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Guaranteeing the Peace—International actors and their role in a peace settlement for the Middle East

last modified Aug 02, 2017 10:28 AM
Workshop Report of the Westphalia for the Middle East Project Berlin, 27-28 April 2017.

The Cambridge Forum on Geopolitics and the Körber Foundation held their latest collaborative workshop of the joint project A Westphalia for the Middle East on 27-28 April in Berlin. The project seeks to draw inspiration from the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, in order to determine new approaches towards conflict-resolution and confessional co-existence in the contemporary Middle East; not by imposing an external model, but rather by trying to encourage a settlement reached by local actors with the help of a toolbox of mechanisms and techniques that proved so effective in addressing analogous geopolitical challenges in the historical experience of the 1640s. Following the previous meetings, in which we elaborated on the elements and nature of a hoped-for regional settlement for the Middle East, the latest workshop was dedicated to discussing the international dimensions to such a settlement. In particular, we assessed the merits of a possible system of regional and international guarantees of the settlement, modelled loosely on the Westphalian guarantor system, which contributed significantly to the successful conclusion of a comprehensive peace treaty in 1648, as well as to the long-term safeguarding of the peace. The workshop was attended by around twenty high-profile participants from the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and Russia. Represented among them were politicians, academics, journalists, and senior figures from the UN, the Arab League, the EU and other institutions.


Executive summary

The lessons from the Westphalian historical example include the following:

  • In order for a future peace settlement to be effective in the longer-term, it needs to be placed under a two-tier system of regional and international guarantee. The guarantee can help to ensure that the Middle East is reconfigured as a neutralised zone, in which armed force is largely banned and which is taken out of ongoing geopolitical rivalry
  • The guarantors should include regional powers who have a pressing interest and a stake in the peace. These might include powers that are currently warring parties, and that are not necessarily militarily powerful
  • International guarantors will be more effective if they also share a self-interest in upholding the peace settlement and its terms, such as preventing a spill-over effect of disturbances from the region
  • The regional and international guarantors must not only police norms of behaviour between states, but also within the states of the Middle East covered by the peace settlement and hence the guarantee


A ‘Westphalian’ guarantee for the Middle East?

Participants learned that France and Sweden’s early signalling of their willingness to guarantee the whole settlement was important in persuading the smaller actors, particularly the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire, that the peace treaty was viable, and that the external powers would return to Germany to force the Emperor and the Catholics into line lest they renege on their treaty commitments agreed upon during the peace negotiations. The resulting adoption of the mutual guarantee in the peace treaty was also a highly effective peace-conserving tool, which deterred breaches of the peace and violations of rights enshrined at Westphalia in the longer term. The guarantee was simultaneously the most innovative, the most controversial, the most seemingly impractical, but also one of the most vital and ultimately successful aspects of the treaty:

  • the notion that warring parties and treaty signatories themselves become guarantors in a mutual and reciprocal set-up was a novelty;
  • many commentators especially the Catholics were wary of giving the external ‘crowns’, especially France, a legal title to intervene in the German Empire;
  • the sequence of steps required for an activation of the guarantee were rather cumbersome;
  • but the guarantee was instrumental in ensuring the longevity of the Westphalian order in central Europe, which permanently banished religious war from the Empire.

The participants recognised that a future peace settlement for the Middle East would similarly need to be guaranteed, by a combination of regional states and powers further afield. On the whole, the appraisal of the notion of foreign involvement in general, and an external guarantee in particular was very positive, with several participants from the Middle East calling for more positive engagement by the US in particular, as a guardian of norms.

But before discussion turned to the nature of a guarantee system, there was some debate about what kind of settlement should be guaranteed, with some participants arguing in favour of a series of individual territorial settlements which deal with Syria, Libya, Yemen etc. separately, while others argued in favour of a comprehensive macro-settlement, a ‘grand bargain’ which covers the whole region - or at least that those conflicts are inextricably interconnected. Over the course of the workshop many participants argued that, as was the case in early seventeenth-century Europe, the range of conflicts and grievances in the Middle East now is too complex and interwoven to be successfully solved with piecemeal negotiations aimed at addressing individual territorial parts of the broader regional crisis. Therefore, what is needed is an inclusive peace congress that draws in all parties to conflict, to negotiate a new security order for the region under regional and international guarantee, as occurred at Westphalia after about 5 years of negotiations, in what was at the time the first multilateral peace congress of its kind. Just as the French had aimed at a ‘universal’ peace treaty for the whole of (Christian) Europe, rather than a particular settlement just for Germany, but had instead received an intermediary, ‘Westphalian’ solution, so one could also aim for a neutralised ‘de-toxified’ Middle East which is taken out of international geopolitical competition, while international rivalry continues elsewhere, just as the Franco-Spanish war continued in Western Europe until 1659.

The Westphalian model of getting negotiations started without allowing continued fighting to derail the peace process was also received positively by participants from the region, with the Astana and Geneva processes already taking on such forms. Some of the participants noted that the negotiators should similarly stay at one location and negotiate until they have thrashed out a settlement, even if this takes months or years as was the case in Münster and Osnabrück. Others agreed that the process itself can over time sort out the ‘end-state’ which is to be aspired to – which is what occurred at Westphalia, where the congress participants did not from the outset share a clear vision of the kind of peace that was to be achieved.


