Middle East

The Year that Was in the Middle East…

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, December 21, 2016, 2:00 PM

Russia Embraced Responsibility for Syria’s Civil War

Russia has been supporting the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, but the nature of that support changed this year. The depth of Russia’s backing for the regime was made clear in September 2015, when the Russian military intervened in response to a request from the regime to stop a rebel advance in northwest Syria. Then, over the past 12 months, Russia has demonstrated how far it's willing to go to protect its last partner in the Middle East.

2016, the fifth year of the civil war, was the year that Russia finally embraced the conflict and made clear that it considers its outcome a vital national interest. Moscow is willing to defend the Assad regime without any regard for human rights or international norms of conflict, and it is willing invest blood and treasure in the regime and international credibility at the United Nations. Russia, Iran, and a network of sub-state militant groups have filled the gaps in Assad’s hollowed-out military. They have halted rebel advances in the northwest and engaged in ruthless sieges that have resulted in rebels quietly agreeing to local ceasefire agreements outside the auspices of the United Nations. Now, more than ever before, Russia has become the public, international face of the regime’s war. That was evident in the way Moscow conducted the Spring 2016 offensive to retake Palmyra as a military and public relations campaign; after driving out Islamic State militants, Russia staged a televised symphony concert in the city’s ancient ruins that was reported around the world. It was also evident in the way that Moscow covered for and facilitated the regime’s atrocities in Aleppo and beyond.

Russia has been complicit in the commission of atrocities that, in a just world, will one day be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court; it has also made itself a target for militants seeking vengeance...

But Russia also seemed to indicate that its support for the regime will not extend to Assad’s promised reconquest of the entire country. The priority has been to maintain and secure the regime’s rump state in the west of the country, especially its two major cities which have historically been the economic and cultural heart of Syria. When the Islamic State advanced on Palmyra earlier this month, Russian and regime forces didn’t move to defend the city they had made such a show of capturing earlier in the year; instead, they indiscriminately shelled areas where the Islamic State was advancing with what may have been sarin gas, killing 28 children.

With the siege of Aleppo now concluding, Russia is pushing for renewed peace talks. Diplomats met in Moscow on December 20, and after a long hiatus, U.N. talks are scheduled to resume in February. If they make progress (a big if), it will largely be because Russia’s support has given the regime battlefield successes that can be translated into leverage at a negotiating table. But that comes with a cost as well: Russia has been complicit in the commission of atrocities that, in a just world, will one day be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court; it has also made itself a target for militants seeking vengeance, from the Turkish police officer who assassinated the Russian ambassador in Ankara, to terrorist groups seeking to stage attacks abroad. Russia is now deeply invested in the success of a government that controls only a fraction of the country, will be beset by rebels and insurgents for the foreseeable future, and will require unfathomable amounts of investment just to be livable again, let alone to be a safe, economically stable nation.

Turkey Drifted Definitively Away From Europe

Ahmet Davutoglu was the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy for more than a decade; when he was pushed out of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in May, it marked a decisive break with the policies that had defined the country’s dominant Justice and Development Party on the international stage. During his tenure as foreign minister and prime minister, Davutoglu’s policies were constantly undermined by events. His initiative to have “zero problems” with neighbors collapsed with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, his efforts to restart peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were sidelined by escalating violence and political calculation amid the country’s 2015 elections, and his government was never willing to make the political compromises and human rights reforms necessary to join the European Union. But his policies cohered to a consistent ideology: Turkey could be the diplomatic superpower in the Middle East, a conduit to the region for Europe, and a model for Islamist democracy.

Davutoglu’s ouster, which came after months of mounting tensions with Erdogan, signaled a shift in Turkey’s role in the region. His replacement, Binali Yildirim, swiftly moved to restore diplomatic relations with Israel. Even more significantly, Erdogan wrote a condolence letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Russian pilots killed when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 along the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015, which Davutoglu, who had taken a hard line against the Assad regime and Russian intervention in Syria, said he had personally authorized. Domestically, the Turkish parliament set the stage for political witch hunts, passing legislation in May to lift immunity and allow the prosecution of members of parliament accused of sympathizing with the PKK.

Davutoglu’s ouster, which came after months of mounting tensions with Erdogan, signaled a shift in Turkey’s role in the region.

