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CWA # 199, 31 December 2019

The World This Year
The Middle East in 2019: Domestic Protests, Bilateral Conflicts and Regional Tensions

  Lakshmi V Menon

What happened in 2019?
Syria: US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw 2000 US troops came in late 2018. On 16 January 2019, the Manbij attack claimed by Islamic State caused nineteen casualties including four Americans. US pullout heightened ambiguity for external parties such as Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey. On March 23, US and Syrian Democratic Forces declared “100%” territorial defeat of ISIS and “caliphate”. On October 6, Washington announced it would step aside for the Turkish “long-planned operation”. Later, Turkey’s head of state Erdogan and Russia’s head Vladimir Putin achieved the second buffer zone. On October 26, the news of the death of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi engulfed the globe, which was soon confirmed by IS. 

Yemen: On October 9, 2019, UAE withdrew a few troops from Yemen. Later Yemeni government agreed to share power with the Separatists. In November, a peace deal ended the southern standoff, Saudi considered a truce and Houthis seized Korean, Saudi ships. In December Sudan reduced its Yemen troops.

Political instability in Iraq: the shadow of protests that commenced in 2018 endured in 2019. In November 2019, following two months of street protests and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s (a powerful Shia leader) call for change in leadership, Iraq’s PM Adel Abdul Mahdi stated he would resign. Moqtada al-Sadr, another Shia leader, demanded the resignation of the government. Calls for ending foreign interference in Iraq’s polity have also surfaced. Amid a lack of consensus on who the Prime minister is, Tehran maintains its influence and scores have died. A deepening deadlock looms large.

Iran-Saudi tensions: in September 2019, an attack on Saudi’s oil facilities in Abqaiq plunged the region into greater tensions. Saudi’s retaliation was oddly subdued, with verbal threats and no military action. In October, an Iranian state-owned oil tanker was attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, escalating diplomatic and verbal spate. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rubbing shoulders with Israeli PM Netanyahu has worsened worries. 

GCC tensions: Amid victory claims by both sides, Qatar blockade persists. However, high-level diplomatic meetings and participation in regional diplomatic platforms point to an abandoning of combat foreign policies and re-establishment of diplomatic ties. 

Turkey-Kurdish strife: Despite issuing of formal complaints by Baghdad against Turkish incursions into Iraq, military hunting of PKK bases continues. In January 2019, the Turkish government claimed that Kurdish-PKK militants attacked Iraqi military equipment. Trump threatened to sanction Turkey if US-backed Kurdish forces were attacked. As the Syrian war winds down, US-Turkey dialogue regarding retrieval of weapons and establishment of safe zone linger.

Saudi-Israel-Russia-Iran-Syria nexus: Netanyahu and Putin have set ground rules together in Syria. Until Israel does not damage Moscow’s strife to endure Assad’s regime, Israel can attack Iran and Syria. The unprecedented bromance between MBS and Netanyahu have further skewed the already multi-faceted regional dynamics of arms deals, resource wars, religious schisms, and cross-cutting dynastic politics. Saudi and Israel arm-twisting Iran via Putin has come down heavily on Tehran.

The US puzzle: 2019 commenced with profound ambiguity regarding key US foreign policy pillars in the Middle East. On Syria, while Trump announced immediate US withdrawal, his NSA stated the contrary. Later, 600 troops were decided to remain. On Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to halve US troops has not transformed into policy. Following the declaration of victory over ISIS, US abandoned Kurdish allies stating Turkey could “do what it wants” in Syria – once again contradicted by his NSA. Trump’s nationalist and isolationist instincts endured in 2019. Ending on a high note, the impeachment proves to predict US president’s future, like the Middle East’s, a fool’s tread.

Political pressures: Both, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who faced local elections and Netanyahu who faced general elections (while also confronting corruption charges), emerged victors. 

What is the background?

Afore 2019, some key issues that could significantly alter Middle East’s dynamics emerged and some persisted. 

Syria: In March 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad encountered an unforeseen challenge when pro-democracy protests demanding the resignation of Assad regime erupted nationally. The violent suppression of demonstrations using military and paramilitary forces paved way for opposition militias transforming the crisis into a full-scale civil war between Russo-Iranian backed Assad government and rebels backed by Turkey, Saudi, US and other regional powers. The Syrian conflict is driven by three campaigns: clashes between opposing forces and Assad regime; Turkey’s military operations against Syrian Kurds; and coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. As per UNHCR, over 5.7 million Syrian refugees have been registered and over 6.2 million are internally displaced.

Yemen: De-escalation and talks reduced humanitarian suffering but a final resolution remained afar. The Saudi-UAE led coalition’s brawl against Iran-backed Hezbollah and Houthis cost thousands of lives including children and the worst human-made famine ever.

Libya: The Libyan crisis which commenced with the Arab Spring protests in 2011 had led to a civil war, foreign military intervention, dethroning and killing of Muammar Gaddafi (ending his 42 years reign), thus plunging the country into an unprepared post-Gaddafi phase of violence and instability. Since tens of thousands have died.

Political instability in Iraq: In September 2018, protestors in Basra torched Iran’s consulate, every building of Iran-backed militias and nearly all government buildings in the state, including Da’wa party’s headquarters. The protests could plunge the country into full-fledged chaos. A water pollution crisis and electricity crisis were at the corner of the instability.

