Bidding farewell to the year 2017
2017 was again a year of war in the Middle East but it was also the year when the Islamic State (ISIS) was defeated in Iraq and nearly chased out of Syria. ISIS lost its two main bastions, Raqqa and Mosul but not without a high civilian casualty toll. The Associated Press estimated that, just in the battle for Mosul, 9,000-11,000 people were killed.
The fighting worsened the ongoing humanitarian crisis. More than 3 million Iraqis and 11 million Syrians have been displaced.
In both countries, it remains difficult to see the end of the tunnel. Syria struggles with a negotiation process that reflects divisions in the opposition ranks. The opposition has less influence than the Russian-supported regime and seems unable to envision a future for Syria without Iran’s troops and proxies. Tehran’s presence complicates the situation in Iraq, too, as the clout of sectarian armed militias seems to have grown since the fall of ISIS.
Tense relations between Baghdad and Erbil added to Iraq’s woes. Masoud Barzani’s decision to have a referendum on Kurdish independence in September was opposed by Baghdad as well as by regional and international powers. The initiative ignited separatist fears in a region suffering from acute ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Barzani’s move proved to be a terrible miscalculation as it allowed the federal government to seize oil-rich areas from the Kurds and triggered deadly clashes that threaten to destabilise the Kurdish region.
Intervention in Syria allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to save Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime from near defeat. By flexing military muscle, Putin restored Moscow’s prestige in the Middle East for the first time in decades and can pursue even wider influence in the region.
Moscow’s policies were encouraged by the Trump factor. 2017 was the year US President Donald Trump assumed office. The Republican president continued the disengagement policies of his predecessors, paving the way for greater Russian intervention in the Middle East.
While he firmly opposed Iranian expansionism, Trump has projected the image of a US president who too often treats Muslims as suspects and underestimates the importance of the Palestinian issue.
He has, nonetheless, fostered closer ties with Riyadh in meeting the Iranian challenge even as the Saudi leadership advocated a more assertive foreign policy.
New Saudi policies, at home and abroad, took concrete form after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz became heir to the throne on June 21. Even well before his appointment, MBS, as he is widely known, was the main architect of a new Saudi reality. This included the economic blueprint called Vision 2030, which is intended to make his country less dependent on oil, spur business growth and create jobs.
Other reforms aim to modernise the educational system, boost women’s participation in society and the workplace and open the country to entertainment and tourism.
MBS’s influence marked Saudi Arabia’s more assertive approach to fighting corruption as well as its stance towards Iran and Qatar.
Despite its retreat in the Levant, ISIS remains a threat to the rest of the Arab world and beyond. It’s feared that its militants could flow east to Egypt and Libya and head north to Europe.
Libya, an oil-rich Maghreb state, is in the throes of chaos. As long as lawlessness rules the land, illegal migration off Libyan shores will endure. Europeans are tempted by the short-term solution of maritime interdiction of migrant ships without being able to stem the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or the Maghreb.
For domestic strife in Libya itself, there is no end in sight despite efforts by the United Nations and regional powers. Insecurity in the North African country is also of concern to its neighbours, especially Egypt and Tunisia. They are wary of jihadist elements finding a safe haven in Libya from where to plan attacks against their home countries.
Europe also fears returning jihadists. Hundreds of its citizens could leave the killing fields as ISIS fighters head home. Europe must cope not only with the very real threat of terror but also with the attempts by the xenophobic far right to exploit fear of Muslims and migrants.
Despite the wars and woes, the world should not however equate the Arab region with violence and extremism.
There is more to the Arab world than that. There is reason to hope that 2018 could mark a more promising phase for a region yearning for peace and the opportunity to rebuild.