The year 2018 witnessed many important political affairs in the Middle East; from Syrian civil war to Israel-Palestine peace process stalemate, from the war against ISIL in Iraq to the warfare in Yemen. Although the dawn of peace emerged in some regional wars, the year 2019 might be another tumultuous year for the Middle East and regional states. Since many of the trends in the Middle East are interlinked with one another, in the following paragraphs, we will discuss them separately as much as possible for the sake of understanding their individual mechanics.
As we start the tenth year after the onset of the Arab uprisings, there is, sadly, little hope that there will be peace, democratic transition and stability in the Middle East. The year 2019 will not bring much positive change to the region: ongoing conflicts are unlikely to be resolved, some may even get worse and new ones may break out.
In this continual upheaval, the United States will certainly play the most important role. The political wrangling between President Donald Trump and the Washington establishment, in particular, is likely to determine the direction of much of the US foreign policy towards the region.
It is widely expected that, in 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will make more revelations about the results of the ongoing investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Therefore, Trump will likely distract the public by taking dramatic decisions on foreign policy; the Middle East will be the easiest target.
Already at the end of 2018, there were clear indications of this trend. Trump’s mid-December surprise decision to withdraw over 2,000 US troops from Syria was widely seen as an attempt to appease his support base, consolidate power and rein in administration officials who disagreed with him.
Apart from the continuing unpredictability of US foreign policy shifts, major developments in the Middle East in 2019 will largely be determined by six major issues discussed below:
1. The Syrian Conflict
Despite the defeat of the Syrian opposition and the retaking of large swathes of land by pro-regime forces in 2018, the Syrian conflict is far from over. More than 40 percent of the Syrian territory is still not under the control of Damascus.
The withdrawal of US troops from the oil-, gas- and water-rich northeast Syria is likely to fan the competition between the major external powers in the conflict: Turkey, Russia and Iran. This is likely to also affect the de-militarised zone agreement in Idlib, which prevented a major onslaught on the last opposition stronghold last September.
The Syrian conflict may very well enter a new phase of proxy warfare, wherein the US assigns Turkey the responsibility of blocking Iran in the territories that it intends to evacuate. The withdrawal of US forces would also stimulate a more aggressive Israeli approach in Syria.
Read More: Plans for Redrawing the Middle East
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