2017 Review: A Year of War, Trump, and Geopolitical Shifts

Trump’s Meagre Mideast Record
Paul Salem, Senior Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research, and Programs

Although it is hard to discern a fully elaborated U.S. policy toward the Middle East during Trump’s first year, the president has spoken of several objectives including defeating ISIS, pushing back against Iran, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and rebuilding America’s standing. His administration’s score so far is one of four.

The war on ISIS was a continuation, with intensification, of the war started under Obama, and it has reached victory in both Mosul and Raqqa. Trump said he would reverse Obama policy on Iran, but he has not. He kicked the issue of the nuclear deal to Congress, and while raising the rhetoric against Iran, there is no real pushback against Iran on the ground. The United States effectively coexists with Iranian-backed forces in both Iraq and Syria.

Trump started the year promising the ‘deal of the century’ over Israel-Palestine, but ended the year by unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that alienates potential peace partners and emboldens radicals, and makes even a semblance of a peace process much harder to revive.

America’s standing the region is at a very low ebb. Leaders in the region see a very erratic leader in the White House, and a divided administration with contradictory statements and policies. They don’t know who speaks for the United States nor whether U.S. policy will remain steady on key issues from week to week or—as some interlocutors in the region put it to me in a recent visit—“from tweet to tweet.”

Syria: Assad Comes Out on Top in 2017
Robert S. Ford, Senior Fellow

The Syrian government enjoyed success in 2017 containing the armed opposition and seeing the collapse of ISIS. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces repeatedly ignored a Russian-declared de-escalation zone in the Damascus suburbs to recapture more districts near the capital. The Syrian government violated the de-escalation zones announced in Idlib, Aleppo and Homs provinces with airstrikes and obstacles to passage of humanitarian aid convoys.

Russia imposed no penalty on Damascus and vetoed a U.N. resolution to investigate new reports of chemical weapons usage. Russia is either complicit in the Syrian government actions or it lacks leverage over Damascus. President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Syria on December 11 and again announced he would withdraw most Russian military forces. If he cuts combat support to Assad, Russian leverage would diminish at a time when Putin is trying to assemble some kind of political deal between Assad and softer elements of the Syrian opposition.

After the fall of the last ISIS bastions in eastern Syria, the United States announced it would keep its small military force there until the chimerical Syrian political deal is secured in order to counter any extremist resurgence and deter attacks on its Syrian Kurdish-led allied force. Pressure was building on the U.S. to withdraw, as Russia and Iran both labeled the U.S. military presence in Syria illegal. At year’s end there was a face-off along the Euphrates River that separates the U.S.-backed forces from those of the Syrian government and its Iranian-mobilized militia allies.

Three Major Developments in Iraq in 2017
Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues

For Iraq, three developments defined the year 2017: the military victory over ISIS; the Kurdish independence referendum; and the gradual improvement in Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors.

While the military victory marked a moment of national pride for all Iraqis and restored their trust in their security forces, it came with a significant price tag both in destruction to the physical infrastructure as well as the displacement of millions of Iraqis, many of whom are facing difficulties returning home due of the absence of law and order. Militias formed to fight ISIS remain outside government control are beholden to regional agendas.

The Kurdish independence referendum led to a breakdown in the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. Before negotiations are launched between the two sides about their future relationship, Kurds must get their own house in order. Baghdad is unlikely to sit at the negotiation table until after the conclusion of the upcoming parliamentary and provincial elections.

Regionally, there has been a significant improvement in Iraqi-Saudi official relations. Bilateral agreements are signed in the political, security, economic, trade and development fields. Direct flights between the two countries have resumed, and Saudi officials are reaching out to a host of Iraqi political and religious leaders. For Riyadh, this rapprochement with Iraq is one means to contest Iranian influence in its Arab backyard. For Baghdad, good relations with Saudi Arabia creates a counterweight to Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs and positions Iraq to be a bridge rather than an arena of confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

ISIS’ Territorial Caliphate Brought to an End
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow

This was a significant year in the fight against ISIS, as the jihadist group’s self-proclaimed territorial ‘caliphate’ entity effectively came to an end. While the steady degradation of ISIS and its hold over cities like Mosul and Raqqa underlined the futility of terrorist organizations seeking to rule over such a reality, it has not spelled the end of the group itself, nor the threat it poses. Indeed, despite American and Russian proclamations of victory, ISIS remains militarily and openly active in Syria and Iraq and continues to conduct offensive operations, including capturing territory. Meanwhile, the ‘virtual caliphate’ lives strong in many vulnerable minds across the world and when paired with ISIS’ powerful propaganda, it continues to inspire homegrown terrorist attacks at a frequency not seen for decades.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has continued to evolve, as its central leadership appeared to revitalize in 2017 and attempted to exert itself more firmly upon its affiliates across the world. However, some of those affiliates were several years into a process of considerable decentralization, with more and more tactical and strategic decisions being taken in full or partial isolation from al-Qaeda’s central leadership and thus focused on local rather than global objectives. This trend was most visible in Syria through 2017 and as the year ends, so too has al-Qaeda’s relationship with its one-time affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham).

