Signs of Hope in the Middle East? Don’t Hold Your Breath
Optimists see hopeful signs that the Middle East may be exiting a dark tunnel of violence, civil war, sectarian strife and debilitating regional rivalries: the Islamic State (ISIS) is on the cusp of territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia may be looking for an exit from its devastating military intervention in Yemen. And the Gulf states are embarking on economic and social reform aimed at preparing them for the end of oil.
Haltingly, the Gulf states may also be forced to find a face-saving solution to the more than three-month-old crisis that has pitted a UAE and Saudi Arabia-led alliance against Qatar. There may even be an effort to dial down tension between the Saudis and Iran. Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, has said that it is willing to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the Strip, and to move towards long overdue elections.
And at first glance, these do appear to be reasons for optimism. But don’t hold your breath. Optimists are basing their hopes on shifting sands and tentative suggestions that the protagonists may be looking for ways out of their malaise.
The more sobering reality is that none of these indicators involve actions that would tackle the root causes of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and problems. In fact, some of the solutions tossed around amount to little more than window dressing, while others set the stage for the next phase of conflict and strife.
Talks between the feuding Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed. It is not clear whether Hamas would now be ready to put its armed wing under Mr. Abbas’s control — a key demand of the Palestinian president that the Islamists have so far rejected. It also remains to be seen how Israel would respond. Israel, together with the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the contours of future conflict are already discernible. If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.
The disputes over territory, power and resources among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds that fueled the rise of ISIS in Iraq are now resurfacing with its demise. In a twist of irony, a recent poll showed that Sunnis were for the first time more positive about Iraq’s future than the country’s majority Shiites.
The reconstruction of Sunni cities in the north destroyed by the fight against ISIS will be key to maintaining a semblance of Iraqi unity. With no signs of massive reconstruction gaining momentum, old wounds that have driven insurgencies for more than a decade could reignite ISIS in new forms. “All the writing is on the wall that there will be another [ISIS],” said former Iraqi foreign minister and Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari.
The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that the Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a unilateral referendum on September 25. And if the independence issue did not provide enough explosive in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas further fueled the fire.
The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are. And the issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation state.
Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum. His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim for backing the poll, as well as calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of Kurdish descent, could push the Kurds over the edge.
Add to that, the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the US. The US is backing the Iraqi government, though it was Washington that put Kurdistan on course towards independence when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay. (Breaking with the US and its Arab allies, Israel endorsed Kurdish independence.)
Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Iranian al-Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region.
Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, “no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.” Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20% of its population. It also suspects that an independent Kurdistan would harbor Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating from the region.
Mr. Abadi alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders.” He said, “The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line.”
The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria, too. The US backs a Syrian Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish Kurdish militants in its fight against ISIS. The militia that prides itself on its women fighters is among the forces besieging the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds are hoping an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border — an aspiration that Turkey, like Iraq, vehemently opposes. The Kurds, who have been the target of strikes by the Turkish air force, hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots — which resulted from mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (To make up for the pilot shortfall, the Turkish Air Force last month ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish Airlines to report for service.)
The Kurds may provide the first flashpoint for another round of volatility and violence, but there are others. Sectarian and other ethnic divisions are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria once the current round of fighting subsides.
As it tries to find a face-saving exit from its ill-fated invasion of Yemen, which has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss, Riyadh will have to cope with a populous country on its border, many of whose citizens harbor deep anger at the devastation and human suffering caused by the Saudis — consequences that will take years to reverse.
Similarly, the three-month-old rift between Qatar and an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is likely to leave deep scars that will hamper integration among the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East’s only functioning regional organization — at least prior to the crisis. The failure of talks between Qatar and its detractors, mediated by US President Donald Trump, even before they got started, suggests that a resolution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.
Coping with the fallout of the Qatar crisis and the Yemen war simply adds to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s woes as he prepares to, at some point, succeed his ailing father, King Salman. Prince Muhammad, who is popular among the country’s youth who support economic and social change, has already had to backtrack on some of that promised change. Foreign lenders have moreover indicated a lack of confidence as they head for the exits in Saudi Arabia, rather than explore new opportunities.
In addition, Prince Muhammad has signaled concern about opposition to his proposed reforms within the kingdom’s ruling Saud family, his determination to avoid political change and his willingness to rule with an iron fist. Prominent religious scholars with significant followings and activists have been arrested in recent weeks, while dissenting members of the ruling family have been put under house arrest.
The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change. If historic yardsticks are applicable, that amounts to one-third of a process of transition that can take up to a quarter of a century to work itself out. There is little reason to believe the next third will be any less volatile or violent.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.