Now that Donald Trump is the new president of the United States, there is speculation on every aspect of different issues that feature prominently on the international agenda. Particular interest has been evoked with regard to the unfolding dynamics within the Middle East and North Africa and the need for a fresh assessment of the scenario that in all probability will unfold in the context of Syria, Turkey, US-Iran relations, the Gulf, and in some areas of North Africa. It would also be fitting to refer to the common effort in fighting IS.
It is certain that the US will continue to be engaged with the Middle East in 2017 as it was during in 2016. However, it will, in all probability, be more judicious in its engagement and will give other countries a more active participatory role in the effort to find solutions to problems. This, in all likelihood, will play out primarily in and around the Syria-Iraq battlefield, an equation which continues to affect the neighbours, intensify the ongoing rivalry between Turkey and Iran, and heighten sectarian tensions and the security paradigm of the region.
One needs to start with Syria. Many might be thinking that the Syrian civil war will end in 2017. Some are also pointing towards the fact that the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have not only retaken the critical city of Aleppo but also now control a few major cities and have the luxury of consolidating the gains they have made.
All of this is true but it still looks unlikely that the conflict will end in 2017. The loyalists associated with Assad are putting up a good fight but it is unlikely that they will be able to finish the civil war. They will also be drawn to areas held by the Islamic State in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where other loyalists are currently besieged. Consequently, there is still a lot work left for them to do, and any number of things can shift the balance of power in such a conflict-ridden country.
Under Trump, the US might adapt its strategy in Syria, favouring one that more selectively aids specific groups in the fight against the IS rather than those fighting the Assad government. Washington will be expected to continue its backing of the Kurdish forces but will curb support for rebels in Idlib.
Russia, on the other hand, is expecting to use their presence more tactically and is hoping to exact concessions, including the easing of sanctions, in a broader negotiation with Washington. It would also be safe to assume that while other powers are preoccupied with the fight against IS, Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in northern Syria and Iraq, driven as it is by its imperative to block Kurdish expansion.
To avoid complications, however, Turkey will have to carefully manage tensions with the US over Washington’s continued support for the Kurds. It needs to be understood here that efforts pertaining to Turkey’s resurgence might be interpreted by Iran as threatening Iran’s arc of influence across northern Syria and Iraq. This could persuade Tehran to encourage Shias in Baghdad to resist such Turkish moves.
At this point one needs to turn to Iran and the prospective durability of US-Iranian relations during this year. Observations by several members of Trump’s team suggest that the new US government might be less tolerant of Iranian actions.
This year is likely to also see Israel facing the growing challenge of a resurgent Hezbollah. This might encourage Israel, unencumbered by Washington’s reproach, to intensify its operations in Syria and Lebanon
Analysts have observed that it is unlikely that the Trump administration will completely dismantle the nuclear agreement but Trump is likely to take a hard re-examination of its facets. It needs to be noted here, however, that deterioration in US-Iran relations would only benefit Russia. The recent US executive order restraining Iranians from visiting the US will not help. This is likely to tighten Russia’s relationship.
Saudi Arabia is expected to follow developments in US-Iran relations very carefully in view of its regional proxy battles with Iran. The rest of this year should see Saudi Arabia trying to reduce its budget deficit and move forward towards translation of its ambitious Vision 2030 and Vision 2020 plans. Saudi Arabia will also struggle to steer Yemen toward a negotiated settlement, while the UAE firms up its position in southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia will also continue to give its allies in North Africa -- Egypt and Morocco -- economic and security support in exchange for their support of its foreign policy in places like Yemen and Syria.
Egypt will remain involved in Libya because Egyptian and Emirati support for nationalist Gen Khalifa Hifter, who commands the Libyan National Army, is beginning to pay off. It looks likely that Hifter will be able to strengthen his military and political control in Libya.
Hifter’s divisiveness is however bound to impede UN-led negotiations to form and approve a unity government. This means that Libya will continue to be a battle space among rival militias with Libya’s oil wealth being their sole objective.
Latest developments have indicated that IS is losing power not only in Syria and Iraq but also in Libya. It appears to have been degraded from being a group with conventional military force capability to being a terrorist or insurgent force. Dispersed throughout the areas they once controlled, remnants of IS will remain relevant by exploiting ethnic and sectarian divisions throughout Iraq and Syria.
While IS has been commanding the attention of the international community, al-Qaeda has also been quietly rebuilding itself.
No review of the evolving situation in the Middle East can be complete without reference to Israel and Palestine. 2017 will present Israel with a variety of opportunities, the biggest of which will come from its security guarantor, the US. Israel will clearly have freer rein to pursue its interests without rebuke.
The country will also benefit from a more assertive US policy on Iran. An emboldened Israel, despite recent observations in the United Nations Security Council and the Conference in Paris in the third week of January, will probably accelerate settlement development in the West Bank, even if doing so incites attacks from Palestinian militants.
However, this year is likely to also see Israel facing the growing challenge of a resurgent Hezbollah. This might encourage Israel, unencumbered by Washington’s reproach, to intensify its operations in Syria and Lebanon in an attempt to weaken Hezbollah and limit their access to advanced weaponry.
It will be a complex scenario, worth watching with caution. It will also cast a long shadow on the rest of the world.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]
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