While the real world has seen many changes in 2017, so too has the virtual one. The internet is now a major battleground, pitching jihadist organizations, movements and supporters against an array of governmental and non-governmental actors. Defeating online extremism looks to be an unachievable objective, but containing it as much as possible is unquestionably a crucial one.

Saudi Dominates Headlines in 2017
Gerald Feierstein, Director of Gulf Affairs and Government Relations

Saudi Arabia and its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS), dominated news from the Gulf in 2017. In a move that surprised observers, MbS pushed aside his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, to become the heir apparent to the Saudi crown. Capitalizing on his image as a disrupter, MbS embarked on a series of headline-grabbing economic and social reforms that have been generally well-received, especially among younger Saudis.

Allegations of corruption lodged against some of the country’s most prominent business and government leaders, seen by some as a heavy-handed shake-down, unsettled not only Saudi Arabia but global markets as well. Meanwhile, authorizing women drivers and relaxing oppressive restrictions on popular entertainments swept aside decades of resistance from the country’s conservative religious establishment. In doing so, MbS is gambling that modernizing Saudi society can kick-start economic growth.

In foreign affairs, MbS has led the effort to revitalize relations with the Trump administration built around their shared antagonism towards Iran. But the Saudis have also hedged their bets, strengthening relations with Russia and China as well. Meanwhile, a series of controversial decisions: intervention in Yemen; an ill-consider attempt to pressure Lebanon over Hezbollah; and a thus-far failed effort to bludgeon Qatar over its policies on Iran and political Islam have generated concerns that Saudi foreign policy under MbS and an inexperienced team has become reckless, a threat to regional stability, and a source of friction between Saudi Arabia and its Western allies.

Yemen: Another Year in a Pointless War
Gerald Feierstein, Director of Gulf Affairs and Government Relations

Yemenis in 2017 suffered through another year of tragedy and conflict as the protracted civil war stalemated and the parties were unable to agree on resuming talks. The United States re-engaged in the fight to eliminate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, partnering with Emirati forces to eliminate AQAP in Shabwa governorate and operating as unilaterally as possible. But a January raid on a suspected al-Qaeda facility in Bayda governorate resulted in the death of Yemeni civilians, including women and children, as well as a U.S. serviceman. The raid underlined the increased complexity of counter-terrorism operations in the current environment.

Houthi efforts to marginalize and isolate their putative coalition partner, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his loyalists, ended definitively in December’s violent showdown in Sana’a and Saleh’s murder at the hands of the Houthis. Abdul Malik al-Houthi exulted in a televised statement over Saleh’s death, calling it “an historic, exceptional and great day” for Yemen. But the demise of the Houthi-Saleh alliance weakens the Houthis politically, depriving them of any legitimate claim to leading a broad-based movement aimed at improving governance and combatting corruption.

Conversely, it energized the government and Saudi-led coalition, whose calls for Yemeni unity to confront the Houthis appears to have resonated with a number of Saleh loyalists. An apparent break in the alliance between the Islah Party and the Muslim Brotherhood removed an additional obstacle to broadening cooperation between anti-Houthi Yemenis and the international coalition supporting them.

Economy Remains Top Issue in Iran
Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow

On May 19, 24 million Iranians voted for Hassan Rouhani’s re-election based on his pledge that “there will more political freedoms.” Iranians also hoped the economic windfall from the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers were to finally happen in 2017. Instead, after his re-election, Rouhani took a sharp turn to the Right, and has since done nothing for political reform. His barely disguised ambition to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—when the day comes—has meant he no longer courts public opinion, but the hard power found in the un-elected state institutions that are in the hands of anti-reform forces.

In his defense, Rouhani will claim that he had no choice but to turn to the hardliners for accommodation. The emergence of Donald Trump and his stance of confronting Tehran has sucked all air out of a policy of détente with Washington. Even as Iran’s economy is no longer on the brink—oil production is back to pre-sanctions levels, foreign investors are once again eyeing the Iranian market and trade volumes are up—the state of the economy remains the regime’s Achilles Heel.

