Middle East

…And What to Watch in 2017

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, December 28, 2016, 8:30 AM

Will Saudi Arabia’s experiment in economic reform outlast the low oil prices that precipitated it?

OPEC ended 2016 with an agreement to cap output in an effort to drive prices back up—that should raise Saudi Arabia’s income again and remove some of the immediate pressure to diversify the kingdom’s economy. Saudi Arabia’s previous dalliances with economic reform have generally only lasted until oil prices rebounded. Are the Saudis more serious and committed to these difficult but necessary reforms this time around? Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has staked his reputation on it, but not everyone in the royal family shares his enthusiasm for the project.

How will the Islamic State adapt to its loss of territory in Iraq and Syria?

The consensus among experts is that it will shift from being a territory-occupying force to a more traditional insurgency. But it will be hard for the Islamic State’s propagandists to reconcile this with the organization’s stated objective of establishing a physical state. Expect it to continue to try to occupy territory when possible, as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has in Yemen, and if it cannot find space in Syria by pushing into regime-held areas like it recently did in Palmyra, look for the Islamic State to reinvigorate another franchise, like it’s affiliate in Libya.

Is this the year that the Middle East will wind down its civil wars?

With the sack of Aleppo complete, Russia is promoting a new diplomatic initiative to resolve the Syrian civil war. With the war now nearing the start of its seventh year, the willingness off the belligerents to keep sustaining the war is waning. Russia appears to be positioning itself to consolidate the Assad regime’s hold of the major cities and developed western region of the country rather than try to conquer other rebel- or Islamic State-held areas. Turkey, once an avid supporter of rebel offensives against the regime, is also looking to settle the war to focus on its priorities, the Islamic State and Kurdish territories near its southern border; President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that he’ll support the new Russian diplomatic push.

Some may be willing to settle, others are still prepared to fight a war for influence over a fraction of a broken country down to the last Syrian life.

That’s probably still not enough to reach a political settlement. Turkey and Russia’s interests are still a long way from aligning, and there are other foreign states that could undermine this narrow window for talks. In recent interviews, Assad has said the goal is to conquer the entire country; Moscow does not seem willing to keep pouring resources into this indefinite war, but Assad’s allies in Tehran might and their continued support may make the regime less willing to settle. On the rebel side, the Gulf states could respond to the regime’s recent advances with increased support. This is even more likely if the Trump administration withdraws from the conflict; countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, could fill the vacuum left by the assistance coordinated by the United States—and with fewer scruples about the ideologies of the groups they equip. Whether the war continues will largely depend on how much more money Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf states decide to spend. Some may be willing to settle, others are still prepared to fight a war for influence over a fraction of a broken country, down to the last Syrian life.

The new year also coincides with a new push for diplomacy in Yemen. Over the past several months, the United States has grown less willing to indulge the Saudi intervention and has halted arms deals and curtailed logistical support. Throughout December, U.S. officials encouraged the internationally-recognized government, still operating in exile in Saudi Arabia, to accept a road map for peace talks, but the plans to start a fourth round of negotiations have stalled. While the war is largely stalemated, Saudi-backed forces made some marked gains in 2016 and Houthi areas are coming under increasing strain with limited financial resources, medical provisions, and access to critical imports like wheat. Thousands have died of preventable diseases and experts are warning that a famine is imminent. Will this distress make either side more willing to negotiate? Possibly, but going into 2017 the war seems as intractable as the conflict in Syria, if not more so. It is unclear how a Trump administration will affect the war’s dynamics; he seems simultaneously less likely to continue unconditional logistical support to the Saudi war effort and less likely to press for a resolution to the war.

Will Trump unravel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

The Trump wild card looms over many of the questions about the next year. How will U.S. policy in the Middle East change after he enters office in January? There is a whole set of open questions about what his administration will do and how other governments will respond.

The Iran nuclear agreement was a campaign issue for Trump. Now foreign leaders, former opponents of the agreement, and the outgoing head of the CIA are all urging him to maintain the deal. Others who oppose the deal, particularly in the U.S. Congress, see the incoming administration as an opportunity: there is already some discussion of launching new sanctions legislation that Iran says will violate the deal and could undermine its enforcement. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has “argued against economic sanctions as an instrument of American foreign policy” as CEO of ExxonMobil, the New Yorker’s Steve Coll notes, but so did Dick Cheney before he became vice president. If confirmed to represent U.S. interests instead of ExxonMobil’s, Tillerson might do an about-face to join the Republican orthodoxy…or he might not. After all, Trump and his entourage have not hesitated to defy the foreign policy establishments of both parties.

Will Trump get his alliance with Russia to fight the Islamic State in Syria?

He’s talked about it for months, but what would such an alliance actually look like? Probably not so different from what’s happening now: Russia claiming that its forces are fighting terrorists across Syria while focusing on securing areas strategic to the Assad regime, while the United States takes the fight to the Islamic State in the east. U.S. forces may take a more direct role in the conflict—Trump has suggested that tens of thousands of ground forces could be necessary and has expressed skepticism about the rebel forces the Unites States has supported—but its hard to imagine the U.S. military, especially under Secretary of Defense James Mattis, coordinating closely with the Russian and Iranian militaries. Which raises another question: how long will Trump’s bromance with Putin last if Russia doesn’t prove to be the partner Trump had hoped it would be?

How will the region respond to the end of the two-state solution?

The appointment of David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel signals a break with decades of U.S. policy opposing settlement construction and promoting a two-state solution. As Brian Reeves wrote recently in Haaretz, it suggests an embrace of far-right Israeli political currents that support annexation and a binational state. Going into 2017, the only country pushing for the resumption of the peace process on the international stage is France, and Israel has so far declined to participate in France’s upcoming summit.

Netanyahu now has a free hand with regard to the peace process and an empowered hard-right government, but some experts warn he should be careful for what he wishes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been misunderstood and that the region’s wars in recent years should prove that it was never the crux of regional competition as it was perceived to be. Now that the United States will not be challenging Netanyahu on the peace process, this will be put to the test. Experts are skeptical and suggest there will be consequences. As Aaron David Miller wrote recently about the proposal to move the embassy to Jerusalem, “Precisely how virulent the reaction of Palestinians and Arab states would be if the U.S. embassy is moved is difficult to measure. But with anything related to Jerusalem, we should assume the worst including violence and terror.”

There is also the matter of how Israeli politics will respond. Netanyahu now has a free hand with regard to the peace process and an empowered hard-right government, but some experts warn he should be careful for what he wishes. Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev notes that, despite this dramatic shift in U.S. policy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not welcome Friedman’s efforts. “The prime minister is always concerned more about his right-wing flanks than his opposition on the left: The last thing he needs is a U.S. ambassador who supports his most feared rivals,” Shalev writes. A question that Netanyahu will have to confront in 2017: how will he achieve balance against his frenemies in his cabinet?