Home / Articles / As the Middle East Turns: Domestic Unrest, Changing Partnerships, and an Unreliable United States
This summer was deceptively quiet in the Arab Middle East: in contrast to many previous years, there was little large-scale, overt violence, except in a couple of noteworthy cases. Much has remained the same in the Middle East for past few years: the split into pro-and anti-Iranian camps; the intra-Sunni Cold War between Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other; the interrupted revolution in the Arab World; the preeminence of Russia and its inroads into the American alliance system in the region; the strategic concert between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran; the restoration of the Bashar al-Assad regime; the chaos and suffering of Yemen and Libya; and the overall marginality of Egypt. But this summer of quiet diplomacy, military preparation, and psychological warfare, as well as turbulence in the United States, has set the stage for a slew of new developments.
Domestic Unrest in Jordan and Iraq
The summer started with unrest in several Middle Eastern countries. Attention has centered on Iran, with the dramatic American steps, their international repercussions, and the impact inside Iran, the scope and trajectory of which (threat to the regime or strengthened hardliners) is as yet unclear. But on the Arab side, Jordan, one of the few countries to survive the Arab Upheaval relatively unscathed, saw a week of large-scale protests in early June. These protests kept to the well-known pattern: non-violent public demonstrations against price increases, subsidy cuts, and tax rises. The government made these moves as part of a multiyear economic adjustment plan agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors. Jordanian security forces gave a measured response, the planned austerity measures were frozen, and King Abdullah II dismissed Prime Minister Hani Mulki. This pattern is the traditional Hashemite method of placating the masses, deflecting public pressure and distancing the royal family from criticism of government policy; the average term of a Jordanian Prime Minister since independence in 1946 has been eight months, and since King Abdullah II came to power in 1999, it has been 19 months. However, criticism of corruption and of economic inequality is reported to have become more prevalent, and the most recent demonstrations are reported to have encompassed previously quiescent social groups, such as the middle and commercial classes. August saw another aspect of Jordan’s durable crisis, with clashes between security services and jihadists in Fuheis and Salt, which led to the deaths of four security personnel and three terrorists.
More serious unrest also broke out in mostly Shia southern Iraq in July, radiating out from Basra and precipitated by Iran’s halt of electricity exports—ostensibly after Baghdad failed to pay its accumulating debts—causing an electricity shortage and a cutoff of potable water. Many saw nefarious intent in Iran’s action—coming just after the American decision to resume sanctions—as signaling the regime’s ability to destabilize its recently re-stabilizing neighbor and to disrupt the Middle East oil trade: the riots also targeted Basra’s oil installations. Others pointed to Iran’s own spiking demand for electricity and its government’s need to address protests encompassing, inter alia, the regime’s support for foreigners at the expense of its own citizens.
Demonstrations in Iraq, like in Jordan, are a known phenomenon, especially during the searing summer heat (the temperature in Basra this week is 46°C, or 114.8°F), when electricity consumption far exceeds available supply. However, the protests were much more widespread and violent this year, with protesters occupying or torching Iraqi government buildings and political party offices. The government and armed militias linked to Shia Islamist political parties—like the influential Hashd al-Shaabi—responded with violence. The rioters expressed criticism of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics, but especially in the outgoing government: a new government has yet to be formed after the May parliamentary elections led to a court-mandated partial manual recount, which still left Moqtada al-Sadr’s anti-Iranian Shia-leftist bloc with the largest share of the vote. But more broadly, it reflected profound unhappiness with the post-2003 political order, which is largely dependent on a distribution of spoils system among the powerful players, which expresses itself in corruption and in failed institutions. The Saudis, in any case, appear to be using the events in their continuing recent efforts to strengthen ties with the Iraqi population, especially in the South, by sending diesel to help generate electricity in the worst-hit areas.
The riots flared again this week, with al-Sadr expressing his support and demonstrators killed by security forces. The long hot Iraqi summer looks like it will stretch into autumn.
Syria: Closing the Book on the Civil War?
In Syria, the “great game” continues. In the beginning of the summer, Syrian and allied forces regained control of the southern borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights, including Daraa, the birthplace of the revolt against Assad in 2011. Retaking these areas led to talks between Russia and Israel, obviously with concurrent talks by Russia with Assad and Iran, regarding new “rules of the game” near Israel’s Golan border. Continuing this momentum, in the past month, Russia pressed its plan for return of one million refugees to Syria and called on Western countries to help fund reconstruction efforts, saying doing so would reduce the flow of refugees and migrants to Western Europe.