Unemployment, inflation, a banking crisis, corruption and socio-economic disparity are feeding public resentment. Popular unrest became more common in 2017 and so much so that the Revolutionary Guards began contemplating deploying forces to keep order in urban areas. In fact, while Tehran can claim to be in the ascendancy in the region by pointing to its geopolitical wins, 2017 was in many ways the year that vividly exposed the Islamic Republic’s serious shortcomings at home.

Successful Year for Iran’s Regional Proxies
Ahmad Majidyar, MEI Fellow, Director of the IranObserved project

Tehran’s most significant success came in Syria as the I.R.G.C. and its regional Shiite proxies, with Russian support, turned the tide of war decisively in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Outmaneuvering U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces, the Iranian-led militia forces also linked up along Syrian-Iraqi border, realizing Tehran’s long-sought plan to carve a land route to the eastern Mediterranean. Iran also took steps to institutionalize its military presence in Syria by starting to build a permanent military base inside Syria and expanding the presence of its proxies in southern Syria, from where it can potentially open a new war front against Israel in the future.

In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups within the Popular Mobilization Units emerged more influential in the wake of the ISIS military defeat, providing Iran an unprecedented level of influence over Iraqi politics and security at the expense of the United States and regional Sunni states.

Emboldened by its success in Iraq and Syria, the I.R.G.C. also bolstered support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Iran’s ally Hezbollah continued to hold a significant degree of control over the Lebanese government.

While the Trump administration has taken a tougher line on Iran, it has yet to come up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle Iran’s regional proxies and contain Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Turkey’s Relations with West Dove in 2017
Gonul Tol, Director for Turkish Studies

This year was as daunting for Turkey analysts as it was for the country itself. The traditional conceptual tools, such as Islam versus secularism, have lost their relevance in making sense of the new dynamics in the country.

The new poles of contention in Turkey are nativists and globalists. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s winning formula is nationalism against the West and globalization. Erdogan demonizes the United States and the E.U. for their support of Gulenists and Kurdish nationalists. His anti-Westernism has the backing of the majority of nationalists, even secular ones. In July, a Pew Foundation global survey found that 72 percent of Turks placed the United States at the top of their list of national security threats ahead of ISIS, Russia, and China.

Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS, the failure of Turkey’s effort to have Fethullah Gulen extradited from the United States, and the E.U.’s growing frustration with Erdogan are only a few examples of why 2017 represents a rupture in Turkey’s relations with the transatlantic community. The big winner in Turkey’s nationalist resentment with the West and globalization appears to be Russia. This year saw continued improvement in relations between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has his own axe to grind with the West and has made serious inroads in luring Erdogan to his own camp of nativist authoritarianism. Time will tell whether the cooperation between the Sultan and the Tsar has strategic legs.

Hariri’s Resignation Drama the Top Story for Lebanon in 2017
Bilal Y. Saab, Director of the Defense and Security Program

The story of the year in the Middle East in 2017 has to be the surreal resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia, followed by the reversal of his decision in Beirut soon after.

Whether Hariri, compelled by Riyadh to quit for his inability or unwillingness to challenge Hezbollah, was weakened or strengthened as a result of this embarrassing episode is unclear. A more generous interpretation suggests that Hariri found new political life after he gained meaningful external support from Paris and Washington as well as increased domestic sympathy among various Lebanese communities who were insisting on his return.

A more pessimistic assessment points to Hariri being badly hurt because of the perception (or reality) of losing the backing of his primary regional patron—Saudi Arabia—and that of a segment of his Sunni base who was never happy with the entente their leader had engineered a year ago with Hezbollah.

The real test of the popularity and political strength of Hariri will be determined by the results of the upcoming parliamentary elections in early 2018. The more likely scenario is that he will win big because he’s firmly allying himself with the Free Patriotic Movement, itself a strategic partner of Hezbollah and Amal. Should that happen and Hariri be appointed again as prime minister in the new government in 2018, Hezbollah would once again ensure that no domestic rival—coalition or otherwise—would be powerful enough to weaken or isolate the group. For internal and external parties wishing to counter Hezbollah, it's back to the drawing board.

A Mixed Year for Egypt
Paul Salem, Senior Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research, and Programs

2017 saw necessary, but painful economic reform and progress, and continued standstill in other areas such as security, human rights, and political development.

The reforms of late 2016—the floating of the currency and reduction of fuel subsidies—took a toll on most Egyptians in 2017, with inflation reaching 30 percent in June, and higher electricity prices. But by December the economy was showing signs of a rebound, with late 2017 growth estimated at around 5 percent, decreasing inflation, a declining current account deficit, and rising balance of payments. The massive Zohr offshore gas field also started production in December, promising to slash the country’s energy bill.

