Review: The state of the Middle East in 2016

Map of the Middle East [Source: France 24]

Abdul-Latif Halimi reviews the current situation of the Middle East, discussing the most significant developments that have occurred in 2016.

2016 has been a turbulent year for the Middle East. With ongoing wars, failed military coups, and a change in oil prices, the region has experienced a number of strategic shifts which will undoubtedly have groundbreaking ramifications for the coming year.

Here is my humble attempt at recapping the major events that have taken place in the Middle East during 2016.

Syria

The country saw two major shifts in 2016. The first and most important was that Russian airpower, which had been a feature of the conflict since September of 2015 to little effect, was combined with an influx of Shi’ite fighters under Iranian command. This combination proved immensely effective in Aleppo over the past five months, where the rebels were besieged twice and eventually overrun. Rebels were outnumbered, outgunned and essentially isolated from any foreign support.

The second shift was Turkish involvement in northern rural Aleppo, where a loose coalition of Syrian rebels backed by Turkey has gained 1,800 square kilometres of territory previously held by ISIS and, to a lesser degree, Kurdish militias. Turkey’s primary aims from this intervention are, first, to deny the geographic link between Kurds in Manbij and Kobane in the east and Efrin in the west; secondly, Turkey has been wanting to push back ISIS which has been increasingly aggressive in targeting Turkish territory.

The Axis of Resistance currently involved in Syria

Overall, the momentum is with the Assad regime and its allies, but not by as much as widely believed. The reality is that over the past year the major territorial shift has been ISIS losing ground to the US-backed Kurds. The rebels have not lost much in the way of territory, besides Eastern Aleppo and a pocket of Latakia province, and have actually made gains in Hama Province.

Politically, there is an emerging Turkish-Iranian-Russian dialogue over the future of the country. Whether this is a temporary setup as the United States is occupied with its presidential transition, or something more structural, is not clear.

Palestine                                                                     

Over the past 15 months, some 235 Palestinians and 38 Israelis have been killed in the “Knife Intifada”. This has been a slow and ongoing movement that has rattled Israeli security forces and revived memories of the 2000’s and the larger and impactful “Second Intifada”.

But the biggest news of 2016 for Palestine, by far, is the UN Security Council’s resolution 2334 that was passed on Monday. And while many will justifiably simply dismiss it as more of the same, the fact is this resolution comes as part of a far bigger shift in international public opinion and within the United States.

The tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal and the failed peace negotiations (in which the 1967 borders, settlements and the Jewish identity of Israel were the main stumbling blocks), mean that US-Israel relations have become a partisan issue between Republicans and Democrats.

This was best demonstrated by the controversy over Netanyahu addressing Congress in March 2015 which split along partisan lines.

Whereas there was previously a broad American political consensus on these issues, this consensus is being challenged. Combine that with Western European condemnation and economic measures over Israeli settlement activity, increased recognition of the ‘State of Palestine’ (especially in Europe) and the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and things aren’t as simple as they once were.

Gulf States

Without doubt, the biggest development in 2016 in the Gulf has been economic. Oil prices in January plunged to as low as $27, the lowest in over a decade, and therefore challenged all economic assumptions about the Gulf States. Large projects were shut down, huge companies (such as Bin Laden Group and Saudi Oger) were thrown into crisis and thousands of migrant workers were in limbo and had not been paid for months.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia

While Qatar is too rich to be bothered and the UAE having largely diversified its economy (tourism, services, small-scale industry), it was Saudi Arabia that was forced into massive reform. Muhammad bin Salman was the ‘architect’ of a radical program to re-shape the Saudi economy into an investment, industrial and mature economy that shifted away from oil-dependence.

And though Saudi Arabia is certainly wealthy enough to seek ambitious change, with enormous cash reserves and the lowest government debt level of any country in the world, there are very serious questions about its social dynamism and ability. Are Saudis trained and productive enough? Will Saudis accept increased taxes without increased political representation? Can investors buy into the government’s vision?

Whether they succeed or fail is one of the Middle East’s defining questions for the next decade.

Egypt

Abdel-Fattah as-Sisi has taken large strides towards Russia and the Iran-led axis in 2016. With open support for the Syrian military and strong support for the Iraqi government, Egypt has begun to drift away from the Gulf States. This is particularly true of Egyptian relations with Saudi Arabia, which itself seems to be gravitating slightly towards Turkey and Qatar since Salman became king.

Furthermore, Russian relations seem to be a hedge against the Obama Administration, which has expressed displeasure at Egypt’s human rights record and not given Sisi the attention he believes he deserves. Putin and Sisi make for a natural ‘strongman’ fit and this has manifested in large Egyptian weapons purchases from Russia and increased security cooperation.

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi

However, Egypt’s foreign policy under Sisi seems to be a bit like Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s in the early years of his presidency, when he seemed to play global powers against each other to try and maximise the benefit and minimise his own dependency on any given foreign power. But the election of Trump will be an excellent outcome for Sisi, considering his rapport with him and Trump’s fondness for anti-Islamist authoritarians.

Economically, Egypt is seriously challenged. Unemployment is 12.6%, inflation is 13% and the budget and current account deficits are some of the largest in the world. That has been made worse by Egypt having very little foreign reserves and shortages in products such as sugar and infant formula.

While there are no credible political threats to Sisi’s rule, economic issues can quickly become sociopolitical problems.

Turkey

The July coup attempt was an earthquake. Such a challenge to Turkey’s institutional integrity and stability, shuffled all the country’s political cards. Even though over 95% of the military’s ranking officers and two-thirds of its senior leadership were loyal to the government, the threat was serious and dramatic.

Domestically, the Turkish government found broad support and initially could rely on the two largest opposition groups. The ensuing crackdown on the Gulenist movement and Kurdish political representatives (HDP), allowed Erdogan to purge opponents, consolidate power and push harder for constitutional amendments that would centralise more power in his hands. The bill for these changes will likely pass parliament early next year and a referendum to finalise it will follow soon after, thus putting Erdogan on the way to becoming an executive president who could rule until 2029.

Turkey is an ally of the U.S.

This entire episode, starting with the coup attempt and following with the Turkish government’s reaction, had one evident result: relations with Western governments had been shaken.

A perceived lack of support for the Turkish government on the day of the coup attempt, combined with no senior visit from the Obama Administration official in its aftermath, together with Gulen’s presence in the United States and arrests of Turkish military personnel at NATO’s Incirlik base all shifted Turkey’s foreign relations agenda and alignment. Cabinet ministers, such as Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu, went to the extent of openly accusing the United States of orchestrating the coup attempt.

This reflected in three fundamental shifts. Firstly, Turkey hedged against the West and did so by opening to Russia and Putin. Secondly, Turkey moved away from what tiny chance there was of joining the EU and instead began expressing interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (including Russia, China, Pakistan, etc). Thirdly, Turkey began to alter its regional policy priorities and focused more strictly on its own direct security and geopolitical interests. In Syria, for instance, whereas it previously prioritised the removal of Assad, government policy shifted towards confronting Kurdish aspirations in Syria and engaging directly with Russia.

2017, considering the way this year went and with a Trump Presidency, promises to be a volatile and significant year on all fronts.

May Allah bring forth what is good.

Abdul-Latif is a Studying Doctor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and is also doing a Masters in Islamic Studies. His background is in political economy.

You can follow Abdul Latif-Halimi on Twitter @MrHalimi

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