Such developments would not only symbolize sovereignty and legitimacy to the Assad regime, but would also be greeted extremely positively by its neighbors, whose economies and societies are groaning under the weight of their unfortunate guests. Russia is reported to have offered to help Jordan repatriate 150,000 Syrians (of some 700,000 refugees) to the newly conquered provinces by the end of 2018. The PLO Refugees Affairs Department on July 20 invited Palestinians who fled Syria to Lebanon (approximately 50,000) and Gaza (under 1,000) to register for return to Syria, pursuant to an agreement between the PLO and Syrian officials. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, who met with the Russian Foreign Minister on August 20, said that Lebanon, which is hosting more than one million refugees, fully supports Russian efforts to help Syrians return home. Reports claim that several thousand Syrian refugees in Lebanon have started to return to their homes in Syria voluntarily in recent months. The UN estimates that over 600,000 displaced Syrians returned home in 2017 alone, though mostly from within Syria. One of the cardinal reasons for refugees returning to a still precarious future is a new Syrian law which grants refugees just one year to reclaim their property before the government seizes it. However, the regime doesn’t seem too much concerned whether their citizens return or not, judged by the timing of their publishing details of their past repression.
One of the two last major obstacles to the restoration of Assad’s power over Syria is the province of Idlib. The other is the Kurdish-controlled area in northeastern Syria, where the military option is less on the table for now, due partly to significant U.S. military presence. Idlib has been used in recent years as a “dumping ground” for insurgents and civilians relocated en masse from areas “liberated” by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies; it today houses over three million civilians. Government and Russian air strikes have targeted the area for months, leaving its infrastructure in desperate condition. Damascus and Moscow are ostensibly concerned with the rebranded al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra—as well as other Salafi-jihadi organizations (some of which are said to enjoy Saudi support). Turkey has until now opposed plans by the Assad regime to restore its control in the region, which contains Turkish military observation points. The Turkish interest in Idlib is dictated by its interest in retaining its tight control of the neighboring areas of Afrin and Jarablus. It is also worried about the possibility of a new influx of refugees—it already hosts over three million—pursuant to a major offensive.
Recent developments indicate that Russia and Turkey are reaching agreement on a blueprint which will allow the anticipated Syrian offensive, perhaps in a more limited form. The issue may be settled by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the margins of a tripartite summit with Iran in Teheran on September 7, in the context of the Astana peace process for Syria.
Potential for Clashes?
Russia has deployed at least a dozen vessels to waters off Syria, ostensibly as part of a major exercise in the Mediterranean, but probably in preparation for the final regime offensive against the rebels. American officials have condemned the upcoming campaign and have warned Syria not to use chemical weapons in Idlib: their statements seem, however, to signal that if chemical weapons are not used, they will stand by and tut. The Russians have countered warning the U.S. against “reckless steps,” stating that the Syrian opposition, perhaps with U.S. cooperation, is planning a provocation to provide a pretext for Western attacks on Syrian regime targets.
Iran’s presence in Syria has been less visible in the past months, since the Israeli-Russian talks (and reported agreement) on distancing the Iranian presence from the Golan border. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Iran in recent days as having slowed down its long-term force deployment in Syria, attributing this change in behavior to continuing Israeli military intervention, as well as to the economic crisis in Iran. Reports of recent Israeli airstrikes against Iranian, Syrian, and Shia targets in Damascus, on the coast, and on the Syrian-Iraqi border serve to remind, however, that the Iranian influence and presence remains embedded in the new order in Syria.
The Travails of Mohamad bin Salman and the “Steadfastness” (Sumud) of Qatar
Elsewhere in the Arab Middle East, the grandiose plans of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia—to use controlled economic and social reform to rapidly modernize the Kingdom in his image, while retaining absolute political control (he is said to admire the so-called Chinese model)—seemed to continue to unravel this summer. Admirers of the Westernized, reformist prince have received additional evidence of his authoritarian and vindictive streak. First was the arrest of Saudi activists who were promoting some of the steps he himself has taken. Then, came his severe response to the Canadian foreign minister’s tweeted expression of concern for civil and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh called it a “major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.” It expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own, suspended all new business and investment transactions with Canada, withdrew funding for the approximately 15,000 Saudi bursary students in Canadian universities, and suspended flights; Saudi media and spokesmen also attacked Canada’s human rights record. The step is seen, apart from an expression of personal pique, as a strong warning—through steps against a minor partner of Saudi Arabia—to other Western powers not to involve themselves in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs. This signal comes despite the continued, enthusiastic involvement of Saudi Arabia in the politics of Yemen and Lebanon, among others. Western sensibilities have also been exercised by the Saudi public prosecutor’s seeking the death penalty for non-violent activity by five Shia activists—including one woman—who have been held in pretrial detention without legal representation for more than two years.