The role of the regional guarantors

 Contrary to early modern theories of international law, which posited that guarantors ought to be powerful and neutral, the solution adopted at Westphalia provided not only for powerful, non-neutral guarantors (France, Sweden, and the Habsburg Emperor), but also weaker non-neutral ones namely the German princes, who had been most severely affected by the war. Many of these formed a unprecedented cross-confessional ‘third party’ united only by a shared desire for peace at almost all cost, which drove the peace process forward in its final phase and which constituted an activist guarantor for peace after the war. Participants at the workshop recognised that local, regional actors themselves need to similarly guarantee their own peace settlement, as they would be most interested in the upholding of its terms and the securing of the peace in their region. There was a general agreement that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt would need to form the core of a regional guarantee structure. There was also discussion of the important role that Jordan might have especially in southern Syria, while some argued that Russia should be considered a regional, rather than a global actor. Regarding the role of the regional guarantors, it was argued that they would be tasked with securing the peace especially in light of the anticipated continued existence of numerous militias, ensuring the integrity of existing borders, providing assistance in the rebuilding of more inclusive regimes, and protecting the rights of minorities within states.


The role of international guarantors

Turning to the possible role of international powers such as the US and Russia in a future guarantee system for a Middle Eastern peace settlement, the discussion centred on the question of what would move global powers to take on the responsibilities of guarantors for the peace of the region. Here the parallel with the external guarantee of Westphalia by France and Sweden proved to be instructive. The foreign crowns, particularly France, were aware of the critical importance of the Holy Roman Empire in the European state system and were intent upon preventing the Empire falling under the dominance of the Habsburg Emperor, while also ensuring that he would not provide assistance to Habsburg Spain in its continuing war against France, as stipulated in the peace treaty. France’s external guarantee furthered both of these goals. Similarly, the Middle East today cannot be ignored by global powers not least on account of its geostrategic salience, its oil reserves, and its dangerous capacity as a geopolitical flashpoint. It would be in the interests of the USA and Russia for the Middle East to be taken out of ongoing international rivalry, and to prevent a spill-over effect of conflict in the Middle East spreading beyond the region, just as it was in the interests of the ‘foreign crowns’ to prevent a spill-over effect from central Europe by neutralising the Empire. Although participants recognised that international guarantors were essential to complement the regional ones, the US was argued by some to be less willing to sign up to the commitments of a guarantor than many regional powers would be, despite the greater apparent readiness of President Trump to take risks than his advisors or predecessors. The Westphalian experience shows that self-interested warring parties such as Russia and the USA in the Middle East can take on the mantle of effective guarantors of peace in the post-conflict era if the settlement is calibrated to be mutually acceptable. The Westphalian example also demonstrates that the guarantee can be effective even when guarantors included former enemies (France and the Emperor), just as relations between some of the proposed guarantors today are poor (USA and Iran; USA and Russia). 

The discussion also focussed on the possible role of the EU as a potential guarantor; the spill-over effect (the refugee crisis; Islamic terrorism) of conflict in the Middle East also affects European countries to such an extent that the EU has a genuine self-interest and a stake in a regional settlement, although relatively less so than the neighbours of Syria, Yemen and Libya. However, the reluctance of EU states to engage militarily in the region (the willingness to use force as a last resort being a necessity for a guarantor) would undermine their credibility as a potential guarantor.

There was some disagreement over the necessity of regime change in Syria. Many of the participants from the region in particular (except Iran), insisted that this was a sine qua non of any settlement, while others pointed out that a compromise settlement along Westphalian lines might entail Assad’s retention of governmental powers although under imposition of strict limitations that would need to be guaranteed by outside powers, just as the authority of princes over the confessional rights of their subjects (ius reformandi) were severely limited at Westphalia, limitations to governmental rule which were, crucially, placed under international guarantee and therefore potentially subject to international, collective enforcement. According to a Westphalian solution, therefore, it would be important for guarantors to not only police norms of behaviour between states, but also within states where necessary in pursuance of stability. There was less hostility to the concept of conditional sovereignty implicit therein, than at previous workshops, perhaps due to the recognition that states such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen already lacked sovereignty de facto, if not de jure. Then and now, as argued by some participants, there was and would be a certain hypocrisy in the institution of the guarantee (at least on the part of states such as Saudi Arabia), as the external guarantor upholds and enforces rights in other regions which are being denied under the guarantor’s own domestic arrangements.


Mechanisms and instruments

It was pointed out that the procedure of the guarantee stipulated in the treaties of Westphalia were rather impractical and lengthy. Following a breach of the treaty terms, three years of failed remonstrations, good offices and litigation would first need to pass before a military effort could be launched by the guarantors, either collectively or individually. This unrealistic three-year grace period was perhaps the reason why the guarantee was never implemented in this form, although its deterrent effect remained. One of the elements missing from the Westphalian guarantee was an adjudicating body or instance to determine when a breach of the treaty terms had indeed taken place, and whether the guarantee could therefore be activated. In the contemporary scenario, participants discussed the role that the UN might play in this regard. Several platforms or fora already exist under the UN umbrella, including the International Syria Support Group, the Lausanne Group, and the Astana Group. The UN could help to guarantee a possible hybrid settlement between a UN sponsored peace deal and the creation of separate zones of influence in Syria. While the UN structure had a high degree of legitimacy this to some extent came at the cost of effectiveness.