How 2017 became the year of Putin

As the US was distracted by Trump’s tweets and self-doubt, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were on the march this year.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen as he visits the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria (photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/REUTERS)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen as he visits the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria
On December 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin took questions for more than three hours during an annual end-ofyear press conference. With more than 1,600 journalists present, including foreign media, he sought to focus on successes in Russia. Asked about Russia’s military, he reminded the audience that more than two decades ago, the country was fighting a “civil war” in Chechnya. “Eighteen-year-old boys were sent to the front line unqualified and untrained; now fast forward to today, when we have a strong army.”
Days before his epic press conference, Putin had ordered some of the units Russia had deployed in Syria to withdraw after combat operations against Islamic State and Syrian rebel groups had wound down. It was part of a kind of victory lap for the Russian as he traveled on to Egypt where a $21 billion deal was signed to start work on a nuclear power plant. Then Putin went to Turkey where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that a purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles would be finalized.
Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani’s response translated at press conference as he justifies referendum on independence
Putin’s tour of the Middle East caps a year of change in the region that has seen Islamic State almost completely defeated in Iraq and Syria, and the hopes of the Arab Spring and the one-time powerful US neo-conservative agenda of democratization fade. It is worthwhile to look back over the last decade and a half of change in the region to take stock of why 2017 matters and bookends one era as we move into a new one.
More than a decade ago, Iraq had its first relatively free elections under the watchful eyes of the US army in 2005. Then there were the momentous Palestinian elections in 2006 in which Hamas won. Fast-forward to the Arab Spring of 2011 and how the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections. The Tunisian Islamic Party Ennahda had also won constituent assembly elections in Tunisia in 2011. The trend in the region was toward sectarianism in the guise of democracy. In Egypt and within the Palestinian Authority, the Islamists appeared to be taking power. In Iraq, a pro-Iranian Shi’ite party was running things under Nouri al-Maliki. In Turkey, the AKP continued to hold on to power, promising to roll back the official secularism that had dominated the country for much of the 20th century. Yemen and Libya sank into civil conflict, pitting extremists against a gaggle of other groups.
For the surviving regimes in the region, the chaos that had been unleashed since September 11, the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring was a grave threat. Saudi Arabia, whose Wahhabi ideology had influenced many extremist groups in the 20th century, began to realize that all this would eventually come back to haunt them. The United Arab Emirates was concerned that its fellow Gulf state, Qatar, was riding a wave of Islamic populism and stoking chaos through its Al Jazeera channel. What followed was a pragmatic shift back to “normalcy.” In Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled the Brotherhood in 2013. Hamas was ejected to the Gaza Strip and Palestinian Fatah held the reins of power in Ramallah. For the past half decade this arrangement has sought to the stem the tide. The kind of ancient-regime autocrats who promised stability to stop religious extremism received wind in their sails when US President Donald Trump came to power in January 2017.
TRUMP’S VICTORY was applauded in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey also thought it might bring better tidings over their concerns that the US was working too closely with Kurdish groups in eastern Syria, particularly the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey accuses of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Under president Barack Obama, the US had sought a deal with the Iranian regime, and many Sunni countries in the region, as well as Israel, were wary of the US policy. They saw it as walking away from traditional allies to work with a dangerous regime in Tehran that was exporting its flavor of Islamic Shi’ite proxies across the region. These included Hezbollah in Lebanon, mercenaries in Syria, the Shia militias, called Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. What Riyadh was saying is that Iran now “occupied” four Arab capitals: Beirut, Sana’a, Baghdad and Damascus.
At his speech in Riyadh on May 21, Trump promised that the US would “not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation.” Speaking to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries at the Arab Islamic American summit, he claimed, “Our goal is a coalition of nationals who share the aim of stamping out extremism” and encouraged those present to “drive out the terrorists and extremists.” The phrase “drive them out” encouraged Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to cut ties with Qatar less than a month later on June 4.
This breaking of ties was in some ways unprecedented in the Gulf where the immensely wealthy oil states have tended toward consensus and talk more than action. That has changed in recent years after the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened in Bahrain to stop the majority Shi’ite population from rising up against the monarchy. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies also intervened in Yemen to support the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. That intervention was largely driven by the feeling Saudi Arabia has that it must take the reins with a muscular foreign policy as US commitments in the region are adrift. Toward that end, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud empowered Mohammed Bin Salman as crown prince to confront Iran abroad and corruption at home. MBS, as he is frequently known, has worked closely with advisers such as his Gulf Affairs minister Thamar Al-Sabhan to raise the alert on Iranian meddling. The kingdom encouraged Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in November in a bizarre shadowy event that is still not well understood. What is understood is that the kingdom was putting its cards on the table challenging Hezbollah.
