The political geography of the “Middle East” as we know it was conceived by Britain and France, exercising the victors’ imperial prerogative at the end of World War I. But the resulting system of nation-states enters 2015 on increasingly shaky foundations.
New sovereignties contemptuous of those national borders are being established by claimants who were either ignored (the Kurds) or hard to imagine (ISIL) when Messrs. Sykes and Picot drew their maps dividing up the territory in 1916. And the extent to which Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya continue to define functioning political units is increasingly in question. The demographic make-up of the states of the Levant has been dramatically altered in the wars that, by the end of 2014, have displaced 13.6 million people from their homes in Iraq and Syria— a “Nakbah” whose impact on the already fragile stability of surrounding countries will be felt more acutely in the coming year.
The region’s most dramatic news story in 2014 was the extraordinary battlefield gains by ISIL — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — which largely eclipsed Al Qaeda by conquering and holding territory in both Syria and Iraq. While U.S.-led airstrikes (and in some cases, ground offensives involving elements with whom the United States is not exactly allied) have helped contain the group’s advances, even the Obama administration’s own projections suggest we’ll still be discussing ISIL a year from now. Indeed, internal discord over strategy and tactics may be the extremists’ most immediate problem.
President Barack Obama says the U.S. “leads a coalition” that will eventually degrade and destroy the organization, but that terminology doesn’t quite capture the desultory nature of the anti-ISIL effort — by allocation of resources alone, it’s clear that fighting ISIL is not an overwhelming strategic priority for Washington. And most of its partners prioritize other agendas, often different from those of the U.S. The debacle at Kobane was but one example: Turkey held back on allowing the reinforcement of the town’s Kurdish defenders, who were aligned with a Kurdish faction — the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party — deemed a “terrorist” enemy by Ankara. Turkey was also reluctant to join a U.S. fight against ISIL that included no plan to take down the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
But tackling Assad is not part of the U.S. war plan in Syria, nor does anyone expect the regime to fall any time soon. And in Iraq, fighting ISIL puts the U.S. on the same side as an Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. While the Saudis and Emiratis have joined the fight against ISIL, combating Iranian influence remains a greater strategic priority. And so on, in a coalition somehow less than the sum of its parts.
A decade ago, the U.S. was setting the region’s agenda through the effort to re-engineer its politics through the mass projection of military force that began with the invasion of Iraq. That experiment failed, and today Washington’s importance in shaping the decisions of many longtime U.S. allies has considerably diminished — 2014 served up plenty of reminders that Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, for example, no longer follow Washington’s lead and are increasingly willing to pursue their own strategies even when those conflict with U.S. goals. Expect more of the same in 2015.
The hope for democratic transformation represented by the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings was largely a memory in 2014, amid the civil wars rending Syria and Libya — and the entrenchment in Egypt of a regime even more authoritarian than that of Hosni Mubarak confirms that trend. Tunisia did recently buck the trend by providing an example of a peaceful transfer of power, but even there the political sphere reflects extra-constitutional pressures.
Bizarre as it may seem, one of the more hopeful signs in a region battered by turbulence over the past year has been the consolidation of a diplomatic trend in U.S.-Iran relations through nuclear negotiations. Domestic repression in Tehran continues unabated, but even the failure to conclude a final nuclear agreement in November did not diminish the significance of the continuation of an interim agreement that has, for the past year, capped Iran’s nuclear work at levels that have reassured its international interlocutors. Regular negotiations between Iranian and U.S. officials for the first time since 1979 have raised hopes of greater regional stability, but hardliners in both Tehran and Washington — as well as Israel and the Saudis — are alarmed by what they see as unacceptable compromises, and will seek to cool the rapprochement in 2015.
Iran’s calculations may be affected by the other key regional wildcard — the collapse in oil prices — which is now costing the sanctions-strapped Iranian economy as much as $1 billion a month. But those falling prices could also change a number of other calculations. They reinforce Washington’s diminished strategic interest in the region, as the U.S. is projected to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest supplier by 2020. It also diminishes the funds available to gulf oil producers to fund their political allies elsewhere in the turbulent region.
The Middle East of 2014 was beset by the morbid symptoms of the slow disintegration of an old order. Unfortunately, that disintegration shows no signs of being reversed — or replaced — in the coming year.