Foreign Relations & International Law

The Year in Review: The Middle East Keeps Ticking

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, December 26, 2017, 8:00 AM

Around this time last year, we rang in 2017 with a review of the year that was in the Middle East and a series of questions:


Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Around this time last year, we rang in 2017 with a review of the year that was in the Middle East and a series of questions:

  • Will Saudi Arabia’s experiment in economic reform outlast the low oil prices that precipitated it?
  • Is this the year that the Middle East will wind down its civil wars?
  • Will Trump unravel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
  • Will Trump get his alliance with Russia to fight the Islamic State in Syria?
  • How will the region respond to the end of the two-state solution?

Here’s what we've learned over the year, as well as a few other themes that have emerged.

Mohammed bin Salman Makes His Move

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince has pressed ahead with his economic reform agenda, Saudi Vision 2030. The plan has hit some delays—the planned IPO for Saudi Aramco could now be deferred until 2019—and foreign lenders have expressed some concerns, especially regarding how the kingdom will manage its debt. But Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has largely been undeterred, and in October unveiled plans for a futurist city and new economic hubs with regulations designed to encourage investment. And, as his plans have progressed, they have gathered a growing cultural component as well. The Saudi government also announced plans to allow women to drive and to develop overdue laws on sexual harassment; MBS talked of shifting the country toward a more moderate form of Islam.

As his agenda has unfolded, so have his royal prospects. In June, MBS was formally appointed as his father’s immediate successor, pushing Mohammed bin Nayef, a close partner of Washington, out of the way. The move prompted speculation that King Salman might abdicate to allow MBS to rule from the throne rather than from behind it, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, MBS has used the past several months to consolidate his control of the country, and particularly the royal family. He cracked down on political dissent, and, over the course of an eventful few weeks in November, arrested dozens of senior officials and members of the royal family and held them at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. MBS described the arrests as a crackdown on corruption, and some of those arrested were released after signing away 70 percent of their fortunes, but the swift move was also a shot across the bow of any potential rivals that might try to block MBS’ agenda or accession. After the accompanying political shakeup, the crown prince now controls all the major military forces that could be used to unseat him.

MBS has doubled down on his aggressive foreign policy over the past year. His regional agenda has had two primary goals: confront Iran and coerce Riyadh’s traditional partners to get on board. In January, Bruce Riedel noted that the Saudis were trying to swing Oman, which has tried to stake out a position as a neutral broker in the Saudi-Iranian cold war, to Riyadh’s camp. King Salman made a long trip through Asia and the Middle East, including an unusual stop in Iraq to tend to the warming relationship between Baghdad and Riyadh (including with political opportunist Muqtada al-Sadr). President Trump also made clear his support, traveling to Riyadh on his first trip abroad.

The partners Saudi Arabia hasn’t won with carrots, it’s beating with sticks. There were the political machinations in Lebanese politics in November, as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly resigned in Riyadh (possibly under duress), then weeks later returned to Beirut and rescinded his resignation. One of the strangest sagas in the region this year started in May, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates manufactured a diplomatic crisis with Qatar and quickly escalated a dormant feud to a concerted campaign to isolate Doha—made all the more complicated by mixed messages from the Trump administration. The play-by-play as it happened:

  • A Qatari news site is hacked in late May, touching off the dispute.
  • Saudi Arabia starts its campaign to cut off Qatar economically.
  • Qatar settles in for a long fight.
  • Kuwait positions itself as a potential mediator. (Six months later, Kuwait is still trying.)
  • The feud spills over into a public relations battle in U.S. opinion pages.
  • Saudi Arabia issues exorbitant demands. (They weren’t met.)
  • The crisis begins to affect Gulf states’ foreign policies.
  • The hajj becomes a political hot potato.
  • Saudi Arabia and the Emirates soften their isolation policy and move to keep the feud within the Gulf family.
  • Trump offers to moderate the dispute during a meeting with the Kuwaiti emir, but both sides are engaged in bizarre public relations stunts.
  • The PR war continues with a conference and a diplomatic ceremony in Washington.
  • Qatar brings the dispute to the World Trade Organization for resolution.

Now seven months into the crisis, both sides seem resolved to continue the dispute into the new year as a back-burner issue.

War Winds Down in Syria, but Not in Yemen

The Trump administration’s decision to launch a limited military strike in April against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile in Syria prompted discussion of a potential U.S. escalation and intervention that never came. Instead, the United States has moved to draw down support to Syrian rebel groups and further ceded the diplomatic process to Russia. What lingered longest after U.S. strike in April was the legal debate, covered extensively here at Lawfare:

Though violence has continued through the year, the Assad regime, in partnership with Russia, Iran, and Turkey, has expanded “de-escalation zones” and local truces. Moscow is forging ahead with its own diplomatic process, separate from the United Nations’ efforts. In August, the Assad regime held an investment conference “to signal the start of reconstruction.” The conflict is subsiding for now, but Steven Heydemann warned earlier this year that unless a politically inclusive settlement can be reached Syria will remain at risk of relapse.

The civil war in Yemen, though, has escalated in recent months as the rebel coalition between the Houthis and loyalists to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh has fractured. There were signs of the impending break in late August, when Saleh’s efforts to assert more control over the partnership prompted street battles, but those differences were smoothed over for a time. Then, in December, Saleh broke decisively with his fair-weather allies—and was promptly killed by them as he tried to flee the capital. Saleh was a vicious and cruel dictator who partnered with his worst enemies to fight a civil war to cling to power, but his death has not made Yemen any more peaceful. Without him, his faction could splinter, making diplomacy even more difficult. Saudi Arabia has escalated its air campaign against the Houthis since Saleh’s death. As the war has dragged on, the humanitarian crisis has deepened. Thousands have died of malnutrition and the outbreak of preventable diseases, including cholera.

The United States maintained its involvement in the war in Yemen, starting the year with a botched raid that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and a Yemeni tribal leader. Experts warned against a potential escalation of the U.S. role in the Saudi intervention and an assault on Hodeida that never materialized—and likely would have tipped Yemen decisively into famine if it had. But the United States has remained quietly engaged and earlier this month acknowledged that U.S. troops had carried out multiple ground operations in the country over the past 12 months.

The Trump Administration Whittles Away at the Iran Nuclear Deal

The Trump administration spent much of its first year in office debating what to do about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. After reluctantly recertifying the agreement in July, the administration circulated talking points that argued that Iran was violating the “spirit” of the deal and reportedly started preparing an internal report to “lay the groundwork for decertification.” The IAEA has consistently found Iran to be in compliance with the terms of the agreement, but that has not moved the opinion of some of the deal’s opponents. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” Trump said at the time.

The administration tried to push the limits of the agreement, imposing new non-nuclear sanctions and requesting additional inspections of military sites. The pressure stoked frustrations in Tehran and concern from the United States’ European partners in the agreement. Amb. Nikki Haley met with European diplomats in August, but emerged as one of the leading critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) within the administration. In September, she gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that, though she claimed not to be making the case for decertification, laid out the administration’s plan to decertify the agreement and pass responsibility for the deal to Congress. Others, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued that the deal was working and should be maintained. After some gratuitous intrigue—Trump made it a point to tell British Prime Minister Theresa May, when they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, that he had already decided how to proceed regarding the JCPOA, but wouldn’t tell her his decision—Trump announced he would decertify the agreement in October. As I wrote at the time in the Middle East Ticker, “The ‘adults in the room’ … lost out to a confluence of Bannonites and foreign-policy hawks pushing for decertification from both within the administration and without.”

With decertification, the Trump administration said it would pursue a policy to coerce Iran and the other parties to the agreement to accept additional terms—possibly through legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. Some members of the Senate drafted a bill that would have unilaterally changed the terms of the JCPOA, scrapping provisions the Trump administration doesn’t like and adding additional requirements. But that proposal appears to have gone nowhere. Decertification and the reported plans to rewrite the deal without consulting with U.S. partners or Iran have understandably frustrated the other parties to the agreement; after the administration’s announcement, European diplomats told reporters and their Iranian counterparts that they stood by the deal despite the Trump administration’s actions.

With the issue now on the back burner for Congress, it is unclear how the administration will proceed. For now, they seem content to ignore the JCPOA and focus on Iran’s other actions in the Middle East, particularly its role supporting the Houthis in Yemen. But Trump also warned in October that, if Congress does not “come back with something that's very satisfactory to me … within a very short period of time, I'll terminate the deal.” As Bonnie Jenkins wrote at the time, that would be a mistake; instead, the United States and its European partners should be working to strengthen the agreement, not trying to scuttle it. Suzanne Maloney argued that the whole debate misses the point, and rather than fixate on the JCPOA, the United States should be focusing more on how best to push Tehran to play a more constructive role both at home and abroad.

The Islamic State Loses Its Caliphate

Despite the Trump administration’s campaign rhetoric of a new secret strategy to defeat the Islamic State and threats to “take the oil” to subsidize U.S. intervention, the U.S.-led coalition campaign against the terrorist group proved to be mostly a continuation of the strategy initiated by the Obama administration. And it was a success. The year was punctuated by battlefield victories as the Islamic State’s territory receded. Iraqi forces reached the Tigris River in January, then moved on Mosul. Across the border in Syria, Syrian forces launched their attack on Raqqa in June, and in October, the Islamic State lost its de facto capital. At the close of the year, the Pentagon told the New York Times that the Islamic State had been pushed from all of its territory in Iraq and that U.S. and coalition forces were hounding an estimated 3,000 remaining terrorist fighters in a small enclave along the Euphrates River in Syria.

As the caliphate collapsed, though, the Islamic State has continued its campaign of attacks abroad, starting with New Years’ attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad. In May, an attacker struck a concert in Manchester, killing 22 people, including many children, and a cell in Spain carried out a rampage in August that targeted tourists and police and killed 13 people, but could have been much worse had not two of the terrorists been killed when a bomb they were building detonated prematurely. The Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate carried out the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history in November, storming a mosque and massacring more than 300 worshippers. And late in the year, ISIS sympathizers carried out two attacks in New York: a truck attack that killed eight people and a small bomb attack in a subway station that only injured the bomber. Experts, including Lawfare’s own Dan Byman, have consistently warned that the Islamic State will remain a persistent terrorist threat that will look for opportunities to strike both in the Middle East and the West. “It is planning to go underground, as it did before in Iraq, and wage an insurgent and terrorist campaign in the territory it once held,” Byman wrote in October after the fall of Raqqa.

Now, Iraq and Syria must turn to rebuilding. As communities recover from occupation by a terrorist state, authorities from the local to the international level will have to grapple with how to restore damaged cities, infrastructure, and economies, while addressing the grievances that the Islamic State leveraged in its rapid rise to power. Experts offered advice here at Lawfare on reconstruction in Iraq, Raqqa and Syria more generally, and how the United States can play a constructive role.

Kurdistan’s Independence Bid Collapses

An impediment to resolving those post-ISIS grievances and divisions in Iraq played out this fall, as the Kurdistan Regional Government, under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party, rushed ahead with a referendum on Kurdish independence. Barzani saw the referendum as an opportunity to consolidate Kurdish control of territory contested by Baghdad, including the recently liberated city of Mosul, and a way to write himself into the history books as the father of a Kurdish nation-state. But even strong supporters of the Kurdish cause warned that the bid for secession was poorly timed, and Barzani failed to line up any prominent allies for the national project, except for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite concerted pressure from the United States, Turkey, Iraq and Iran to cancel or at least defer the referendum, the vote was held on Sept. 25. Though Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the shared goal of a Kurdish national home could not overcome divisions in Kurdish politics and the swift backlash from Baghdad and its neighbors. The central Iraqi government immediately cut off air travel to airports in contested areas, demanded that Kurdish officials cede control of border crossings, and encouraged countries to sever economic ties with KRG. Turkey and Iran sent troops to the border. After three weeks of political deadlock, Iraqi forces swept into Kirkuk and seized several nearby oil facilities. Though a few skirmishes with peshmerga were reported, the Iraqi advance was mostly peaceful; Baghdad had reached an arrangement with Barzani’s rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to hand over control of the territory. Baghdad then quickly moved to try to solidify its control with the implementation of international deals to develop the oil industry in Kirkuk. With his political influence and credibility collapsing, Barzani announced he would step down at the end of October, leaving a vacuum in Kurdish politics. Two months later, the situation has settled into a tenuous stasis, and Kurdish officials are reportedly working to open a dialogue with Baghdad to bring a formal resolution to the crisis.

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process as Diplomatic Bludgeon

2017 began with the brouhaha over the Obama administration’s parting vote on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 criticizing Israel’s settlement policy and John Kerry’s speech about his frustrating engagement with the peace process. The prospects for a two-state solution, or really any meaningful peace talks, seemed bleak. Paul Rosenzweig, reflecting on a recent trip to Israel, called the process “mostly dead.”

The past year seemed to confirm this. A regular drumbeat of small-scale attacks against Israelis, mostly targeting security personnel, culminated in two weeks of protests after an incident in which three Arab Israeli attackers killed two Israeli police officers and then fled into the al-Aqsa mosque complex. Israeli officials responded by limiting access to the Temple Mount and installing metal detectors at the entrance to the mosque. The move was perceived by many Palestinians and Arab Israelis as a further winnowing of their access to Jerusalem, of a piece with the rise of Israeli far-right groups like the Temple Movement, which advocates greater Jewish access and calls for removing “pagan shrines” (like the Dome of the Rock) from the Mount. Protests subsided after Israeli authorities arrested a group of Palestinians who barricaded themselves in the mosque and refused to leave and more than two-dozen activists believed to be organizing the protests.

Despite the skepticism about the peace process, the Trump administration has been working on a new framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and reports suggested it could be ready early next year. But it already appears to be a non-starter. Drafts floated to Palestinian officials and Arab Israeli politicians outline a non-contiguous Palestinian state with limited rights of self-governance that would allow Israel to maintain most of its settlement blocs in the West Bank. Saudi Arabia is reportedly pressing hard for the Trump administration’s proposal, even threatening to pressure Mahmoud Abbas to resign if he does not cooperate with Trump’s team.

But all of that has been overtaken by the Trump administration’s announcement in December that it would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. The decision seems to have been motivated almost exclusively by domestic politics; it certainly has not benefitted the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Scott Anderson and Yishai Schwartz wrote for Lawfare that, if integrated into a broader diplomatic strategy to reach an agreement, the announcement might not have been a big deal. Instead, the Trump administration is closing out 2017 with a diplomatic crisis at the United Nations.

The unforced error has now resulted in a U.N. resolution reiterating the existing policy that the status of Jerusalem should be decided by peace talks and should not be prejudiced by the establishment of embassies in the city. The Trump administration has tried to pivot to an issue of sovereignty—who is the United Nations to tell Washington where it can build its embassies?—but that hasn’t gone over well in Turtle Bay. Amb. Haley vetoed the resolution when it came before the Security Council, voting against all 14 other members who reaffirmed the U.N. policy. The resolution was then brought to the General Assembly, and Haley and Trump threatened to slash aid to any countries that voted against the United States. Rather than cowing states into opposing the resolution, the gambit backfired and further isolated the United States. Only eight countries joined the United States in voting against the resolution: Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo. “The following things are true and not mutually exclusive: 1) The United Nations General Assembly has a pronounced anti-Israel bias. 2) It was stupid and petulant for Haley/Trump to publicly threaten to withhold aid over a UNGA vote,” Dan Drezner tweeted after the vote.

Even as the U.N. kerfuffle subsides, it will cast a shadow over the prospects for any negotiations. The Palestinians have not only walked away from the table, Abbas says that he will not consider U.S. proposals. "The United States has proven to be a dishonest mediator in the peace process and we will no longer accept any plan from the United States,” Abbas said at a press conference this past week.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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