The Faster Changing Middle East

By An Huihou
The Middle East is located in an important strategic position where the three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, intersect and is endowed with rich oil and gas resources. It has long been a region where major powers compete with one another. The complex ethnic, religious and sectarian relations in the region and the interference of major countries have led to incessant conflicts and hot-spot issues. However, instability has been usually confined to certain areas and with controllable intensity, and most of countries in the region have maintained relative stability and normal development. This has been the normal state of the Middle East situation.  

However, such a normal state was broken by the massive turmoil that erupted in late 2010 and the neo-interventionism pursued by the United States. The wave of mass protests swept nearly all the Arab countries, four countries went through regime changes and three wars broke out. Extraordinarily massive turmoil that went way beyond the normal state emerged in the Middle East. 

In 2014,the Islamic State (ISIL) was quite rampant in waging battles and seizing ground. Some scholars concluded that the Middle East entered a new chaotic era and was mired in a full crisis, featuring a collapsed political order, a disintegrated political pattern, a shattered power structure and a shaken foundation for the sovereign state system. There would simply be no ending to the chaos in the Middle East and it would only become more and more turbulent. The situation had been described as pitch dark without any trace of hope. These views, however, failed to see the greater picture, exaggerated the realities and as a result, misled the public and disrupted the decision-making process. As more than two years have passed, what has happened has proven that the above-mentioned conclusions are not accurate. 

How to assess the situation in the Middle East in 2016 and its evolution in 2017 deserves attention. 

I. The overall situation will remain relatively stable, but local turmoil will persist. 

The current state of Arab countries can be divided into three categories: first, turmoil in most Arab countries has been put down and stability and development has been restored after 2012. Second, elected governments were established in Tunisia and Egypt in 2014 after their respective regime changes. The situation in the two countries has been basically under control as they work hard to restore economic development and improve people’s livelihood. Third, positive changes have taken place in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen which are still in wars, and the situation there is far from tranquil. It is unlikely that the Middle East will enjoy full stability, but the normal state that prevailed before the massive turmoil featuring local turbulences with controllable intensity has been restored. 

II. Falling from its peak, ISIL is doomed to fail. 

ISIL gained strong momentum as it made use of the civil war in Syria and turmoil in Iraq to develop its forces and occupied cities through battles. The United States and several regional powers connived at and even supported it out of their short-sighted consideration for overthrowing the regime under Bashar al Assad. However, since the anti-human atrocities of ISIL have threatened their interest and in particular, as Russia conducted air strikes with visible effects against ISIL in 2015, the United States and regional powers changed their approach and strengthened their efforts to fight against ISIL. After seizing back from ISIL important cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit, the government forces of Iraq waged a large-scaled battle against Mosul, ISIL’s last stronghold in Iraq in October 2016. Nearly 30,000 troops from government forces, Kurdish armed forces as well as Shia and Sunni militias joined the battle. The ISIL forces besieged in Mosul stand at around 8,000, so it is only a question of time for the government forces to win as they have already taken the east of the city and are pressing westward. In Syria, the government forces took back the important city of Aleppo in the north in December 2016 and then controlled all the major five cities. The ISIL forces have been confined to Ar-Raqqah. It is estimated that ISIL has lost over 80% of areas under its control in Syria and Iraq and its human and financial resources have dwindled sharply. This backward Caliphate State is bound to fail. This is not only of major significance for Syria and Iraq to move toward stability, but also will exert favorable impact on the counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and the whole world. Nevertheless, ISIL is still resisting adamantly and is likely to flow to other countries in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. As long as there is still breeding ground for terrorism, it will be hard to eradicate it thoroughly and the fight against terrorism remains a long-term task. 

III. Positive changes have emerged in the four countries which are in war but it is still hard to restore stability there.

(I)The Syrian government forces have recovered Aleppo, taking back their proactive position in the battlefield and President Bashar regained his foothold. Under the mediation by Russia, Iran and Turkey, the government forces and the armed forces of the opposition realized a ceasefire and resumed political negotiation. The negotiation was held first in Kazakhstan and on 23 February moved to Geneva, where Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, chaired the negotiation. However, no breakthrough was made, and the two parties did not even have direct dialogue. On 3 March, the special envoy announced that the two parties agreed on the agenda items of the next round of negotiation, namely, the establishment of a government of national unity, revision of the constitution, holding a general election and counter-terrorism. The fifth round of negotiation will be held on 25 March. Despite continued peace talks, it is still not an easy task to achieve breakthroughs. 

Apart from the government forces, there are the armed forces of ISIL, the Kurdish and the opposition as well as Turkish troops and the US special forces. The situation on the battlefield has always been the bargaining chip in negotiations. What cannot be obtained on the battlefield will not be possibly gained through negotiation either. 

