Regression, hope and change: The Middle East in 2020
While some developments have shined hope on ostensibly unsolvable conflicts, other dynamics have exacerbated issues across the region.
The year 2020 has left its mark on much of the Middle East.
While some developments sparked a glimmer of hope in ostensibly unsolvable conflicts, other dynamics have exacerbated existing issues across the region.
Reflections on the year for Iraq and Iran have been published by Al Jazeera in other pieces.
In the 10th year of the war, which has not only resulted in more than 500,000 casualties but displaced an estimated 13 million people – more than half of all Syrians – lasting progress on a resolution is still not in sight.
Turkey and Russia agreed on a new ceasefire at the beginning of March for the rebels’ last remaining stronghold, Idlib.
However, President Bashar al-Assad continues to affirm his intention to regain control of every inch of Syrian soil, including the northeast areas controlled by a Kurdish-led administration, and Idlib.
The ceasefire between Moscow and Ankara notwithstanding, Israel has continued to conduct military attacks against Iran-related targets in Syria.
Adding to the situation’s volatility is the resurgence of ISIL (ISIS).
Aided by the pandemic and the vacuum created by the United States withdrawing its forces from some areas, the group launched several attacks and continues to regain strength only a year after the collapse of its physical caliphate in eastern Syria.
The overall situation is aggravated by unremitting US sanctions against the Syrian government that have impaired the country’s economy, as well as by the 2021 Syrian presidential elections, as former Syrian Ambassador to Turkey Nidal Kabalan told Al Jazeera.
“Although Syrians cannot wait to wrap up one of the worst years in a decade of a catastrophic conflict, their main concern will likely focus economically on overcoming the impact of stifling sanctions and politically on the upcoming presidential elections and relevant ramifications,” Kabalan said.
The war between government forces under President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) continued in the south, while the rebel Houthis continue to fight the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and government forces in the north.
The Saudi Arabia-led military alliance has been fighting alongside the government since 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthis.
The Houthis control the capital Sanaa and large areas in the north and west of the country. The conflict is increasingly becoming a burden on international shipping, with the Houthis increasingly attacking Saudi oil tankers.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been killed over the past 10 years. According to the United Nations, Yemen faces the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.
Yet, international aid has considerably receded compared with previous years. In June, an international donor conference fell $1bn short of the UN’s $2.4bn target, adding to the devastating situation.
In late December, Hadi swore in a new government that was formed thanks to a power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia last year.
The new government, headed by Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik, represents Yemen’s northern and southern areas with equal numbers of members from each region. It includes five members of the STC.
Foreign actors had previously influenced the conflict between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
The Turkish-backed GNA made significant battlefield gains earlier this year against the LNA, which is backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
The GNA regained full control over Tripoli after being besieged for more than a year by Haftar’s forces.
In August, the GNA announced its commitment to a ceasefire and a political solution.
It has enabled a somewhat constructive dialogue, culminating in a plan for genuine progress, drafted during a September meeting in Switzerland, and with the approval of crucial Libyan actors and members of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Most importantly, both sides agreed to conduct presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months, scheduled for December 24, 2021.
Nonetheless, obstacles remain, particularly due to the pandemic.
COVID-19 has shifted the European focus away from Libya and provided Russia with additional leeway, Nicolai Due-Gundersen, a political analyst at United Nations Institute of Training and Research, said.
“As many EU states and the world tackles COVID-19, sadly Libya may not be a priority. This may further allow Russia to continue their interventions and backing of Haftar, including through military means.”
The government continues its fight against the ISIL’s local affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, while President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has tightened his grip over the country.
However, he has been facing increased friction among the Egyptian population, pinnacling in mass protests against the government in September amid el-Sisi’s repression of journalists and carrying out of mass executions.
The chair and two employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were recently arrested and accused of spreading fake news and endangering public order and security.
These developments have alarmed the European Union. Its parliament passed a resolution urging member states to consider imposing targeted restrictions against Egypt for its crackdown on human rights activists.
However, the Egyptian government continuous to reject any international criticism, denouncing it as “interference”.
Adding fuel to the situation is the persistent inequality in the country. These could lead to new and increased protests, political analyst, Hamid Chriet said.
“Egypt’s society is unequal in terms of its income distribution, with an estimated 35-40 percent of Egypt’s population earning less than the equivalent of $2 a day, while only around 2-3 percent can be considered wealthy.”
Moreover, COVID-19 will likely worsen the situation.
“The sanitary crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforces the inequality. The latter may spark new and more extensive protests,” Chriet said.
With normalisation agreements signed between several Arab states and Israel, the Palestinians have become increasingly isolated. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has promised elections.
However, potential reconciliation with Hamas has not yet advanced sufficiently, and paralysis remains.
“The abandonment of the Palestinians by Arab autocratic regimes and especially by their own incompetent leadership, are trends that have deep roots and will certainly continue in the new year,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, said.
The Palestinians witnessed how Israel advanced its interests during the final days of the Trump administration.
With the decision to advance plans to construct the Givat Hamatos settlement, previously a red line for the international community, Israel will build the first new settlement in occupied East Jerusalem in 20 years.
It establishes a de facto separation of the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem from the city of Bethlehem, making a two-state solution under the previous parameters, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, almost inconceivable.
While US President-elect Joe Biden is an advocate of the two-state solution and has pledged to reinstate US aid for Palestinians, he is unlikely to significantly alter the status quo.
“Israeli settler-colonialism will continue in the West Bank, perhaps at a slower pace due to the departure of Donald Trump,” Hashemi said.
While the normalisation agreements are detrimental for Palestinians, they are momentous for Israel in terms of economic prosperity and increased security against the common adversary Iran.
Moreover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s not-so-clandestine trip to Saudi Arabia recently could be considered as perhaps the critical step in Israel-Arab normalisations.
As for Israel’s relations with Palestine, “not much will change in 2021”, Hashemi said, while American support will remain substantial and equally unconditional.
“Joe Biden will return American policy to the Obama era. This means very strong US support for Israel and a steadfast refusal to contemplate using American leverage to force Israel to abide by international law.”
However, while Netanyahu facilitated significant achievements on the international stage, his domestic situation remains problematic.
The coalition between his Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party was unable to agree on a budget by the deadline of December 23 and, as a result, the government dissolved.
Israel now faces its fourth election in two years.
This is a scenario that becomes all the more complicated with the founding by breakaway Likud member Gideon Saar’s New Hope party which, according to polls, could not only become the third strongest force but may thoroughly shake up the Knesset’s traditional majorities – and hence put Netanyahu’s political future in peril.