Kids in Rubble
Building stable civil society will be hard but necessary. Photo ©

Freedom House, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

December 2015

The day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Franklin D Roosevelt promised that ‘We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows.’ That peace was won. And the way it was won, perhaps holds valuable lessons for today. As the UK expands its intervention in Iraq into Syria, it is important to ask how to help Syria achieve peace, stability and good governance after the conflict - and just as importantly - how to support the people of the wider region to fulfil their aspirations for increased prosperity and build the strong institutions and civil societies necessary for long term stability.

The war in Syria has already cost almost 250,000 lives and displaced up to 12 million people – around half of the country's population. It has also caused physical destruction on a vast scale to property, cultural heritage, institutions, and infrastructure. This chaotic space has allowed ISIL to prosper, to attract thousands of fighters from other countries – currently numbering in excess of 25,000 – and to inspire and launch attacks like that in Paris. As the UK joins the war on ISIL in Syria, it is important to also ask how long term security and prosperity can be achieved across the wider region. This could help stem the flow of foreign fighters, and reduce the risk of terrorism and help prevent other countries in the region falling into a similar spiral of violence.

States elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with on-going conflict, such as Libya and Yemen, pose grave risks of ISIL or other violent extremists re-surfacing, even if they are defeated in Syria. Indeed ISIL has already established a satellite group in Libya. ISIL’s social media output from Syria is amplified by enthusiastic supporters who re-tweet, ‘like’ and share content across the region and the world. Furthermore, many are attracted to extremism in countries like Tunisia that, despite its positive moves to develop democracy, has sent more foreign fighters to Syria than any other country. While Syria clearly acts as a magnet and is the heart of the extremist network, it is worth remembering that the security risks are much wider. The destroyed Russian airliner was leaving Egypt, and Tunisia was the scene of the two worst terrorist attacks on UK citizens this year. A number of other countries in the region remain fragile and at real risk of future instability. 

The Scale of the challenge

These countries need on-going support to help secure long term prosperity and stability and ensure they are not to themselves follow the same downward trajectory, destabilised by internal problems and by weapons, fighters and refugees spilling over their borders. Tunisia in particular could provide a beacon of progress for people in a region eager for hope for the future.

The scale of the challenge across MENA should not be underestimated. MENA has the youngest population of any region in the world, with 60% of its people under the age of 30 and some 88 million under 24. This coincides with the highest youth unemployment in the world: 25%, according to the World Bank. In Saudi Arabia nearly a third of those unemployed are under 24, according to the ILO. Given its demographics MENA will need to generate 4 million more jobs every year just to prevent unemployment rising still higher. In countries like Egypt this means there are some 650,000 new people entering the work-force each year and competing for only abound 200,000 new jobs. This is despite 60% of unemployed young Egyptians being university graduates. In Tunisia youth unemployment is 50% higher amongst graduates. And at school level, some 12 million children are currently out of school because of conflict. 

This all contributes to frustrated achievement, crushed hopes, and a growing lost generation and creates the conditions in which extremists can flourish, as perhaps do education systems that fails to develop critical thinking. At the same time, across the region, there remains significant distrust of governments and questioning of their legitimacy. The demographic gap between rulers and ruled exacerbates these issues further. The gap between the average age of the population and of politicians in Jordan for example, is 43 years.

The great challenge now facing the world is to support countries such as Syria or Libya, but also other countries across the region become more stable, more prosperous, and better-governed, able to meet the needs and aspirations of their citizens

As Francis Fukuyama has described (Political Order and Political Decay (2014)), the great challenge now facing the world is to support countries such as Syria or Libya, but also other countries across the region become more stable, more prosperous, and better-governed, able to meet the needs and aspirations of their citizens. This is vital in ensuring long term security and stability both for the region and the wider world.

This will be impossible to achieve by solely military means. And lasting change will also be impossible to deliver from the outside without working with people in the region. More sophisticated policy responses are needed that work with the people in these countries to help them realise their aspirations.

A Marshall Plan for MENA

Aside from any use of hard power, the wider spectrum of softer policy tools is therefore required to improve people’s prospects and help support their aspirations for skills, jobs, good governance and prosperity. We know from our own experience in Europe in the 1930s that extremism thrives in times of economic hardship. Without support for the prospects and engagement of ordinary people, extremism has the potential to grow. Such support can take the form of working with policymakers in the region on common problems and assisting with education reform, skills, building institutions and civil society, and giving young people a voice and opportunities to debate issues and explore alternative ways of thinking about the world.

The scale of the challenge is huge. Yet it is by no means without precedent

The scale of the challenge is huge. Yet it is by no means without precedent. Roosevelt and his allies had to defeat ideological extremists whose strength – far more than ISIL’s – really did pose an existential threat to the world’s free societies. They then helped to rebuild much of Europe and Japan: whole regions devastated by war.

Inspiration for supporting MENA’s aspirations might be sought in the spirit of the Marshall Plan, and later the Eastern expansion of the EU after the Cold War, that between them helped produce stable, prosperous, and open societies. These successes were not confined to Europe. During World War II Japan was ruled by extreme militarists – who even encouraged suicide bombers. That regime was defeated militarily, but the subsequent peace was also won: investment, support for strong institutions and good governance helped produce that nation’s peaceful, thriving and still distinctly Japanese modern society.

So hard power actions in Syria should be accompanied by a soft power approach with the full spectrum of policy tools to support lasting prosperity and security across the whole region.

The task is daunting. But the UK and its allies have faced worse and succeeded. This week, of all weeks, it is fitting to remember the quiet determination of Franklin Roosevelt to win the peace.

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, and John Dubber, Head of Policy and External Relations, British Council

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