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Whither the Kurds?

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Palestinians have long been known for a history of missing opportunities. By contrast, Kurds spread across several Middle Eastern nations appeared to have a keener understanding of geopolitics and were seemingly willing to embrace the art of the possible. All of that has changed in the past year with both Palestinians and Kurds seemingly further away from achieving their long-standing goal of statehood.

A combination of the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, the emergence of the Islamic State, the wars in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s turn towards authoritarianism, and the fallout of failed policies by Palestinian and Kurdish leaders have rendered both nations struggling to salvage what can be salvaged.

To be sure, circumstances that shape the struggle to achieve the two peoples’ national aspirations could not be more different. Yet, while Iraqi Kurds may have destroyed in the short-term what they built in almost three decades of autonomy with an ill-advised referendum on independence in September 2017, at least Iraqi and Syrian Kurds could in the middle-term be closer to some form of sustainable self-rule, if not independence, than immediately meets the eye.

By contrast, with Trump backing Israel to the hilt, symbolized by his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, Palestinians are groping for an alternative framework for peace negotiations and tiptoeing around the possibility of a new uprising or Intifada that the last time round at the turn from the 20th to the 21st century had a devastating effect on them.

A region in transition

Working in the favour of both Kurds and Palestinians is the fact that they live in a region that has been in volatile and violent transition since the Arab popular revolts of 2011. That transition is likely to continue for years, if not a quarter of a century, before the battles between forces of change and counterrevolution and complicating regional rivalries have battled it out and the fallout of the outcome of those struggles settles in.

As Kurds contemplate the future, they have the advantage in contrast to the Palestinians, that the transition calls into question the future political structure of Syria and Iraq, if not their existence as nation-states within their post-colonial borders. Similarly, the nature of the regime in Syria is likely to change with the contested future of President Bashar al-Assad while the prospects of Iraq’s democratically elected, Shiite-dominated government are in flux as it struggles to ensure that the country’s Sunni minority maintains a stake in a unified Iraq and address Kurdish aspirations. In Turkey, too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to remain in power at least until his country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023 is certain to encounter headwinds.

Kurdish hopes are often vested in predictions articulated by former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden that “Iraq no longer exists, Syria no longer exists” as well as the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the wake of the demise of communist rule. That remains a possibility but more realistic is the fact, at least in the immediate future, the Syrian and Iraqi states as they existed in the past are more likely to change rather than dissolve. The lesson of the 2017 Iraqi Kurdish referendum and the fact that the Iraqi state has already demonstrated resilience in surviving and its Syrian counterpart may well do so too, means that Kurds will have to strive for some autonomous accommodation within a federal structure.

Another lesson the referendum and the wars in Syria and Iraq have taught the Kurds is that, despite having been close allies of the United States in multiple battles, including the fight against former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State, they cannot count on the kind of support Washington has extended to Israel. That, however, may be less of a disadvantage than the obstacles Palestinians face as they counter a strong and entrenched Israeli state that despite widespread condemnation of its annexationist policies enjoys a network of strong international relationships even with those, like the Gulf states, who are unwilling to recognize it and establish formal diplomatic ties.

With the future of Syria and Iraq as nation states in question, Kurds ironically benefit from the fact that Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian constituencies are not striving for a unitary state carved out of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi territory unlike the Palestinians who despite the split between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are seeking an independent entity that would encompass both territories. One consequence of that is the fact that Kurdish leaders in the various territories are less stymied by their differences than are the Palestinians whose leverage in potential negotiations and ability to marshal more than symbolic international support has been undermined by their inability to form a united front.

It has also made them more vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of external players such as Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Encouraged by the UAE and Egypt controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief Mohammed Dahlan is weighing a return to Palestinian politics and challenge to Abbas either by forming a party of his own or joining Hamas in governing Gaza as part of national salvation government.

