2021: What will the Middle East look like in the new year?

Gulf peace, Turkey, Hezbollah, Iranian assassinations – looking ahead to 2021 with the lessons of 2020.

IDF CHIEF of Staff Aviv Kochavi and President Reuven Rivlin welcome the arrival of an advanced warship, the Sa’ar-6 corvette, at a Haifa naval base on December 2. (photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE/POOL VIA REUTERS)
IDF CHIEF of Staff Aviv Kochavi and President Reuven Rivlin welcome the arrival of an advanced warship, the Sa’ar-6 corvette, at a Haifa naval base on December 2.
(photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE/POOL VIA REUTERS)
In mid-February of 2020, reports began to reach Turkey about the spread of a mysterious new virus in Iran. It was thought to be COVID-19, the dangerous infectious disease that was spreading in China and Italy. On February 20, Turkey took the unprecedented decision to monitor arrivals from Iran for symptoms.  
We now know Ankara was ahead of the curve. Turkish officials told media they suspected some 750 cases had been found in Iran, far larger than the numbers that Tehran was reporting. By February 25, Iran’s deputy health minister was sick and a massive outbreak was on the country’s hands. Shi’ite travelers from Iran’s Qom, who had apparently caught the disease from flights that arrived from China, spread COVID to Lebanon and Iraq and other countries. It was the beginning of a large outbreak in the Middle East.
It would still take the World Health Organization over two more weeks to even declare a global pandemic. By that time it was too late for many countries and millions would be affected and die.
The Middle East suffered from COVID like the rest of the world. It was not necessarily the most important thing in the region this year, but it is worth starting with the pandemic because the region has had to deal with this problem on top of other problems.  
This was a momentous year in the region. It is difficult to unpack all the major Middle Eastern events. In no particular order we have the US decision to assassinate IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in January; the coronavirus pandemic; new Israeli relations with the Gulf; Turkey’s aggressive behavior targeting Syria, Armenia, Libya, Greece, Egypt and other countries; the end of the Trump era; and continued frozen conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Yemen.  
 A STATUE by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer, comprised entirely of broken glass and debris from the August 4 port of Beirut explosion, stands sentry. (Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters) A STATUE by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer, comprised entirely of broken glass and debris from the August 4 port of Beirut explosion, stands sentry. (Photo credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)
In addition, the region has continued to suffer economically and be at risk of natural disasters. A massive explosion caused by ammonium nitrate destroyed the port of Beirut. Likely caused by corruption and illicit storage of dangerous chemicals, Lebanon has been unable to hold anyone accountable for the disaster – further evidence of the country’s broken system.
THE MIDDLE EAST today is basically a three-sided alliance system. On one side of the triangle is Iran and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iran doesn’t have many state allies; it prefers militias and non-state actors in weak states.
Iran likes to hole out a state, kind of digging under its institutions and bureaucracy and hijacking countries, using long-term investment in Shi’ite militias. That is how Iran took over Iraq’s government, with the second-largest party being the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri. Iran knows it doesn’t need to take over the whole country, just hijack part of it and arm militias loyal to Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has 100,000 men under arms in the Hashd al-Shaabi and they in turn are linked to the Fatah Alliance.  
In Lebanon, Iran has Hezbollah and the presidency, even though the president is the Christian leader Michel Aoun. He has sided with Iran, not with the West. In Syria, Iran has an ally in the Assad regime and Iran has sponged up friends in the Euphrates River valley, near the Golan and in bases from T-4 near Palmyra to Masyaf and other places. Iran uses this corridor to the sea that stretches through Iraq and Syria to threaten Israel. Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes this year against Iranian targets in Syria and continues to warn Iran not to entrench. Iran doesn’t listen.
Reports indicate that Iran withdrew several hundred IRGC personnel from Iraq. Iran once sought to send ballistic missiles to Iraq and its third Khordad system to Syria. It is unclear this year if Iran’s entrenchment included such technology.  
 HOUTHI SUPPORTERS rally to denounce the US killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi alMuhandis, in Sana’a, Yemen, on January 6. The placards read, ‘God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.’ (Photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters) HOUTHI SUPPORTERS rally to denounce the US killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi alMuhandis, in Sana’a, Yemen, on January 6. The placards read, ‘God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.’ (Photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
Meanwhile, Iran continues to transfer weapons and knowledge to the Houthis in Yemen. It uses them to fight Saudi Arabia. In 2019, Iran used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia, sending shockwaves through the region. It was part of a rising Iranian campaign using missiles to strike at US forces in Iraq and also at Israel. In December, Israel launched a complex air defense drill showing off its Iron Dome and David Sling systems, as well as radar and its Arrow-3 air defense missiles, designed to provide multi-layered protection against missile, drone and cruise missile threats. The message was clearly aimed at Iran.
