Some 500,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war and another 50,000 were killed or died of hunger in Yemen. Dozens of journalists have died on the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. But it was the murder of a single Saudi journalist that managed to shake the foundations of the Western world. In the Middle East, 2018 was the year of Jamal Khashoggi, whose body parts are scattered somewhere in Turkey or the Bosphorus Strait.
It’s hard to recall a similar incident that so nearly ruptured ties between Washington and Riyadh and between the European Union and Saudi Arabia. This may be one of the rare cases in history in which a journalist managed to foment a diplomatic earthquake – although not because of some great scoop, but because he was murdered.
This isn’t the only loose end in the skein of struggles that characterized 2018. The past year has bequeathed its successor an entire bundle of threatening loose ends.
The year’s most important strategic event was America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran – a decision that left the world agape and caused deep concern about the region’s future. The Trump administration’s muscle-flexing put Iran in a difficult economic bind, which hasn’t yet reached full force given the concessions Washington was forced to grant some of its allies to prevent the shock of an abrupt shortage of Iranian oil.
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But the main fear is that at some point, Iran will also decide to quit the deal and resume enriching uranium. The agreement managed to delay this possibility by 10 to 15 years, but Trump’s decision may shorten the timetable dramatically.
Would the American president, embroiled in multiple investigations that could end with him being ousted or standing trial, be willing to go to war against Iran? Would he be able to muster an international coalition, after spitting in his allies’ faces by refusing to listen to their warnings?
Any such decision could drag Israel, the apple of Trump’s eye, into an unanticipated large-scale war at a time when the easier battle, the one Israel is waging against Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, is running into a Russian wall. Moscow sees Israel as a nuisance in the best case and a strategic threat in the more realistic one.
There is a tight link between the Khashoggi affair and America’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Both star Saudi Arabia, the self-appointed spearhead in the battle against Iran in the Middle East.
In 2019, America will have to decide whether to continue relations with Riyadh as if nothing had happened, including by selling it more than $110 billion worth of arms, or punish it for the journalist’s murder. This decision will affect Saudi behavior in the oil market – specifically, whether it will increase oil production to compensate for Iran’s sanctions-induced reduction, or whether it will let oil prices rise, thereby possibly sparking a worldwide revolt against Trump.
The past year ended the Islamic State’s control of the territory it conquered in Iraq and Syria. It was Trump, once again, who formally declared the war over when he decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying Islamic State had been defeated and the mission was therefore accomplished.
It’s interesting to note that a few days after this dramatic announcement, Trump also said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had promised to continue the war against Islamic State and liquidate the organization. So was Islamic State defeated or is it still a threat?
Thousands of its fighters are still active in southern Syria and parts of Iraq. Granted, it’s no longer the same Islamic State that ran its territory like a country, but its life as a terrorist organization isn’t over. Next year, it may well appear in new places, or expand its operations in existing ones like Libya, Sinai, Yemen and even beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Incidentally, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also didn’t end his life this year.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to ignore Al-Qaida. Though its demise has already been reported several times, the organization is alive and kicking in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and Syria; it also has active cells in Europe.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Al-Qaida’s fruitful cooperation with the United States in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This once happy marriage, which managed to defeat the Soviet army and turn jihad against the Communist infidels into a respectable American term, has suffered a stunning breakdown.
The war in Yemen will also continue in 2019, entering its fourth year with no diplomatic or humanitarian horizon. As long as this war is defined as one between Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than a local war over the allocation of resources, honor won’t allow Riyadh to quit, even though it hasn’t yet managed to achieve a military victory against greatly inferior forces.
This is the last remaining front on which Saudi Arabia can prove its power and influence, after having failed shamefully in Lebanon, disconnected from Syria and, until a year ago, also dissociated itself from Iraq.
Yemen’s Houthi clan, which has become an international household name, didn’t even know until the war began that it was an Iranian agent. Indeed, the Shi’a Islam practiced in Iran views the Houthis’ Zaydi Islam as a serious deviation from Shi’ite orthodoxy.
The Houthis just wanted equal rights, a fair share of the budget and respectable positions in Yemen’s corrupt, inefficient government. Theoretically, they could be loyal American and Saudi allies in a war against Al-Qaida in Yemen.
But now, none of the parties has a feasible plan for solving the Yemen crisis. The war has been filed as a humanitarian problem that isn’t even on the list for problems to solve in 2019.
So who came out on top this year?
The past year hasn’t been good for any Arab country. Even those that aren’t annoying the world with wars, like Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and the Gulf States, haven’t had much satisfaction. If they didn’t have wars, they had economic woes, and if they escaped economic crises, they suffered political upheavals.
With one exception: Qatar is generally a happy camper.
Its citizens have the highest per capita income in the world. They get grants or generous loans to buy houses. Health services and education are free. The best artworks have been purchased for its museum, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. And in another three years, the world’s best soccer teams will play in the air-conditioned stadium it built for the World Cup. Its government is stable and it has excellent ties with the world.
Saudi Arabia shook Qatar’s equilibrium when it imposed a boycott on the country together with its loyalists – Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. But Qatar didn’t capitulate to Riyadh’s demands. It didn’t shut down the Al Jazeera television network or sever ties with Iran, and it refuses to pay compensation to Saudi Arabia for the damage it allegedly caused.
Qatar not only coped well with the painful boycott but managed to increase growth and expand its international ties. It may be the only country in the region that can look at the past year with satisfaction.
It has only one rival on the happiness tables. For Turkey’s president, this has been a great year.
June’s early election consolidated Erdogan’s status as an all-powerful president, one with broader powers than those of his American counterpart. He has successfully presided over the destruction of his country’s free press. The international community’s rebukes over his arrest and imprisonment of tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians, intellectuals and academics bounced off his thick skin. Even his country’s economic crisis hasn’t dented his popularity.
Erdogan – who occupied territory in Syria, waged a brutal battle against his own Kurdish citizens and fired some 150,000 bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors and officers – is now considered the strongest leader in the region. He has even rattled Saudi Arabia; here, too, Khashoggi played a key role. And health permitting, he is expected to be a key player not just in 2019, but for at least another decade.
The year 2018 laid the foundations for a new strategic situation in the Middle East, in which Russia, rather than America, is the permanent superpower. Russia took control over the Syrian war and thereby turned President Bashar Assad’s position around. Thanks to Russia, Assad has acquired a broad coalition that supports him staying in power; it even includes Turkey and America. Now, Moscow is working to restore the Arab world’s faith in the Syrian leader.
Russia will use its ties with Ankara and its construction of a natural gas pipeline through Turkey to increase its gas sales to Europe. It is maintaining its alliance with Iran while also signing agreements to sell arms to Egypt and build a nuclear power plant there.
As America removes itself from the region, Russia is pushing westward. In 2018, large blocs and coalitions gave way to individual countries or narrow but powerful alliances and organizations consolidated a status equal to that of states.