The attempted coup in July accelerated these trends. Erdogan and his government used the crisis as carte blanche to push through emergency legislation. The Gulenist Movement, which previously had been a political thorn in Erdogan’s side, was elevated to the status of national boogeyman. The crackdown on domestic political dissent has removed more than 100,000 people from public sector jobs and imprisoned upwards of 36,000 people now awaiting trial; the purge has conflated alleged PKK sympathizers, including parliamentarians, local officials, and academics, with alleged Gulenists accused of trying to overthrow the government. Turkey is now incarcerating 81 journalists, nearly one-third of the total number of jailed journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual report. Whatever chance there was for even moderate integration with Europe—if not as an EU member state, then under the auspices of the refugee agreement brokered in 2015—evaporated with the expansion of anti-terrorism laws that circumscribe basic political freedoms. And that expansion of state authority is likely to continue next year as Erdogan moves forward with a planned referendum to drastically expand the power of his presidency.

Turkey’s political shift has continued in its foreign policy as well. Its prioritization of security threats from militant groups has turned into a military intervention in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield. But after years of supporting rebel groups and calling for removal of Bashar al-Assad, the Turkish intervention force has diligently avoided clashes with the regime and its allies, instead focusing on displacing the Islamic State and preventing Kurdish militias from uniting their western and eastern cantons along the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey has also spent the past couple months mediating talks between rebels and Russian diplomats to resolve the siege of Aleppo, and participated in talks in Moscow on the prospects for a national ceasefire and negotiated settlement on December 20. By all appearances, Turkey is trying to wind down its role in the civil war to focus on issues at home and along the border. After a tumultuous 2016, Ankara is settling accounts and turning inwards.

The Tide Turned Against the Islamic State

President Obama first announced that the United States would intervene to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in September 2014. The rest of that year and much of 2015 was spent bolstering Iraqi forces and suppressing the terrorist group with a considerable air campaign. This year, after months of preparation, the U.S.-backed coalition began retaking Islamic State-occupied territory.

Iraqi forces took Ramadi in the last days of December 2015, then moved on to Haditha. After a months-long battle, they captured Fallujah in June. The city had been a locus for the Islamic State’s predecessor during the U.S. occupation, and with its fall, Iraqi forces were once again in control of all major cities in the heavily-Sunni Anbar province. From there they moved north, tightening the siege of Mosul before finally pushing into the Islamic State’s last bastion in Iraq in October. The battle will stretch for months into the new year, but the Islamic State’s reign over large swathes of Iraq has effectively ended.

The Islamic State also began losing territory in Syria. U.S.-backed rebels in the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces coalition expanded their control in eastern Syria, and Turkish-backed rebels swept south from the border to capture the Manbij pocket. Both prongs of the offensive against the Islamic State in Syria are now advancing toward the group’s de facto capital in Raqqa. While that battle isn’t imminent, the Islamic State is already moving forward with its contingency plan: a strategic withdrawal to Deir Ezzor.

It is also likely to shift tactics from its focus on occupying territory to conducting terrorist attacks as a stateless insurgency. But that’s a big change for an organization that prided itself on “remaining and expanding.”

The Islamic State’s retreat is not the same as its defeat. It could regroup and push back, or divert forces to other front lines like it has with its advance against Assad regime forces in Palmyra. It is also likely to shift tactics from its focus on occupying territory to conducting terrorist attacks as a stateless insurgency. But that’s a big change for an organization that prided itself on “remaining and expanding.” The past year will be remembered as the year that the Islamic State lost most of its state.

The World Forgot about Yemen

The civil war in Yemen remained a grueling stalemate throughout 2016. Saudi-backed pro-government forces pushed farther into territory held by Houthi rebels and militants loyal to the country’s ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the frontline remains ossified in the flashpoint city of Taiz, which is besieged by the Saudi-led coalition. Despite its military gains, the internationally-recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi remains largely in exile in Saudi Arabia. Not even its beachhead in Aden, which has been held by Gulf forces for nearly two years, is considered safe for more than quick visits and photo ops. The war shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

The U.S. government has largely avoided discussing the war; giving Saudi Arabia leeway to prosecute a war Riyadh deemed in its national interest has widely been seen as a U.S. concession to appease Saudi frustrations about the Iran nuclear deal. After a Saudi airstrike killed more than 100 people at a funeral in October, the United States ordered a review of its support for the Saudi intervention and recently decided to freeze a transfer of precision weapons to the country, but U.S. military advisors continue to provide logistical and targeting support.

