2015 in the MENA region [for the Turkish magazine Derinekonomi]
2015 has seen seismic changes across the region and a new order emerging from the chaos of wars, economic rivalry and terrorism.
The rapid progress and expansion of the Islamic State (IS) – which only announced its presence in June 2014 – took the world by surprise. In the course of the year, IS has become the most serious regional and international security threat, demonstrating its capability to strike abroad with two attacks in Paris, the beach massacre of mostly British tourists in Sousse, the downing of a Russian jet over Sinai, bombs in Beirut (and possibly Ankara), and the recent shootings in California. In all, IS have killed nearly 1000 people in attacks outside Syria and Iraq.
Most of the region’s other crises, from plummeting oil prices to the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen and the absence of government in Libya are now connected, in one way or another, to global panic over IS and other extremist groups.
At the beginning of 2015, the West and its regional allies were adamant that Syrian President Assad had to go. By the end of the year, however, the US and UK were conceding that, with the defeat of IS now at the top of the agenda, the Syrian regime and its army might have to be part of the solution.
The regional balance of power has changed dramatically in the course of the year, partly as a result of IS and events in Syria.
Sectarian polarisation (fomented by the extremists) has fuelled ongoing conflicts, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Yemen where Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in March 2015 against the (Shia) Houthi rebellion, backed by Riyadh’s main regional rival, Tehran.
Existing alliances saw foreign powers attaching themselves to either side of the Shia-Sunni divide, and the risk of regional, even global, escalation became a very real prospect with UK/US behind the Sunni alliance of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (and the Syrian rebels) while Russia and China backed Iran (and the Assad regime).
Through 2015, however, Washington’s foreign policy makers responded to the rapidly changing situation on the ground by making some dramatic U-turns. Realizing that no solution to the Syrian crisis would be possible without the participation of Iran, the White House went from banging the drums of war to brokering a nuclear limitation agreement with Tehran, lifting sanctions and cautiously welcoming the Islamic Republic back into the international community in October. Riyadh was not impressed.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin – whose country was also under sanctions because of its intervention in Ukraine – seized the diplomatic initiative and began to shape a collaborative, international response to the IS threat in Syria. Moscow’s former rivals (including the US and UK) seemingly fell into line and Putin’s plan was the main driver of the Vienna talks which began in October 2015 and which saw Iran at the negotiating table for the first time at Putin’s insistence. Putin’s road map for peace in Syria (and the elimination of IS) also includes the continued tenure of President Assad, if only temporarily during a period of ‘transition’.
If Riyadh appeared to be losing some of its influence with its friends in the West that did not stop it continuing its own, undeclared, economic war on Iran and Russia using the oil price mechanism, governed by Opec. Riyadh’s rationale is that plummeting oil prices caused by the over-production it refuses to stem will ultimately harm Tehran and Moscow more than itself. The outcome now looks less certain with a sanction-free Iran expected to begin pumping a million extra barrels per day. While Russia and Iran are on the ascendant after years of austerity and exclusion, the Saudi economy is faltering due to diminishing reserves and massive expenditure on two wars in Yemen and Syria.
Turkey’s security and stability has also been impacted by the Syrian crisis: from enjoying the ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy that saw it flourish diplomatically and economically it now has tensions at both its southern borders. In addition, its $32 billion a year tourism industry has taken a double hit: first from the increased risk of further terror attacks and second because of Moscow’s request to its citizens that they boycott Turkey in response to its downing of a Russian jet in November – 4.48 million Russians visited Turkey last year, bringing in nearly $4 billion.
There are now fourteen nations bombing IS targets from the air over Syria and Iraq but most experts agree that it will take a ground war to defeat the extremists. Meanwhile IS has been carving itself a new coastal stronghold among the chaos in Libya (which has two rival governments). Paradoxically, by putting pressure on the group in Iraq and Syria, the West has brought the danger closer to its own shores on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Western societies are also under threat from the seemingly unbridled Islamophobia which undermines the stability and general cohesion built up through generations of diversity and which some have suggested is actively fomented by extremists for that purpose.
IS continues to expand through allegiance and now counts at least 42 other extremist organisations from all over the Islamic world under its umbrella. In addition, the group currently boasts at least 30,000 foreign fighters from more than 86 countries and blowback is a major concern. Most of the perpetrators of recent actual and thwarted terror attacks in the West had spent time in Syria.
As we go forward into 2016, I cannot see that the new year will bring anything other than more war and fragmentation to the Moslem world. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are all ripe for division along ethnic and sectarian lines and nothing short of an all-out ground war (almost certainly with the participation of Assad’s armies) will overpower IS. I am sorry to offer the reader such a bleak picture.