In an unusual public expression of criticism from within the Saudi royal family, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, a younger brother of King Salman who served as deputy interior minister for 37 years and briefly as interior minister under King Salman’s predecessor, asked anti-Saudi protesters on a London street chanting “down, down Al Saud” and “Al Saud criminal family”: “What does the al-Saud family have to do with your chants? We have nothing to do with what is happening (in Yemen). Certain officials are responsible.” Asked by protesters whom he held responsible, Prince Ahmed said, “the king and his heir apparent.” The state-run Saudi News Agency subsequently quoted Prince Ahmed as seeking to roll back his comments (which were captured on video).
On the regional level, the Saudi-UAE-led military operation in Yemen has failed to achieve decisive victory over the Houthis (who have responded by firing missiles on Saudi targets) and has garnered more and more international opprobrium for its many civilian casualties. An offensive against the Houthi-held port of Hodeida, begun in June, does not seem to be progressing significantly.
In addition, the Saudis are apparently retreating from the intent to make a public offering of part of Aramco stock, due to weak interest in the markets. This reflects the possible unravelling of a key component of MbS’ Vision 2030 “great leap forward.” Foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Kingdom dropped from over $7 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2017, while FDI in UAE and Qatar rose. Bloomberg reports that according to research by JPMorgan, capital outflows of residents in Saudi Arabia are projected at $65 billion in 2018, or 8.4 percent of GDP (they were $80 billion in 2017). Standard Chartered reported that the first quarter of 2018 saw $14.4 billion in outward portfolio investment into foreign equities, the largest surge since 2008. The market seems to be losing confidence in the Crown Prince’s touch.
MbS’ nemesis, Qatar, seems to be coping well with its second year of the Saudi- and Emirati-led embargo (which has weakened the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), thus indirectly helping Iran). The crisis between Washington and Ankara (discussed later) has made Doha’s relationship with Turkey even closer. Qatar attempted to stabilize the Turkish lira with a 15 billion dollar loan and a currency swap in a bid to provide liquidity and financial stability to Turkey; it also promised to increase investments. Qatar is reported to also be heavily involved—alongside the competing good offices of Egypt (backed by the UAE)—in the intensive Israeli negotiations-by-proxy with Hamas. These negotiations seem to have headed off, for now, an escalation of the ongoing cross-border clashes, sporadic rocket fire, and incendiary attacks into another mini-war. In this role, the Qatari leadership has carried out high-level talks with the American Middle East peace team and with Israel’s defense minister. Aside from its involvement in negotiations for achieving a truce and lifting the blockage of Gaza, Qatar is reportedly willing to pay tens of millions of shekels monthly in salaries to Hamas employees in Gaza—which the Palestinian Authority has refused to pay—to fund provision of electricity from Israel to the Strip, and to pursue infrastructure projects. In this role, it is aided by its long relationship with Hamas.
A Palestinian Reversal of Roles
The ongoing negotiations over Gaza illustrate how the dynamics of Palestinian politics have been largely reversed. It is Mahmoud Abbas who is now obstructionist and trying to block the way to an internationally brokered agreement. This switch is a reaction to what he sees as a reversal by the Trump administration of American policy on the Palestinian issue and adoption of the Israeli narrative in its entirety. In the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the suspension in recent weeks of $200 million in U.S. assistance for humanitarian and development programs in the West Bank and Gaza, and the halt of all funding for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the Trump administration seeks, the Palestinian Authority claims, to prejudge the outcomes of the most sensitive issues in the conflict: the fate of contested Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees and to remove them from the table in future negotiations (based on statements by President Trump). Abbas also sees the American moves and Israeli contacts with Hamas as an attempt to marginalize and leapfrog the Palestinian Authority, and therefore as a threat to the Palestinian Authority and to his own authority and legacy. He may well be urged on in this position by persistent reports that one of the goals of the Egyptian-Israeli ceasefire efforts in Gaza is to pave the return of former PA Gaza security chief Mohamad Dahlan as a successor to Abu Mazen .The PA has therefore broken off formal contact with the American administration, taken an obstructionist and rejectionist position regarding recent developments in Gaza, preemptively rejected the trumpeted Trump peace initiative, and ramped up its promotion of unarmed resistance to Israel and public diplomacy to delegitimize Israel.
