World Middle East Briefing

For a Mideast roiling with conflict and change, 2017 promises more of same

models of thought

The conflict with ISIS and even older war in Syria will continue to radiate ferment across a region that will also witness an as-yet unknown Trump effect.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talk to each other during their meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Dec. 20, 2016. There was no US presence as the foreign ministers met to discuss Syria. Russia's ambassador to Turkey was assassinated the previous night by an Ankara policeman, who cried out: "Don't forget Aleppo! Don't forget Syria!"
Pavel Golovkin/AP
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Already in turmoil, the Middle East is set to further transform in 2017, with critical changes likely in many countries throughout the region.

Even as politics and conflicts reach new inflection points, the arrival of President-elect Donald Trump in the White House will add a new ingredient to an already combustible mix.

Here's a brief guide to what took place in 2016 and what to expect in 2017 in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, and Iran:

Q. Is Syria’s six-year-old war finally reaching an end?

Despite the announcement Thursday by Syria and its main ally, Russia, that it had reached a cease-fire agreement with rebel groups and with Turkey, few would predict that its civil war will soon be over. Nevertheless, the recapture of rebel-held eastern Aleppo that facilitated the cease-fire agreement has already proven to be a game changer. In Aleppo, rebel forces – some backed by the United States, others linked to so-called Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda – were forced from their most significant urban stronghold.

The IS- and Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups were not included in the announced cease-fire, and it was not clear whether it would be implemented or how widely it would hold. But smelling victory are the Syrian Army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad – backed by more than a year of Russian airstrikes – and ground forces from Iran, Hezbollah, and allied Shiite militias. That alliance is consolidating control over the crucial western spine of Syria, and in the process is cementing Russian influence in the region, as well as expanding Iran’s arc of influence.

Those gains have come at the expense of the US, which has been unable to realize its aim of unseating Mr. Assad after a half-hearted bid – along with allies Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – to back anti-regime rebels, who nevertheless are vowing to continue their resistance.

Last week Turkey joined the talks in Moscow with Russia and Iran that led to the cease-fire deal, without the US or United Nations at the table. The previous week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said a stagnant US- and UN-backed peace process in Geneva amounted to “fruitless sitting around.”

In 2017, expect these three parties to maintain an ad hoc vanguard aimed at limiting the influence of the US and its allies in the Middle East, while they try to expand their own.

“All previous attempts by the US and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after talks Dec. 20. “None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground.”

Q. How far has Iraq progressed in its fight against ISIS?

For the government in Baghdad, 2017 is likely to be defined by eventually defeating the Islamic State in Mosul, the Sunni jihadists’ last urban stronghold in Iraq, followed by an effort to overcome sectarian divisions between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds as the common enemy disappears.

The Iraqi Army launched its Mosul offensive in mid-October, backed by US airstrikes. Kurdish ground forces tackled the surrounding villages, and Shiite militias that were partly trained and supported by Iran advanced on the western flank, cutting off IS retreat into Syria.

The Sunni jihadists have fought back with hundreds of car bombs, suicide bombers, and lethal ambush tactics in the tight urban terrain in Iraq’s sprawling second city. But few doubt that IS will be forced out, as it has been from a string of other Iraqi cities.

Despite the prolonged battle for Mosul, it is the post-ISIS world that may present the most challenges for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He has framed every offensive in terms of national unity, and promised a “new future” for all Iraqis.

But analysts say that, as the New Year begins, few lessons have been learned from decades of sectarian strife.

“They never listen to each other,” Baghdad security analyst Hisham alHashimi told the Monitor. “Sunni disappointment will go up, and the Shiite sense of victimhood will go up. Both of them are ready to go back to conflict.”

Q. What will change in the White House mean in Israel?

President Barack Obama’s team oversaw one of the chilliest relationships in public with Israel, a close US ally. The president famously did not get on with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who all but campaigned for Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger in 2012, and later sought every way – even from the podium of a joint session of Congress – to block the Iran nuclear deal.

Obama’s call years ago to stop settlement building in Palestinian territory as an obstacle to peace was only briefly honored, and Secretary of State John Kerry finally gave up on a personal mission to broker an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution.

The chill and the frustrations culminated in a historic UN Security Council vote on Dec. 23 in which the US withheld its veto of a measure condemning Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. The censure elicited angry denunciations in Israel of a US “betrayal” as well as vows to continue construction projects.

All this after Obama was widely acknowledged to have been more friendly to Israel – in terms of weapons deals and intelligence sharing – than any previous president.

Trump, who had lobbied for the US to veto the resolution, promises a warmer public relationship with Israel, at the very least, and Mr. Netanyahu was among the first to call and congratulate the president-elect. They appear to see eye to eye on the changing the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump has said he will move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which successive US leaders have refused to do for decades.

But controversy has already erupted over Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, who has stated views that align with the Israeli far right. He supports settlement building, has said it would not be illegal for Israel to annex the West Bank, and has likened liberal Jews in America to “kapos,” the Jewish prisoners who helped run the Nazis’ concentration camps during the Holocaust.

In a statement, the Trump transition team said Mr. Friedman’s appointment would “further enhance the US-Israeli relationship” and ensure “extraordinary strategic, technological, military and intelligence cooperation.”

Q. Will security improve in Turkey?

Turkey will remember 2016 as a year in which violent attacks soared against civilians and security forces alike and saw, in its closing days, the assassination of the Russian ambassador by a young Turkish police officer. Kurdish and IS militants fought back against the Turkish state by targeting everything from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport to riot police guarding a soccer match.

The year will also be remembered for the mid-July coup attempt aimed at toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Mr. Erdoğan responded swiftly, launching the arrests of more than 140,000 army officers, police, educators, and civil servants with alleged links to the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom he accused of mounting the coup attempt.

Mr. Gülen’s exile in the US – and Washington’s failure to meet Turkey’s demand to extradite him – helped spawn a surge of anti-Americanism so wild that even this reporter was accused in print of being part of a CIA team that orchestrated the coup.

But the event also helped Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP consolidate power in the name of flag-waving national unity, and brought a key opposition party to support Erdoğan’s dream of creating an unassailable executive presidency.

In 2017, expect the Turkish lira to keep falling and violent attacks to continue, as Syria’s war – and the presence of upwards of two million Syrian refugees on Turkish soil – burns on, and Erdoğan’s political project comes closer to fruition.

Q. What changes are coming to Iran, affecting politics and the nuclear deal?

The signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration has been the Iran nuclear deal, agreed to in July 2015, which limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

Critics on both sides have hammered the deal, and Trump has called it “disastrous.” But it is far from clear whether he will have the bandwidth as president in 2017 to dismantle a deal that even critics acknowledge is largely working, with so many other urgent items on his agenda.

Inside Iran in 2017, the nuclear deal will play an indirect role in politics, too, as President Hassan Rouhani – a key architect of the agreement with six world powers – runs for reelection in May. Hard-line conservatives will highlight how little has been gained, in terms of economic benefit, and point out that the US Congress recently voted overwhelmingly to extend non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for a decade, adding ammunition to their view that the “Great Satan” can’t be trusted.

At the same time, Mr. Rouhani will likely benefit in the ballot once again from his agenda – only partly realized, his supporters say, to be sure – to loosen social restrictions and continue outreach to the West. Also key: Hard-liners have put forward no viable challenger so far.

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