Playing ball with Syria

Syrian Kurds are likely to benefit from the fact that decentralization will probably be Syria’s best bet to ensure its territorial integrity once the guns fall silent. That would enable Kurds to claim enhanced powers in purely Kurdish areas, strengthen their demand that Syria identify itself as a republic rather than an Arab republic, create the basis for the children of minorities to be educate in their mother tongue in both Kurdish-majority regions as well as in Kurdish neighbourhoods of major Syrian cities, and allow for an equitable distribution of oil export revenues. Syrian Kurds stressed the centrality of the revenues by declaring in 2016 their autonomous federal region at a gathering in Rumeilan, the oil capital of northeast Syria, rather than  Qamishli, their de-facto capital.

In some ways, the building blocks for autonomy are starker in Syrian Kurdish areas than in Iraqi Kurdistan. The differences in law enforcement, the administration of utilities and social services, and economic policy in Kurdish areas and those parts of Syria controlled by the Assad government are greater than in Iraq.

The regional Kurdish authority has promulgated laws, including a quasi-constitution dubbed ‘Rojava’s social contract;’ created agencies to license and administer investments, education, and media; founded the region’s first university; created a system for the sharing of economic resources; laid plans for an independent central bank, and witnessed the emergence of a broad network of non-governmental associations. Notionally Damascus retained a presence in the regional area by maintaining its monopoly on the issuing of civil record documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, the paying of civil servant salaries, and its control of Qamishli Airport, the area’s main gateway.

Nevertheless, a generation of Syrian Kurdish children is being educated exclusively in Kurdish rather than also in Arabic. They are growing up with a notion of Syria as a hostile, foreign forces, that they have never visited. Kurdish children in Afrin are likely to have had their first encounter with Syrians in early 2018 when Syrian government forces entered the region in support of Kurdish forces fighting off military intervention by the Turkish military and Ankara-backed rebels. Ironically, Kurdish agreement to the Syrian entry could strengthen their bid for autonomy in a future federal arrangement. The agreement reportedly involves the declaration of a no-fly zone over Afrin, the establishment of Syrian military base, and put maintenance of a local administration in northern Syria and sharing natural resources and services on the table. Critics assert that those are conditions that the Assad government is likely to walk away from in the longer term.

To succeed in achieving sustainable autonomy, Syrian Kurds will have to endorse some combination involving and/or the relinquishing of non-Kurdish territory, particularly in areas once occupied by the Islamic state; loosen the ties of the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey labels a terrorist organization; and align its local governance structures with those of Syria. This will likely involve a balancing of Kurdish, Turkish, and Syrian interests.

That could prove easier said than done particularly with Assad seeing the survival of his regime as well as that of his Alawite minority in Syria’s continued embrace of pan Arabism as a concept that includes “all ethnic groups, religions, and communities” and recognizes their contribution to the notion’s development. Assad see his country’s brutal war as an attempt to force Syria to abandon its own identity and kowtow to foreign powers or to become a society of “communities in conflict.” Speaking in late 2017, Assad asserted that “Arabism and national thinking have continuously been accused by their enemies of backwardness and of being old-fashioned in an age overwhelmed by globalization in order to turn us into tools to serve the interests of huge financial institutions led by the United States.”

Returning from the abyss

The Iraqi Kurds wasted their moment in history by falsely assuming that the United States would back their quest for independence based on the September 2017 referendum. Instead it will take the Iraqi Kurds time to heal their internal divisions stemming from one faction allowing the Iraqi military to take unopposed control of the strategic city of Kirkuk and crawl back the degree of self-rule they had achieved under the umbrella of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are still trying to come “to grips with the trauma caused by the abrupt change from a quasi-state status to that of an entity under threat of annihilation…  If Iraq’s history as a nation-state can be taken as a proof then the possibility of peaceful coexistence seems quite unrealistic.,” said scholar Ofra Bengio.

Negotiations are nevertheless likely to be the only way to achieve that. Both sides have incentives to engage in talks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s military is weak despite its recapture of territory controlled by the Islamic State as well as Kirkuk and has a poor track record in retaining control of territories it has conquered. The threat of a military confrontation with the Kurds will moreover continue to exist as long the two sides fail to reach an agreement that is based on the country’s that recognized Kurdistan’s regional status and gave it a far-reaching degree of self-rule.

