By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
In 2016, the Middle East continued to be a major focus of the US public, and it often came up in the primary and presidential debates. Alas, the Middle East referenced by US politicians and many pundits does not actually exist, and the American fixation on this region has a creepy stalker-like quality to it. If we set aside the glib talking points, what were the big Middle East stories this year that actually did or likely will deeply affect the American public?
1. Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) suffered major defeats in both Iraq and Syria, to the point where it is on its deathbed as a territorial state as we speak. In Iraq, it has lost Ramadi, Falluja and other Sunni Arab cities and over the coming months will lose its last metropolitan bastion in that country, Mosul. I don’t figure that Daesh has more than 2 million Iraqis under its control, given the massive exodus of people from the city of Mosul during the past two years. In Syria, it has only about half of Raqqa province and still controls Deir al-Zor. But the people living under its rule in Raqqa have been reduced to about 400,000, and surely at least a few hundred thousand of Deir al-Zor’s 1.2 million have fled it. Syria still has about 18 million people inside the country, and the Daesh caliphate probably has only a little over a million of them under its authority. That number has shrunk with the Turkish and YPG Kurdish assaults on its territory (those two powers are in competition now to take over the Syrian bits of the Daesh state, rather as the US and Russia competed to occupy as much of Germany as they could through 1945). Daesh will go back to being a small terrorist organization, and can no doubt go on using social media to convince mentally ill people occasionally to drive trucks into crowds or to shoot up night clubs. But such actions have no real strategic import, and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. If we redouble our dedication to human rights and democracy in our own societies, we can defeat stochastic terrorism.
2. The capture of the East Aleppo pocket by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite militia allies means that the Syrian revolution is over. The civil war may continue for a while in some regions, but the regime now controls on the order of 80% of the Syrian population. There is no longer any plausible way for the mostly rural Sunni Arab rebels to cut off Damascus from resupply and take the capital. If the regime cannot be overthrown, then it is all over but some provincial shooting. The Syrian regime doesn’t have a pluralistic bone in its body, and will not rest until all the rebels are defeated and all rebel territory is taken back. Ghouta near Damascus and Idlib province in the north will likely be the next targets. This development may not have a big impact on the United States, except to the extent that it signals the return of Russia to the region as a great power. The Obama administration assessed that the US had no significant interests in Syria one way or another, which was likely accurate (though I would argue that allowing the Salafi jihadi groups to sweep into Damascus would actually have worsened US security). The major threat to the US and its European allies comes from the continued control of a swathe of thinly populated desert in the east of Syria by Daesh. Incoming President Trump has suggested several different ways for dealing with it, and we will see which wins out. In any case, US diplomacy will now have to adjust to a world wherein Bashar al-Assad continues to be president of Syria and wherein his backers, Russia and Iran, have greatly increased their street cred in the Middle East at the expense of the US.
3. Turkey’s July 15 failed coup and its aftermath has been the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s brief experiment with pluralistic democracy. Since the coup tens of thousands of people have been summarily fired and/or imprisoned. President Tayyip Erdogan has usurped powers that do not actually belong to the president in Turkey’s parliamentary system, and is set on formalizing an imperial presidency through expelling opponents from the parliament so as to create an artificial simple majority for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is acting more and more like a one-party state that merely tolerates small weak rivals as long as they don’t get in the way too much. It seems likely that Turkey’s departure from basic human rights and judicial norms of democratic states will be the death knell of its aspirations to join the European Union (prospects for which were never all that bright). The alarming development for Americans is that Erdogan and his circle believe that Washington has become an enemy of his. They suspect that the US backed the July 15 coup attempt, and members of the Turkey cabinet have openly made this accusation. The Turkish government has recently started accusing the US of backing Daesh/ ISIL, and of arming and supporting Kurdish terrorists. Turkey cut the US out of its recent ceasefire negotiations on behalf of the Syrian rebels with Russia and Damascus.
4. Saudi Arabia announced plans to move from being an oil economy to being a finance hub. This announcement shows that the new generation of Saudi leaders can see the writing on the wall for petroleum-fueled transport. The Tesla and the Bolt, electric cars, are the wave of the future and will be dominant more quickly than anyone realizes. What Tony Seba calls a technological disruption is in train. Saudi Arabia knows this, though perhaps it has come to the realization too late. Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still denying it. But the US is a diversified economy. If you want to understand the future of petroleum, see whether the oil states are bullish or bearish on oil. Saudi Arabia has just announced that it is getting out of the business entirely over time. This development won’t have an immediate impact on the US. But likely within 20 years, the Middle East will have lost its significance to Americans and our foreign policy and military focus will shift in a major way to the Pacific Rim.
