A Prognosis of the region for 2018
Middle East has been one of the most volatile regions of the world since the Second World War. But, recent conflicts in the region have brought academic phrases like ‘Arc of Instability’ to the fore. The Arab Spring was an extension of the Iranian Revolution and the War on Terror that created the ‘New Middle East’. These developments have divided the region in two poles: Conservatives led by Saudi Arabia, and radical Islamists like Iran and Turkey. Bitter rivalry that is consuming the region nowadays is not between two countries, it’s between two ideologies. It is a minuscule ‘Clash of Civilizations’ within the cradle of Islamic Civilization.
The Iranian Revolution and the Arab Spring were both revolutionary tides that swept through the Middle East. Islamist ideology presented an alternative to authoritarian dynasties. Revolutionary Islam, through its egalitarian and dynamic version, tried to deprive these conservative rulers of legitimacy. But, it also gave birth to authoritarian states like Iran and Turkey. Now both poles of the Muslim political spectrum claim to be the true representatives of Islam, adding a religious dimension to this rivalry.
Among ‘Arab Spring’ countries, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia had popular support as well as organized party structures that would help them dominate future revolutionary democracies in their respective countries. However, with the ouster of Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen, Arab Spring left power vacuum in both countries, and also in Syria where it left Assad vulnerable like never before. With the triumph of radical Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia and signs of revolutionary upheaval in conservative states of Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco, Saudi Arabia could not afford to lose Syria, Yemen and Libya. Ironically, same conservative powers, which have been striving for keeping the status quo in the Middle East, wanted change in Syria only to divest Iran of its key ally Assad.
Extremists, who were in disarray after Osama bin Laden, founded a new group ‘Islamic State’. Unlike Al-Qaeda, the self-styled IS sought the creation of a political entity, not the transformation of existing Muslim countries into Shariah states. This group is against both radical and conservative states in the Middle East but is amenable to conservative owing to their opposition to Shia and Sufi versions of Islam. The IS sprang up freely in Euphrates Valley as Assad was distracted by Arab Spring and Iraq was in chaos owing to sectarian strife and tense Kurd-Arab relations.
Like French Revolution, Arab Spring also unleashed nationalist and separatist movements across the region. With Peshmerga as the only real domestic resistance to Islamic State, Kurds started to challenge Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian governments. Seeing the Iraqi State entangled with Islamic State, Kurds started to reassert their independence aspirations. They created niche for themselves in northern Syria due to the tumult of civil war there and weakness of the Syrian government. In Yemen, Houthis set out to rekindle their decades-long struggle against their political opponent President Ali Abdullah Saleh and religious opponent Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Civil wars in Yemen and Syria started as internal conflict. In the initial phase, conservatives supported the government in Yemen but rebels in Syria, whereas radicals did exactly the opposite. In Yemen, the conservative Saudi government intervened militarily when its allies feared defeat. Iran did the same in Syria to rescue its beleaguered ally Assad. The Russia-Iran duo turned the tables and brought Assad back in the game. In Syrian civil war, however, Iran and Turkey were in the opposite camps due to divergent interests and more specifically due to Turk affiliation with NATO.
Like in Iran and Turkey, radical Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia turned to authoritarianism. It cost both Ennahda and Muslim Brotherhood their governments but the former remained a dominant political force in Tunisia as democracy in that country did not end. But, in Egypt revolution went full circle and Muslim Brotherhood-led democracy was sent packing only to be replaced by old dictatorship but with a different face. The KSA supported the Sisi-led coup in the country as it was the return of status quo in Egypt. Turkey’s Erdogan, whose Freedom and Justice Party is an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood, saw this volte-face in Egypt as betrayal by Saudis. Though radical and Islamist to the core, Erdogan’s Turkey has remained close to Saudi Arabia due to economic and strategic interests. Turkey was an errand boy of Saudi Arabia in Syria with the assigned duty of destabilizing Assad regime. Divergence of interests in Egypt drove Turkey close to Iran as it also sensed that removal of Assad is a lost cause now. As they say ‘If you cannot beat them, join them’; Turkey joined Iran and Russia in peacemaking in Syria which would not be acceptable to Saudi Arabia and its Western allies.
In mid-2017, civil wars in Yemen and Syria reached a stalemate. Islamic State was nearing defeat. Frustrated by failure in these countries, the KSA decided to put its own house in order.
For quite some time, the tiny Gulf state Qatar was pursing an independent line within the conservative camp. Amidst falling oil prices, Qatar needed to diversify its economy which means liberalization of economy as well as politics. Al-Jazeera, a world-famous Qatari television, started to cover controversial subjects like democracy and human rights in the Middle East with an aim to portray Qatar as a liberal country so as to attract investment from the West. Qatar also sought regional influence by backing radical parties like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Supporting these groups brought Qatar closer to Turkey that has been building military base in Qatar since 2015. Qatari links with Hamas also helped in thaw in its relations with Iran whose proxy Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas against Israel. When quiet diplomacy did not work, Saudi Arabia and its allies severed diplomatic relations with Qatar on 5 June 2017 so as to force it into submission.
