Some of the most important international news bulletins have been the reports coming out of the Middle East, beginning in 2011 when the Obama administration kicked off the Arab Spring. It seems that the world has become accustomed to the waves of violence that are flooding that region. But in 2016 there was a series of events that to some degree signaled new political trends, which inspire some degree of optimism for the future.
First of all, 2016 saw some significant defeats for the terrorist armies of the Islamic State. The predictions from two years ago that IS wasn’t going anywhere and that the global community would just have to learn to live with it now look a bit embarrassing. The main reason this quasi-state entity created by jihadists in northern Iraq and Syria is turning out to be so fragile is the fact that it was fighting everyone. The Islamic State took up arms against the Shiites, Kurds, Iran, moderate Sunnis, Christians, and the government of Bashar al-Assad. Last year the territory under IS control shrank like the piece of rawhide in Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin.
An important milestone last year was the restoration of the Syrian army’s control of eastern Aleppo, with the support of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces. This event is a sign of the end for the «Syrian Revolution», which was actually an undeclared war that was waged against Syria for six years by the United States and its NATO allies, as well as the Gulf monarchies. Currently about 80% of the Syrian population lives in areas under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s legitimate government.
Once Aleppo fell, the militants were concentrated in the Idlib province, as well as in a rural area near Damascus (Ghouta). From a military standpoint, it no longer looks possible for them to control or blockade Damascus. The military’s success in Aleppo has had important political ramifications: Russia is further entrenched in the region, and the prerequisites for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis are now in place. This can be seen in the Dec. 29, 2016 Russian-Turkish agreement for a ceasefire in Syria (the agreement does not apply to the Islamic State or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham terrorist organizations). Although there are complications, ten moderate Islamist groups have joined the ceasefire, the largest of which is Ahrar al-Sham. At the same time, the latest agreements on Syria have shown the isolation of Saudi Arabia and the Syrian National Coalition that that country controls, whose delegation was simply not invited to the upcoming peace talks in Astana.
The number of people living in areas under terrorist control has dropped sharply. In Iraq, no more than two million reside in areas that have been seized by IS. According to some sources, the population of Raqqa has dropped to no more than 400,000. The population of Deir ez-Zor, which was about 120,000 before the war, is now no more than a few thousand. Control over Mosul will no doubt be restored in the coming months. The «warriors for jihad» have not managed to establish their own state in northern Syria and Iraq.
Second, Turkey has changed course politically. They were prompted to do so by the failed coup on July 15, 2016. Too many suspicious clues led them to the US military base in Incirlik in July. In addition, the Turkish government has still not received a clear answer from Washington regarding the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is suspected of having orchestrated the failed insurrection. The unsuccessful coup led to changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policy. In terms of domestic policy, the experiment with democracy has come to an end. Over the next 10-15 years, a one-party system is likely to entrench itself in Turkey, dominated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the puppet opposition. The shifts in foreign policy indicate Turkey’s gradual drift toward Russia and Iran, much to the displeasure of Washington and the Gulf monarchies. This strategy is greeted with understanding in Moscow and Tehran. At least neither Russia nor Iran is opposed to the Euphrates Shield military operation, as long as the tip of its spear is directed toward the Islamic State and armed Kurdish factions, not against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Third, 2016 was a source of shame for the «global community» that indifferently watched the year and a half of conflict in Yemen that grew into a humanitarian catastrophe. The Saudi bombings killed about 20,000 people. Six million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation. In the summer of 2016, dozens of deaths from cholera were reported in Aden due to lack of drinking water and medicine. After the August 2016 formation of the Supreme Political Council in Sana’a, consisting of representatives of the Houthis and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country actually has two governments, which will lead to a new split in Yemen between the north and the south. At the same time, neither the UN, the League of Arab States, or any other international organization has made a single serious attempt (except for the half-hearted negotiations in Kuwait) to resolve the conflict. The confrontation in Yemen continues to be the «forgotten war» in the Middle East.
Fourth, one important event that occurred in 2016 was the revision of Saudi Arabia’s traditional economic policy, which manifested itself in a revolutionary rejection by the country’s new ruling elite of sole reliance on oil in the nation’s economic development (in the future). The new strategies for the kingdom’s economic policy were articulated by Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his Saudi Vision 2030 plan.
Fifth, an important outcome of 2016 was the entrenchment of the secular political regime in the region and the dashed expectations of those who had predicted a stronger hand for the Islamists at the onset of the Arab Spring. In Algeria the secular regime is firmly on its feet-almost no alternatives exist. In Egypt, the secular government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is digging in. The victory over the jihadists in eastern Aleppo is evidence of the success of the secular government of Bashar al-Assad. Many in the Western media are sounding an alarm over the 2,000 Tunisians who are fighting on the side of the Islamic State, yet they have forgotten the millions of Tunisian citizens who showed up at the polls last year to vote for secular democratic parties The last five years of bloody military and political conflicts in the region have not led to a spike in the popularity of the Islamists, but to the frustration of their hopes.
Overall, the events of 2016 inspire a certain optimism for the Middle East. But that must naturally be kept in check, considering the difficult tasks that still lie ahead: the resurrection of Syria’s economy that has been destroyed by civil war, a national reconciliation in Iraq, and the search for a way out of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.