The government forces are supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon. The opposition armed forces have complex makeup, which includes Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, a terrorist force, and they are supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Kurdish armed forces have the support of the United States and Russia, but Turkey keeps fighting against them because it regards them as a branch of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). If Russia, the United States, Iran and Turkey cannot reach a compromise, it will be difficult to solve the Syrian crisis in a real sense. 

(II) Five years have passed since Muammar Gaddafi was killed, but Libya is still torn by warlords. Four governments exist simultaneously: the government in the east city of Tobruk under the support of the Libya National Assembly; the national salvation government supported by religious forces and the national unity government backed by the United Nations in the capital city of Tripoli; and the government of ISIL in Dema. Though the national unity government is recognized by the international community, it does not have the foundation for governance as it is lacking in popular support and weak in strength. People in the country have a hard life as their physical and property safety cannot be guaranteed and the whole country is in a state of anarchy. Years ago, the United States and major European powers actively overthrew the Gaddafi regime under the pretext of humanitarian assistance. However, they do nothing for the current grave humanitarian crisis in Libya. 

(III) The civil war in Yemen has led to the deaths of over 8,000 people. The Houthi forces have controlled Sana’a with the support of Iran and the Hadi government has been relocated to the south under the support of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi military intervention has not achieved much effect. In the meantime, ISIL and Al-Qaeda have taken the opportunity to develop their forces. Currently, both the Houthi and Hadi forces have the intention to seek political reconciliation and Saudi Arabia does not want to continue fighting either. Chaired by the UN representative, the two parties held peace negotiation. However, big divide exists concerning what they pursue respectively and it will be a difficult bargaining process to realize peaceful reconciliation. 
(IV) Iraq has a legitimate government and military forces, but the Kurdish people enjoy a high degree of autonomy in the north and the Sunni forces will not follow the orders of a government under the control of Shia forces. It is an encouraging development that various parties jointly launched a battle to recover Mosul, but it is still worrisome as to whether after the battle, they will have conflicts over the control and administration of this second biggest city of the country. 

IV. Russia has scored continuously while the United States has found itself in more troubles in their rivalry in the Middle East.
In 2011, the United States put forward the rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific and shifted its global strategic focus eastward. In the same year, massive turmoil erupted in the Arab world. The neo-interventionism pursued by Barack Obama led to the chaotic situation in Libya and Syria and provided opportunities for the rising of ISIL. Then the Obama administration adjusted its Middle East policy and scaled down its actions there. Its major thinking is: first, slow down the implementation of neo-interventionism to seek stability while preventing instability; second, reduce military interventions; and third, make use of existing problems and its “smart power” to strike a balance so that conflicting forces will check one another. In line with this new thinking, the United States reached agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue and pushed Palestine to engage in peace negotiation with Israel, which failed however due to the obstinate attitude of the latter. The United States refused to directly intervene militarily in Syria and connived at ISIL in an attempt to let ISIL fight with the Syrian government so that both sides would lose. It has maneuvered between Iran and Saudi Arabia with a balancing trick so that the two countries will check each other and their conflict would not spin out of control. It can do nothing to the Russian military intervention in the Syrian crisis but would not willingly accept it, and thus its rivalry with Russia has become more drastic. The US input in the Middle East has declined and so has its influence. But it cannot leave or give up the region and still wants to keep its dominant position. Obama’s Middle East policy failed to achieve its expected effects while its relations with traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel went sour. 

Russia has returned to the Middle East in an assertive way. On 30 September 2015, Russia had an air strike against the terrorist forces in Syria and achieved visible results that outperformed the counter-terrorism alliance led by the United States. The Russian military intervention has weakened the rampant momentum of ISIL and the opposition armed forces and strengthened the combative capacity of the Syrian government forces, who were able to take offensive positions and kept regaining lost ground. The domestic power structure in Syria has changed. As a result, the United States has been compelled to change its approach from refusing to cooperate with Russia in counter-terrorism to working with it to push for the launch of political settlement of the Syrian crisis. However, as Russia and the United States have different strategic goals and serious difference, it is quite difficult to advance the process of political settlement.
Russia’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia grew visibly. After the failed coup, Turkey’s relations with the United States have deteriorated and it took the initiative to improve its ties with Russia, which, despite past grievances, made active response. On 20 December 2016, foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey made a statement in Moscow, indicating that the three countries would help the government and the opposition of Syria draft a reconciliation agreement and act as guarantors. Apparently, Russia has greater say now on the Syrian issue. 
As Russia has sought to return to the Middle East in recent years, its military intervention in Syria is a successful move to that end. Russia has scored frequently in the Middle East while the United States has found itself in more troubles. However, as Russia has difficulty in its domestic economy and restrictions in its national strength, it is unlikely to make inputs beyond its national strength in the region. Though its influence has been restored to a certain extent, Russia cannot replace the US dominance in the Middle East. 
V. How Donald Trump will adjust his Middle East policy merits attention.  