Similarly, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have little other choice given the fallout of the mis-guided referendum. External players like Turkey and Iran that were crucial in thwarting Iraqi Kurdish aspirations of independence would likely be supportive as long as Kurdistan remains an integral part of Iraq and Iraqi territorial integrity is guaranteed.

The key to successful negotiations is the elephant in the room: the future of what the constitution terms “disputed territories” that are rich in hydrocarbon resources, which in effect means agreement on the boundaries that separate the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdish leverage in negotiations is likely to be in part determined on whether the potential revival of Sunni-Shiite tensions will erase the sense of national urgency that existed in the three-year struggle against the Islamic State. The jury is still out on whether the local administration that controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will succeed in taking into full account the interests of the Sunnis and ending their sense of alienation. To do so, the government in Baghdad will have to secure the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised population – something it has failed to effectively do in the past.

To be sure, Abadi, unlike Assad in Syria, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive. Yet, crucial to the Kurds, is the underlying question of whether Abadi’s inclusiveness will succeed in putting the Iraqi nation state’s core problem, the inability to create a deeply rooted national identity, behind it.

Nonetheless, while it remains likely that the Kurdish-Iraqi standoff will continue without a renewed eruption of hostilities for some time to come, the question is for how long,” “The fractious nature of Iraqi politics inherently works against compromise. In Baghdad, a united front for compromise is almost impossible to achieve. As such, brave or original ideas are easily undercut by opponents who will resort to the lowest common denominator: a unitary Iraqi nationalism. This is the surest way to discredit any conciliatory move on the Kurdish issue… Even if (the current crisis) ends with a return to a mildly reshuffled form of the status quo ante, Arab Iraqis would be sorely mistaken if they celebrate this as an Iraqi triumph: it would be a completely Pyrrhic victory that merely intensifies the mutual mistrust and delays confrontation,” warned Iraq scholar Fanar Haddad.

Regional imbroglio

The various Kurdish struggles risk becoming pawns in the Middle East fundamental rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar that is backed by Turkey and Iran. Turkey has already alleged that the Emirates, the kingdom and Egypt are supporting the PKK. Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), charged that a $1 billion Saudi contribution to the reconstruction of Raqqa, the now partly Syrian Kurdish-controlled former capital of the Islamic State, was evidence of the kingdom’s involvement in what it termed a “dirty game.”

Similarly, Iran reported increased insurgent activity in majority-Kurdish region, asserting that Saudi Arabia was supporting it as part of a bid to destabilize the Islamic republic. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs. Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman vowed last year that the battle between his kingdom and the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Compared to the Kurds, Palestinians have the advantage that they confront one rather than multiple states even if stability in Israel and US backing for hard-line Israeli positions is beyond doubt. The Kurds may however discover that the greater complexity of their struggle could turn out to be an advantage provided they are able to play their cards right.

This story was originally published in Europa Ethnica, Vol. ½, 2018

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent

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If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites.

Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of President-elect Joe Biden. In contrast to Trump, Biden has suggested that he would emphasize democratic values and freedoms. In doing so, Biden could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Autocrats get some things right

The second decade of the 21st century has been bookended by protest. The decade was ushered in by protest across the globe, from student rallies in Chile to Occupy Wall Street to fuel price demonstrations in Jakarta. The 2011 popular revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats grabbed the headlines and provided drama.

The 2010s ended with similar drama. Protests in Chile resulted in a vote for a new constitution. A coalition of opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Racism and the killing of people of colour by police sparked massive protests in the United States not seen since the 1960s. And like ten years earlier, demonstrators toppled Arab leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, uncertain whether this would secure the aspired change.

