The New Year began with a major crisis in the Middle East, one that is likely to shape the face of the region, and international relations in general, for years to come. The rapid escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran began with the execution of senior Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr by the Saudis, who accused him of calling for an armed insurrection against the state. This was followed by an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran which, in turn, led Riyadh to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. Multiple Sunni nations--including, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and Djibouti--announced their support for Saudi Arabia in the following days. Iran has also accused Saudi Arabia of “intentionally” striking its embassy in Yemen, which was hit by an airstrike late Wednesday night.
Many see this confrontation as the culmination of an ongoing cold war between the two countries. While the two rivals had, until now, largely fought each other for regional hegemony behind the scenes through proxies in Yemen, Syria, and to some extent, Lebanon, hostilities now threaten to turn into a full-fledged sectarian conflict. The growing animosity between the region’s two giants, one the global leader of the Shi’a and the other of the Sunni world, has repercussions far beyond Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and US’ Policy on Syria and Iran
This chain of events was driven partly by Saudi efforts to clamp down on internal dissent, but also by Riyadh’s significant disappointment and unease with US policy in the region in recent years. Following the Iran nuclear deal, the fear in Riyadh is that Washington is giving preference to Iranian interests over those of Saudi Arabia, and that the nuclear deal will have disastrous consequences for Saudi Arabia’s political standing in the region and for its economy once sanctions against Iran are lifted. The fears in Riyadh only intensified after the Saudis realized that Washington had also changed its stance on the war in Syria. Having favored Assad’s immediate removal from power since the early years of the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration seems to have suddenly aligned itself with the Russian-Iranian position, which would allow for a transitional period of at least one year during which Assad would remain in power. Then, only a few days ago, the Obama administration decided not to follow through with its threat of imposing new sanctions against Iran following recent Iranian ballistic missile tests. In severing ties with Iran, the Saudis seem to be signaling to the Obama administration that if the US fails to come out against what they perceive as Iranian aggression in the region, they will do so on their own.
Fallout from the Saudi announcement was immediate: Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in cutting its ties with Iran, the UAE curtailed its diplomatic representation in Tehran, Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Iran, and Sudan expelled the Iranian ambassador from Khartoum.
Room for Optimism
While the above does not leave a lot of room for optimism, in my first letter of 2016 I would like to note several recent developments in the Middle East that nonetheless may indicate some progress in the region on both conflict resolution and human rights.
Turkey – Israel Relations
One conflict in the Middle East that seems to be nearing resolution is that between Turkey and Israel. This anticipated resolution would bring to an end a five-year period in which relations were strained following the 2010 Israeli commando raid of a Turkish ship as it attempted to break the Gaza blockade, during which nine Turkish citizens were killed. In an about face, President Erdogan publicly stated several weeks ago that the rehabilitation of relations between the two countries is essential for the region’s stability. Shortly thereafter, both countries confirmed that they had concluded the details of an agreement that will allow a Turkish ambassador to return to Tel Aviv and an Israeli ambassador to Ankara. No doubt, this development is driven first and foremost by the strain in Turkish-Russian relations, which has led Erdogan to seek new regional alliances that will help him protect Turkish interests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at large. At the same time, both countries have additional national security interests that have accelerated their negotiations, especially the desire to prevent Iran from increasing its influence in the region.
Human Rights in the Gulf
The close of 2015 offers some glimmer of hope not only in terms of conflict resolution but also in regard to human rights. Only several weeks ago, Saudi Arabian women were allowed to vote in local council elections and to run as political candidates for the first time in the country’s history. Nearly 1,000 women ran in the elections, and 19 of them won seats on various municipal councils. Around the same time, Saudi authorities also announced a decision to allow divorced women and widows to manage family affairs without requiring a man’s approval or a special court order, a major step to scale back some of the legal powers that Saudi men hold over their female relatives.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are barred from driving and in which they are the legal wards of a male "guardian," usually a father, husband, or brother, who is empowered to make major life decisions for them. Moreover, the municipal council elections do not carry much importance and the female candidates were not even allowed to meet male voters face to face in their campaign to persuade men to vote for them. Even so, it is possible that what we are witnessing is the beginning of an historic change that may eventually lead to the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia, albeit slowly and gradually. This remains, of course, a big if, but there is certainly cause to be hopeful.
The Battle Against ISIS
Finally, 2015 ended with some optimism regarding the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the efforts to cripple its power and the threat it represents. The importance of the victory of Iraqi forces in liberating Ramadi, the capital of Sunni Al-Anbar province, located some 100 km from Baghdad, cannot be overstated. This is the most notable setback ISIS has suffered in Iraq in more than two years, as it could lead to ending ISIS’s control over other cities in Al-Anbar. According to various estimates, ISIS lost about 15 percent of its territory during 2015.
In any event, territorial defeats by ISIS are not an indication that the organization is close to being eradicated altogether. ISIS is a global network committed to using terrorist methods and defeats suffered by ISIS in the Middle East may further motivate its members to strike in Western capitals, as they did weeks ago in Paris. Still, the fact that 2016 begins with ISIS on the defensive in Iraq and Syria, and that Iraqi forces, with US assistance, are taking up the fight, is a promising sign.
US in the Middle East in 2016
Entering 2016, the dye has been cast with respect to how the region views the role of the United States. For better or worse, the Obama Administration long ago decided that the risks of action outweigh the risks of inaction, a position extremely unlikely to change over the next 12 months as the President’s power begins to wane. The various players in the Middle East, large and small, have built that reality into their calculations.
There is truth to the argument that the people of the region have to want peace and stability, and that the United States can’t be expected to impose it from above. But there can be little doubt that an America that sidelines itself, exerting less influence among both friend and foe, removes the only leadership force that has the potential to impact events for the good in a sea of extremism. And, as we have seen recently, a smaller role for the U.S. provides no assurance that terrorists and their sponsors will not hit America at home.
Notwithstanding some of the positive developments outlined above, the great likelihood is that 2016 will see worsening violence in the Middle East and in the West, including in the U.S. While the state of the economy always is a predominant issue in our Presidential elections, foreign policy and national security issues almost certainly will loom larger than ever when we go to the polls in November. We must pray fervently that the campaign for the White House will rise to a level of seriousness equal to the threats and challenges we face.