A month later, in December, Saudi Arabia chose not to send its head of state to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Istanbul called to confront the US over Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem. Saudi’s allies in the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, all refused to send their heads of state, while the leaders of 20 other Muslim countries attended.
FOR ISRAEL, the changing tectonics in the Middle East are a double-edged sword. Between 2015 and 2017, Iran’s power has greatly expanded in the region. This is partly due to the Iran deal, or JCPOA, which was signed in 2015. On the ground, Iranian-backed militias, associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, have been on the march. In the battle to eradicate ISIS from Mosul, the flags of the Shi’ite militias mushroomed around the city. When I was there in April, they hung from mosques and balaclava- clad militiamen guarded checkpoints on the roads.
In Syria, the Iranian support for Bashar Assad’s regime has been helpful in providing cannon fodder for the war effort. Tens of thousands of poor Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan were recruited by Iran and sent to Syria to form the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a division of fighters that could be used to plug the holes in Assad’s lines. After six years of war, Iran’s ally in Damascus is exhausted and has no manpower.
For Israel, the Iranian role in Syria has the makings of a slow-moving nightmare. For a decade, Israel warned the world about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comical “red line” speech at the UN in 2012 was the zenith of this effort, along with his speech in Congress in March 2015 before his reelection as Israel’s prime minister. But Iran got the deal and there appears to be evidence that Iran didn’t need the nuclear program. It has saved money by not moving the program forward, while sanctions relief brings it new investment from European Union states which are running to invest. For Israel the nightmare is in Syria as Iran builds new bases in the country and creates a permanent foothold.
Israeli officials warned dozens of times in 2017 that they will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Netanyahu made significant warnings in August, November and December. In June, July and August, Israel also warned that Iran was attempting to put down roots in Lebanon beyond the Hezbollah root it already has.
In a speech in August, Israel’s former air force commander said Israel had struck arms convoys in Syria more than 100 times in five years. Then in early November, unknown intelligence sources leaked photos to the BBC of an alleged Iranian base. At Kiswah, south of Damascus, a dozen dilapidated Syrian army buildings appeared to have been refurbished, and new buildings constructed. In early December, an air strike obliterated several of the buildings.
THE CAT-and-mouse game that Israel appears to be playing in Syria is still the stuff of nightmares, because Iran’s bases in Syria are not the only problem. Iran is also constructing a “corridor to the sea” via its militia proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In early December, Hezbollah boasted that any war with Israel would bring thousands of militiamen from Iraq and other countries. One of those men is Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who journeyed from Iraq to the Lebanese border with Israel in December. There he walked along, as though strolling in a nice park, and said he stood by Hezbollah in any conflict with the Jewish state. Khazali is a rising figure in Iraq. His militia fought the Americans in 2007; he was imprisoned and then released. Now he has the stamp of official approval from the Iraqi government and, oddly, is tangentially allied with the Americans, who have been leading the global coalition against ISIS. He also played a role in taking Kirkuk from the Kurds in Iraq, eroding opposition to Iran’s supremacy in the country.
Israel thought it was going to get a robust anti-Iran policy from Trump, but has had to make do with a more declarative policy. Trump gave a speech in October claiming he would confront Iran. All the president’s men and women have also come out with tough talk on Iran, from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s presentation of an Iranian missile in December to CIA director Mike Pompeo’s October speech at the University of Texas, where he called Iran a “thuggish police state.” Rex Tillerson also told Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias to “go home” at a meeting in Riyadh in October. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded that the militias were at home, and they were the “hope” of the future of Iraq.
Israel has wanted more from the Trump administration in Syria but realizes that the address to deal with Iran and Assad in Syria is in Moscow. Netanyahu and Putin have met frequently in the last five years, at least eight times face-to-face and speak often by telephone. As the Syrian conflict winds down, Israel is afraid that Iran will be the big winner. Russia’s policy has been to advance “de-escalation.” To get that, it has sought to meet with Turkey and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan, bypassing the Syrian rebels to find a way to cool down the conflict. In southwest Syria, along the Golan border and near Jordan, Russia worked with the Americans and Amman to get a cease-fire going in July. Israel was concerned that Iranian advisers would remain and exploit the cease-fire to get closer to Israel. In Syria, Russia was the key player. The Americans, who are allied with the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, have been left out in the cold.
WHAT ISRAEL did get from Trump is the declaration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a kind of Hanukka present that has led to tensions in the region and harsh critique by Erdogan. For Trump’s administration, this is a way of saying they accomplished something in a year in office. A year after the Obama administration abstained on Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlements, the Trump administration was sending a different message.
Trump’s administration is also hamstrung in acting in the Middle East. In April, Trump ordered air strikes on the Syrian regime after a chemical weapons attack. However, the administration is the target of a wide-ranging investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s campaign worked with the Russians. Mueller, named in May to lead the investigation, has bagged some big fish, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. On December 1, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. What did he lie about? He misled the FBI regarding his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. On the face of it, this doesn’t prove anything regarding claims the Trump camp knew about Russia’s pro-Trump stance. Ironically, it does show that when it came to Israel, the Trump team put on a full-court press in December 2016 to stop the UN resolution.
Trump’s administration is distracted by the Russia probe and the constant scandals. Trump is also more obsessed with domestic policies, such as tax breaks and tweeting, than with which militia controls which part of the Iraqi border. So US policy in 2017 has largely been outsourced to the Pentagon under Jim Mattis. To a lesser extent, it is also controlled by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former Obama administration official Brett McGurk, the special envoy for the war on ISIS.
McGurk has tended to see pro-Iranian voices as allies of the US. Mattis has a more critical view of Iran’s role, remembering how Iran targeted US troops in Iraq after 2003. This creates a Janus-faced US policy incapable of putting forth clarity.
The Janus face is responsible for the US abandonment of the Kurds in northern Iraq in October. Threatened by the Iraqi army that had been trained by the US-led coalition to fight ISIS, the Kurdish Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk and other disputed areas after holding a referendum on independence in September. The Kurds thought that their heroic stand against ISIS would receive more support in Washington when they sought independence. Instead, the US cynically worked with Baghdad; Kurdistan was isolated, its airports closed and its hopes crushed. In Syria, the Kurds that the US also partnered with to fight ISIS are wondering if they are next in 2018. Will the US stand by its allies or walk away as the Syrian regime and Iran move forward?
ANYONE LOOKING for leadership from the US can’t ignore the fact that 2017 has been a soul-searching year for Americans. Not only is half the country reeling from the Trump victory, but the avalanche of allegations that Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed women and threatened the careers of leading actresses has roiled the US. It has led to a kulturkampf, as many women come forward with “me too” stories about leading journalists, politicians and others. This is a good catharsis for the US, but it is also a complex cultural battle connected to deep questions about what underpins modern culture. One cannot ignore the fact that when it comes to a country and a leader seeming more sure of themselves, Russia under Putin and the kinds of regimes he has associated with such as Turkey, Iran and Egypt, appear more sure of themselves. Western doubt about mansplaining, manspreading, toxic masculinity, white privilege and whiteness is not matched by similar self-critique and self-doubt in other societies.
Western self-doubt in 2017 was also painted by the other brush strokes of its culture. It can’t seem to produce movies that are worth watching more than once. It is still trying to profit off the Star Wars, Planet of the Apes and Aliens franchises of the 1970s. The US has also remade It, because it is out of ideas for horror movies. It also re-made Blade Runner, and is drowning in comic- book movies such as Wonder Woman and The Justice League. If you’re not living in a comic-book fantasy, you can also watch at least two movies about the Nixon years, The Post (The Washington Post) and a movie about Mark Felt, “the man who brought down the White House.” If you think that the Mark Felt movie was made to mirror the thoughts and prayers of Hollywood has that Trump will be “brought down,” you’re wrong. Pre-production began in 2015. But the movies tell us something about the US and Western culture in general. It is searching for an imagined past and giving us pastiche of that past in its movies. It has no hope for the future, which is why in 2017 it didn’t produce any interesting ideas or philosophy.
In Europe the continent has soldiers on the streets and unprecedented surveillance of its societies due to the rise in Islamist terrorist attacks. 2017 saw attacks in Manchester, London, Stockholm, Barcelona and St. Petersburg. For the foreseeable future it appears that the extremism bubbling to the surface since 9/11 will continue to grow on the continent. On the continent of Africa, a different problem persists. Although the departure of Robert Mugabe, one of the longest-serving dictators in the world, was a positive, the growth of Islamist terrorist groups across the Sahel region poses a serious threat that affects Niger, Somalia, Nigeria and other states. In October, more than 500 were murdered in a truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia. Boko Haram in Nigeria continued its mass-murder attacks, while four US special forces were killed in Niger, revealing the thousands of US personnel now fighting a shadow war in Africa.
On the bright side, if you bought one bitcoin in January 2017 for $900, you could have sold it in December for around $18,000. Other so-called “cryptocurrencies” such as Ripple Coin, Ethereum, LiteCoin and even Putin Coin, are all making huge gains. These alternative currencies are probably the wave of the future and in 2017 they gained some official footholds as people started trading futures in them and they began to make their way closer to mature trading markets.
In Russia, Putin and his advisers are paying attention. According to an article at Vice in October, Putin met the creator of Ethereum at an International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June. Russia realized the potential of cryptocurrencies to diversify the economy. If it is true that Russia has been taking a greater interest in things like bitcoin, it may prove as successful as its role in Syria and elsewhere.