2019 has been a year in which the Middle East experienced much chaos. The region remains drowned into a multiplicity of international and internal, sectarian and economic conflicts while its populations more and more loudly demand better governance, economic (including employment) prospects, and the end of foreign interventions, including from Iran and other countries in the region. Increased bombings on civilian populations in northwest Syria, Turkish incursion in the Kurdish North East, continued fighting between Houthis and Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, government-initiated violence against civilians in Iraq and social unrest in Lebanon all contribute to the portrayal of a poor image of the region; nonetheless there are few opportunities for peace in 2020.
The new Arab Spring
Eight years after the Arab Spring, protests have erupted again across the region, from Iran to Algeria. Protesters in Lebanon and Iraq have overlooked their traditional sectarian grievances and have been united by their principal demands for governments to address chronic unemployment and provide more effective governance.
The anger that fueled the Arab Spring often referred to as the Arab Simmer, is the long-standing and volatile relationship between the Arab states and their citizens. Governments used to be able to offer jobs to graduates, mostly in the public sector, thanks to revenues from oil. However, after the collapse of the oil price (2008-9), combined with the growing demand for jobs from the surging youth demographic, Arab governments are not able to create enough public jobs. Simply put, oil money can no longer pay for the bloated government payroll and social benefits, and young people are no longer willing to tolerate weak governance or authoritarian leadership.
In both countries, and across the region, trust in politics and institutions continues to deteriorate. Lebanon is in a state of economic collapse and the usual foreign donors don’t want to inject cash into the country without significant political reforms – which is unacceptable for Hezbollah – which will most probably deepen the financial crisis in the first months of 2020, and potentially lead to some materialization of violence, especially between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters. The effect of such financial crisis in Lebanon already has ramifications in Syria where the devaluation of the Syrian pound is hitting an economy under sanctions, and even in Yemen, whose banking system partially depends on the financial stability in Lebanon.
In Iraq, demonstrators managed to obtain the resignation of the Prime Minister – like in Lebanon – opening a period of uncertainty and political vacuum. Factions that Iran sponsored as anti-Saddam oppositionists in the 1980s and 1990s now occupy large blocs in Iraq’s elected National Assembly and Iran-backed militias that remain largely outside Iraq’s national military command will use such vacuum to reinforce their power. In Iraq, more than anywhere else in the region, there is a high risk for heightened violence, and for ISIS – entrenched in rural areas, to capitalize upon the situation.
US/Iran tensions rising again
After three months of relative stability in the U.S.-Iran relationship, signs began to appear this past November and December that tensions were re-emerging. In early December, the top State Department official responsible for Iran, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, confirmed that on November 25, U.S. naval forces captured an Iranian shipment carrying sophisticated components for short-range and tactical missiles bound for Houthis fighting Saudi-led forces in Yemen.
Press reports also asserted that Iran had transferred short-range missiles to its allied forces inside Iraq. Iran had previously been reported to have transferred missiles to the pro-Iranian Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Iraq, and Israel bombed Iranian missile installations in Iraq earlier in 2019. Neither transfer would necessarily be unprecedented, insofar as Iran has armed and trained Iraqi Shia militias since the 1980s, and the Houthis since 2014. However, the transfers took place during two months of major protests against Iranian influence in Iraq and amid indicators that Saudi Arabia is seeking to settle the long war in Yemen. The transfers therefore represented a sense of confidence on the part of the Iranian leadership that events in Iraq and in Yemen had not caused Tehran to exercise restraint in its efforts to project regional power.
But with the U.S. presidential campaign and elections scheduled for November 2020, tensions will most probably remain latent, major players will avoid direct confrontation, especially with other regional cases like Syria and Yemen requiring more urgent attention.
On October 9, 2019, the Turkish government began a long-anticipated offensive along the border of northeast Syria, leading to weeks of armed conflict, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and fundamental shifts in the presence of parties to the conflict and the accompanying geopolitical dynamics. This followed a new announcement from the U.S. President, almost exactly a year later than the infamous Tweet of a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, opening the way to such Turkish invasion. While the U.S. withdrawal was not fully implemented under the pretext of “protecting the oil”, it has accelerated the discussion between the Kurdish Self Administration and Damascus.
2020 will most probably see some kind of a wider deal between the Kurds and the central authorities in Damascus and an increasing presence of the latest in areas currently controlled by the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF). A full re-integration of territories under Kurdish control will take time and will certainly occur only once a deal will be secured between Syria, Russia and Turkey, but will in any case signify a new shift in the Syrian conflict and the opening of an increasingly political window. Despite the on-going humanitarian crisis, international discussions will certainly evolve around reconstruction and the re-integration of Syria on the diplomatic arena, first and foremost within the Arab League.
The political “reunification” of Syrian territory will take time and depends not only on dialogue between Syrian parties but also on the relations and play between Moscow and Ankara. In any case we are already seeing the narrative on Syria changing, from a conflict generating one of the worst humanitarian crisis to post conflict era reconstruction.
Yemen towards a peace process
There are signs of progress in the Saudi-Ansarallah talks as the Saudi-led coalition said it would reopen Sana’a airport for medical flights and release Ansarallah prisoners.The announcement came amid indirect talks between Saudi Arabia and the Ansarallah leadership, mediated by Oman – the first publicly acknowledged dialogue between the warring parties in years. In the same vein, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths held meetings with Saudi and Ansarallah leadership and travelled to Kuwait, which has been reported as a possible host for future Government of Yemen – Ansarallah consultations in January 2020.
In parallel, U.S. State Department’s Iran Envoy Brian Hook said that Iran does not speak for Ansarallah – a departure from the views he expressed in a September op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, when he characterised Tehran – Ansarallah links as a patron-proxy relationship and a “strategic alliance.” Hook made the comments despite an incident in the Arabian Sea weeks earlier, where the U.S. navy said it intercepted a cache of what is said were suspected Iran missile parts bound for Yemen.
Talks between Riyadh and the Houthis are expected to continue through December as the parties explore further confidence-building measures which are prospects for a political process to start early 2020. Several factors are playing in favor of such a process. Firstly, 2020 is an important year for KSA: they will be hosting the G20 and the introduction of ARAMCO on the stock exchange is extremely important. KSA also need to continue “repairing” its international image. Secondly, the US elections: political parties don’t want Yemen and KSA to be on the political agenda. On the other side, the Houthis believe they are in a position of strength and are ready to discuss a political settlement. They’ve sent “signs” of such readiness.
But for such political process to take place, some challenges on both sides need to be overcome. The Riyadh agreement needs to be implemented, progress needs to be made on the implementation of the Stockholm agreement (both parties have different opinions on the level and order of implementation of various steps) and the Houthis need to take more distance from Iran (which is not really the case with the recent nomination of an “ambassador” to Tehran). All these steps represent significant spoilers but for the past 5 years there has never been such an opportunity for some extent of peace to be achieved in Yemen.