2019 end of year review: Middle East

31 Dec 2019

 

With the Middle East as flammable as ever, the war that nobody wants may be just around the corner. In his first electoral campaign, and during his time in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump has continually preached against increased US involvement in Middle Eastern wars. 


“We are not going into another war between people who have been fighting with each other for 200 years,” Trump echoed in a tweet amidst growing tension between Kurdish and Turkish forces.


Iran is not interested in a direct conflict that would see its internal political atmosphere destabilised, giving rise to revolutionary action. Sanctions issued by the US and EU have fuelled an economic crisis in the country, with President Hassan Rouhani declaring that “Iran is experiencing one of its hardest years since the 1979 Islamic revolution." In response to this, on 15 November, the government announced an increase in fuel prices, describing it as a way to fund subsidies for millions of citizens.


Large demonstrations ensued, starting as peaceful gatherings before turning into violent riots and a revolt against the government. In attempts to stop the protests, the internet was shut off and, according to Amnesty International, government forces proceeded to shoot protesters dead from rooftops, helicopters, and at close range. The New York Times reported that residents saw the bodies of dead protesters hauled off in truck in order to tamper with the true casualty count and scale of protests. With 1500 citizens killed, alongside the destruction of 731 banks and 50 military bases attacked, this has been the most violent form of civil unrest the country has seen since the 1979 revolution.


Saudi Arabia seeks to contain Iran’s ever-increasing power without a direct military confrontation. After all, if they cannot quash the Houthis in Yemen, how do they expect to cut off the head of the snake?


Several months after Iranian-backed Houthis ousted the Yemeni government from power in 2014, a Saudi-led coalition began a campaign of air strikes to restore the former government. However, nearly 5 years after US-supported operations began, little progress has been made and the death toll has reached 100,000.


With no end in sight for this extension of the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, the UN Development Programme projects that Yemen will become the world’s poorest country. By 2022, 79% of the population will be below the poverty line, and 65% in extreme poverty.


Israel is satisfied with its various operations in the region, having conducted frequent airstrikes in Syria before branching out into Iraq earlier this year. The Jewish state last struck Iraq in 1981, when it pre-emptively destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in the hopes of burying Saddam Hussein’s ambition for nuclear capability. 


Whilst destroying Iranian targets helps to bolster Prime Minister Netanyahu’s image as he prepares for a third election in less than a year, if he applies too much pressure, his country risks becoming the target of a barrage of rockets.


Following the April legislative election, Netanyahu’s failure to form a government after a month of negotiations led to a snap election being called for September. However, the snap election failed to cure the political paralysis after Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Blue and White party, led by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, each failed to form a government. Whilst both parties expressed an initial willingness to form a national unity government, neither could agree on the terms, with Netanyahu’s desire to include his allied religious parties, and Gantz refusing to cooperate with a prime minister under investigation.


Only last month was Netanyahu indicted by Israel’s attorney general in three corruption cases, but that has not prevented him from achieving a landslide victory in a recent party leadership challenge. Dismissing the indictment as an “attempted coup” and a witch hunt, Netanyahu seeks to gain a parliamentary majority that is willing to grant him immunity. 


On 1 October, protests erupted in Baghdad as people expressed discontent with high levels of unemployment, corruption, and inefficient management of public services. Demonstrations later escalated into calls to oust the government and to limit Iranian intervention in Iraq. The government has been accused of reacting in a disproportionate manner by using bullets, hot water and tear gas against protestors.


With its close ties to Shia officials, Iran has been able to expand its influence over Iraq, a key component of its land corridor to the Mediterranean. On 18 November, The Intercept reported on a leak of Iranian intelligence documents that revealed "far more than was previously understood about the extent to which Iran and the United States have used Iraq as a staging area for their spy games."

 
A report of a meeting at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad detailed conversation expressing concerns that Haider al-Abadi, a proposed new prime minister, was not sufficiently aligned to the Iranian regime. Yet, there was satisfaction in the fact that eight of his ministers were "in complete harmony" with Iran, including Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Minister of Transportation Bayan Jabr Solagh.


After weeks of rioting, on 29 November, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation. However, this did not placate demonstrators who continued protest, even after Iraq’s parliament approved new electoral laws. On 26 December, President Barham Salih submitted his letter of resignation after refusing to appoint the Iran-backed governor of Basra, Assad Al Eidani, as prime minister.


For similar reasons, protests broke out in Lebanon, albeit with significantly less bloodshed. Country-wide demonstrations began on 17 October, shortly after a cabinet meeting regarding increased taxation took place. On 29 October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation and that of his government. Since then, protesters have demanded parliamentary consultations to form a new government, however, this was ignored as Hassan Diab was appointed to replace Hariri on 19 December.


The US, of course, relishes any opportunity to weaken Iran, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting: "The Iraqi and Lebanese people want their countries back. They are discovering that the Iranian regime’s top export is corruption, badly disguised as revolution. Iraq and Lebanon deserve to set their own courses free from Khamenei's meddling."


Whilst protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have borne little fruit, demonstrations that began in Sudan last December escalated into a large-scale revolution. A coup d'état on 11 April saw dictator Omar al-Bashir removed from power after ruling for 30 years. Under the Transitional Military Council (TMC) which succeeded him, the Khartoum massacre took place on 3 June – more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured in an attack aimed at dispersing a peaceful sit-in protest in front of the military headquarters.


In July, the TMC and Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) signed an agreement legally defining a planned 39-month transition process to return Sudan to a civilian democracy. Executive power was transferred from the TMC to the Sovereignty Council, the country’s mixed military-civilian collective head of state, which appointed Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister. Judicial power was transferred to Sudan’s first female chief justice, Nemat Abdullah Khair.


Whilst Sudan may be on track for peace, a major conflict could break out in number of places across the Middle East for a variety of reasons. Consider the drone attack on two Saudi oil facilities back in September. The perpetrators could have been the Houthis in retaliation to Saudi intervention in Yemen, it may have been Iran in response to crippling US sanctions, or it could have been Iranian-supported militia forces in Iraq. 


If the US takes military action against Iran, this would see an Iranian strike against the US’ Gulf allies, an assault on Israel by Hezbollah, and militia action against US presence in Iraq. A sudden development in the region, including Israel’s operations against Iranian targets, could set off a chain reaction that would see a war to rival the Second Congo War for the title of the deadliest conflict in the world since World War II.


There has been a growing demand for the US to change its Middle East policy, and earlier this year Congress attempted to halt US support for the war in Yemen. However, Trump vetoed the bill, calling it an encroachment of his constitutional powers. The unpredictability of the future of US policy in the region has only made the situation worse. 


As Trump’s re-election run is on the horizon, he will be wary that his base is against expanding US operations in the Middle East, instead backing a policy of ‘America First’. Yet, for the US to assert its global dominance, it cannot simply abandon its allies – especially at a time of heightened tensions.

 

Ali Goldman is an Editor at Backbench
 

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