Political Instability in Lebanon: in May 2018, the first parliamentary elections in nine years was held, increasing share of Hezbollah seats to 53%. Until January 2019, Lebanese politicians were unable to form a unified government. Lebanon-Israel tensions increased following the discovery of tunnels leading from Lebanon into Israel, leading to Israel’s launch of Operation Northern Shield in December 2018. The surprise victory of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised concerns about Iranian influence in Baghdad. In October 2018, Barham Saleh and Adel Abdul Mahdi became President and PM respectively. 

Invariably, all the above countries were economically crippled. 

Qatar blockade: In June 2017, a UAE-Saudi-led Arab coalition (including Eqypt and Bahrain) tried to permanently ostracize Qatar by imposing a historic maritime, land, and air blockade. The anti-Qatar quartet desired to strong-arm Doha into complying with thirteen points, accusing Qatar of supporting Islamic extremists. Doha did not succumb. The GCC divisions have given way to combative foreign policy. Both Doha and Riyadh carried out massive public relations campaigns escalating diplomatic pressures and worsening bilateral ties.

Iran – US standoff: The crippling US sanctions, post-Trump-exit from JCPOA in May 2018, had put Iran and other European states in a tight spot. US-Iran relations continue to be as tense as during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iran’s nuclear pursuit since 1957, development of ballistic missiles (violating UNSCR 2331) and training of proxy forces remain constant irritants. Sanctions including Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, etc. were passed by the US.

Turkey-Kurdish strife: Over 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East of which, 5.4 million reside in Turkey. PKK, founded by Abdullah Ocalan waged an insurgency since 1984 against Turkey to conceive a Kurdish state. The ongoing conflict has claimed over 40,000 lives. Gezi Park protests and 2016 July coup attempt during Erdogan’s regime point towards popular discontent. The PKK, Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s armed wing - the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have progressively tussled against the government in the southeast. Regional dynamics have altered considering Kurdish contribution in defeating ISIS in Syria.

The deal of the century: Snippets of the much-awaited Trump’s Middle East plan or “deal of the century” – embassy move to Jerusalem, Golan Heights decision, US nod to Netanyahu’s territorial and political adventurism and gerrymandering in the name of “Greater Jerusalem Bill” – all pointed towards Netanyahu is the clear victor of any Trump-Jared plan making head of Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas called the deal the “slap of the century”.

Israel-Iran tensions in Syria and Lebanon: Tensions between Tehran and Israel have also been dynamic due to cosying between Israel and Saudi; Russia’s increasing role in the region and the Israel-Russia-Iran-Syria matrix. Israel-Iran tensions have led to skirmishes in territories of Syria and Lebanon. 

Migration and Refugee Crisis: Since the early 2000s, the Middle East has experienced a massive flood of forced migration and refugees. Particularly by Turkey, being the main transit hub for refugee flows into Europe. Recently, wars in Iraq and Syria have contributed the largest share of Middle East’s refugees and migrants. Yet, a fair share comes from failed states and wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. This issue is one of the great magnitudes – the future political forms that may emerge in these diasporas; questions of sovereignty and the next generation; thwarting terrorism and security concerns – all form momentous questions.

Human Rights Concerns: The state-sanctioned killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces illustrate the resorting to lethal and violent measures to repress expressions of dissent. In Egypt, Saudi and Iran, a crackdown on human rights and women’s rights advocates and political opponents manifolded. Excessive force and arbitrary detention were commonplace. Although in Lebanon and Tunisia, faint hopes of same-sex relations were raised, advocacies were persecuted. Regarding migrant/domestic workers, few positive developments occurred on a legislative level in UAE, Qatar and Morocco. In Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Egypt and Algeria, religious and ethnic minorities were persecuted by armed groups and governments.

What does it mean?

Simply put, the Middle East is burning. The tread is puzzling and dangerous. Any wrong move could lead to military escalations.

A third intifada could lead to large-scale violence in Israel and Palestinian territories making the achievement of a lasting Israel-Palestinian deal a regional security emergency. Permanent fracture of Libya has called for UN, the US and European concerns as militias tear the state along tribal and political lines, while human trafficking, migration and absence of primary governing body linger. Scramble over oil fields has dented the economy as Libyan oil revenues constitute over 80% of Libya’s exports. A deteriorating Iran-US-Saudi conflict could lead to Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz (through which 30 per cent of the world’s oil flows) leading to political, security and economic concerns. Donald Trump’s hostility towards Iran and affinity towards Saudi have made the delicate situation explosive. External military intervention (installations, arms, troops) in Syria, Yemen, Libya  threatens to prolong the conflict and lead to an unintended escalation as the ongoing violence catalyzes resurgence of terror groups. If the Kurds establish Kurdistan, secessionist movements could be accelerated in Middle East. Regarding Lebanon, weak governance, a fragile economy, security risks, destabilizing spillover from the Syrian civil war, increasing Hezbollah-Israel tensions all-cause worries. The aftermath of Iraqi conflict, challenges of reintegration and reconstruction may fracture Iraq and plague sectarian rivalries leading to prolonged conflict. A global concern remains that IS, being defeated territorially, may resort to prior methods of orchestrating terrorist attacks and its insurgency roots.

There are way too many regional states, regional powers, and players with crisscrossing interests, friendships, animosities, loyalties, aspirations and prides at play. The probability of a nuclear face-off cannot be ignored. In the Middle East, “indirect warfare” and “proxy” attacks are becoming precedence. The Yemen crisis, militias in Syria, Iran-Saudi standoff, interference in Iraq’s polity, targeting Persian Gulf’s trade are hazardous maneuvers capable of destroying the region. The world will have much to lose.

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