While most of the country enjoyed relative stability, serious security breaches continued. Terrorists attacked a Christian cathedral in Alexandria, a Sufi mosque in Sinai, and several police and security convoys. And while ISIS has suffered resounding defeats in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the Egyptian security forces have still not succeeded in defeating ISIS in the northern Sinai.

The human rights situation has not improved. Protest and freedom of expression continue to be heavily restricted, and thousands of political opponents or activists remain in jail. Political life is also stiflingly restricted. Despite the grey conditions, most Egyptians still seem to favor stability over uncertainty.

Externally, Egypt has continued to back General Khalifa Hifter in Libya. Diplomatically, Cairo was key in de-escalating the recent crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and has played an important role in intra-Palestinian politics. Its partnership with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. has endured with common positions vis-a-vis Qatar and political Islam.

Uptick in Afghan War in 2017
Ahmad Majidyar, MEI Fellow, Director of the IranObserved project

This year was another violent year in Afghanistan. The Taliban established control and influence over a third of the country, civilian casualties hit nearly record high, and the Afghan security forces suffered unsustainable fatality and attrition rates.

Spiraling violence, diminishing donor assistance, and pervasive corruption also eroded government legitimacy, hampered economic development, forced scores of schools and health facilities to close, and jeopardized other gains of the past 16 years. Emboldened by battlefield success, the Taliban rebuffed calls for peace talks and stepped up attacks against the government and civilians alike. Furthermore, Pakistan continued its support for the Taliban despite U.S. pressure, while Iran and Russia deepened ties with the insurgents.

It was against this backdrop that President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy in August, reluctantly expanding the U.S. military mission to reverse the Taliban momentum. In a break with the Obama administration, Trump’s conditions-based strategy set no troop withdrawal timetables and relaxed the rules of engagement to enable the U.S.-led coalition to step up counterterrorism operations and advise and assist the Afghan forces more effectively.

In recent months, the intensification of the military campaign—reinforced by a modest increase of about 3,000 troops—has yielded some success. The Afghan and coalition forces have regained the initiative on the battlefield and killed senior leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s South Asia offshoot. But it is too soon to assess the overall impact of Trump’s new strategy, as military success alone has not guaranteed long-term stability in Afghanistan in the past.

Tumultuous 2017 for Pakistan
Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

Pakistan seems always politically unsettled, but 2017 has been particularly tumultuous. A prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was declared legally ineligible to serve, and other major political figures, including members of his family and opposition leaders, face court cases that could remove them from public office. Within the Sharif family, a struggle continues over which branch of the family will control the country’s leading party, Nawaz’s Muslim League.

The sitting prime minister, a Nawaz loyalist, leads a weak national government exposed to increased military meddling and pressed by politicized, recently energized religious groups. Expected political restructuring and reforms affecting the tribal agencies, and a promised crackdown on violent extremists have at best stalled. While the country has experienced economic growth and energy sector improvement, fiscal and current account deficits worsened in 2017.

The year produced new foreign affairs challenges. Relations with a hardening Hindu nationalist Indian government continued to deteriorate. Along with the enduring border tensions over Kashmir, anger grew in India over Pakistan’s apparent loss of interest in charging those alleged to have directed terrorist acts against India. Under the Trump administration, the United States has ramped up with threats of harsh sanctions and unilateral military action its oft-repeated demand that Pakistan “do more” to reign in harbored Afghan insurgent groups. While Pakistan banks heavily on China’s massive infrastructure investment, signs of Chinese retrenchment have appeared as the obstacles to implementing projects in Pakistan become more evident.

A Year of Protests in Morocco
Samia Errazzouki,

After nearly six months of unprecedented government blockage following the 2016 elections, Morocco's King Mohammed VI replaced former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, appointing Saadeddine el-Othmani in his place. A former foreign minister himself and current leader of the Party of Justice and Development (P.J.D.), Othmani was more willing to compromise with rival parties to form a coalition government in March, which saw the leading P.J.D. pushed out of key ministerial portfolios.

In the meantime, protests in the country's northern Rif region continued to grow, having begun in December 2016 following the death of fish vendor Mouhcine Fikri, who was crushed to death in a garbage truck in an attempt to retrieve his confiscated fish. Just a couple of months after the establishment of the new government in May, authorities arrested Nasser Zefzafi, leader of the Hirak movement, sparking the beginning of a wave of widespread arrests and crackdown in the Rif region, resulting in at least one death. Though sporadic, protests continued through the year.

