theguardian.com/ Middle East, 2015: further standoffs, tripwires and catastrophes

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SHAFAQNA – It would be comforting to think 2015 will bring an easing of the myriad problems facing the Middle East. But truth be told, the region is more unstable, more conflicted and more unpredictable than at any time in recent history. The hazards posed by this violent volatility are global in reach and rapidly intensifying. They menace us all, although, as is the case now, Muslims and most particularly Arabs will bear the brunt in the coming year.

It looked different six years ago, after Barack Obama came to power promising a resolution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a celebrated speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama promoted “a new beginning” with the Muslim world “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”. The west and Islam need not be in competition, he said. “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

It never happened. Differences deepened in the ensuing years, the Arab spring – and the west’s ambivalent response – revolutionised regional dynamics, and the gulf of distrust identified by Obama widened dramatically.

Many in the Middle East blame this chronic state of affairs on continuing foreign (meaning western) intervention. Yet, conversely, increased foreign intervention – military, diplomatic, financial and humanitarian – may now be the best and perhaps only way of tackling the multiple, connected crises in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel-Palestine and north Africa.

Pressure on the western powers to get more directly involved may increase exponentially in the next 12 months. This could bring the region to boiling point. Of course, it could all work out for the best. More likely, 2015 will be the Middle East’s year of breaking bad.

The jihadist threat

The aftermath of a suicide attack carried out by Islamic State in northern Iraq.The aftermath of a suicide attack carried out by Islamic State in northern Iraq.Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest single danger, by some measures at least, is that the threat posed by Islamic State (Isis) jihadi terrorists to the political and geographical integrity of Iraq, including the southern oil-fields and the energy-rich Kurdish region, will provoke another full-blooded US military intervention, including the return of significant numbers of combat troops.

Obama has repeatedly ruled out putting “boots on the ground”. But he is politically weakened and will face a hostile rightwing Congress in 2015. Obama has already sent some troops back to Iraq, and has left himself wiggle-room to send more, including the option to widen the fight beyond Iraq and Syria.

The Pentagon and America’s generals agree air strikes alone cannot defeat Isis. Regional allies, Kurds excepted, show no sign of providing surrogate ground forces in either Iraq or Syria, where Isis has its strongholds. Various manifestations of Sunni extremism, represented by groups such as the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, threaten a spreading, contagious destabilisation of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and worsening, linked security crises in Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

If the US does escalate its military involvement in 2015, Britain will face pressure to follow suit – in what could become, in effect, the third Iraq war. Isis has already threatened retaliatory attacks on the home soil of countries in the US-led coalition. The presence of foreign jihadis in its ranks, including hundreds from Britain and Europe, make another 7/7-style terrorist atrocity more feasible. Britain’s security services know this, hence their current “severe” threat alert.

The Isis threat is rendered more formidable by several factors. One is its propaganda skills and astute use of modern media platforms. Another is the group’s readiness, ever more pronounced, to ignore mainstream Islamic teaching and interpretations of the Qu’ran. No matter how strenuously the top muftis condemn beheadings or rape, they are contemptuously ignored.

The bigger context framing this failure of religious and moral leadership is the “war” within Islam between Sunnis and Shias, which in theory pits Pakistan and the Gulf Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia against Shia-led Iran, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and their Alawite allies in the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The continued financing by wealthy Qataris and Saudis of Isis and jihadist groups in the wider Middle East and north Africa is another aspect of the Sunni-Shia schism, of which the terrorists are direct beneficiaries. Meanwhile, jihadist violence overall is taking an ever bigger toll, according to recent research. More than 5,000 people died worldwide last November.

The Isis insurrection is the linear successor of the al-Qaida-led Sunni insurrection in Iraq in the mid-2000s, only this time it spans more than one country. US general David Petraeus’s famous troop “surge” was needed to defeat Sunni extremism in 2007. Obama and allies may decide something similar is required in 2015.

