Fighting Islamic State (ISIS) will continue to dominate the news. The US administration has come to the conclusion that without ground troops it would not be possible to defeat ISIS in Iraq or even Syria. By necessity this will require the US local partners in the region mainly Saudi Arabia as well as Jordan to make tangible military contributions.
Whether Turkey will agree to be drawn into the conflict remains to be seen. The Turkish role remains ambiguous, but it is clear that Turkey has taken a neutral role in the battles that raged recently in Kobane in the Turkish-Syrian border region.
Salman Aldossary, Chief Editor of the Pan-Arabic Asharq al Awsat Newspaper, is of the opinion that there are many problems in the region but the worst and most intractable is Syria.
He thinks the situation in Syria will escalate into a lengthy and bloody civil war as Bashar al Assad clings tenaciously to power. With the support of Iran, he is likely to be with us during 2015 and maybe beyond. Aldossary doesn’t see an imminent end to the conflict in Syria. He even thinks the Iraqi situation is simpler by comparison.
In Lebanon, Iran’s client Hezbollah is destabilizing the country by refusing to endorse the election of a Christian president acceptable to the majority of the Lebanese people.
Hezbollah is the main stumbling block in Lebanon and is responsible for the tensions and divisions in the country. Camille Tawil, a Senior Editor at Al Hayat Newspaper “does not think that Hezbollah would allow the election of a new president unless it is sure that he supports its policy line on Syria.”
Other experts believe that the political vacuum is undermining Lebanon’s constitution. The country has no president. The government is paralysed. Refugees from Syria are still pouring into the country. Islamic Jihadist groups have been able to penetrate Lebanon in recent months. Tensions and divisions in the Middle East also extend to Egypt and Qatar. Writing in the New York Times on 19 February 2015, David Kirkpatrick said:
“Relations between Egypt and Qatar turned hostile in 2013 when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Having cultivated the Brotherhood as an ally in regional politics, Qatar sharply criticized the military takeover and provided a haven for Brotherhood leaders in exile.”
“The Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are major sponsors of Egypt’s new military-backed government, and until now have pressed hard for Qatar to fall into line with them as well.”
Analysts believe that Egypt has two major challenges during 2015 – the security situation in the Sinai desert and the volatile economy. However Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia have improved recently easing the tension between the two.
The most contentious issue in the region is Iran’s nuclear programme.
Optimists believe that a deal with Iran is in the making. They cite Iran’s “good behaviour” as a reason. Western officials familiar with the talks cited movement but also described the discussions as a moving target, meaning changes in any one area would have repercussions for other parts of the negotiation. Many in the Arab world as well as Israel and a majority in US congress believe Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to US Congress on Tuesday 3rd March to challenge President Obama’s policy of reaching a deal with Iran. A New York Times editorial pointed out that “even Washington doesn’t often see this level of exploitative political theatre.” Netanyahu in fact articulated what was going on in the minds of the Sunni Arab leaders in the region who are suspicious of Iran’s nuclear intentions. They also resent Iran’s interventionist policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s speech will make any difference to the outcome.
Another headache for President Obama is the situation in Yemen where the Iranian backed Shi’ite Houthis are tearing the country apart. This development poses serious challenges to the Saudis next door.
The US administration’s critics like John Bolton, former UN ambassador, and Leon Panetta, former US Defence Secretary, blamed President Obama for the fall of Yemen into the hands of the Houthis. So Yemen will feature prominently during 2015 as unstable and chaotic.
Perhaps Jordan is the rare exception. In early February, Jordan’s King Abdullah threatened to make ISIS pay for the death of Muath al-Kasasbeh after a video of the pilot’s murder emerged. Troops were sent to prevent the infiltration of ISIS fighters into Jordan and as a show of force, Jordanian air strikes have been stepped up.
Jordan has succeeded in avoiding the fatal mistakes of the Syrian and Egyptian regimes which led to mayhem and chaos. The king has been able to neutralise the Muslim Brotherhood’s repeated attempts at stirring up trouble on the streets.
Jordanians made it clear they value the stability and security in the country. Most observers believe that Jordan will remain stable during 2015 and beyond.
The Middle East will continue to be the biggest geo-political risk during 2015.