Also in December, more messages were aimed at Iran, including a US submarine sent to the Persian Gulf and US B-52s. America also said it would close its embassy in Iraq if Iranian-backed militias kept attacking US forces. US President Donald Trump threatened Iran at least twice, once when IRGC fast boats harassed US ships in the Persian Gulf in April and again in December.
That is Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. It almost led to conflict with the US and continues to mean tensions with Israel increase. For instance in April, around the same time Iranian boats were harassing US ships in the Persian Gulf, a drone struck at a car in Syria near Lebanon’s border. Hezbollah officials who had fled the car were saved from the strike by good luck. Hezbollah vowed to strike at Israel in response and cut holes in the border fence in northern Israel. Later in July a Hezbollah member was killed in Syria and Hezbollah vowed to strike at Israel again. The account is open, the reports say.
Iran and Hezbollah bide their time. Iran has another account it claims is open with Israel over the killing of nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. In addition, in July Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was sabotaged. Tehran has indicated it thinks outsiders did the sabotage. That means Iranian tensions with the US and Israel have risen this year – but they have been rising since 2018. Nothing particularly new here.  
THE SECOND side of the triangle in the Middle East is Turkey and its allies. Ankara’s ruling party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood. It backs Hamas in Gaza and twice hosted senior Hamas terrorists this year. Reports indicate that Hamas plans attacks from Turkey, receives passports and support and uses Turkey as a cyber base for threats to Israel. While Turkey ended 2020 claiming it wants reconciliation with Israel after years of comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, Ankara has consistently supported extremists and terrorists.  
Turkey has other Islamist friends it recruited in Syria and in Libya. Turkey co-opted the Syrian rebellion and channeled it into a series of extremist groups it has sought to mobilize to fight Kurds and Armenians. In 2018 Turkey ethnically cleansed Afrin, a historically Kurdish area of Syria, then attacked Kurds in Serekaniye in October 2019. US officials worked with Turkey, hoping to undermine their own Pentagon’s policies in Syria.
We know from recent interviews that US envoys admired Turkey’s thuggish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and sought to outsource US policy to him. This caused Turkey to think it had a blank check to attack everyone in the region. It threatened Greece with a “flood” of refugees in February and March. It clashed with Syria and Russia in the Syrian city of Idlib. It sent extremist militias recruited from poor Syrian refugees to attack Kurds and Christians in the northeast Syrian towns of Ain Issa and Tel Tamr near the Turkish border. It sent Syrians to fight in Libya.
It also threatened Greece using the excuse that it was seeking natural gas in the Mediterranean. Turkey wanted to thwart a planned Israel-Cyprus-Greece pipeline deal. In July and then in September Turkey prodded Azerbaijan to attack Armenians in Nagorna-Karabakh.  
THE THIRD side of the Middle East alliance systems is the emerging Israel-UAE-Egypt-Jordan-Bahrain-Greece-Cyprus system of friendships. Israel made peace with Bahrain and the UAE in August and September in the momentous new Abraham Accords. With Saudi Arabia’s approval, Morocco followed. Sudan also agreed to normalize ties with Israel.
In each case the US was key in supporting the new agreements: weapons deals for the UAE, an end of sanctions for Sudan, as well as recognition of Morocco’s claims in Western Sahara came from Washington. The Trump administration poured efforts in its last year in office into this brave new world in the Middle East.
 POST-ABRAHAM Accords, 70,000 Israelis flooded Dubai. (Photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters) POST-ABRAHAM Accords, 70,000 Israelis flooded Dubai. (Photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
The burgeoning relationships offer massive economic potential for Israel and the Gulf. Seventy-thousand Israelis went to Dubai toward the end of the year. They were able to escape the COVID restrictions briefly, although by the end of December the lockdowns were back and Israelis were back home. A few stayed on in Dubai, awaiting the New Year’s parties. They might have been able to look back to February when Turkey first found COVID among flights coming from Iran and recall just how much has changed since then.
Much has also stayed the same, in terms of Iran’s and Turkey’s policies seeking to exploit the lack of US leadership and drawdown of US forces – to fight over the scraps of what was once US hegemony in the Middle East. 