Comment: 2013 – ever changing dynamism in the Middle East, part one


Peter Lesniak is an independent foreign affairs analyst, concentrating on the Middle East and North Africa. Having previously worked in parliament with the  All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues he currently works in the LibDem International Office. Peter is also a Director of Communications at Bite the Ballot Ltd.

Some say that it’s been a rather unusual start of 2013 in terms of developments on the international stage as well as within the British political spectrum. Has it really though?

Bashar-al-AssadThe promise of the democratic Arab Spring has faded to the shadows of uncertainty and constant struggle for dominance. Newly elected Islamist governments find it difficult to balance the interests of those advocating secular internationalism and moderate conservatism as well as those motivated by religious ideology. This results in constant uncertainty and lack of accountability. Promises of reform and improvement made before every election in the Middle East last year seem a little far-fetched now. Unfortunately, there will be little, if any, improvement in the year ahead.

Internal splits among religious and ethnic minorities are only making things worse. Iraq is turning into a playground between Sunni and Shia military squads, further destabilizing the region and making it almost impossible to pursue an efficient politics of economic dynamism and restoration.

Next year, Iraq will see more sectarian tensions, especially in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2014 where Sunnis will fight for dominance and Kurds will make the economic case for their independence. Iraq in 2013 will also become a proxy state for influence from Iran, on one side, and Western states supported by the Saudis, on the other.

Afghanistan, in light of the withdrawal of troops in 2014, will become increasingly dependent on Pakistan, while the security situation is the spectrum of ever-changing balance. Whilst there have been early signs of willingness to cooperate between the Taliban and the west in mid-2012, no substantial commitment has been taken by either side. This was mainly due to ongoing drone war on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which results in a decreasing element of trust on both sides.

A recent leak by a US intelligence operative, that the US is conducting a secret drone war in Yemen using Saudi military bases and sending Saudi jets for ‘targeted killings’, will serve as one more argument against regional cooperation in the future.

Kurdish struggle for self-determination is becoming ever more visible, not only in Iraq but also in Turkey and Syria, but particularly in Iran, where PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) is moving ahead in drafting political programs of separation and gaining support from Kurds across the borders.

The Kurdish political diaspora in the UK has become increasingly active in the past months and seems to be uniting in their efforts to fight for an independent Kurdish state. We will soon see the 14 Kurdish political parties from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria speaking in one voice and presenting the case to the British government.

The Egyptian government of the Muslim Brotherhood is proving increasingly unpopular and not able to secure a stable future for the country. The 33% turnout in the constitutional vote last week, and subsequent resignation of judges monitoring the vote, has proven that Morsi’s ideas of reform are not popular. A population that was hopeful for accountable and democratic government and progressive policies, advocating basic rights and economic stabilization has seen right the opposite – consolidation and centralisation of power, increasing reliance on the military wing and a lack of transparency in the political process combined with increasing state control of the media. Morsi is struggling to strike the balance between being accountable to its own, mostly conservative, electorate and finding a right way of maintaining good relationship with the west, especially with the US, which has been spending more or less $2 billion per year in financial assistance to Egypt since 1979.

In Syria, Assad’s Allawite minority is losing its grip on power and the majority Sunni population has now become disillusioned with his vision of unity. The national coalition for Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces, covertly armed by west and Gulf states has been persistent in fighting its corner and moving forward.

In light of the UN’s report of a death toll of over 60,000 in the country, Bashar al-Assad’s address to the nation on Sunday 6th January had nothing new to offer to the international community. Assad’s main motion, that the nation has to unify to fight against the ‘terrorists’, is more than hypocritical, and his conditions for negotiated settlement (a necessity for the west to stop arming the rebels) will be far ignored, to say the least. Whilst it’s hard to expect any form of western military intervention in Syria, Assad is slowly losing its grip on power and few now wonder if he will fall.

The biggest question for the West should be how to facilitate the transition of power after Assad in a way that will not see the rise of militant jihadists and religious fundamentalists. Such a scenario would further divide the country and see a lack of stabilization and further struggle for regional dominance.

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