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Beyond Crisis Management in the Middle East: A Joint Conference with UNA-NCA

On Thursday, May 21, the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, along with The Institute of World Politics, hosted a three-part panel discussion at the Institute to discuss peace and stability in the post-2015 development framework. The panels explored the approach to the refugee crisis in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq at the international and ground level.

Shelly Pitterman, Director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explained the humanitarian mega-crisis happening in Syria and Iraq as a perfect storm that has broader national security implications. Turkey, as of now, hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, Lebanon has the highest per capita ratio of refugees in the world, and Syria and Iraq have among the largest numbers of displaced persons in the world.  However, as the numbers of refugees and displaced persons have risen to unprecedented numbers, Mr. Pitterman stated, the countries hosting Syrian refugees in the Middle East have demonstrated remarkable generosity, and have spent millions to provide services and safety.

Colonel Christopher Holshek (Ret.), Co-Chair, UNA-NCA Peace and Security Committee, led the second panel discussion on the Islamic States’ rebuilding efforts. He explained that the Islamic State is finding out, just as the United States found out in Iraq, that it is very difficult to go from conflict to peace, from relief to recovery. This phase, phase four, or “phase for failure,” is the Pentagon’s term for post conflict reconstruction and stability operations.  He mentioned that whoever figures out how to rebuild civil society from the bottom-up will get the upper hand; this is problematic because the group that is successful in rebuilding may not be the legitimate government.

As ISIS faces struggles of governance and civil society, Col. Holshek noted that the United States has an opportunity to fill these gaps. In his remarks, he focused on the question of how the United States can fill those gaps in regards to transition management and the long-term, holistic, strategic process required to do so.

John Filson, Senior Policy Manager at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, discussed long-term strategies for peace building that address structural causes underlying the current crisis. In the area of international development, Filson believes that the Millennium Development Goals were successful in uniting efforts across the globe. He argued that the Sustainable Development Goals should be based off of the Millennium Goals. He stated that the Sustainable Development Goals are attempting not only to address the symptoms of chronic poverty and underdevelopment but their structural causes.  The Sustainable Development Goals deal with social inequalities, inequitable economic opportunities, and cultural, political, and social marginalization. Goal sixteen specifically, which points to building peaceful societies and accountable effective government institutions, holds opportunity for the long term.  

Any successful international agreement relies on trust. Though the models for facing terrorism have continued to evolve, Mr. Filson believes that the primary problem with the current Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) model is that it is still based on the presumption that the problem is distant from the United States, and it is clear to others with whom we are dealing that the CVE model is oriented to benefit our national interests and not theirs. The CVE action agenda, according to Filson, is missing the global drivers of extremism, support for oppressive aggressive regimes, the availability of arms in the arms industry, and the perceived and real understanding of cultural dominance. Mr. Filson said that the United States has to focus on the dialogue and narrative it presents and where we stand as a nation in opposition to the narrative being projected by recruiters of violent extremists.

Dr. Stefania Piffanelli, Deputy Director of the United Nations Information Center, also spoke on the panel to discuss the United Nations’ peace and security setup, its weaknesses and what lies ahead. Dr. Piffanelli believes that the United Nations has to look at what has worked in the past, what has not, and what can be done to refine their tools to move forward.

The final panel, moderated by IWP Professor Albert Santoli, addressed the crisis management problem in the Middle East by looking at solutions on the ground. Colonel Michael Dziedzic (ret.), who currently serves as a Fellow at the World Engagement Institute, centered his discussion on the question of whether the United States will have an effective peace implementation when wars in Middle East end. The United Nations and the United States must improve in anticipating a peace process so that they can help places like Syria and those in the Middle East set themselves up for success. Dr. Dziedzic believes that states where criminals run rampant are the heart of fragility and conflict and their criminalization prevents a peaceful resolution.

David Weiss, President and CEO of Global Communities discussed some of the on-the-ground level efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis happening in the Middle East and some of the constraints of trying to provide aid in that region. The issue of funding, according to Mr. Weiss, is one of the most important issues, especially since the number of disasters worldwide, both natural and manmade, have been exceptionally high, and the number of refugees and displaced persons because of those disasters has increased dramatically.  Unlike most humanitarian aid “truck and chuck” systems of supplying those in need with food and water, Weiss and other NGOs do not have the same access to those in need in Syria and instead focus on early recovery and resistance to extremists, criminals and violence. Mr. Weiss argued that while it is difficult to go from relief to recovery, as Colonel Holshek mentioned, the preparation to begin with early recovery must begin immediately.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, Director of Government Relations and Strategist at the Syrian American Council, gave concluding remarks during the event’s reception sponsored by UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee.