The State of Play in the Middle East

Emily Payne, Parliament Street’s Director of Middle East Studies tells how 2016 changed the region and looks at what is in store for it in 2017.


2016 was an eventful year starting with the Cologne New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and ending in the retaking of Aleppo and assault of Mosul.  Almost six years after the Arab Spring, civil war continues to rage in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.  Meanwhile terrorist attacks have rocked Europe (the most devastating include – the Brussels airport bombings, the Nice Bastille Day and the Berlin Christmas market attacks) and the refugee crisis has fed a European anti-establishment and right-wing movement.

In November the US Department of State felt emboldened to announce that Daesh (which is the accurate term for ISIS)  had lost 56% of its territory in Iraq and 27% in Syria; a hard won success against the backdrop of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical assault on his own people, the Russian Ambassador’s assassination in Turkey, Saudi airstrikes on hospitals in Yemen and Daesh retaking Palmyra.  2016 is the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement –a pivotal moment to take stock of the Middle East and question what happens next.

The Shadow of Colonialism

The Sykes-Picot agreement, followed by the Treaty of Sevres (1920) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), artificially imposed geographical borders in the Middle East without taking into account the ethnic and religious diversity of the people.  Alawite, Druze, Sufi, Shi’a, Sunni, Christian, Yazidis, Armenians, Kurd, Arab and Maronite were thrown together in a melting pot that continues to boil over to this day.  Whilst the world has moved on to globalisation, the shadow of colonialism – often forgotten in the West – remains pivotal to the Middle East.

In the twentieth century these states were barely held together by dictatorships and authoritarian leaderships which suppressed the identity of their citizens in order to survive.  However, once the plaster was removed, old wounds re-opened. Globalisation and widespread access to the internet augmented indigenous uprisings which culminated in the Arab Spring in 2011.  However, five years later intangible hopes of freedom lie in the rubble of Aleppo and the time has been marked by bloody infighting amongst the various rebel groups and political factions, and the rise of Daesh.  The colonial nation state remains the non-negotiable political, social and economic mechanism allowing access onto the world stage, enforced by the West. Ironic, considering the devolution and decentralisation that has marked the last two decades of UK politics.  Nonetheless, the preservation of the nation state is considered sacrosanct, which leaves a conundrum in the Middle East.The reality of failed and failing states lays bare the flaws of superimposed borders which don’t resonate with their inhabitants.

Failing and failed states dominate the Middle East, stretching from Yemen via Iraq and Syria to Libya.  Daesh, both through its rise and, more so, its demise,may herald a seismic shift in our concept of national boundaries– not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The very existence of Daesh highlights the failure of the Middle East nation state in its current format, transgressing national boundaries and rendering a mockery of the concept of statehood under Max Weber’s monopoly of violence.  Once defeated, it leaves a power vacuum that will occupy 2017 and beyond.

Kurdish Nationalism

The Kurds of Northern Iraq have no commonality with the Shi’a led administration; a barely-reported conference in Dohuk in mid-December was the first stake in the ground for Kurdish independence.  The rise of Kurdish nationalism – and their recognised importance as a stabilising force in Iraq and partner against terrorism – could make 2017 a transformative period for the Kurds in Iraq and a challenge to the status quo of the Middle East.  Similarly,the Obama administration is using its last month in power to safeguard against the perceived threat to international security of a Trump administration.  One such missive was the decision earlier this month to ease the restrictions on arming Syrian rebels; interpreted in a number of quarters as support for Kurdish factions in Syria.Saddam Hussein’s chemical gassing of his own people during Al-Anfal led to the establishment of an autonomous state in 1992.  It would be morally wrong for the international community to witness Assad’s chemical gassing of his own civilians in Aleppo and to then condone reinstatement of his power.  There conciliation process for rebel and Daesh-held territories in Syria and Iraq remains unclear – and the potential power vacuum will need to be addressed decisively in 2017.  If the last 15 years in Iraq offers one lesson, it is the importance of administration planning that addresses the complexities of uniting a myriad population.

A Changing International Landscape

Key international forces have undergone systemic change in 2016,including the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of a political outsider in the US.  An anti-establishment movement has swept the West and will likely continue with 2017 elections due in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.  Trump has repeatedly promised a policy break from the Obama administration; what this means for the Middle East is yet unclear.  However, there is a dichotomy between his isolationist election pledges and hawk cabinet appointees.  The selection of Zionist David Friedman as ambassador to Israel,the ambition to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s vocal disdain for the recent UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements indicate a step change in policy to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The consequences will be far reaching.  Meanwhile, his admiration for Putin and nomination of Russophile Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State indicate an evolving dynamic with Russia. Putin certainly appears emboldened by Trump’s election to increase aerial bombings of Syria.  Trump’s attraction to strong leaders does not bode well for the Middle East.

Europe’s relationship with the Middle East is going through a transition. Aleppo demonstrates the consequences of non-intervention, while a migrant surge has shifted domestic public opinion to the right – threatening the tenants of EU cooperation.  Whilst the EU and US currently appear to withdraw from the Middle East, Putin makes a play for hegemony. However, he is not without competitors.  Political turbulence in the West has been utilised by regional players to cement their influence, witnessed by the declaration of a Syrian peace treaty on the final days of 2016, brokered by Russia, Turkey (and Iran).  2017 will see a rebalance of power. The US’s dominance is waning, while new coalitions form as state players strive for increased regional influence.  It remains to be seen whether this ceasefire will be more successful than the UN or US / Russia ceasefires agreed earlier this year.  However,it represents a changing dynamic in the Middle East, as new alliances and claims play out on the world stage.

Regional Changes

The turmoil in the Middle East has not been restricted to civil war.  The fall in oil prices since 2014 has created an appraisal of economic dependencies and shifted some alliances.Egypt’s deepening economic woes may be offset by Sisi’s relationship with Trump. Furthermore, the Trump Administrations animosity to Saudi Arabia may propel Egypt to the US’s regional partner of choice. Elsewhere, the Turkish President Erdogen’s purges and power grab, the cessation of Iranian sanctions and the incorporation of Hezbollah into the Lebanese cabinet have further transformed the political landscape.

2016 was a time of extreme turbulence in the Middle East. 2017 may well be the year international powers replace the archaic Sykes-Picot model with a more dynamic approach.

To find out about the political earthquake due to hit Europe in 2017, please read our CEO Patrick Sullivan’s new article for Comment Central.

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