering agreements that are favorable not only to the particular nations but also the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.
Ambassador Boura declared, “We don’t know how the conflict is going to end, but peace will come sooner or later. And we need to work so that it will not be a temporary solution but a sustainable peace.”
The October 25 event was sponsored by the European Studies Council, European Union Studies Program, and Council on Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center.