Trump, Syria and Saudi Arabia: The Stories That Reshaped the Middle East in 2018

This year saw Israel’s secret attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor go public and the Khashoggi’s murder threaten MBS' charm offensive, Haaretz sums up 12 months of proxy wars and regional politics

Demonstrators dressed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump protest outside the White House, October 19, 2018.
AFP

In March of 2018, the top U.S. general in the Middle East testified before the U.S. Congress and dropped several bombshells that shed light on the volatile year that was to come. At the time CENTCOM Commander U.S. Army General Joseph Votel signaled his support for the Iran nuclear deal (despite its imminent demise), admitted that the U.S. does not know what Saudi Arabia does with its bombs in Yemen and concluded that Bashar Assad had won the Syrian Civil War.

Votel would be out of a job by the end of the year, but just as his tenure was about to end, U.S. President Donald Trump surprised the defense establishment by announcing a full U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria. According to Fox News, Votel had told those close to him that he felt "punched in the gut" by the decision and that U.S. military commanders were "shocked."

Trump’s Syria withdrawal capped off a year of turmoil, shock and devastation in the Middle East. Even as the conflict in Syria began to wind down, at least four countries - Libya, Syria, Iraq and to a greater extent Yemen - are still left largely in ruins, with millions of people displaced, thousands dead and many cities reduced to rubble. The skies over Syria made news throughout the year as Trump bombed the war-torn country, for the second time, in April following an Assad regime chemical attack. Turkey, Russia, Assad and Israel (allegedly) struck various targets in the country throughout the year, with one Israel strike resulting in a Syrian defense missile downing a Russian plane - killing fifteen Russian service men.

Surface to air missile fire lights up the sky over Damascus at the U.S. launches an attack on Syria early on April 14, 2018
Hassan Ammar,AP

Long-running regional conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Iran and the Saudis continue to shape the region’s dynamics. Saudi Arabia is using its regional influence to try and thwart growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq - but is now paying a heavy price over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Turkey, which itself has had a wild ride this year, kept the story alive by slowly releasing snippets of information from the investigation into the gruesome murder in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Putin appeared to strengthen his hand in the Middle East, especially once Trump makes good on his promise and pulls the U.S. out of Syria for good - a move which may also benefit Iran.

The following are a list of some of 2018’s top stories from around the Middle East (beyond Israel and the Palestinians):

No Longer a Secret: How Israel Destroyed Syria's Nuclear Reactor

The Syrian reactor, before and after the Israeli strike.

Amos Harel and Aluff Benn

It was one of the Israeli army's most successful operations, but was censored for over a decade. In March after the military gag order was finally lifted, a Haaretz investigation took you behind the scenes of the 2007 strike on 'The Cube,' shortly before it became an active nuclear reactor. The investigation revealed intelligence failures and American foot-dragging, as well as the arguments at the top levels and the threats of a total war with Syria

Trump Pulls U.S. Out of 'Disastrous' Iran Nuclear Deal, to Impose 'Powerful' Sanctions

On May 8th  Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, saying he will reinstate economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. "The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran, in exchange for very weak limits on the regime's nuclear activities," Trump said. Trump said that the deal "should have never been made. It didn't bring peace, and it never will."

Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar: How MBS's Blockade Not Only Failed to Achieve Its Goals but Backfired

An aerial view of Doha's diplomatic area.
\ FADI AL-ASSAAD/ REUTERS

June was the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and reports by international organizations suggest the small Persian Gulf emirate not only turned around its dire financial prospects but also improved its human rights record and geopolitical standing.

The “Qatar crisis,” as the land, air and sea blockade by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates quickly became known, was meant to break the Qatari economy and force the country’s emir to give in to a set of demands from the Saudis - namely to fall in line with Saudi leadership of the Gulf, shut down Al Jazeera and cut ties with Saudi arch enemy Iran.  But, one year in, the blockade appears to have had the opposite effect.

Jordan Rocked by Biggest Protests in Years as Demonstrators Rally Against Austerity Measures

Also in June, hundreds of thousands of Jordanians took to the street in protest of government-led economic reforms and called to depose Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Malichi - who did eventually resign. Protesters blocked off main roads, torched tires and confronted security forces in the biggest demonstrations the Hashemite kingdom had seen in years.

Egypt's War on 'Rumors' Threatens to Kill the Free Press

This file photo taken on October 24, 2017 shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attending a military ceremony at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris
AFP PHOTO / POOL / CHARLES PLATIAU

Zvi Bar’el

In July, Egypt’s President Sisi pushed a new law that is among the harshest ever against the press in Egypt. It includes granting a new authority, the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, the power to close down any website, Facebook account or blog with at least 5,000 followers – without a judicial order – if it violates the new law. It is enough for the council to decide that the statements posted are incitement to violence, are offensive to religions, call for discrimination between citizens or spread hatred or false information – in order to justify the closure.

Putin's Private Army in Syria: Officially Illegal, the Kremlin Denies It, but the Evidence Is in the Numbers

Officially, private military companies are illegal in Russia. Putin himself voiced support for them before, in April 2012, Putin suggested the need for “an instrument in the pursuit of national interests without the direct participation of the state,” continuing, “I believe that it should be considered, thought over.”

The St. Petersburg-based website Fontanka reported in February that about 3,000 Russians under contract to the Wagner group have fought in Syria since 2015, months before Russia’s two-year military campaign helped to turn the tide of the civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.

In April 2018, a Reuters investigation revealed a covert airlift using civilian planes to fly private Russian contractors to Syria's president – an operation the Kremlin insists does not exist.