Conservatives demanded an end to funding to Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, limitation on Al Jazeera coverage, withdrawal of Turkish forces from Qatar and severing of Qatar’s relations with Iran. Defiance of Qatar flew in the face of Saudi rulers as it damaged their prestige in the region. Qatar moved closer with Iran and Turkey. Emboldened by Saudi debacles, Houthis brought the war into Saudi territory with a missile attack on 4 November 2017. It was retaliated by complete air, land and naval blockade of Yemen by the Saudi alliance on 6 November. Ensuing humanitarian crises like shortage of food, medicine and fuel in Yemen at the time of deadly cholera outbreak damaged Saudi cause in Yemen at international front. With mounting pressure, Saudi Arabia decided to open a new front against Iran in Lebanon, an Arab country where Iran has a great clout.
The Saudi bravado started on 4 November 2017 with the resignation of Lebanon’s pro-Saudi Prime Minister, Saad Al-Hariri, on the ground that his life was in danger at the hands of Iran–backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. With President Michel Aoun’s siding with Hezbollah and France’s disapproval of Hariri’s resignation, Saudi gamble failed. Hariri rescinded his resignation when he returned to Lebanon on 4 December 2017.
It appears that Saudi Arabia is deliberately damaging the already fragile balance of the Arab society. Last time when domestic balance of power was tempered with, Lebanon burned in the civil war for nearly 25 years. But Saudi Arabia is still not giving up on the idea of eliminating Hezbollah. The increasing proximity between Saudi Arabia and Israel is the true manifestation of the ages-old proverb: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Ironically, instead of Israel, it is Iran now that is being perceived as the biggest threat by Arabs.
Israel’s chief demand, in this context, is the demilitarization of Hamas. Though not amenable to Saudi Arabia and her allies like Egypt and UAE, Hamas withstood the Israeli onslaught for decades; therefore, instead of eliminating it, conservatives want to make it toothless. On 12 October 2017, Egypt brokered a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah on the conditions of demilitarization of Hamas and transfer of Rafah Crossing – a linkage channel of Hamas with Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah – to the Palestinian Authority.
These developments were about to materialize when American President Trump rocked the world with his announcement to declare Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Palestinians may be divided politically but none of them would be willing to forfeit Jerusalem. America’s Middle East peace envoy and son-in-law of President Trump, Jared Kushner, was constantly in contact with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. It seems highly unlikely that Americans have taken the decision on the status of Jerusalem without taking Saudis on board. Saudi Arabia and UAE did not even send their foreign ministers to emergency OIC meeting held in Istanbul, Turkey, on 13 December 2017. But it is Hobson’s choice for Saudi Arabia now as it cannot lose its role as the custodian of the Palestinian cause. US-Saudi Arabia-Israel nexus ended up exactly in the opposite of what was intended; to decrease Iranian influence in the region.
Having rescued Assad, Iran and Russia have brought rebels on the negotiating table. Turkey is also onboard as Erdogan wants to eliminate Kurdish question from the region which is more vigorous than ever after autonomy of Syrian Kurds and independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September 2017. To suppress internal dissent, Erdogan has created the bogeyman out of Kurds and imposed crackdown on Turkish Kurd region.
Question of Syria is in the hands of Turkey, Iran and their common ally Russia. Conservative Saudi Arabia tried to unite rebels against Assad in Riyadh before Geneva peace talks of December 2017. But in utter defiance to the Saudis, the rebels demanded direct negotiations with Assad. But, triumphant Assad is not in the mood of compromise. It goes without saying that dissent is an act of terrorism in the eyes of Assad regime. Conservatives are now exhausted and they would yield to Russian terms which are favourable to Assad and Iran.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia achieved a breakthrough when a key ally of Houthis, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought rapprochement with Saudi alliance. But he was killed on 4 December for ‘betrayal’. But Saudi morale was boosted by a UN report on 13 December which pointed out Iran as source of ballistic missiles used by Houthis. On the next day, the US also provided the evidence that Iran is supplying ballistic missiles used by Houthis. USA can impose new sanctions on Iran as it is violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) which prohibits supply, sale or transfer of arms from Iran. President Trump has already refused to certify that Iran in complying with the nuclear deal i.e. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in October 2017. He thought that Republican-dominated Congress would re-impose sanctions on Iran which virtually end the agreement. But Congress did nothing and let the deadline of 12 December pass. Now ball is again in Trump’s court. Saudi Arabia and Israel are strongest opponents of the deal and are looking forward for its scrapping.
Islamic State has been defeated in Iraq and Syria after the capture of Mosul (June), Raqqa (October) and Deir ez-Zor (November) but Middle East is still divided on ethnic, sectarian and ideological lines. Autocracy, civil wars and power struggle, the causes of the ominous rise of extremism in the region, still persist. Islamic State can regroup itself in war-stricken areas of Libya and Yemen where they are already present. Yemen Civil War does not seem to end soon as both Saudi Arabia and Iran refuse to back down. Syrian civil war is back to square one; Assad is as willing to throw his country into pit of fire for the sake of his rule as he was in 2011. So, the chances of peace in war-torn country are bleak.
Libya has also become a lawless land and will continue to be so as warlords are running the country. In Egypt, el-Sisi has indicated that he will run in the 2018 Presidential Election which would mean the persistence of authoritarianism on the lines of Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser. The danger of IS would loom large especially in the Sinai Peninsula where it struck the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history on 24 November 2017, killing, at least, 305 people. Hezbollah would remain strong under the patronage of Iran and any attempt to dislodge Hezbollah would result in civil war in Lebanon. Qatar would not compromise with Saudi demands as it is now closer to Iran and Turkey as never before.