On the international stage, Morocco has treaded the thin line of neutrality with regard to the unfolding Gulf crisis centered on the dispute with Qatar, neither strongly supporting nor opposing Saudi Arabia's position, while still remaining involved in the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. Instead, Morocco has pivoted its diplomatic efforts toward the African continent, where it rejoined the African Union and has requested to join the Western African economic bloc, ECOWAS.

U.S. Surrenders Leadership on Human Rights in Arab World
Antoun Issa, Senior Editor

Human rights in the Arab world saw mixed results in 2017, with some progress made on women’s rights, while the LGBT community and domestic workers suffered setbacks. The biggest improvement was in Tunisia, which passed in July a wide-ranging women’s rights package—unprecedented in the Arab world—that addresses multiple forms of sexual harassment and discrimination. Tunisia also abolished a law that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. Lebanon followed suit in repealing the same law in August, while Saudi Arabia lifted a much-publicized ban on women driving in September.

The downside was in Egypt, which recently launched a high-profile crackdown on its LGBT community with more than 70 individuals arrested. One of the harshest homophobic bills in the world currently sits before the Egyptian parliament, which would outlaw “homosexuality.”

Qatar and the U.A.E. made incremental steps in improving the conditions of migrant domestic workers, who have suffered widespread abuse in the Arab world, but Lebanon took several steps back—deporting earlier this year migrant domestic workers who have had children. A glaring image of Lebanon’s maltreatment of its migrant domestic workers is showcased by the death rate, which sadly doubled in 2017.

Nevertheless, that some Arab states took initiative to improve human rights at a time when the Trump administration has publicly declared it will no longer advocate democracy and human rights abroad is encouraging. Improvements in women’s rights in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia are testament to local grassroots efforts that will continue irrespective of U.S. policy. However, a lack of U.S. leadership on human rights also has its consequences, in particular by allowing regimes who would rescind human rights to get a free pass—Egypt’s ongoing LGBT crackdown a clear example.

Jerusalem Recognition Unravels U.S. Policy on Israel-Palestine
Nathan Stock, MEI Scholar

U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the most significant development in the Middle East Peace Process in 2017. President Donald Trump broke decades of precedent, effectively adopting Israel’s position on perhaps the most sensitive final status issue of the peace process.

While a degree of U.S. bias in favor of Israel is nothing new, Trump’s declaration lays bare the inherent contradictions at the heart of the U.S. promise to serve as the “honest broker” between the two sides—when one side has benefited, for decades, from billions of dollars in military aid and nearly-reflexive political support on the world stage. The outsize influence of domestic political considerations on U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is not new. But rarely has a U.S. administration been so willing to hamstring its own stated objective of peacemaking by giving a giant carrot to its domestic political base.

Trump’s Jerusalem recognition has exacerbated profoundly the strategic crisis facing the P.L.O. leadership. Palestine’s 25-year-old gamble on the United States pressuring Israel to deliver a state in the West Bank and Gaza has long seemed like a poor bet. But, as long as successive administrations remained neutral on core final status questions and paid lip service to the goal of creating a Palestinian state, the Palestinian leadership could avoid addressing fundamental questions regarding their national goal and strategy. Trump’s move appears to have made traditional P.L.O. participation in the peace process politically impossible, thus forcing a painful reckoning for the P.L.O. leadership.

Netanyahu’s Diplomacy Pays Off in 2017
Eran Etzion, MEI Scholar

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s gamble on Trump paid off handsomely throughout 2017. While Israel’s traditional allies were gasping for air, his government was withdrawing dividends at an accelerated pace. The reshuffling of all policy cards—on Iran, on Israel-Palestine including Jerusalem and even on Russia—was all working in favor of Netanyahu. ISIS’ gradual retreat was also a welcomed development for Israel, which by and large saw it as a distraction from its main priority, Iran.

Freed from Obama’s pressures, Netanyahu could position himself vis-a-vis his political base as “a world-class statesman.” He spent 57 days on official visits abroad, spanning the globe and setting foot in places no previous Israeli prime minister has bothered to visit, such as Australia and Latin America.

Meanwhile, just across Israel’s borders, storms were constantly gathering. In Syria, Israel’s staunchest enemies have won the war and immediately leveraged their gains. The age-old threat of a “Shiite Crescent” from Iran, via Iraq and Syria and onto Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea has taken shape much quicker than anticipated. Egypt’s regime and the Sinai Peninsula are under heavy pressures, and Jordan is also strained. The Palestinian political scene is gearing up for a potential historic pivot away from the two-state solution. The much-heralded “strategic alignment with the Sunni Gulf states” is yet to be tested. Netanyahu—on the verge of criminal indictments—will have 2017 to look back on as a better year than the next.

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