As the Trump administration is still adjusting and formulating its foreign policies, its Middle East policy is not clear yet. Given the existing information, the following points are worthy of attention: first, the Trump administration has placed emphasis on counter-terrorism and even indicated that it would work with Russia to fight terrorism. By sending another 400 marine troops to Syria on 9 March, plus its special forces already in Syria, the United States has stationed 900 troops in the country. Before that, senior military officers of the United States, Russia and Turkey had talks in Turkey to coordinate their military actions in Syria. Second, the Trump administration has shown more partiality to Israel and less commitment to solve the Palestine-Israel issue by the two-state solution. And it has adopted an ambiguous attitude towards Israel’s expansion of settlement and even claimed that it would relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This has resulted in criticism and discontent of Palestine and Arab countries. Third, the Trump administration has been more harsh on Iran. Donald Trump criticized in strong words the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue during his presidential campaign. However, since this is an international agreement recognized by the Unite Nations, it is unlikely for the United States to repeal it unilaterally or withdraw from it alone. After taking office, Donald Trump has stepped up the sanction against Iran. The two sides had confronted with each other at the Strait of Hormuz, resulting in escalated tensions. Fourth, the Trump administration has improved its relations with Saudi Arabia. Fifth, the Trump administration criticized that the previous US policy of “regime change” was not cost-effective. So do all the above-mentioned mean that Donald Trump has no intention to wage new wars or create further chaos in the Middle East?

Some scholars believe that the Middle East is an urgent task on Donald Trump’s diplomatic agenda, while others maintain that Trump will get the United States further away from the region. The author believes that Donald Trump will not change the US decision of shifting its strategic focus eastward and it is likely that the United States will intensify its counter-terrorism efforts. However, it does not have the intention or capability to increase its input in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it will continue to maintain its dominant role there as it still has so many interests that it cannot leave or give up the region. 
VI. Regional powers have seen the rise and fall of their respective strengths while their competition persists.
(I) Iran has suffered more bashings from the United States. It has been playing its role with certain say in the regional hot-spot issues such as those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon as well as fighting ISIL. However, after signing the agreement on the nuclear issue, the United States did not lift its sanctions against Iran. Instead, the Senate and the House of Representatives decided in November 2016 to extend the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years. Therefore, the US-Iran relations has not improved substantively. Iran’s economy has been recovered to a certain extent, but has not developed exponentially as some people expected. Sunni countries represented by Saudi Arabia have deep-seated misgivings on Iran, and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran persists. Donald Trump has adopted a tougher approach towards Iran. Since Iran is both Shia and Persian in its nature and the United States will not tolerate the excessive expansion of its influence, it cannot play a dominant role in the Middle East where the Sunnis and Arabs are the mainstay. 

(II) Saudi Arabia faces increasing difficulties. The oil price has remained low and Saudi Arabia’s fiscal deficit was as high as US$98 billion in 2015. It formed alliance troops to intervene in the war in Yemen, but the military actions were not successful, resulting in heavy burdens on the people and losses of property. Thus it is hard to sustain the military intervention. Saudi Arabia has adopted extreme policies towards Syria and insisted on overthrowing the Bashar regime, but cannot realize its goal. This has put it in a passive position. It has strongly opposed the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, exaggerated the threats from Iran and been bent on confronting with Iran. The United States, as a result, has been quite dissatisfied with it. The US congress passed a resolution which recognized the right of 9.11 incident victims and their family members to sue the Saudi government, who was greatly angered. However, the maintenance of the US-Saudi alliance is still where the interests of the two countries lie and their ties will improve during the Trump presidency. 

(III) Turkey has been mired in difficulty both at home and abroad. It has long been eager to join the European Union. Since the massive turmoil broke out in the Middle East, Turkey has gone all out to interfere in the regional affairs. After the eruption of the civil war in Syria, Turkey sided with the United States and Saudi Arabia to force Bashar to step down. It publicly condemned Egypt and supported the Muslim Brotherhood when Mohamed Morsi was deposed. When ISIL was developing rampantly, Turkey opened its border with Syria and turned a blind eye to the smuggling of oil and flow of people and material from ISIL. It was at odds with Russia when it shot down a military jet from Russia which had air strikes against ISIL. The conflicts between the Turkish government and PKK aggravated as the former kept attacking the PKK bases in Iraq and Syria and the latter launched frequent terrorist attacks within Turkey. What Turkey has done has resulted in complaints from many regional countries and its influence in the region has dwindled visibly.