The Syrian catastrophe

Displaced Syrian children in the Bab Al-Salama camp for people fleeing the violence in Syria on the border with Turkey.Displaced Syrian children in a camp on the border with Turkey. Photograph: Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s civil war will enter its fifth year in 2015. The human cost is appalling, and rising. About 200,000 people have died. More than 3 million refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. About 6.5 million people are internally displaced. There is no peace process to speak of. Fighting continues unchecked. The UN, launching its biggest ever aid appeal for 2015, says it can no longer feed many refugees.

This situation is unsustainable. While that has been said before, 2015 may be the year when something finally breaks. Syria has been called Europe’s equivalent of the Rwanda genocide – and as was the case in Rwanda, not nearly enough is being done to help.

Fewer than 150,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in the EU. Most member states, including Britain, are shutting out all but a handful. Of 33,000 new asylum places in 2015, 85% will be in Germany. The remainder mostly prefers to send humanitarian aid, but this, too, is insufficient, given the scale of the catastrophe.

Syria’s neighbouring countries, their resources stretched beyond limit, are wilting under the strain. In Lebanon, there are fears that 2015 could bring social breakdown, an upsurge in sectarian tensions, even a return to the civil war that tore the country apart in the 1980s. A trigger could be further cross-border spillovers of factional fighting, as happened last October.

Jordan faces similarly unsupportable strains. The UN maintains there are 640,00 Syrians in the country. The government says the true figure is double that. Demand for water, electricity and food supplies vastly outstrips supply. Domestic rents have soared, health and education systems are overwhelmed. There are no jobs for young people.

The story is much the same in Turkey, although, as a much larger country, it has more capacity to cope. Like Israel’s leadership, the Ankara government of President Tayyip Erdoğan reviles the Assad regime. Both countries have engaged in sporadic clashes in recent months with Syrian forces.

This risk of a wider conflict is exacerbated by determined Iranian backing for Assad, who knows he is in a fight to the death, and Syria’s ongoing support for extremist Palestinian elements, whose primary target is Israel.

Worse still, in a way, is the possibility that Assad actually does fall from power. The ensuing, likely descent into internal anarchy, and the permanent break-up of Syria as a distinct sovereign entity, could presage even greater horrors.

Wild cards

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuIsraeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: in talks with Iran over its nuclear programme. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

The Middle East in 2015 features several other dangerous tripwires that could tip the region into sudden chaos. The most obvious is the standoff over Iran’s suspect nuclear programme, which Israel regards as an existential threat. Long-running talks again ended without agreement in November. A new deadline of July, 2015 has been set.

Opinions differ whether a deal can be reached. If it is, Iran could come in from the cold for the first time since 1979. If not, the possibility that Israel, led by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, will take matters into its own hands and launch military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities is very real indeed.

Whether that happens depends, to some extent, on the outcome of general elections in Israel in March. Netanyahu, the conservative Likud leader, is fighting a centre-left bloc led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog. The poll will offer Israelis a real ideological choice. Rightwing extremists “are turning this country into an isolated, closed and alienated state”, Livni said in December. The future of stalled negotiations with the Palestinians, and the avoidance of a much-predicted “third intifada” in 2015, also partly rests on the result of the poll.

The stability of Egypt, where the military-dominated regime that ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood continues to crush political dissent, is another key question. So, too, is growing neo-Islamist authoritarianism in Turkey, now seen less and less as a reliable western ally. The slow-motion disintegration of post-Gaddafi Libya, beset by rival governments and warring militias, is an explosive problem all by itself. Upheavals there could have a knock-on effect in Sudan, which is also entering an election year.

Highly relevant, in this frenetic context, is the strength of leadership and vision shown by western leaders who, for whatever reason, may seek in 2015 to intervene to save the Middle East from itself.

After his mid-term poll humiliation, Obama is in many ways a busted flush. David Cameron faces a May election that could consign him to political oblivion. François Hollande in France and Angela Merkel in Germany may soon be pre-occupied by a new eurozone crisis and more trouble with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

If the Middle East breaks bad in a big way in 2015, increased foreign intervention may ultimately be deemed impractical and unwise. “Sauve qui peut” – save yourself if you can – could become the guiding principle for the west’s weakened and blundering leaders.

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