Last month we summarised the major developments in the MENA in 2014. In this Briefing we look at six key questions to highlight the issues and concerns we expect to play a major role in 2015.
The year ahead
The biggest question for 2015 is the ISIS/Islamic State, Syria, Iraq triangle. While analysts now forecast a decreasing reach for IS in 2015, the precarious situations in Syria and Iraq have become linked. What happens in both will have ramifications for decades for the entire region.
Although US-led airstrikes and operations to curb the flow of weapons, fighters and finance to IS have borne some fruit, the breeding grounds from which IS recruits its foreign and regional militants are unchanged. Sunni disillusionment in Iraq continues despite the change in the central government. Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey have united against the shared threat of ISIS, but deep political rifts remain among them and IS advances in Kurdish areas of Mosul, Sinjar and Kobane have shown the vulnerability of embryonic Kurdish enclaves. All these factors will give rise to further tensions and the elephant in the room – the Assad regime – remains unmoved, either by rebel groups or diplomatic pressure. The US has begun to strengthen opposition groups which fighting IS but there is no shared vision between the US and its regional allies on how to address the Syrian crisis as a whole.
The second question for 2015 is the potential for wider wars in Libya and Yemen. Neither country attracts much media attention in the west but both face de facto collapsed governance. In Libya, militias, tribes and militant groups vy for control and in Yemen, the government has been powerless to stop Shia Houthi rebels taking control of the capital or prevent waves of Al-Qaeda terror. IS’ expansion and inter-jihadi competition with Al Qaeda and its associates are also fuelling more aggressive jihadi activities. Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya have been among those feeling the brunt of the instability, with at least 20 reported abductions since December 2014. Egyptian and UAE air strikes on Islamist targets in Libya are increasing security threats in Egypt. Already the country faces a precarious year ahead with tensions in Sinai and Islamist grievances against the repressive measures taken by the Sisi government.
The third question is Iran and its nuclear programme. President Rouhani has placed most of his political capital on achieving a breakthrough that will result in the lifting of sanctions to help rebuild the economy. He faces fierce opposition within the Iranian political and security establishment and, while nuclear talks have made strong progress, no solution has been reached so far. Contradictory messages between the parties that want greater international cooperation and those that want to an unfettered nuclear programme worry the US, Europe and Israel and enables critical groups to continue to demand a tough approach to Iran. This is not simply about nuclear weapons anymore, however. Iran has become a major player in Iraq and Syria. The US, Europe and Turkey are all aware that they need a breakthrough with Iran in order to exert a positive influence on other parts of the region.
The fourth question is the dire humanitarian crisis across the region. Millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people have been added to the millions of Palestinians and Iraqis in refugee camps. Regional countries are no longer able to cope with the costs. For the first time in its history, Lebanon requires visas from Syrians seeking to enter Lebanon. Turkey limits the flow of people entering the country and is now asking for funds. International donations are inadequate and most European countries are only accepting a trickle of Middle Easterners as refugees. Meanwhile, record numbers of migrants died in the last 12 months trying to cross into Europe from the Middle East and East Africa. There is a desperate need for the international community to share more of the burden arising from countries in turmoil.
The fifth question is the wider geo-political polarisation in the region. On one hand we see Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE bloc, linked by financial investments and their opposition to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups; on the other are Turkey and Qatar. All of these Sunni majority countries are also challenged by Iran and its ever increasing sphere of influence in the region. Add to that, the US, Europe, and Russia who continue to assert their interests and policies, while supra-national jihadi networks launch campaigns offering an apocalyptic vision and outlet for revenge, resentment and anger. These currents are both aligning countries and pitting them against each other. The danger is that countries could adopt risky international policies and fierce competition will worsen already vulnerable situations at a time when the region needs to come together.
The sixth question is the future of Islamism. The failure of Muslim Brotherhood governments and resulting backlash have shown that Islamism as we know it is unable to provide good governance or hope. Meanwhile, the brutal clampdowns that have been imposed will force them back into victimhood and underground networks, where they have long experience of surviving. This raises serious concerns. Will mainstream Islamism modify itself, learn from its mistakes and offer a modern version? Or, will it follow the IS or Al Qaeda path and turn to violence and terrorism? As long as pressure on them – particularly in Egypt – reaches deep levels of human rights abuse, it is impossible for them to undergo healthy reform. Many worry that in a few years’ time we will see more radical groups emerging in Egypt and across North Africa.
This could seriously impact the positive signs we have seen in Tunisia, where, for the first time in its history, the country has seen a peaceful handover of power following elections. Compromises made by Islamists and the nation’s decision to opt for stability and known technocrats could be undermined by the return of IS fighters to Tunisia. The economically struggling country has been one of the largest recruiting grounds for these jihadists.
2015 will also be decisive for the future of Turkey. In June, the country will hold national elections. The ruling party will be represented by current PM, Ahmet Davutoglu. If the party achieves a high voter turnout and parliamentary majority, President Erdogan has made it clear that they will move on further transferring powers from the office of prime minister to the presidency. This will create social tensions and constitutional and practical challenges. The party’s record of surviving mass protests and corruption allegations and the lack of a strong Turkish opposition suggests it will find little to block its ambitions. The elections will also impact Turkish foreign policy. Strong electoral success could mean that the government will take more steps to normalise tensions with its neighbours, while a weaker result could see a continuation of populist reactions to Egypt, Israel and its defence of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Loving Lord of all, who knows the end from the beginning, we commit all the nations and peoples of the MENA to you. We ask for your mercy, wisdom and grace for all and your empowering for your people so that your will may be done and your name be glorified. Amen.