The 2020s promise to be no different, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. A global public opinion survey conducted by Edelman, a US public relations firm, in the United States, Europe, and Asia showed a significant drop in trust in governments as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the worst global economic downturn in decades. Saudi Arabia, alongside Japan, were the two countries that witnessed only a minimal drop.[i][1]

Nevertheless, global mismanagement of the pandemic has hit hard in countries that are wracked by war, like Syria and Libya, nations with perennially weak economies that host large refugee populations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and Gulf states, which have seen energy prices tumble with prospects dim for a quick recovery of oil and gas markets. Shifts towards greater autocracy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bode ill at a time in which populations with a youth majority are not necessarily clamouring for greater freedom but are increasingly gloomy about governments’ ability to deliver jobs and other public goods.

Delivery was already a daunting task prior to the pandemic. The World Bank reported that the number of people living below a poverty line of US$1.90 a day in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment had more than tripled from eight million in 2011 to 28 million in 2018 and that the extreme poverty rate had doubled from 3.8 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018.[ii][2]

Facing significantly dimmed economic prospects, the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have, nonetheless, so far relatively successfully managed the political and social environment they operate in, judging by the responses to recent public opinion polling.[iii][3]

Both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that various countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.

“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.[iv][4]

The two crown princes’ similar worldviews constitute in part a response to changing youth attitudes towards religiosity evident in the polls and expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The changes attach greater importance to adherence to individual morals and values and less focus on the formalistic observance of religious practice as well as a rejection of the sectarianism that is a fixture of governance in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Saudi religious ultra-conservatism.

The problem for rulers is that the moorings of their rule potentially could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with the undermining of the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism not only towards political elites but also religious institutions.

For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.

“Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the latest Arab Youth Survey,[v][5]

Youth put a premium on reform

Middle Eastern youth attitudes towards religion, religiosity and religious leadership mirror their approach towards material concerns. Their world is one that focuses on the individual rather than the collective, on what’s in it for me? instead of what’s in it for us?. It is a world that is not defined by ideology or politics and does not see itself reflected in the values and objectives espoused by elites and governments. In their world, the lingua franca differs substantially from the language they were raised in.

Two-thirds of those polled by the Arab Youth Survey believe that religious institutions need to be overhauled. They question fundamental religious concepts even if they define religion as the most important constituent element of their identity. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth, who can now see through it,” Alhussein said.[vi][6]

“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights,” concluded James Zogby an Arab-American pollster with a decades-long track record of polling in the Middle East and North Africa.[vii][7]

Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, another pollster, and international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin concluded that the youth in post-revolt Sudan had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who professed his adherence to religious principles. Robbins and Rubin cautioned, however, that religion could return as the catalyst for protest if the government fails to cater to youth aspirations.

“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.[viii][8] It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Saudis empathetic to protests

Asked in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Institute whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries,” a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. 48 per cent of respondents agreed, and 48 per cent disagreed.[ix][9] Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, appear less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be empathetic to protests should they occur.

Saudi attitudes towards protest take on added significance in an environment in which governments in the energy-rich Gulf have seen their ability erode to invest in infrastructure and cradle-to-grave welfare states. The need to diversify economies away from dependence on oil and gas exports to create jobs against the backdrop of depressed energy prices and markets as a result of the global economic downturn means changing expectations and rewriting social contracts that offered economic security and well-being in exchange for the surrender of political and social rights. In May 2020, The Dubai Chamber of Commerce provided a foretaste of problems to come. Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the chamber warned that a staggering 70 per cent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.[x][10] Analysts added to the gloomy prospects by reporting that non-oil growth in the UAE pointed toward a contraction of the economy.[xi][11]

The challenges Gulf and other Middle Eastern states face are compounded by the pandemic and a painful, protracted and complex road towards economic recovery, coupled with the toll of debilitating regional conflicts. They are also complicated by an apparent conditional willingness to accept belt-tightening and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts.

