The Uncertain Future of the Middle East

Winners and losers are emerging in the core battlefields of the Middle East in Iraq and Syria. Baghdad and Damascus are free of bombing and shelling for the first time in years. The de facto IS capital cities, Mosul and Raqqa, are full of ruins and mass graves. The war that has engulfed the territory between the Iranian border and the Mediterranean for the last seven years is coming to an end, at least in its present phase.

Fear dissipates more slowly than its original causes. I was in Baghdad last year when IS fighters kidnapped and killed eight junior government officials on the road north of the capital. The incident was small scale in comparison with past IS atrocities, but it panicked my Iraqi friends. They said they could see a return of the nightmare time not so long ago when Iraqi young men would have their bodies tattooed so, if the worst came to the worst, their families could identify their mutilated bodies.

People who have received nothing but bad news for years are distrustful of any apparent turn for the better. But the reality is that IS is destroyed with the exception of a few of its fighters in hideouts in the great deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Western governments are wary of accepting this because the explosive emergence of the self-declared caliphate in 2014 gave them such a nasty shock that they are nervous of declaring victory prematurely.

Making war to the death as a demonstration of Islamic faith

Many argue that IS may be shattered, but its beliefs live on and pose an ever-present threat. There is something in this, but not a lot because the old Al Qaeda formula – making war to the death as a demonstration of Islamic faith – no longer succeeds the way it once did. IS was a militarised Islamic cult that won lightening victories against superior forces, such as the capture of Mosul. These seemed to its adherents to be divinely inspired, but today it can offer potential recruits nothing but military and ideological defeat.

Of course, the struggle with IS was only one of the multiple crises gripping Syria and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, which has become the arena where international and regional powers fight out their differences. Many of these disputes are ongoing, but in others the victor is clear: Bashar al Assad, whom the West was writing off a few years ago, will continue to rule over a truncated Syria; what was essentially a Sunni Arab revolt against Shia and Shia-led regimes in the northern tier of the Middle East – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon – has failed.

Infograhic by Alberto Bellotto

Could there be another round in the confrontation with Iran, its opponents led by President Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)? It could happen, but the track record of Trump and Netanyahu is of leaders who like to threaten war, but seldom wage it. MbS does have a reputation for matching aggressive words with belligerent deeds (bombing Yemen, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, assassinating Jamal Khashoggi) but his failure rate is high.

Sanctions will pressure Iran, but are unlikely to bring about the regime change for which Washington yearns. Iran’s enemies are acting too late because it has already come out on the winning side in the wars in Iraq and Syria. Elsewhere, for all Trump’s demonization of Iran as the source of all evil in the Middle East, its influence is largely confined to countries where there is a large Shia population.

Francesco Cito, Palestine, West Bank, 2002

In Syria, the Kurds are more cautious as they prepare for the US withdrawal when they will be left facing the Turkish and Syrian armies. If the Turks do advance then we could see a new round of ethnic cleansing in which two million Kurds flee a Turkish army advancing across the Turkish-Syrian border. Much controversy has erupted over the withdrawal of 2000 US ground troops, but these are only trip wire whose importance is their ability to call in devastating US air strikes. At some point, the Turks might decide that they will risk US intervention against a fellow NATO power.

Turkey should have come out a bigger winner from the chaos that erupted across its southern border in 2011. It has largely failed to do so because it tolerated or supported Sunni jihadis while intervening in a region where there were large and in places dominant Shia and Kurdish communities.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and the Gulf monarchies also looked at one stage after 2011 as if they were going to be the new predominant powers in the Middle East. MbS was lauded by Trump and courted by the Europeans, but – as with other leaders of oil states such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi – he is finding that great wealth does not necessarily buy you operational competence. Saudi effectiveness has previously depended on its close alliance with the US where for the first time the Kingdom and MbS are being treated as pariahs. “He’s gone full gangster,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, in an astonishing intervention.

Russia has been the great gainer from the Syrian war

Russia has been the great gainer from the Syrian war because the conflict has enabled it to re-establish its status as a great power. This may be a matter of perception because Russia had never ceased to be a nuclear super-power, but is no less significant for that. It has kept its ally

Assad in power despite many challenges to his rule, leading many other countries to note that Russia looks after its friends. A procession of world leaders have been making their way to Moscow.

Are we looking at a new more stable Middle East? There are grave doubts about this: over the last forty years, the region has been thrown into turmoil every ten or eleven years by some spectacular event that nobody predicted. In 1979-80 it was the Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war; in 1990-91 it was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War; in 2001 it was the 9/11 attack that led to US involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars; in 2011 it was the so-called Arab Spring provoking a whole new wave of instability. If the pattern holds true, we have two or three years before the next calamity strikes the Middle East.

Cover photo by Francesco Cito, Palestine, 1993