Scenarios In The Arab Region During 2015
I agree with the view that the Middle East is the most dangerous region in the world. In recent years, the region has witnessed upheavals, revolutions, insurrections, wars, tensions and conflicts that preceded the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011.
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. In other words, Aldossary doesn’t see an imminent end to the conflict in Syria. He even thinks the Iraqi situation is simpler and more straightforward by comparison. Since all Iraqis now realize the danger of ISIS, it is easier to see how things are moving in Iraq.
As for ISIS (Daesh) I wrote in December 2014 that “contrary to popular belief, ISIS has nothing to do with the CIA or the Mossad. ISIS is a joint Syrian/Iranian project whose aim is to tarnish the Syrian revolution, to protect the Assad regime and portray Bashar al Assad as a fighter of terrorism. It is a known fact that the Iranian and Syrian regimes have been manipulating al-Qaeda to their own advantage. During the occupation of Iraq, particularly the period 2003 – 2010, Syria had been actively facilitating the entry of al-Qaeda jihadists to destabilize Iraq and kill American soldiers and Iraqis. Later, at the behest of Iran and Syria, al-Qaeda carried out operations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the USA.”
Whilst agreeing with Aldossary’s analysis I am of the view that Iran plays a critical factor in both countries. Iran has never been part of any solution but part of the wider problem. Through crises in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, Iran has a lot to gain from the instability. In the eyes of the world, Iran may appear to be moderate and reasonable in a region torn apart by turmoil, revolution and insurrection. By using proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen, Iran can benefit a great deal of influence without risking too much.
In Lebanon for example, Hezbollah, which is Iran’s client, is destabilizing Lebanon by refusing to endorse the election of a Christian president acceptable to the majority of the Lebanese people.
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 belongs to its policy line on Syria” i.e. supporting the Syrian regime.”
It is my view that Hezbollah is the main stumbling block in Lebanon and is responsible for the tensions and divisions in the country.
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.
However it is widely believed that Jabhat al Nusra has infiltrated into Lebanon with the collusion of Hezbollah. Lebanon watchers think it was a ploy orchestrated by Iran and Hezbollah to embroil the Lebanese army into the bloody conflict in Syria. Even the elements of ISIS who managed to enter Lebanon did so with the full knowledge of Syria and Iran.
As for the Turkish role, this remains ambiguous, but it is clear that Turkey has taken a neutral role in the battles that raged recently in Kobane and in the Turkish/Syrian border region. This led many to believe that Turkey is on the side of ISIS. But in fact the Turkish stance is due to its opposition to the Kurds who have been battling the Turkish authorities for decades seeking independence. So Turkey feels uninterested in helping them.
US Building An Alliance To Fight ISIS
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 attitude is ambiguous and some arm-twisting is needed to get Turkey seriously involved.
Iran is already in Iraq and some cynics would say that Iran occupies Iraq militarily as well as politically. Iran has never been keen to be drawn closely into any wars but its support in Iraq would be crucial to the success of military action against ISIS. The Shi’ite militias who are supposed to be fighting ISIS are actually carrying out massacres against Iraqi Sunnis with tacit Iranian collusion.
The expectation is that this murky picture will continue during 2015. The Arab League has not been able to influence the political or military developments in the region.
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.”
Falling Oil Prices
Another factor that will make things worse in the region during 2015 is the falling oil prices.
Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East, wrote recently “that a sustained drop in oil prices to 70-75 dollars a barrel will deeply affect Middle Eastern politics. It will have an immediate effect on the ability of countries such as Russia and Iran to continue supporting the Syrian regime at current levels. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s policy of supporting the Egyptian government economically might not be affected in the short term, as both countries have amassed large reserves in the last few years, but a sustained lower price level might have an effect on Saudi Arabia’s ability to provide domestic stimulus packages to keep its population content over the medium term.”
It is my view that with the prices in the range of 50-60 dollars per barrel of oil, the situation can only get worse. Some commentators argue that Saudi Arabia is refusing to cut its production to punish Iran for its interference in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It will be a tough year for Middle East oil exporters. Iran is in real trouble. Its revenue from oil have dropped by more than 60%. It needs a price of at least 100 dollars per barrel to balance its budget. It will suffer badly during 2015 if oil prices don’t rally to 80 or 90 dollars per barrel. Iran needs the funds to meet its commitments to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime which receives billions of dollars to finance the war against the rebels.
A complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria is unlikely however, as it has demonstrated unwavering commitment to its proxy in Damascus. The return of Iranian crude to the market may prompt the Saudi Kingdom to hurt Iranian interests by defending further its market share.
Iran’s nuclear file
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 negotiations.
Media reports say the core idea would be to reward Iran for good behaviour over the last years of any agreement, gradually lifting constraints on its uranium enrichment and slowly easing economic sanctions.
Iran says it does not want nuclear arms and needs enrichment only for energy, medical and scientific purposes, but the U.S. fears Tehran could re-engineer the program to produce the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. initially sought restrictions lasting up to 20 years; Iran has pushed for less than a decade. The prospective deal appears to be somewhere in the middle.
One variation being discussed would place at least a 10-year regime of strict controls on Iran’s uranium enrichment. If Iran complied, the restrictions would be gradually lifted over the final five years. The unknown factor is Israel’s reaction to any deal.
Libya and Yemen
A recent article by Chatham House and Bloomberg indicated “that several Middle East countries have been weakened by insurgencies and civil wars, while their neighbours try to manage the spill over. In Libya, Syria and Iraq, the central states do not exercise sovereign control over the territory, including some of their oil facilities and export infrastructure.”
Chaos in Libya offers a breeding ground for jihadi movements, which could spill over into neighbouring Algeria. In response to these transnational threats, Algiers has hosted reconciliation talks between warring factions in Libya, but with limited success. Pragmatically, it has also stepped up its military presence along its porous borders with Libya and Mali and debated a military intervention in Libya.
Yemen A New Headache For Obama
The Houthis in Yemen who are supported by Iran are tearing the country apart. This development poses serious challenges to the Saudis next door.
It is widely known that the US had used drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen over the last few years. But President Obama was not expecting the rapid rise of the Iranian-backed Houthis to take the capital Sanaa in January 2015. 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. It will be another headache for President Obama during 2015.
The outlook is unsettling. The security vacuum in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya is being filled by groups which are able to control and operate some of the oil installations. And there is clear danger at the border for neighbouring states already under economic and political strain.
As for Egypt, analysts believe that Egypt has two major challenges during 2015 – the security situation and the volatile economy. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has so far failed to end the insurgency in the Sinai desert.
Falling oil prices might help Egypt’s economy a little, but the critical tourism sector is suffering very badly.
The Gulf Region
Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have improved recently, easing the tension between the two. Less attention is paid to an important player in the region which is the UAE. The United Arab Emirates will be an important player in the region during 2015.
In October 2014, the World Bank estimated that the oil-rich Gulf States had lost 215 billion dollars in oil revenue in 6 months due to the falling oil prices.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t rely exclusively on oil and gas and is diversifying its economy, attracting investments and investing heavily outside its borders. It is also playing a significant role in the fight against terrorism. Gulf area watchers believe that falling energy prices might expedite the pace of political and economic reforms.
On 10th February 2015, I wrote “Jordan’s King Abdullah has threatened to make ISIS pay for the death of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s after a video of the pilot’s murder emerged. Troops were sent to prevent the infiltration of DAESH fighters into Jordan and as a show of force, according to Jordanian sources. Jordanian air strikes have been stepped up.”
Commenting on the impact of the Arab Spring on Jordan, I said this, “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 stability and security in the country.”
I expect Jordan to remain stable during 2015 and beyond.
Amid all the carnage and mayhem, it is legitimate to ask what is the Arab League doing to help resolve conflicts and disputes.
The quick answer is very little.
The Arab League’s role has been criticized as passive or ineffective in resolving major disputes and conflicts in Arab countries. The most spectacular failure is in its handling of the Syrian crisis. It has failed to take a robust stand against the regime beyond mild verbal condemnation. It has also failed in resolving the deteriorating relations between Qatar and Egypt.
The Arab League will remain as a weak and almost irrelevant body during 2015.