On 15 and 16 July 2016, a failed coup occurred in Turkey. The Turkish government carried out severe oppression and extensive cleansing after the coup attempt, and therefore was criticized by the United States and Europe. Turkey accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader living in the United States, of plotting the coup and asked to extradite him. However, the United States did not accept the request and Turkey was enraged. Turkey’s relations with the United States and the EU went increasingly tense. In the meantime, Turkey has proactively improved its relations with Russia by apologizing for shooting down the Russian military jet. It has also adjusted its policy towards Syria and coordinated with Russia and Iran to arrange for the evacuation of the Syrian opposition armed forces from Aleppo and push for the ceasefire and peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

As two thirds of the Kurdish people live in Turkey, their pursuit of independence is one of its major concerns. Despite opposition from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, Turkey sent troops to the two countries to gain greater say over the Kurdish issue. 

Turkey is now organizing a referendum on the presidential system. Public opinion in Europe is quite critical of that as they are concerned that the Turkish presidential system may lead to dictatorship. 

Some people believe that the political developments in Turkey are brewing for major changes. 

(IV) Egypt is reviving with difficulty. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi has basically stabilized the situation under the support of the military. What is urgent now for the country is to develop its economy, improve the people’s livelihood, consolidate the government power and restore its influence in the region. The sluggish world economy has affected Egypt’s revenue from the canal and remittances. Terrorist attacks occur from time to time and as a result, the tourism sector has been hard hit. The adjustment to the economic policy is far from adequate and therefore there is not much appeal to attract foreign investment. All these have made it difficult for Egypt to revive its economy. And the recovery of its influence in regional affairs has also been slow.  

(V) Israel is in isolation. The US-Iran relations have been eased with the signing of the agreement on the nuclear issue. The United States has shifted its strategic focus eastward while scaling down in the Middle East. Some discords have occurred in the US-Israel relations and Israel has felt increasingly unassured about its own security and thus become tougher on Palestine. On the other hand, major Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq have been preoccupied with their own troubles, providing less support to Palestine. This has emboldened Israel. The international community is unhappy with Israel’s thwarting the Palestine-Israel peace talks and some European countries have adopted a harsh approach to Israel. However, these have fallen short of compelling Israel to change its Palestine policy. However, after Donald Trump took office, Israel-US relations have heated up significantly.
Rivalries among regional powers are mainly reflected in the Saudi-Iran relations. No major conflicts will break out as long as there is no instigation and support from outside powers. The religious frictions between Shias and Sunnis have been obviously used and amplified by regional powers in their geopolitical wrestlings. 

VII. The issue of Palestine has been marginalized. 

Fatah and Hamas have serious difference and cannot get united to deal with Israel. The support from the Arab world to Palestine has weakened while the Trump administration has taken a more pro-Israel approach. Israel has been tougher in its posture and the balance of power between Israel and Palestine is increasingly unfavorable to the latter. It is difficult to launch the Palestine-Israel peace talks and even if the talks were launched, it would be hard to make breakthroughs. The Palestine issue has been actually marginalized. Under such circumstances, radical forces in Palestine may turn to violence again, though due to the huge gap in strengths between Palestine and Israel, violent conflicts will hardly work or spin out of control. 

VIII. The power of the Kurdish people is expanding and they show a stronger preference to independence, but it will not be easy for them to establish an independent state.

The Kurdish people in Iraq have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. In early 2016, they proposed to have an referendum on independence, which was opposed by various parties concerned. The Kurdish people in Syria have strengthened their power. In March 2016, they indicated that they wanted to build an autonomous federation in the Kurdish area in north Syria, which was immediately opposed by the Syrian government as well as Turkey and the United States. The Kurdish people issued a statement at once which said that what they wanted was an alliance rather than a federation and autonomy rather than independence. The conflicts between the Kurdish people in Turkey and the Turkish government have worsened as the government is on high alert against the Kurdish pursuit of independence. The Kurdish people are scattered in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq and they have never established a state in history. An independent state of the Kurdish people will not only endanger the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the four countries concerned, but also impact the geopolitical pattern in the region. No consensus has been reached internally among the Kurdish people, and the international community does not support it either. Therefore, it will not be easy for the Kurdish people to establish an independent state.


Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out on 8 March that once again the situation in the Middle East has reached a crucial crossroad with both risks of growing instability and the promise of peace. There are many factors, both internal and external ones, that can influence the Middle East situation. In the new century, the Bush administration launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Obama administration stoked the wars in Libya and Syria. The United States is the major external factor for the turmoil in the Middle East. Therefore, how the Trump administration will formulate its Middle East policy merits attention. In recent years, as Russia has returned to the Middle East, the US-Russia rivalry has become another major factor affecting the regional situation. In 2017, several hot-spot issues in the Middle East may cool down, but it is unlikely to realize peace. Turbulences will persist and may aggravate, but such a possibility is not very high. The Middle East has indeed reached a crucial crossroad. 

An Huihou is Director of Research Center of China Foundation of International Studies,Special-Term Research Fellow of China Institute of International Studies and Former Ambassador of China to Algeria, Tunisia and Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt.