Happy Holidays? Not in the Middle East

Prof. Elie Podeh September 2017
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

How does the Middle East look on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5778? One can point to a number of important changes that took place over the past year:

* The Islamic State is about to disappear territorially. The group has lost most of its territory in Iraq and is on the verge of defeat in Syria.

* The liberation of Mosul has boosted the Iraqi regime, which has reasserted its national identity. While the Kurdish problem continues to divide the country, it does not threaten Iraq’s very existence.

* Vladimir Putin’s Russia has repositioned itself not only as a patron of Syria but also as a significant player in Middle East politics.

* The advent of the Trump administration in the United States has signaled that the decline in American involvement in the Middle East, which began under Barack Obama, isn’t a passing phase but an ongoing trend.

* Saudi Arabia has become the leader of the Sunni world in confronting Iran and its allies, leading the war against the Houthis in Yemen and the sanctions against Qatar.

* Egypt is once again fulfilling a role in the Arab world, both on the Syrian front and against Hamas in Gaza.

Along with all this, one can still point to key issues that haven’t changed this year. Civil wars continue in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Violence could erupt in Morocco and the Palestinian areas.

Syria – both because of its geostrategic position and the many players operating in that country – remains the focus, while wars on the periphery (Libya and Yemen) continue to bleed far from the media’s eye, despite the humanitarian disasters there. The problem of refugees and displaced persons as a result of these wars is still keeping the region and the world busy. There were over 5 million Syrian refugees and 23 million displaced persons in the region at the end of 2015.

Six years after attempts to establish democratic regimes, the Arab world (save for Tunisia) continues to decline in Freedom House’s rankings. The human rights situation in every Arab country (again besides Tunisia) is worse than it was during the previous regime. Arab countries in general still suffer from political instability.

According to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2017, five of the most fragile states in the world are Arab (Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Iraq, in that order). Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered the biggest decline – 20 slots in the stability ranking. Still, certain Arab states were actually stable, headed by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Arab states have suffered an economic decline since the Arab Spring. Most of these countries are at the bottom of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and only Qatar (29th place) and the UAE (8th) have risen.

The Islamic State may have suffered territorial losses, but its ideology is still flourishing, as one can learn from the terror attacks in Europe. The Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry is still an important characteristic of regional politics, with Iran continuing to lead the Shi’ite camp and Saudi Arabia and Egypt leading the Sunnis. Another characteristic hasn’t changed – Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are still competing for leadership of the Palestinian people.

Hezbollah may have suffered heavy losses in Syria, but its influence in Lebanon and ability to threaten Israel remain robust. In parallel, the danger of a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas remains, and progress toward a peace deal with the PA isn’t on the horizon.

Preliminary forecasts of border changes in the region not only haven’t materialized, the borders seem more set than ever. If changes come, they will be within the borders of states; note, for example, the Kurds’ independence referendum this month, while they have declared autonomy in Syria.

The good news is that Israel faces no existential threat amid the Arab world’s problems. Moreover, the regional problems have served as a base for forging secret alliances between Israel and Arab states that don’t have diplomatic relations with it. The bad news is that Israel will continue to slog through the conflict, with every explosive incident (like at Jerusalem’s holy places) liable to lead to another uprising.

Even worse, seeing the struggles in the Arab world as an opportunity to strengthen Israel’s control in the occupied territories is a grave error that will exact a heavy price from Israel sooner or later. The harsh problems confronting the Arab world actually create an opportunity for Israel to solve the conflict under the best possible conditions from its perspective. Happy holidays? Not in the Middle East.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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