“Amid the incoherence and instability in Yemen over the past two years, one thing has remained constant—the suffering of the Yemeni people,” Adam Baron, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes. The humanitarian toll of the conflict has been staggering. According to the United Nations, 86 percent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance. The government’s order to relocate the central bank from Sanaa to Aden has forced the cancelation of expected wheat imports, exacerbating already severe malnutrition across the country; widespread famine is predicted to be imminent. At least 7,000 people have been killed by the war, but tens of thousands more have died from the war’s effects. That includes 10,000 children who have died of preventable diseases since March 2015, a toll that has been exacerbated by a cholera outbreak declared this past October. And, as Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, recently said, the situation can still get worse.

If you missed all this, you’re not alone. For a couple short years—from the attempted “underwear bombing” on December 24, 2009 to Saleh’s ouster in November 2011—Yemen was the subject of front page, above-the-fold headlines. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was considered the most dangerous jihadi group in the world, and it seized territory in the vacuum created by almost a year of popular protests. The uprising forced out a dictator who had held power for more than three decades and set up a political transition that was supposed to be a model for the region.

One journalist who requested a visa from the Yemeni embassy in DC recently was directed to a restaurant in Brooklyn instead; “They have all the best Yemeni food there,” he was told by the embassy staff.

Those stories are still playing out. AQAP has capitalized on the civil war to occupy cities and destabilize security behind Saudi lines. Saleh has reasserted himself in a vengeful war against his former allies who supplanted him. And all the dire warnings of humanitarian crisis issued in 2011 are now coming to pass. But there is a dearth of journalists covering the conflict. A few brave local reporters are covering the war, wire services are citing Yemeni news outlets, and earlier this month the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard and Tyler Hicks published a devastating dispatch, but they are exceptions. One journalist who requested a visa from the Yemeni embassy in D.C. recently was directed to a restaurant in Brooklyn instead; “They have all the best Yemeni food there,” he was told by the embassy staff. Despite the ongoing catastrophe, the United States seems resigned to relegate Yemen to the back burner until it bursts back into U.S. headlines again—as it did in 2009.

Saudi Arabia Recognized Its Addiction to Oil

Saudi Arabia has dabbled with economic reform before, but its latest endeavor to break its dependence on oil exports is its most ambitious. The project, developed with McKinsey & Co. and called Saudi Vision 2030, has been the cornerstone of the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) domestic agenda. His meteoric rise as the favorite son of the aging monarch, 80-year-old King Salman, has set the stage for a looming generational shift in the country: only one more prince from the older generation stands ahead of MBS in the line of succession.

MBS is often described as a force of nature pushing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, but that may oversell the potential for reform. Saudi Vision 2030 is certainly an expansive plan. It involves restructuring the government, recasting the role of the public sector in Saudi society, and privatizing the nation’s behemoth state oil company, Aramco. The diversification of the economy will be underwritten by the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, which will invest heavily in developing the Saudi tech sector and a defense industry that aims to produce half of Saudi military expenditures within the next 14 years. That dovetails with the role MBS sees for Saudi Arabia in the region: he has also been influential in Saudi Arabia’s more assertive foreign policy, including the intervention in Yemen and an initiative to create a regional counterterrorism force.

This all leaves MBS, and the plan on which he’s staked his political aspirations, in a precarious position.

But Saudi Vision 2030 is first and foremost an economic plan. Contrary to a popular Saudi talking point, Vision 2030 is not “a revolution under the cover of modernization.” The plan hints at social reform: as Tarek Massoud noted at a recent Belfer Center event, the plan contains a subtext of “liberat[ing] society from the conservative religious establishment that has dominated it for so long.” In particular, he noted one line in the Saudi Vision 2030 report’s foreword that stresses inclusion and suggests tolerance of various schools of Islamic thought: “Our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.” But the plan does not suggest how to get there, and overtures about a more liberal society are more likely to alienate the country’s conservative political elite than to nudge the country toward a new social order.

This all leaves MBS, and the plan on which he’s staked his political aspirations, in a precarious position. He’s challenging the pillars of the modern Saudi state, and that doesn’t sit well with some elements of the royal family. He could still be the future of the kingdom, or he could be pushed to the sidelines. With oil prices rising and the immediacy of Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis receding, Saudi Vision 2030 might not last. But if the kingdom backs away from the plan, it won’t go away; it will go into a drawer, where it will sit until the next drop in oil prices and a new ambitious prince.