Iran vs. Saudi Arabia: The Four Battlegrounds Iran Uses to Threaten Israel and the Middle East

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, August 29, 2018
AFP

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in a proxy war for almost 40 years, competing for regional supremacy from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon to Yemen.

Israel and the U.S. fear Iran could fall back on its regional militant allies or proxies to retaliate against airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria allegedly perpetrated by Israel.

Why the Khashoggi Murder Is a Disaster for Israel

Daniel B. Shapiro

The shocking brutality of Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction and murder by Saudi security forces cannot be papered over, no matter how implausibly it is dressed up as an interrogation gone wrong or the work of rogue actors.

But its implications go deeper than the tragedy visited upon Khashoggi’s family and fiancee. It raises fundamental questions for the United States and Israel about their whole strategic concept in the Middle East.

Erdogan May Help Trump and Absolve MBS, but Not for Free

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia (L) are pictured during a family photo session at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Istanbul Summit in Istanbul, Turkey April 14, 2016
REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

Zvi Bar’el

Turkey's Erdogan, who expanded his domestic power this year, has has also turned the tables on the Saudis in the region. After a long period of tense relations with Riyadh, especially under the former king, Abdullah, and a schism with Egypt, Erdogan is now receiving the Saudi seal of approval. He entered the Arab world’s good graces with his head held high.

And Erdogan’s roller-coaster ride has reached the top. Now Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the one seeking a meeting with Erdogan, and the Turkish president isn’t rushing to grant it.

How Assad Helped Create ISIS to Win in Syria and Got Away With the Crime of the Century

While Syria remains torn between Russian, American and Turkish interests, with world leaders working to avoid a bloodbath in the remaining pocket of resistance, one thing is certain: President Bashar Assad has won Syria’s devastating seven-year civil war.  

The consequences of Assad remaining in power are far reaching as western governments are reluctant to help rebuild the devastated country under his rule, while Russia and Iran are financially unable to do so. As a result, the refugee crisis created by the war is unlikely to resolve any time soon, the Assad regime will remain weak and isolated and Assad will need to continue to fight to reclaim territory still out of his control.

About 560,000 people have been killed since the Syrian war began March 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an updated death toll released in December.

Trump vs. Turkey: U.S. Punishes Strategic Ally, but Is Erdogan Really Willing to Leave NATO?

In August, with Turkey’s economy in a downward spiral and U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to enforce punishing tariffs and sanctions on one of America's oldest and most strategic military alliances in the Middle East. Trump’s spat with Erdogan tested the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, which was already under severe stress and has immense political and regional implications for both countries.

Erdogan accused Trump in The New York Times of stabbing him in the back. Turkey, the defiant president warned, would “start looking for new friends and allies.”

Since Spy-plane Downing, Russia Toughens Stance Against Israel in Syria Skies

Amos Harel

In October, Russia began taking a more forceful stance toward Israel concerning Israel Air Force activity in the north.

The Russians were demanding further clarifications from the Israel Defense Forces via the “hotline” that is meant to prevent any aerial clashes between the two parties, and there have been several instances in which Russian air defense radars in Syria were activated in connection with Israel's air force activity in the north.

Russia’s behavior is being interpreted in Israel as a response to the incident in which a Syrian anti-aircraft missile downed an Ilyushin Russian intelligence-gathering plane on September 17 at the end of an Israeli airstrike near Latakia in northwestern Syria. The incident resulted in Russia upgrading Syria’s missile defense systems with their S-300 missile system.

The Sultan’s New Friend: Just Why Did Netanyahu Visit Oman?

Zvi Bar’el

In October, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a surprise trip to visit Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who is a very secretive leader. He’s minister of defense, finance, foreign affairs and intelligence, and heads the central bank. In Oman there are no democratic institutions and the ruler appoints the judges. Leaks are unlikely to come out of Muscat to shed light on Netanyahu’s visit.

But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the trip, which cracks the wall of no public meetings between Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister.

In Yemen, After Four Years of Catastrophic Conflict, Is Peace Finally on the Horizon?

In mid-December, weeks of UN shuttle diplomacy and Western pressure delivered a breakthrough in Yemen peace efforts when the warring parties agreed to cease fighting in a contested Red Sea port city and withdraw forces.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman, October 26, 2018.
AP

The breakthrough comes a month after Amal Hussain died in a refugee camp after suffering severe malnutrition. Hussain became a symbol of her country's humanitarian crisis after being photographed by Tyler Hicks for image that ran on the front page of the New York Times.

'Scared to Death': Syria's Kurds Feel Trapped Between Threats From Assad and Erdogan

Elizabeth Tsurkov

Trump’s sudden announcement this week that the United States' military presence and humanitarian aid in northeastern Syria would be ending surprised and disappointed the Kurds in the region who rely on U.S. support.

Speaking to Haaretz hours after the American declaration was announced, residents of northeastern Syria expressed fear about two possible scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal: the Turkish conquest of the region or a renewed takeover by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad. Kurdish journalist Akid, who lives in the town of Al-Hasakah, expressed the view of many Kurds interviewed by Haaretz when he described the sense of being caught between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, there is the threat of the return of the Syrian regime to the Kurdish region; on the other, there is the threat from the Turkish army. “They are not different from one another,” he said. “Either way, we face a real danger. People are scared to death. They fear a loss of security and immediate threats,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this article

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters gather at the eastern entrance to the town of Tel Abyad of Raqqa governorate, Syria, June 15, 2015.
\ REUTERS