Cairo: Will 2018 dampen the fires that rage across the Middle East? Although skepticism is understandable, there is a glimmer of change.
The fight against Daesh is mostly over, and the war in Syria may finally be winding down. The region is transitioning from fighting those wars to dealing with their aftermath - the destruction and dispersal of populations they wrought and the political fallout. Iran’s influence has grown after its proxies were generally successful, and even its nuclear deal with the West remains in place.
In Saudi Arabia, a youthful new leader is promising long-delayed modernisation at home and greater confrontation with Iran in the region.
Donald Trump in the White House adds a mercurial element to an exceedingly combustible brew.
If pessimism reigns, much can be traced to the failure of the 2010-11 Arab Spring revolts against despotism. Instead of the democratic tsunami many envisaged, a string of wars has followed.
Libya seems doomed to chaos and the war in Yemen is a genuine humanitarian crisis. In many places the old guard remains in place. So spectacular is the wreckage that almost no one refers to the Arab Spring without irony any more.
Egypt, which gripped the world’s attention when street demonstrations - and the military - toppled Hosni Mubarak seven years ago, may be the best example of the scaled-down ambition. After several years of mayhem it seems more stable now, the economy starting to grow and tourism up. Islamist terrorism remains a problem, though, especially in the Sinai Peninsula and against Christians, and freedoms have been curtailed.
Still, there is little sense of foment in the streets - where protests are severely restricted - and barring a surprise, President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi can expect to win re-election in a few months.
Here’s a look at some possible inflection points for 2018:
ALL QUIET ON THE SYRIAN FRONT?
Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad has been embattled since war erupted in his country almost seven years ago, when his demise was widely predicted in the early going. But it looks like he’ll survive, for now, as the war appears to draw to a close.
Major military operations have tapered off, with Al Assad in control of key areas and the war against Daesh mostly concluded with the recapture of the cities it controlled.
Bloodshed still lies ahead if Al Assad tries to seize areas still under rebel control, including some near the capital and in Idlib province to the north. But local cease-fires brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey have significantly reduced the daily carnage that kept Syria in the news.
The damage, with half the population displaced and almost a half million killed, is huge. Tens of thousands are missing, many believed held in government detention centres. Syrian Kurds in the north hold nearly 25 per cent of the country” Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and Lebanese troops all maintain bases they are likely to keep for now.
The fate of Al Assad, whose heavy-handed, decades-old family rule sparked the rebellion, remains a toxic issue that has scuttled all diplomatic efforts at peace. Backed by Russia and Iran, it may seem like Al Assad has won the war: too many of his frustrated opponents turned to extremist groups such as Al Qaida and Daesh for the United States and the West to jump in and risk conflict with Russia. But the endgame remains open.
A PHOENIX ON THE TIGRIS
The war against Daesh has been declared over after four years of savagery. The group’s epic abuses - enslaving women, massacring whole populations, grisly killings, mass terrorism - inspired a furious reaction that has left large parts of Iraq in smoldering ruins. The fight by the US-led coalition was grueling in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hawija, Tal Afar and finally Mosul. Whether Iraq can rebuild is a key question for 2018, for only then will Baghdad regain the authority to govern the whole country.
The cash-strapped government estimates $100 billion is needed nationwide - while leaders in Mosul say that amount is needed for their city alone. Funding is unclear, and the United States - whose coalition dropped approximately 27,700 munitions around Mosul from October 2016 to July 2017 - seems to be washing its hands.
While 2.7 million Iraqis have returned to lands retaken from Daesh, more than 3 million others cannot - including some 600,000 from Mosul. Thousands of civilians were killed. More than 70 per cent of Ramadi remains damaged or destroyed, according to authorities there.
At the heart of the matter are the sectarian divisions that bedevil not only Iraq but Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the region whose borders were mostly drawn by Europeans. The destroyed areas are largely Sunni, while the Baghdad government is Shiite-dominated. If rebuilding efforts fail, the Sunni areas will likely become restive again.
PROMISE IN SAUDI ARABIA
The monarchies of the region - from Morocco to Jordan to the Gulf - were the least affected by the Arab Spring.
In Saudi Arabia, change appears to be coming, symbolised by the ubiquitous acronym MBS - the widely used nickname for 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
He has been stumping for a more moderate view of religion and is widely credited with the recent decisions to end the highly contentious, decades-old bans on women driving and cinemas operating.
The crown prince is also widely seen as the driving force behind the an anti-corruption drive which saw the arrests of dozens of his fellow princes on corruption charges.
The move was widely praised by Saudi citizens who have long wished for greater transparency in the country.
Saudi Arabia has also led the political and econ-omic boycott of Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran.
Following a series of demands, such as the closure of its state-owned Al Jazeera television network, the situation seems to be mired in stalemate.
A PENULTIMATE DEAL?
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Occupied Jerusalem as the Israeli capital will usher in a period of instability in 2018, not only in Palestine but across the region.
Israel occupied Jerusalem and much of the West Bank in the 1967 War in a move never recognised by the international community.
Palesitnians want Jerusalem as the capital of their future promised state and see Trump’s unilateral recognition and as the final nail in the coffin for peace.
Palestinian leaders say the move means the US can no longer be an honest broker for peace.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to snub US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits Israel and Palestine in mid January.
Already there is talk of a third Palestinian uprising as daily protests take place—the violence has killed eight Palestinians so far.
While the US has long been accused of favouring Israel and turning a blind eye to its colony expansion on occupied Palestininan territory, Trump’s tenure has ushered in a period of unprecedented Israeli land grabs.
The situation looks untenable in the coming year and violence is sure to intensify.