Another year of turmoil beckons

24 December 2014

The next 12 months will see a sustained effort on the part of regional forces to erode Isis’ support base

Click here for a copy of the MEED Yearbook 2015 ezine

The region faces another turbulent year in 2015, with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) forces expected to continue to seek territorial gains and influence across the Middle East.

Key events in 2015
EgyptParliamentary electionsMarch
SudanPresidential/parliamentary electionsFebruary
OmanLegislative electionsOctober
Qatar Municipal electionsMay
Libya Presidential elections/constitutional referendum Not fixed
Yemen Presidential/parliamentary elections/referendumNot fixed
LebanonPresidential electionsNot fixed
Palestine Presidential/parliamentary electionsNot fixed
Note that dates may change. Source: MEED

Few predicted the emergence of Isis as the most potent threat to confront the region in generations; gauging how successfully governments will deal with the aftermath of Isis’ stunning advances is equally challenging.

US air strikes

True, the jihadist group’s once seemingly irresistible spread appears to have been halted – though not reversed – with its failure to take emphatic control of the Syrian border town of Kobani, which in September seemed to be on the verge of falling into its hands. That, in itself, underscores the impact that US-led air strikes have had on the operational effectiveness of Isis, as well as the tenacious defence of the area by local Kurdish forces, reinforced by their Iraqi Kurdish cousins.

Even if rolling back the jihadist movement from its strongholds in Anbar looks to be beyond the capacity of stretched national security forces, the myth of Isis’ invincibility has at least been punctured, with the loss of up to 1,000 of its volunteers in Kobani.  In parts of northern Iraq, where in August, Isis had inflicted a series of punishing defeats on Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, it is also now facing a stiffer challenge.

“The KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] is pushing back Isis forces from areas around Kirkuk, and seeking to recapture the lines they lost in the summer,” says Ali Kurdistani, a political analyst based in Kurdistan.

In areas such as Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Kurdish-Shia area, Shia militias, backed by Iran, have also made life increasingly hard for Isis brigades.

Air strikes have not materially weakened the group’s control of areas such as Raqqa that are firmly under its command, but they have disrupted supply lines to its fighters further afield. Overall, it has made it far more difficult to hold ground in areas where Sunni Arabs are not in a majority. There seems little likelihood of Isis launching blitzkrieg attacks on Erbil or Baghdad in 2015, even if their footsoldiers remain rather too close for comfort.

The next year should see a more sustained effort on the part of regional forces to erode Isis’ support base. Pressure will mount on Turkey to do more to prevent jihadist militants from crossing its porous border, although the Gulf states’ demands that the US and its Western allies do more to
support mainstream Syrian rebels in their fight against the Al-Assad regime look set to go unanswered. The Obama administration has little appetite for mounting a campaign against President Bashar al-Assad, and has its hands full in the aerial campaign against Isis that looks set to be a slow-burner.

Much effort in 2015 will be put into rebuilding the Iraqi army’s capabilities, after its humiliating defeats in 2014. US efforts are currently focused on rebuilding military divisions, with the aim of creating nine new Iraqi army brigades deploying up to 45,000 light-infantry soldiers as part of a vanguard force that, together with Kurdish and Shia militiamen, may be better placed to root out Isis from areas such as Mosul.

That task may take longer than a year to complete and would be materially boosted if the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi can do more to encourage Sunni tribes to take up arms against Isis, as they did successfully in 2007-08 against
Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Iran deal

These events are being watched closely by the region’s big powers. Iran – hopeful of eventually scraping a deal together in 2015 with the P5+1 group to put an end to international sanctions – has played a discrete but effective role in shoring up its allies in Baghdad and the KRG. Despite a Republican majority senate that is not well disposed to President Barack Obama cutting a deal with the Islamic Republic, an historic accord between Washington and Tehran is in the offing that would have substantial long-term implications for the region.

“If Iran makes a deal with the West, that will have an impact on this region as well,” says Kurdistani. “Iran is already collaborating in fighting Isis, and that could be a good thing for regional stability.”

The Gulf states are key players in this high-stakes regional power play. The UAE, under the energetic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has repositioned itself as the most forceful regional protagonist, deploying its impressive air power to complement a diplomatic drive designed to stifle the advance of political Islam in key theatres such as Libya and Egypt.