The Turkish Crisis and the Trump Factor
The last significant influencing factor in the Middle East this summer is the United States and the American President. The biggest news this August was the Turkish financial crisis, aggravated by American sanctions and punitive tariffs imposed over the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson (and others) on charges of assisting opponents of the regime. There are good reasons for the U.S. distancing itself from the increasingly autocratic Erdoğan regime, which is deeply enmeshed with Russia and Iran in Syria and beyond. As Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes, “We are witnessing the gradual but steady demise of a relationship that is already an alliance in name only.” The suspension of a deal for Turkish purchase of American F-35s, while cooperating with Russia on advanced air defense systems, seems a no-brainer.
The current kerfuffle, however, does not seem to be part of a strategy to use levers of American power to bring a rogue NATO ally to heel (it does not help that NATO has no mechanism for suspending membership). The current crisis with Turkey seems more to follow the hasty and extremely problematical policy towards North Korea, Russia, and international trade issues. It has provoked Turkish national pride—an extremely potent force and strengthened Erdoğan’s position with his base. It widened the opportunities for Moscow to make further inroads in one of the most influential and powerful actors in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean (two weeks ago, the Turkish foreign minister referred to Russia, during his visit to Moscow, as a “strategic partner”). It has also allowed the Turkish president to blame “economic war” waged by the United States (as well as Zionists) for Turkey’s economic predicament, in an attempt to deflect criticism from his own economic mismanagement, especially populist, expansionary fiscal policy and ideologically based low interest rates.
Puzzled by Washington
This summer has also seen statements by President Trump, and actions in the region, which indicate a worrisome disregard for the complexities of the region. Trump and his policies illustrate apparent unwillingness—with the extremely significant exception of Iranian sanctions—to shoulder the burden of leadership, which is being taken up by rival powers. One example is his interview with Reuters on August 20, in which he said, inter alia, “We never should have been in the Middle East. It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country.” Another was his worrying statement on August 21 at a campaign rally in West Virginia that “you know what? In the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price because they want a very big thing, but I took it off the table. . . . There’s nothing to negotiate but [the Palestinians will] get something very good because it’s their turn next. Let’s see what happens. It’s very interesting.” While American and Israeli officials rushed to clarify that the president did not mean what he said, the statement reinforces the perception that Trump’s attitude towards Israel and Middle East peace may be more game-like than ideological.
In addition, the U.S. decided in mid-August to cut $230 million in stabilization assistance for northeastern Syria and shift the money to support other foreign policy priorities. This move came after the administration elicited pledges from coalition partners, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia and $50 million from the UAE. This cut further weakened the American position in the Syrian issue, since those who don’t pay—whether in treasure or in the willingness to spill blood—don’t usually have a chance to play.
As for the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, much ballyhooed in the past, it looks like the administration is making efforts to reduce expectations. This change in tune could well be due to declining enthusiasm on the part of America’s ostensible regional partners in the plan: Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These countries, presented with PA’s steadfast opposition to any Trump administration plan (even if they disdain Abbas), and facing their own issues, are uninterested in stepping out too far ahead of their publics, who are not fond of the American President or of Israel. Arab leaders, even those friendly to the U.S. administration, and clandestinely with the Netanyahu government, will not be able to support too lopsided of a solution, or one that goes over the head of the Palestinian leadership. The “Deal of the Century” may already be on its way to the dusty warehouse of American peace plans for the Middle East: but every failed attempt leaves its mark on both sides and makes it harder for them to engage constructively in the future.
As summer turns to autumn, America’s rivals still seem to be ahead. The much heralded Sunni Camp seems to be more of a theoretical construct (popular in Israel) than a unified player with the ability to shape regional politics, since the interests of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are often not lining up. MbS’ Saudi Arabia may be losing its sheen: Qatar is still standing. Egypt, while still not punching its weight in the region, has come off the bench. Hamas may be up, and Abbas down.
In Israel, the whiff of election fever is in the air: Prime Minister Netanyahu may push for the polls to open in February-March, rather than November 2019, to preserve his ascendancy and perhaps even cement it further.
Turkey may be slowed in its quest for regional hegemony by its economic woes, but seems to be cementing its existing alignment with Russia and distancing itself more and more from what used to be called the Free World. Iran is eclipsed temporarily, both by internal protests encouraged by the renewal of American sanctions and by the changing dynamics of the Syrian crisis. However, while Iraq may be shifting more out of Tehran’s orbit, other components in its regional architecture—in Damascus, Lebanon, and Gaza—are doing well. Russia is still on an upward vector in the Middle East; the U.S. is largely irrelevant, when it is not disruptive, and is certainly not providing clear leadership. With the current disarray in D.C., it does not look like this will change any time soon.