To say the Middle East is experiencing trying times would be an understatement. The region is experiencing unprecedented chaos and lacks political and economic direction. The assumption is that most of this will go on for years to come, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. There are a number of trends and developments that are worth watching, some of which are being ignored by the media. In no particular order, the following are what anyone interested in the future of the region should be paying attention to:
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The Lebanese Presidency
Hezbollah has been holding the Lebanese presidency hostage since March of last year. Since May, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has increasingly demanded that Michel Aoun be made president. Lebanon’s is not a normal democratic political system; the presidency is reserved for a Christian. That means that the two major political blocs, one run by Hezbollah and the other by those allied with Sa’ad Hariri, each field a candidate for president. Since the last Christian president stepped down Hezbollah has refused to play ball and has neutered the power of the Christians in the country by refusing to consent to the election of a president from the rival camp. In short, it wants a puppet president.
Hezbollah is well on the way to controlling Lebanon – and parts of Syria, as well. Nasrallah’s recent speeches marking Nakba Day and the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon have been laced with language prepping Lebanon for greater involvement in the Syrian civil war. In addition, Lebanon is spearheading the battle of Arsal-Qalamoun to wipe out Sunni Islamists there. The weakening of the president in Lebanon is one of the last nails in the coffin of Christian leadership in the Middle East, as Christian minorities are increasingly deracinated from their ancient homelands.
The Saudi-Gulf Alliance
When Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council launched air strikes in Yemen in March, this heralded a major shift in Saudi policy. Except for dabbling in the Bahrain crises during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and the GCC have previously relied on the Americans to shield them. This was part of the Saudi-US pact.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf provide the oil, the US provides the protection. But the rise of Iran, and US policy regarding the Islamic Republic, have unsettled the Gulf and the Saudis. Especially the prospect of Iran sitting astride the Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz straits, giving it a choke-hold on the region’s oil.
Testing their mettle in Yemen has been important for the Saudis. Commentators in the kingdom have now become outspoken about the problems with Iranian influence. Some are openly predicting war. There are rumors of a nuclear arms race. The Saudi-Gulf alliance is key to stabilizing the region and projecting Sunni power as a counterbalance to IS. With Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan weakened, there is a need for these royalist regimes to play a role.
The Rise of Nusra
n late may Al Jazeera released an interview with Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Covered by a black hood, with his group’s trademark black flag on the table and speaking softly, Julani explained Nusra’s goals were very different from those of IS. He tried to placate fears of sectarianism, arguing that although his men are devout Sunni Islamists, they aim merely to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad and will not persecute minorities. One could read this as a brilliant media coup by a savvy leader, but then, if Julani is that forward-thinking, the implication is that he is strategically positioning his group for the future.
Nusra Front is often ignored, partly because of its name, which doesn’t lend itself to easy reading, and partly because it lurks within an umbrella group called Jaysh al-Fatah, the “army of conquest,” which is made up of other rebel factions. It is principally ignored, however, because IS is the real threat to the region, and known for its horrific actions. But Nusra is the player to watch. IS is over-extended and under attack on numerous fronts. Nusra is gaining ground in Idlib and is one of the groups actually fighting the Syrian army, Hezbollah and their Iranian allies in Qalamoun on the border between Lebanon and Syria. If they can emerge from that contest even partially victorious they may end up being more influential than IS in the long run.
Since the 1990s and especially since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Kurds in the country have been striving for increased independence from Baghdad.
Autonomy grew in 2005 with the new Iraqi government’s structure that allowed the Kurdistan Regional Government to function almost like a mini-state.
Later the arrival of IS on the scene isolated the Kurdish region and its military forces from the central government in Baghdad, which became weakened in the face of the Sunni onslaught and the rising power of the Shi’ite militias. Kurdistan has become a sort of island in the storm raging around it. The success of the Kurdish- backed HDP in the recent Turkish elections and the increasing independence of the Kurdish region in Syria, Rojava, mean prospects have never been better for the Kurds. But can they transform these prospects into an independent state?
Mahmoud Abbas’s Successor
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was born in Safed in Mandate Palestine in 1935.
He was elected president in 2005 and was supposed to serve a four-year term. The success of Hamas in legislative elections in 2006 made the PA wary of holding more and they were indefinitely postponed. The problem with finding a successor to Abbas is that the Palestinians need someone younger than his aging lieutenants such as Ahmed Qurei (78), Nabil Sha’ath (77). If the PA is plunged into uncertainty and chaos that will bode ill for both Israel and Jordan – and particularly for the Palestinians.
The Destruction of Arab Education
A BBC article recently gave readers a peek inside life in Mosul, the regional capital of IS in Iraq. Mosques are being blown up, private libraries having their contents dumped in the streets and many parents were keeping their children home from school to avoid IS indoctrination. Across the region education has been the main victim of the chaos, political uncertainty, civil war and murderous onslaughts of various groups.
The long-term affect is that there will be an Arab “lost generation” which lacks basic education from Libya to Iraq. The problem isn’t just that some are being indoctrinated with pre-modern Islamist views and have gotten used to seeing people being whipped in public, beheaded or stoned, it is that even the majority rejecting these views are being deprived of means to advancement. The educational failings today will have an impact for the rest of the century.
Three Leaders’ Challenges
Iran’s “Mr. Fix-It,” General Qasem Soleimani, has been the brains behind the extension of Iranian influence to Syria, Iraq and Yemen. But rumors that Iran is infiltrating thousands of troops into Syria to prop up Assad’s ailing army may give him too much influence over too wide an area. When Iran’s policy comes crashing down, Soleimani’s concept of projecting Iranian power to the “near abroad” will have been over-sold.
Similarly Turkey’s Erdogan’s dreams of transforming the power of the Turkish presidency seem to have been temporarily frustrated in the recent Turkish elections. If his party, the AKP, stumbles again it might be good for Turkish democracy and secularism, but it will lead to political instability.
Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi is the mirror image of Erdogan, trying to combat extremism and reform the religious community. He too is well-received abroad and is not particularly liked in the region. His dreams of building a new capital city with help from the Gulf States is nice, but probably just a mirage. His courts keep sentencing Muslim Brotherhood members to death, but the Brothers will not be so easily vanquished, and if Sisi can’t inspire Egyptians he will prove merely a momentary stopgap to another round of violence.Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman