The Middle East: An Unchartered Future

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According to local media, a 19-year-old Emirati man has been sentenced to death in absentia for joining Daesh. REUTERS/Stringer

The Arab world was beset by political turmoil and violence in 2015 and, unless contained, the region could spiral into chaos

BY RAMI G. KHOURI

Political conditions have evolved so rapidly across the Middle East over the past few years, dominated by events and conflicts that are expected to govern the foreseeable future—that is until a new regional security architecture comes into being. Hence, going forward, we should expect more regional ideological confrontations, multi-state proxy wars, and direct military interventions by third parties within Arab states.

To be able to anticipate any major change that might occur in the region in the coming year, four specific arenas that capture the current power tensions and political transitions in the region should be monitored.

The first is the status of Iranian-Arab relations in the wake of the nuclear agreement. The second is watching the outcome of the multiple proxy conflicts in Syria, especially the dangerous new tension between Turkey and Russia. Thirdly, following the fate of Daesh in Syria-Iraq and expanding Al Qaeda operations in Arab territories remains of high importance. And last, but not least, it is imperative to keep an eye on the degree to which both active wars, (Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq), and stressed domestic orders, (Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Bahrain, Lebanon) can be wound down.

The troubling range and intensity of these situations are exacerbated by the reality that most of them are linked within a wider mesh of ideological confrontations that simultaneously involve local, regional and global powers.

In Syria, for example, government forces battle tens of rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, while Iran and Saudi Arabia wage their own ideological conflict in Syria, as do the United States and Russia—not to mention face-offs between Kurdish nationalists and Turkey.

This means that prospects for peaceful transitions in any one country, like Yemen or Syria, must necessarily include new understandings among regional and global powers that are active participants in the local battles.

Where should interested observers look for signs of change in the new year? Iranian-Saudi ideological tensions are probably the most important dynamic to study, because a rapprochement or just a political truce between these two powers would quickly cool down hotspots like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

It could also spark greater regional coordination in the urgent fight against Daesh. Iranian-Saudi relations will be heavily shaped by the full implementation in 2016 of the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear industry while lifting international sanctions that were imposed on it.

This could trigger significant positive consequences across the entire Middle East—if hardliners in the U.S. and Iran do not derail it.

Major world powers, led by their private sectors, are already reengaging commercially with Iran in a manner that should robustly expand its domestic economic power and its trade ties with neighbors and powers further afield.

If hundreds of billions of dollars drive new investments and commercial trade, Iran’s expanding middle class among its population of 80 million will seek more people-to-people regional contacts in trade, tourism, education, and culture; this could lead to more relaxed political relations and a regional security system that benefits all.

Iran could navigate the same route to economic growth, domestic liberalization, and regional amity that defined Turkey’s historic experience in the past two decades.

Signs of a political thaw in Arab-Iranian tensions will have to appear in the coming year for this promise to be realized. Arab states led by Saudi Arabia currently see Iran as a serious menace that meddles in their internal affairs by supporting sectarian parties such as Iraq’s Shiite militias, Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If, on the other hand, Gulf Arab states come to see Iran as a trustworthy party that honors its nuclear agreements with the world’s powers, and Iran can assure its Arab neighbors that it does not intend to foment Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions, we should then expect to see historic changes in the year ahead.

These would include a gradual softening in Saudi-Iranian-Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC), public recriminations, followed by exchanges of senior officials’ visits, enhanced cooperation in security, trade and environmental protection, and, ultimately perhaps, discussions on a new regional security architecture managed primarily by local powers.

Such an Iranian-Saudi detente should logically be spurred by their shared worry about the growing threat from Daesh and similar Salafist-takfiri militants across the region.

These militant groups usually deliberately target Shiites whom they consider to be deviants from true Islam, and have also attacked Saudi targets in their quest to sow discord, topple ruling Arab regimes and expand their vision of an “Islamic State”.

