CAIRO (AP) — Will 2018 dampen the fires that rage across the Middle East? Although skepticism is understandable, there is a glimmer of change.
The fight against the Islamic State group is mostly over and the war in Syria may finally be winding down. The region is transitioning from fighting those wars to dealing with the destruction and dispersal of populations they wrought. Iran’s influence has grown after its proxies were generally successful, and even its nuclear deal with the West remains in place. In rival Saudi Arabia, a youthful new leader is promising long-delayed modernization 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 a democratic wave, 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, exemplifies the scaled-down ambition. After several years of mayhem it seems more stable now, the economy growing and tourism up. Jihadi 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, and barring a surprise, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi can expect to win re-election in a few months.
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Here’s a look at some possible inflection points for 2018:
ALL QUIET ON THE SYRIAN FRONT?
Syria’s President Bashar 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 Assad in control of key areas and the war against the Islamic State group mostly concluded with the recapture of the cities it controlled. Bloodshed still lies ahead if 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 fate of Assad, whose heavy-handed, decades-old family rule sparked the rebellion, remains a toxic issue that has scuttled all diplomatic efforts at peace.
A PHOENIX ON THE TIGRIS
The war against the Islamic State group has been declared over after four years of savagery. The group’s epic abuses inspired a furious reaction that has left large parts of Iraq in smoldering ruins. The fight by the U.S.-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. If the Shiite-dominated government fails to rebuild the Sunni areas, they will likely become restive again.
PROMISE AND PERIL IN SAUDI ARABIA
Change seems imminent in Saudi Arabia, especially if 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman takes over the throne from his father officially in 2018. MBS, as he is known, 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 arrests of dozens of his fellow princes on corruption charges. Saudi Arabia has also led a political and economic assault by Gulf nations on small but scrappy Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran.
The Syria war is, to a degree, a proxy fight between the two regional powers, with Tehran supporting Assad and Riyadh many of the rebels. That’s also true in Yemen, where the Saudis have backed the government with airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Many thousands of civilians have died, the rebels still control key parts of the country and there is starvation and cholera on a historic scale.
A PENULTIMATE DEAL?
Trump speaks repeatedly of brokering the “ultimate deal.” But it is difficult to envision even a more moderate Israeli leader meeting the Palestinians’ terms, which include dividing or sharing Jerusalem and its Old City, holy to three religions. Two decades of failed negotiations attest to the quagmire.
With this unpromising backdrop many Palestinians are talking about ditching the two-state strategy and demanding annexation and equal rights instead. That would make Israel an evenly divided binational state, something its government can be expected to resist.
Some expect Trump’s team to try to forge a partial deal instead: A Palestinian state on only some of the land they seek, with Jerusalem and refugees left for later negotiations. Washington may be hoping for help from Riyadh and perhaps Cairo in pressuring the Palestinians. But that never came in the past, even with offers on the table more likely to entice.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.