5. Significant secular governance trends emerged in the region, though whether this is a good thing or not can be debated. Algeria’s secular state continued to limp along, with a president as elusive as the Cheshire cat. Egypt’s military junta under the guise of elected government continued to crack down hard on political Islam, making a militant secular-inflected nationalism the official ideology. Syria’s secular Baath Party (a sordid one-party state with the blood of hundreds of thousands of dead on its hands) is at the moment winning the struggle in that country. Lebanon gained a new president, a pro-Syrian Christian who managed to ally both with the Shiite Hizbullah and the Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri. These secular developments are all problematic. The good one is that Tunisia continued to have a secular, elected, democratic government. Even its main rival, the Renaissance (Nahda) Party, announced that it was giving up political Islam to become a civil party. For Americans, who have a general false impression that everyone in the Middle East is a religious fanatic, it is important to understand that perhaps a third of the people there live under self-avowedly secular governments, and that there has been a big reaction against Muslim fundamentalism on the part of most of the region’s population, including especially the youth. We worry about 2,000 Tunisians who went off to fight in Syria as extremists but discount the millions of Tunisians who voted for a secular party to dominate parliament. The worrisome thing is that aside from Tunisia, secularism is again being associated with repressive, authoritarian governments, which may turn the next generation against it. Tunisia is the only one doing it right, and it isn’t being emulated.
6. The Yemen war ground on through 2016, bringing enormous misery to the Yemeni population. Saudi Arabia’s foolish strategy of deploying aircraft against a local guerrilla movement, the Houthis, continued to fail. As food insecurity, hunger, and health crises multiplied because of Saudi targeting of even civilian infrastructure, world opinion began turning against Riyadh and its allies. The US will once again be viewed with resentment for backing Saudi Arabia’s dirty little war.
7. Israel accelerated its illegal colonization and imposition of Apartheid on the West Bank, and continued to keep the poverty-stricken little Gaza Strip under illegal blockade. With the UN Security Council resolution that President Obama declined to veto, the world has announced that it has noticed that the Israelis are engaged in one of the world’s great land thefts and are keeping Palestinians in a stateless condition that has some resemblances to slavery. The US decision not to exercise its veto this once will have no effect on Israeli policy. Bad karma is when you swing at a golf ball in a bathroom. Both Israel and the United States will suffer bad karma from this impudent act of criminality and heartless oppression of innocents, which inspires anti-American terrorism in the region.
8. The American public continued vastly to overestimate the significance of terrorism committed by persons of Muslim heritage. (Contrary to what PEOTUS Trump imagines there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism, since Islamic, like Judaic, is a term used for the ideals of a religion. You can have Muslim terrorists and Jewish terrorists but you can’t have Islamic terrorists and Judaic terrorists.) The hysteria about terrorism in the US, however, is vastly disproportionate to the actual threat. In 2015, toddlers with firearms killed more people than did Muslim terrorists in the US, and Neonazis of the sort who subscribe to Breitbart killed more than either one. This is not to say that terrorism emanating from the Middle East is not important or to rule out the possibility of another big attack. It is simply to set the problem in context. The people Steve Bannon, now in the White House as strategic advisor to the PEOTUS, stoked to a blazing rage with his false neofascist conspiracy stories in Breitbart are a much bigger threat to ordinary Americans.
Likewise, in 2014 Europol estimated that 1% of actual terrorist attacks in Europe were committed by Muslim extremists. The biggest number of terrorist acts were committed by ethnic separatists. The percentage will be much higher in the 2015 statistics, given the Daesh/ISIL terrorism in Paris and Brussels, but 2014 has been more typical of the past decade than 2015.
This fixation on the Middle East, which was often brought up in the primary and presidential debates, defies reason. In 2014 and again in 2015 we did about $1.2 trillion in two-way trade in goods with the Pacific Rim. With the European Union for those years, it was $700 billion. For some reason I couldn’t find a similar statistic easily about the Middle East/ North Africa trade with the US, but in 2011 it was less than $200 bn and can’t have grown all that much, especially with the fall in US oil imports.
So just on economic grounds, the Pacific Rim is the most important trading region for the US, and Europe is second. The Middle East is small potatoes in this regard. But you will say that the Middle East is violent while the other areas are not. But actually, although there is a lot of violence in the Fertile Crescent and Yemen at the moment, along with Libya, much of the region is way too stable. Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Iran, are all quiet, Or Else. And the levels of violence in absolute numbers in the past decade in Mexico and Iraq have been similar, but we almost never even hear the word “Mexico” mentioned on our cable television news, except in connection with a certain proposed wall. Likewise, there was virtually a world war in the Congo in the late 1990s and early zeroes, and the debate is only about exactly how many millions were killed. It might as well have happened on Mars for all the US public heard about it. Actually probably it would have gotten more airplay if it had been on Mars.
This unhealthy US focus on the Middle East will likely continue as long as we drive petroleum-fueled vehicles. Me, I have my eye on a Tesla 3 or a Chevy Bolt for my next car.