The Middle East's Five Big Losers in 2014

This year's losers are the people living in the countries where leaders, militants and war-mongers wreaked havoc, while the world stood and watched.

AFP

It’s been an exceptionally turbulent year in the Middle East. It went from being a violent, unsettled region to an explosive one. Here are five places where people were the biggest losers – losing lives, homes, freedoms, hopes. They are places where, had another road been chosen or outside forces intervened earlier, the year might have looked quite different.

The big losers of 2014 include:

Average Iraqis, especially minorities in the crosshairs of ISIS: When Sunni extremists calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or Levant, thereby leading to some referring to it as ISIL) began an offensive throughout northern Iraq, capturing the city of Mosul and other strategic towns and pushing south towards Baghdad, the world was shocked. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been. ISIS had been making gains for months in Iraq and in Syria. But until the capture of Mosul in June the Obama administration showed little interest in getting re-engaged in Iraq and hoped to have the Iraqi army alone face any off against threat – apparently wishful thinking.

On the eve of Mosul’s takeover, Iraq’s then-premier Nuri al-Maliki turned down repeated offers of help from the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. By continuing to back the long-discredited Maliki – who remains a key player even after being replaced by Haidar al-Abadi in August – the U.S. allowed extremist Sunni anger to fester further, a perfect climate for the ascension of ISIS. Not until the horrific beheadings of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff in August and September, as well as the harrowing images of minority Yazidis fleeing for the mountains of Sinjar, did the world wake up to the horrors and demand something be done.

Displaced Iraqi Christians settle at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014.(Credit: AP)

Israelis and Palestinians, in the latest round of IDF vs. Hamas: The kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah – followed by the revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir brought about a frightening new low in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Following the kidnapping in June, the IDF launched a series of intense raids throughout the West Bank and rearrested at least 350 Hamas-affiliated Palestinians, many of the whom had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal, in which 1,026 prisoners were released from Israeli jails in exchange for the release of Shalit in October 2011. Some sources put the total number of arrests during the raids at 800.

Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets at Israel, to which Israel responded by launching Operation Protective Edge. The net result: At least 2,147 were killed and 11,000 wounded on the Palestinian side, while Israel lost 66 soldiers and 6 civilians. Had the IDF responded to the June kidnappings with a pinpoint search for the killers in the Hebron area rather a huge sweep, Hamas would not have had a pretext for upping the ante with a new barrage of rockets, although the network of tunnels it dug indicate it was preparing for a war – or a major attack inside Israel – at some point.

Both sides antagonized the other into a horrid, costly and unnecessary war. And although both sides claim victory, it’s difficult to point to long-lasting achievements or security for either side. Hamas announced victory and bragged of its achievements in the form of the tunnel attacks and putting huge swaths of Israel in the line of longer-range rockets. But with such a staggering level of destruction – 17,200 Gazan homes were totally destroyed or severely damaged in IDF strikes, not to mention the loss of industry, infrastructure and electricity – the people of Gaza seemed the biggest losers of all. Israel lost 72 people, but also a false sense of security over the threat that Hamas poses: it was no longer a rag-tag group shooting unguided projectiles at Sderot.

Palestinian school boys drink iced juice as they sit on a damaged wall of a school in Gaza City's Shujaiyeh neighborhood, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.(Credit: AP)

A woman lies with her baby on the floor of the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv as a siren warning of incoming rockets sounds. July 10, 2014. (Credit: Reuters)

The people of Syria: In early December, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), operating with a network of over 200 activists on the ground in Syria, said they had documented the deaths of 202,354 people since the Syrian conflict began. By mid-2014, the UN estimated that 10.8 million of Syria's 22 million population were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 6.5 million internally displaced people. As of September, there were more than 3 million Syrian refugees – the bulk of them taking shelter in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria seems no closer to being solved, and the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad more fragmented than ever. In fact, the outrageous violence of ISIS has provided a de facto boost to Assad because it has paved the way for the US and its allies to declare war on one of his most nettlesome opposition groups. Assad is now indicating he wants to negotiate with rebel groups in 2015, but the West needs to be careful not allow the fight against ISIS to equal backing for the Syrian dictator.

Syrian refugees stand outside a house in the Kucukpazar area of Istanbul, on March 4, 2014. (Credit: AFP)

Egyptian democracy advocates: President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi assumed office in June following a military coup a year earlier, which was part and parcel of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi and the outlawing of his Muslim Brotherhood organization. Although Sissi’s ascension to power has brought a period of relative stability not enjoyed since the 2011 uprising, and most Egyptians say they are satisfied with his performance, pro-democracy activists have continued to suffer tremendous setbacks. “In terms of repression, 2014 has been a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ),” notes Khaled Diab in Al Jazeera. The most prominent of this are the Qatar-based network’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, who have been imprisoned for more than a year. The Egyptian government has also imprisoned many reformists and human rights activists, and enjoyed implementing an anti-protest law making it illegal to participate in almost any public demonstration.

Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed appear during their trial on terror charges in Cairo, Egypt, May 15, 2014.(Credit: AP)

Erdogan’s critics: Like Egypt, Turkey has been carrying out a media crackdown as part of an ongoing drive to silence critics and dissidents. Earlier this month, some 25 prominent opposition journalists were arrested in the latest sweep. On Dec. 14, police raided the Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu TV channel, which are considered to have close ties to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a spiritual leader currently living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan says has an army of "Gulenists" trying to topple him. In the region, Turkey has also been short-sighted. Its fear of Kurdish independence continued to trump any concern for the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State next door.

So while Kobani burns, Erdogan refused to allow aid to the Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is trying to defend the northern Syrian town close to the Turkish border -- continually balking at the Obama administration’s requests for help. Erdogan also continued to move further away from reconciliation with Jerusalem, in October calling Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount “barbaric and despicable.” Erdogan was elected president in August in Turkey’s first direct presidential elections, a consolidation of his power that he himself pushed for. He announced this week he would chair a cabinet meeting in January, indicating that he expects to hold onto his powers he exercised as prime minister as well. Stay tuned for the sultan stratagems in 2015.

Readers of Zaman newspaper hold copies of the daily as they protest against a raid by counter-terror police in Istanbul on December 14, 2014.(Credit: AFP)