While calm is beginning to return to parts of the region, the challenges of rebuilding politically, socially and physically are deep. Meanwhile, key regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran face new political and economic pressures that could restrain their influence.
The year began with attempts by US defence staff and international allies to come to terms with President Trump’s sudden pre-Christmas announcement that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria. With remnants of so-called Islamic State (IS) still active on the Syria-Iraq border and able to regroup, Trump’s declaration of victory over IS was seen as premature by most, including the US Defence Secretary, who resigned. US allies expressed fears that a hasty pull out would reverse the gains made against IS and allow Iran and others to take advantage.
US forces began withdrawing last week, prompting strong concerns for the Kurdish militias that have fought alongside the US in the struggle against IS. The YPG militias have formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey sees these as an extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) which has waged a long guerrilla war with Turkey in Kurdish majority areas. Ankara fears a renewed insurgency of PKK fighters, armed with US weapons, and has vowed to clear the Kurdish forces from north-eastern Syria.
In response, Kurdish groups are trying to negotiate protection from Assad and Russia. The US, meanwhile, seems to have persuaded Turkey to agree to a 20-mile “safe zone” along its border, where Kurds will not be attacked nor be able to declare independent territory or launch attacks against Turkey. The unfolding situation in north-east Syria, where so many interests and historic conflicts are playing themselves out, deserves our prayers.
This year is likely to see a gradual normalisation of relations with President Assad’s Syrian government by other Arab states. The Arab League has begun reaching out to Assad in attempts to limit Iranian influence in Syria and, in some cases, to contain Turkish ambitions in the region. Large swathes of the country should see a calmer phase and gradual reconstruction during the coming year. Clashes between rival rebel groups in Syria’s Idlib area, however, remind us that there are many militant Islamist groups – as well as 1.5 million displaced civilians – that have been driven into this region during the seven-year conflict. Hopes must be that the armed groups will be willing to bring an end to this war that has made millions homeless.
The pressing need in Iraq is the formation of a full government. Although some ministerial posts have been filled, many important cabinet posts are still vacant due to Iraq’s messy and often sectarian politics. Prime Minister Mahdi has been struggling to form a full government since October. Please pray that the positive signs of cooperation we saw in Iraq last year will continue and a new government be formed soon to help Iraq get back on its feet. The US exit from the Middle East and seeming lack of interest in Iraq adds to the urgency. Much reconstruction needs to be done to rebuild areas devastated by the war with IS. This needs to be backed by the creation of employment and by ideological reconstruction after the hatred sown by IS. Pray for Christians who are slowly joining in the repopulation of Mosul and the Nineveh Valley, their historic homeland in Iraq. Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, a priest in Karamles, spoke of how Mosul Christians were looking forward to the arrival of a new Bishop this week – the first since the city’s liberation. Fr Mekko outlined his hopes that the church could help to provide work, housing, a worship and pastoral centre, and will be able to strengthen relationships with civic authorities.
The direction of two major regional players warrants regular prayer. One of these is Saudi Arabia. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has brought intense pressure on the Crown Prince, who is thought to have ordered the brutal execution. Mohammed bin-Salman’s image as a reformer has been deeply damaged, even though the country has seen some significant changes: the disappearance of religious police from the streets; the holding of concerts and film screenings; and driving licences for women. But what has been given with one hand has been taken away with the other. There has been a wave of arrests of human rights activists and lawyers, and the escape of an 18-year-old woman from the country, claiming she feared her family would kill her, rallied fresh opposition against the country’s male guardianship system.
The days of Saudi stability, governed by a large pyramid of interests and family ties, are over. Much of the power is now located in one person. Pray that the young crown prince will not continue his aggressive use of power at home and in the region but show concern for his own citizens and the welfare of the region.
The second one is Iran. The Trump administration’s unilateral cancelling of the Iran nuclear enrichment deal strained Europe-US relations and, more importantly, reversed the positive momentum in attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There are now worrying reports that Iran is considering going back to its enrichment programme. The economic pressures on the country hurt ordinary Iranians but do not seem to constrain the country’s regional ambitions. Meanwhile, reports that US Security Adviser John Bolton ordered the military to study options for striking Iran are alarming. Pray for Iran’s leaders to deescalate their ambitions and tensions with Israel and the US, and for Israeli and US leaders to prioritise wisdom and responsibility above any domestic political gains.
Sudan is rarely reported on in the west, but it has recently seen mass demonstrations, including marchers calling for regime change. Rampant inflation, including a tripling of the price of bread, triggered the protests which are still continuing. At least 24 marchers have been killed and hundreds injured by security forces. Although President Omar Al-Bashir is due to run for presidency again in 2020, some observers think Sudan may be seeing its own “Arab Spring” and believe that a rule that began with a military coup in 1989 is coming to an end.
The future of Yemen remains a key concern. A fragile ceasefire and humanitarian access were secured in late December after high-level talks involving Houthi rebels and Yemeni government representatives under the auspices of the United Nations. It was a first step towards a more long-term framework. But mistrust is deep and the underlying foreign powers, Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side and Iran on the other, have their own game in play. Even so, international pressure for Saudi Arabia to end its campaign has had positive effects on the talks. These resume later this month. Pray that the nations involved will end their proxy war and that the Houthis and Yemeni government will reach an understanding that will protect civilians and address immediate concerns over health and food supplies.
There are many cross-regional trends to watch for and pray into this year. These include the issue of the remaining IS fighters, including their wives and children: thousands are now in limbo in Syria and nearby countries. Pray that they will choose peace and find meaningful futures for their lives.
Deep economic challenges also threaten many nations including Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with the risk that millions may be swept into poverty.
A third issue is refugees and internally displaced people. The mood in host nations is hardening as citizens themselves face difficult economic conditions.
Behind many of the challenges is bad governance. Much of the region is still led by politicians, rulers, business and religious elites who see their own interests and continuation of power as their number one priority. Pray for a change of heart this year: their control is not sustainable, and their populations are more aware and demanding than ever before.