Fighting Daesh

The past year has confirmed that Daesh can only be rolled back by a combination of local ground forces supported by regional and international air power.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have both contributed to the battle against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, but they also continue to confront each other indirectly in those countries as well as in Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain and other active proxy battlefields.

Such contradictions highlight a dramatic new trend in the Middle East that will continue to shape events for years to come: Big regional powers with substantial militaries, immense national pride and confidence, and perceptions of being threatened by regional developments, all of which have led them to actively engage in political and military battles in other countries.

The three most important such regional powers are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Their policies converge most dramatically in Syria, where they support opposing parties and thus help to perpetuate the fighting, destruction, and refugee flows.

Daesh has taken advantage of the fact that government and rebel parties in Syria supported by Iran, Turkey, Russia, the U.S., as well as Hezbollah, are so busy fighting each other that they have not yet launched coordinated attacks against Daesh strongholds in Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul.

The slow but steady advances against Daesh in parts of Syria and Iraq in the past nine months, like Tikrit, Ramadi, Sinjar and Kobani, contrast with Daesh’s ability to keep launching local offenses in other areas, and to develop affiliated groups in parts of Yemen, Egypt, and Libya.

Major regional powers whose interests are most directly threatened by Daesh, will have to reveal in 2016, if they’re prepared to coordinate their efforts to defeat the terrorist group, or if instead, they will prioritize their bilateral tensions and confrontations and leave Daesh for another day.

The interplay between different conflicts in the Middle East is evident in the recent spike in Turkish-Russian tensions, following Ankara’s downing of a Russian fighter jet along the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015.

Russia directly plunged into military action in Syria in 2015 in support of the beleaguered Assad government of President Bashar Al Assad, while Turkey expanded its support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow him.

Turkey has simultaneously attacked Kurdish groups in Syria and eastern Turkey that it fears may be creating a heartland, with the Kurds of northern Iraq, for a future Kurdish state.

The presidents of two nationalistic military powers like Turkey and Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin respectively have escalated their rhetoric against each other in the past month, raising fears that their forces could find themselves doing battle in Syria. The chances of this are slim in early 2016—but not zero.

This highlights how local tensions inside any Arab country could gradually expand to regional proxy wars that ultimately pull in the world’s powers.

So in Syria we witness all the new realities and dangers of the Middle East at play: A declining state government (Syria) is propped up by a regional power (Iran), a global power (Russia), and a neighboring non-state power (Hezbollah), while it fights to ward off a new “state” power (Daesh) and the combined opposition of its neighbor regional power (Turkey). Syrian rebels supported by powers far and near (U.S., Saudi Arabia, and many others), while the Syrian Kurds in the north carve out an autonomous region for themselves as some of them simultaneously battle Daesh, Turkey, and the Syrian army.

This free-for-all regional and global battlefield in Syria does not lend itself to easy or quick solutions, given the determination of all these actors to support their allies and proxies inside Syria in order to survive what they all see as existential battles.

The frightening specter of Daesh’s persistence and expansion has sparked some new fears of it obtaining weapons of mass destruction, including, in the worst case scenario, tactical nuclear weapons. This occurs alongside Daesh and Al Qaeda’s continued consolidation in corners of Yemen, Sinai, and Libya, and heavyweight Russian-Turkish face-offs in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, across much of the rest of the Arab world, serious political tensions anchored in unmet social and economic needs in large countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan continue to stoke the kind of mass frustration and citizen fears that erupted in the uprisings and revolutions of 2011-12.

These low-intensity situations of unmet needs and lack of citizenship rights are vastly overshadowed by the active warfare and terrorism of the Levant, Libya and Yemen—but we should remember that such conditions were precisely the spark that exploded in the uprisings that later led to the current civil wars and regional proxy battles.

In such conditions, it can be hard to know where to look for signs of either improvements or deterioration in the year ahead.

The most likely arenas for movement in either direction must be Iranian-Saudi ties and the situation in Syria, because both of these encompass the concerns and fighting capabilities of local actors and the regional and global powers that now decide the fate of the Middle East and its nearly 600 million people.

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