In “The Arab Cold War Revisited,” published in Middle East Policy 2013, I suggested that Arab monarchies, authoritarian republics, and Islamist forces comprised the three main axes competing for power in the Middle East. I argued that the competition would likely continue until the more radical Islamists were defeated and the state systems went back to a more pragmatic approach in their relations. An easy prediction to make, given what was already obvious in intra-regional relations. What I failed to predict was the ferocity of the competition and the revival with a vengeance of the seventh century war over the Caliphate.
The Arab Uprising of 2011 knocked over four of the rotting regimes in the Arab world and seriously shook a fifth (Syria). The failure of revolutionary forces to capitalize on their initial success allowed others to fill the vacuum: tribal and Islamist forces in Yemen and Libya, the old regime cum military in Egypt, and violent extremism of all shades in Syria, which opened the gates to the brutish forces of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Only in Tunisia did pragmatism prevail among secular and Islamist forces, allowing a new democratic republic to emerge with the handover of power between outgoing and incoming presidents striking, remarkable, and utterly unique in modern Arab history.
The intrigue, fanaticism, and brutishness of the struggle we have seen in 2014 is not likely to diminish in 2015. The verse, “Eidon bi ayati halen udta ya eidu,” of the great Arab poet al-Mutanabi, which laments that the celebration of a momentous occasion often brings nothing new at all, and the French adage “Plus ca change” strikes me as apt as we start off on the year 2015 in the Middle East. The basic clash of forces will remain the same; the fanaticism and brutishness of Islamist extremism will continue unabated and the impotence of the international community (read: US foreign policy) will persist. That said, nuanced political improvements may indeed take place in Iraq, some economic successes will allow the military leadership there to gloat and plead with the international community for more time to show its effectiveness, and the Tunisian experiment—thank goodness—will continue to make steady, if slow progress on all fronts.
First, the good news: The Abadi government is a clear improvement over Maliki’s. Abadi has completed an Iraqi-Kurdish oil agreement, improved atmospherics (if nothing else) with the Sunni community, and offered the promise of better relations with Saudi Arabia and other GCC counties in the region. Allied bombing and the training of Iraqi Special Forces—especially in Jordan—has resulted in battle front successes and an actual pushback of ISIS forces from previously held ground in the northwest of the country. Kurdish, Shia, and ISF collaboration, will allow Iraq’s anti-ISIS forces to systematically regain lost territory, with perhaps a return of Sunni tribal forces to playing an effective role in this alliance.
The bad news in Iraq is that the necessary but modest progress on national cohesion will not likely take root and lead to sufficient consensus on building a truly democratic and unified nation. The success of Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni militias will ultimately undermine the cohesion needed to sustain political progress. As in the past, Shia militias once unleashed will resist efforts to coral them back into a non-military posture. Iran will offer no help as it still needs militia help in neighboring Syria, where fierce battles continue to rage. Enjoying the foothold gained via its direct military presence inside Iraq, Iran will find it hard to pack up and leave—exacerbating Sunni-Shia tensions—and may find it tempting to infiltrate Kurdish areas for intelligence purposes.
Lastly, even with its expansion in check, ISIS forces will continue to pose a threat to internal security in Iraq, whether in a conventional or insurgent capacity. Iraq has become too valuable in the Iranian-Saudi cold war and as a staging ground for the conflict in Syria for the overall balance of power to change significantly anytime soon.
The valiant efforts of the Kurds in the city of Kobbani, aided by Iraqi Peshmerga and allied bombing, has indeed halted the sweep of ISIS into the Kurdish northeast of Syria, proving once again the limits of ISIS forces when it comes to penetrating non-Sunni zones. However, ISIS—in conjunction with al-Nusra forces—now controls 30-40 percent of Syria (depending on who is counting and how much of the fine print they can see on google maps). Assad regime forces control an equal percentage of the country, extending from the Kurdish borders in the north to the Jordanian borders in the south and covering the all-important Damascus and Alawite mountains with access to the Mediterranean. Battles will continue to rage in and around the major urban centers of Aleppo and Homs, the Qalamoun mountains, and that critical corner encompassing the Jordanian borders and the Golan Heights. Those battles, however, leave little for secular opposition forces, particularly the now near-fictional forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The US choice of Saudi Arabia as a training ground for the FSA suggests minimal US resolve to affect the basic balance of power in Syria. The measly $500 million dedicated to that effort and the stipulation that training is meant to fight ISIS and not the Assad regime throws into question the ultimate goal for the Obama administration.
The Houthi sweep in Yemen—at least in scope and breadth if not in timing—was almost as surprising as that of ISIS in the Levant. despite the ignored signals that it was coming. The United States grew too complacent by the seeming success of its drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula to care if and how the internal balance of power in Yemen might change. The Houthis, with Iran and Hezbollah’s help, now control roughly two-thirds of Yemen, Its military success, however, will not likely affect any lasting stability in the country. Armed with Iranian financial support and Lebanese Hezbollah training and tactics, the Houthis effectively filled the power vacuum in Sana’a, left by a meaningless National Dialogue agreement and a powerless President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. In his victory speech, Abdul Malek al-Houthi even mimicked Hassan Nassrallah, down to the raising of his forefinger in stressing his points. The Houthis, nonetheless, lack discipline and pragmatism. Their overzealous push into the south after capturing Sana’a will prove their undoing, at least in creating a new stable order in the Yemeni capital. Iran—not Saudi Arabia and certainly not the United States—is the most influential foreign power in the country to which one must now turn with any proposal to calm the situation and attempt to forge a new national agreement.
Finally, the North African scene is now connected to the Levant’s killing fields, thanks to ISIS’s spreading influence throughout the Islamic world and the failure of the military regime in Egypt to coopt moderate Islamists and the secular liberal forces in the country. The terrorism and extremism provoked by the military coup—albeit a “popularly supported one”—will unlikely disappear anytime soon. The security challenge in North Africa is to stop ISIS from greater coordination with regional affiliates, from their current position of strength in Libya. One can only wish Tunisia the best of luck in staying beyond the reach of such radicalism and viciousness as 2015 unfolds.
It is ironic that al-Mutanabi, quoted at the beginning of this article, composed his famous verse while feeling trapped, sick, and frustrated while visiting Egypt—a country which, while not at the center of this regional vortex, is nonetheless critical to what happens in the decade ahead. Secular and liberal forces, in the form of civil society NGOs and new political parties need to be nurtured and encouraged region-wide if religious extremism is to be ultimately beaten back. Egypt, often described as the center of the Arab world, is not currently setting a good example for the rest of the region.
Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a Visiting Associate Professor for the Program on Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter: @khoury_nabeel