Abu Dhabi will maintain this push in 2015, viewing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the most serious threat to regional stability since the emergence of Nasserism in the 1950s. Saudi Arabia – challenged more than the other Gulf states by Isis’ rise, as evidenced by the kingdom’s moves to widen the security buffer on its northern border – is also doing its level best to keep a lid on the jihadist advance, while at the same time attempting to contain Iran’s influence.

Better relations between Riyadh and Tehran since President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 have led many to predict an historic rapprochement between the Middle East’s two major powers, perhaps in the slipstream of a successful Iran nuclear deal with the West. That may be hoping for too much. The intensity of the Sunni-Shia divide, and deep Saudi suspicion of the intentions of Iran’s regional allies – notably Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias – suggest a substantial distance remains between the two sides going into 2015.

Riyadh has issues closer to home to deal with. In Yemen, territorial advances by the northern Houthi rebels – a Shia sect that it believes is supported by Iran – is a key concern. There are legitimate fears of overspill into Saudi territory.

Tense relations

Qatar is another problem left hanging. Although Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama returned their diplomats to Doha in November, after a near eight-month freeze in relations triggered by their anger at Qatar’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood, relations look set to remain tense as the underlying grievance is still largely unresolved. Qatar may have lost influence in Egypt, but it is still a fiercely independent power that is intent on maintaining its own relationships across the region.

UAE air strikes in Libya in 2014 were at least in part aimed at sending a message to Doha to keep out of these conflicts. Abu Dhabi will remain the most vociferous opponent of Qatar inside the GCC in 2015.

In the Gulf, inevitably, succession issues could rear their head in 2015. The long absence of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, receiving treatment for undisclosed health issues in a German clinic since July, has raised the prospect of a change at the helm of the sultanate. There is little clarity on who would succeed Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled for almost 45 years.

This is a source of concern, particularly in light of the pivotal role that Muscat has played in facilitating negotiations between the US and Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, there have been changes in the upper echelons of power as the authorities look to reinforce continuity of leadership with younger princes coming to the fore. Prince Muqrin, the deputy crown prince and youngest son of the kingdom’s founder King Abdulaziz, in particular, has seen his profile raised. King Abdullah is now 90, and his constitutionally nominated successor, Crown Prince Salman is also believed to be in poor health; Prince Muqrin would be next in line to take over the throne.

In Egypt, parliamentary elections are due to be held by March 2015, ahead of an economic conference intended to boost foreign investment and jumpstart the economy. The election in 2014 of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi may have brought an end to the turbulence of the post-Mubarak period, but Cairo faces massive challenges, both economic and political. In the Sinai, moreover, it faces a sustained jihadist terrorist challenge that is stubbornly refusing to go away. 

Lebanon too has an electoral issue that will be difficult to avoid in 2015. Since May, the country has been without a president, as the sectarian-based political factions have failed to find consensus on a candidate. The ensuing presidential vacuum has fed insecurity in a country that is more deeply affected by the conflict in Syria than any other in the region, with at least 1.3 million refugees currently resident on Lebanese soil. A deal is awaited between the Sunni-backed March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-backed March 8 camp, which would finally pave the way for a successor to Michel Suleiman to be elected. However, the two sides remain sharply at odds, and are both heavily influenced by their key regional backers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Much in Lebanon will also be influenced by what happens in Syria. Al-Assad’s position looks secure for the moment, and his forces are likely to be in full control of Aleppo at some point in 2015 – although elsewhere in the north, the army is vulnerable to Isis attack.

Even though the Syrian army has staged a remarkable comeback since 2012, it has lost thousands of men in the process and is stretched thin in places. Al-Assad seems content to see US air strikes erode the Isis threat, which do little to undermine his own grip on power.

Seeds of change

All this suggests a generally bleak picture for the Middle East and North Africa region in 2015. Yet while there are massive challenges, there remain some shafts of light to brighten the gloom. Away from the world media’s gaze, there is evidence that governments are starting to take a longer-term view of the region’s structural problems.

Take the announcement in November in Abu Dhabi that for the first time, Emirati citizens will have to pay for electricity and water services. This could set a broader precedent for Gulf states to think more strategically about how their subsidy-based economic systems can be reformed. In a region that has long preferred to duck tough political decisions, there is reason to hope that the seeds are sown for this to change.

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