Friday,23 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Friday,23 March, 2018
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Tipping scales in the region

The year saw some successes — particularly in battling terrorism and preserving the territorial integrity of Arab states — but ended on a dark note, thanks to President Trump, writes Ola Boutros


Tipping scales in the region
Tipping scales in the region

اقرأ باللغة العربية

For some world powers, such as Russia and France, 2017 was an opportunity to forge ahead in the Middle East, while the US, of course, made an impact at critical moments. Meanwhile, the balance in the region continues to tip back and forth, with some successes scored, but without anyone being able to rise as a major regional power.

This year was the beginning of reversing what Iran considered a diplomatic victory and start of a new phase of cooperation with the West when US President Donald Trump threatened to annul the nuclear deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama and the P5+1 Group. However, countries such as France opposed Trump’s threats and asserted the deal will be upheld. Qatar, meanwhile, which once played a large role through its media, returned to being an isolated island under siege by three Gulf countries as well as Egypt, but did not lose international support from the US. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, independently launched an era of change without certainty of outcome due to countless regional challenges, most notably the Yemen debacle and its historic influence in Lebanon.

The distress of the region today began a long time ago and everyone agrees on how it started: the struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran in 1979 and the first Iraq-Iran war. The clash between the two sides evolved from a strategic one to a doctrinal confrontation, essentially after the US war on terrorism in Afghanistan in 2001. Terrorist groups increased with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and from there to the Arab Mashreq and North Africa. They transformed what was described at the beginning of Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 as a desire for freedom and democracy to what became an Islamist Autumn benefiting political Islamic groups and causing extensive chaos.

Terrorism was embodied by Al-Qaeda that attacked the heart of US power on 9/11. The group’s political discourse was also hostile towards Arab regimes allied with the West, taking Palestine as the group’s compass of legitimacy, even though it has not once fought for Palestine. This group was essentially terminated with the death of its founder Osama bin Laden, and a more lethal and brutal group was formed — Islamic State (IS). IS declared war on everyone except Israel, with the aim of undermining society and state by expanding into geopolitical border areas: Iraq-Syria; Syria-Lebanon; Israel-Egypt; and Egypt-Libya. It aimed its guns at military and security forces, and society as a whole.

Overall, 2017 foiled the plot to divide the Arab Mashreq. In Iraq, the Kurds were disappointed when their dream of establishing their historic nation of Kurdistan failed and the world community refused to support their referendum for secession from Baghdad on 25 September after the province’s leader, Masoud Barzani, rallied for independence. The move was strongly opposed by the central government of Iraq as well as regional powers, especially Iran and Turkey, who saw it as a threat to their national security because of Kurdish populations in both countries. Barzani’s resignation after being disappointed by his allies, who had promised him legitimacy, sucked the joy out of the province which since the US invasion of Iraq had flourished economically due to US protection and support.

In Syria, Iranian-Turkish interests converged strategically with Russia to guarantee security and stability of the warm waters east of the Mediterranean that overlap with the Caucasus. While Turkey was most concerned about the Kurds, Russia was more interested in isolating terrorist groups and undercutting their influence to stop Syria from being carved up. Moscow’s priority since the beginning was to keep the central government intact and the territories protected. In fact, the Astana agreement in the sixth round of talks created “de-escalation zones” that paved the way for the Sochi conference to begin a political path that would end the seven-year-long war.

The losses of terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon after Fajr Al-Jurud battle in the eastern mountains did not protect Egypt from terrorist attacks for two reasons. First, because the terrorists’ aim was to target Egypt as the bastion of a nation state in its diversity and civilised model, with a strong backbone: a strong army that protects against domestic enemies who are possibly supported from overseas. Terrorism reached the heart of Cairo, similar to times since the 1970s when political Islamic movements resorted to violence against the regime when they were in crisis.

Second, for the strategic reason of separating the territories in Asia from those in Africa, by which Sinai would become an alternative homeland for Palestinians, with Gaza as its capital. To the contrary, Egypt succeeded in supporting Syria’s unity, and Lebanon’s stability when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi quickly intervened to resolve the crisis that erupted when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri mysteriously resigned while visiting Saudi Arabia.

In light of these conflicts, Arab citizens suffered from a lack of jobs, lack of security, illegal migration due to wars and worrisome waves of refugees, and foreign ambitions supported by wealth and geopolitical interests. Meanwhile, Israel remained protected as the Palestinian cause suffered the throes of a power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, with little hope that a Palestinian state will be created or the right of return will be honoured. Especially now that the US has proclaimed Jerusalem the capital of Israel. When will the Arabs wake up?

The writer is a researcher in political and strategic affairs.

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