The MENA Region 2018 in Review

Over the last twelve months the MENA region has, once again, captivated the attention of world powers, international organizations and the populace at large. This has led to many discussions and the general inflation of public opinions across the continents.


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The hopes raised by the Arab revolutions (aka the Arab springs) at the beginning of the decade have vanished and made way for civil wars. These wars have become the many battlefields of a regional war involving traditional rivals and international backers on all sides who are pouring more fuel on the fire. The crisis in MENA sends us a reminder of its critical location between the Atlantic shores of the European continent and the Eurasian landmass. This area has always been a central crossroads of civilisations and, significantly in these days of chronic instability, a primary hub of energy resources.


A new chapter has opened in the long history of international interventions in the region. One hundred years after the victors of WW1 initiated the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, the world invites itself in the region again. Predictably, the upheavals continue to have an impact on the wider world and contribute to further undermine the post-Cold War rules-based order of cooperative security. The conflicts and their consequences are now being experienced in European societies, in the form of influx of refugees and terrorist acts committed in the name of radical ideologies. These radical ideologies can be traced back to the melting pot where states and governance in the Middle East and North Africa have collapsed. European democracies experience a backlash through the return to identity politics favouring the emergence of racist and extreme right parties.


The conflicts in Yemen and Syria are emblematic of the violence and destruction brought about by this cocktail of regional rivalries, outside intervention, the absence of the rule of law and contempt for human lives and dignity. Nobody is innocent in this context, including Western powers that have continued to provide weapons of war and political support to their allies in the Gulf, nor are Russia, Iran or Turkey. In the name of the ‘fight against terrorism’, the murderous assault by the Syrian regime against its people has continued to receive support.


The conflict in Syria has cost the lives of 560,000 people since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Half of the population of Syria is internally displaced. Millions of Syrians are in exile in the neighbouring countries or in Europe and North America. Same situation has been developing in Yemen, with people living in the worst humanitarian conditions in the world according to the UN. Close to two million people potentially affected by famine, 85,000 of whom were children who are reported to have died. The cynicism, indifference or impotence of regional and international players will not go unheeded by the populations affected and will have a lasting impact on relations between them and the rest of the world for the generations to come. Libya and South Sudan are not far away in the league of unending conflicts and state failures.


Other developments that have marked this past year and will have repercussions in the coming months and years can be found in concentric circles. The first one is local: internal political dynamics have been characterized by the defeat of attempts at reform either by brutal suppression of opponents and civil societies movements, or by muddling through to maintain the status quo. Authoritarian trends have been strengthened, leaving little room for the exercise of basic rights such as freedom of the press and creating auspicious uncertainties for long-term prospects of stability and sustainable development.


The second circle is regional. The Iranian-Saudi rivalry for regional dominance has continued to define the parameters of the instability of MENA and of choices of allies and enemies, in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya and other places, including in the periphery of the commonly accepted notion of ‘Middle East’, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. The other area of regional friction remains the Arab-Israeli conflict. The much expected ‘deal’ announced by president Trump has failed to materialize and probably never will. The decision by Trump to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has compromised the role of the US as honest broker and lead to a breakdown in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. This is not to speak about the fantasy of rapprochement with Sunni Arab regimes in solving the conflict, for which Jerusalem is a no-go area. Meanwhile the situation in Gaza and the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank require a new approach to the MEPP.


The mantra of the two state solutions is losing traction and will continue to while waiting for radical changes in its hypothetical implementation. Netanyahu’s call for early elections was due to reasons of domestic politics and his personal strategy to avoid indictments related to accusations of corruption against him and his wife. This move renders any attempt to re-launch peace negotiations anytime soon completely futile. Additionally, this has been exacerbated by the failure of intra-Palestinian reconciliation and the loss of legitimacy of the divided leaderships within Palestinian civil society, especially the younger generation.


As far as Syria is concerned, the visit of Sudanese president Bashir to Damascus on December 16th and the reopening of the UAE embassy in Syria on December 27th, as well as Egyptian openings to Assad, including the chief of Syrian security, Ali Mamlouk’s, visit to Cairo on December 22nd indicate a shift in regional powers’ attitudes towards the Syrian regime. The SG of the Arab League recently said that the suspension of Syrian membership was a ‘hasty decision’. In the meantime, no decisive progress has been achieved for the launch of a constitutional committee supposed to re-start the so-called Geneva process. The new SEUN will not have an easier job than his predecessor who just stepped down.


Finally, the international players. Aside from the return of Russia in the MENA and the progressive Chinese involvement based on its Belt and Road global scheme which pushes Beijing to entertain good relations with all regional players, it is the US doctrine of disengagement that has dominated the headlines and forced allies as well as adversaries to rethink their strategic calculations. First is the decision by president Trump announced on May 8th to pull out of the JCPOA and to impose far-reaching sanctions on Iran.


This initial move to break with a multilateral pattern of diplomacy was followed by the decision to withdraw the American presence in North Eastern Syria, following the alleged defeat of DAESH, which triggered the resignation of Defence Secretary Mattis and coordinator of the global alliance against DAESH, Brett McGurk. Then the president went on with proclaiming the withdrawal of half the US military contingent from the NATO force in Afghanistan. After his visit with the First Lady to the American troops in Iraq in late December and his reiteration of the motto that America should not be the policeman of the world, the Iraqi government declared its desire to see American troops leave Iraq. Trump also repeated, in view of opposition in Republican prominent members of Congress about his withdrawal instincts that regional actors should bear more of the burden for their security, including Israel which should be satisfied with the 4.5 billion dollars a year it gets in military assistance from America.


Aside from the President’s erratic and unilateral decision making, this should not surprise allies, as the trend of disengagement from the region was inaugurated by his predecessor. That leaves regional powers and Europeans with the burden of deciding further courses of action, including summoning the political will and the capacity to fill the void.


Responding to these numerous issues is going to be a continuous challenge for the years to come. I am convinced that we can and must do more to tackle such profound challenges, meaning that engagement must be designed and implemented in ways that help conflict parties to arrive at and sustain a political solution for a sustainable peace.