“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent – and that will be an issue,” said Saudi government worker Mohammed according to a report by Bloomberg after his USD 266 a month cost-of-living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.[xii][12]

Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily newspaper, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets, who wrote: “Citizens worry that the pressure on their living standards will outlast the current crisis. Increasing VAT from 5% to 15% will have a big effect on society’s purchasing power and will reflect negatively on the economy in the long term,”[xiii][13]

The surveys leave no doubt that even before the economic crisis sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the Middle Eastern youth was first and foremost concerned about its economic future. Asked what had prompted the wave of protests in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respondents pointed to unemployment, personal debt and corruption. 35 per cent of those polled in the latest Arab Youth Survey reported that they were mired in debt compared with 15 per cent in 2015.[xiv][14] A whopping 80 per cent said they believed Arab regimes were corrupt.

“This evinces a realization that the past decade of revolutions has borne rather bitter fruit: civil war, humanitarian distress, the rise of powerful extremist elements, and the collapse of governing restraints… Today, rather than seeking to change the world, most Arabs (especially the younger generation) demonstrate that mere improvements in their material condition would suffice,” said Middle East scholar Michael Milstein.[xv][15]

Voting with their feet

If the surveys suggest one thing, the streets of Algerian, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqi cities suggest something else.[xvi][16] Protesters in those four countries appeared to have learnt lessons from the failed 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In contrast to 2011, protesters in 2019 and 2020 refused to surrender the street once a leader was forced to resign. Instead, they maintained their protests, demanding a total overhaul of the political system,[xvii][17] which led to the formation of a governing transitional council in Sudan and a referendum on a new Algerian constitution.

Feeling outmanoeuvred by the military and political elites, Algerians voted with their feet. While the new constitution won in the referendum with a two-thirds majority, less than a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.[xviii][18] “Algerian youths do not see the ‘New Algeria’ that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition,” cautioned Algerian scholar Zine Labidine Ghebouli.[xix][19] In Sudan, the jury is still out on whether the council will satisfy popular demand. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protesters also insisted on the removal of the sect- and ethnic-based political structures that underpin the two countries’ political systems.[xx][20]

Like in Algeria, protesters in Lebanon and Iraq confronting police violence and the impact of the pandemic was at an inflexion point. That was graphically visualised in late October 2020 with the reopening of a key bridge in Baghdad and the clearing out of tents from a sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-establishment protest movement that erupted a year ago to demand basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.[xxi][21]

Few doubt that the combination of repressive law enforcement, politics rather than engagement and a public health crisis at best buys elites a reprieve. The writing is on the wall, with intermittent protests erupting in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iran and war-ravaged Syria. “For political transformation to happen, you need a generation,” noted Lina Khatib, head of London-based think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.[xxii][22]

The question is not whether another wave of protest will occur, but when and where.

“The most dangerous people in any society: “When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don’t have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues,” said former CIA acting director Michael Morell.[xxiii][23]

“The essential situation is that this mass of citizens has reached the point of discontent but (of) desperation and therefore has done the only thing it sees as available to it other than immigrate, which is challenging their state openly in street protests. Something has to give between these two forces,” added veteran journalist and Middle East scholar Rami Khouri.[xxiv][24]

Give and take seems, however, for now, a way off. The immediate reality is a stalemate. Protesters have demonstrated their ability to topple heads of government but have so far failed to force elites, determined to protect their perks at whatever cost, to address their fundamental concerns, let alone surrender power. Aggravating the stalemate is the breakdown in trust between significant segments of youth populations and governments as well as traditional opposition forces fuelling demands for reforms that replace existing elites rather than exploring ways of finding common ground.

“Arab governments’ long suppression of the development of inclusive, democratic, and effective institutions has left a vacuum of leadership among regime and opposition forces alike. That vacuum is acutely felt today… with no trusted institution in the region who could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” said Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.[xxv][25]

In a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, trends and developments no longer are sub-regional. They reverberate across what increasingly looks like the Middle East’s expanding borderlands as was evident in the 2020 Caucasus war between Armenia and Turkey- and Israel-backed Azerbaijan with Iran walking a fine line despite its empathy for the Armenians. Russian security forces and analysts predict that the fallout of the war is likely to compound a combustuous mix that will spark social unrest in the North Caucasus.

Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from the Kabardino-Balkaria region, warned that Muslim civil society groups were likely to lead anti-Russian protests, taking local authorities as well as the government in Moscow to task for mismanaging the pandemic and reducing financial support of the North Caucasus. As a result, the region suffered a higher Covid-19 related death rate per capita of the population and has seen employment rates soar as high as 40 per cent. Muslim non-governmental organizations have stepped in where increasingly authoritarian local governments have failed to deliver, fuelling widespread lack of confidence in state authority. Describing the situation as “ideal conditions for a social explosion,” Baskov cautioned that the unrest could escalate into ethnic and border conflicts in a region in which frontiers have yet to be definitively demarcated.[xxvi][26]

A catalyst for reinvigorated protest?

Much like US President Jimmy Carter’s support for human rights in the 1970s boosted popular resistance to the Shah of Iran and helped pave the way for the Islamic revolution,[xxvii][27] President-elect Joe Biden, with his emphasis on democratic values and freedoms,[xxviii][28] could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Supporters of a human rights-driven foreign policy juxtapose the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iran with the rise of post-revolt democratic leaders in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea. US President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Biden struggled almost a decade ago with how to handle the 2011 popular revolts.

Critics accuse Obama of enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to gain executive power in the aftermath of the revolts. The rise of the Brotherhood sparked a counter-revolution that led to a military coup in Egypt and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

“The cases of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with a few others, are often cited…by foreign policy elites arguing that American human rights advocacy needn’t come at the expense of American interests. And yet, as we can see in…harsh Monday-morning quarterbacking of Obama’s policy toward the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, for example, this argument still faces a steep uphill climb,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar who coordinated US democracy and human rights policy as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Cofman Wittes was referring to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who was forced to resign in 2011 after 30 years in office.

Biden has pledged to “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Biden was referring to Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.[xxix][29] Biden has also said he would convene a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office as part of an effort to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. The summit would be attended not only by political leaders but also including civil rights groups fighting for democracy.[xxx][30]

Campaign promises are one thing, enacting policies once in office another. As a result, the jury is out on how a Biden administration will handle potentially sustained protest in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, taken together the most recent surveys of public opinion paint a picture of a youth that has shifted in much of the region from optimism at the time of the 2011 revolts to deep-seated pessimism if not despair about its future prospects and a lack of confidence in the ability and/or willingness of most governments and elites to cater to its social and economic needs. That makes predictions of civil unrest all the more real.

Fact is also that the lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that political transition sparked by waves of protest is not a matter of days, months or even a year. It is a long, drawn-out process that often plays out over decades. 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent, with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centrepiece.

The 2020s is likely to be a decade in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand. Fragility at best and instability at worst is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. No doubt, that is a tall order.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.


[i] [1] Edelman, 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, January 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf

[ii] [2] World Bank Group, Poverty and Shared Prosperity  2020: Reversals of Fortune, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34496/9781464816024.pdf

[iii] [3] ASDA’A BCW, Arab Youth Survey, 2020; Arab Center Washington. https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html / Arab Opinion Index 2017-2018, 2018, http://arabcenterdc.org/survey/2017-2018-arab-opinion-index-executive-summary/

[iv] [4] Interview with the author, 14 October 2020.

[v] [5] ASDA’A BCW, A Voice for Change, 2020, 2020, p. 44, https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/downloadwhitepaper/AYS%202020-WP_ENG_0510_Single-Final.pdf

[vi] [6] Ibid.

[vii] [7] Interview with the author, 24 August 2020.

[viii] [8] Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin, Sudan’s government seems to be shifting away from Islamic law. Not everyone supports these moves, 27 August 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/27/sudans-government-seems-be-shifting-away-sharia-law-not-everyone-supports-these-moves/

[ix] [9] David Pollock, Saudi Poll: China Leads U.S.; Majority Back Curbs on Extremism, Coronavirus, 31 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/saudi-poll-china-leads-u.s-majority-back-curbs-on-extremism-coronavirus

[x] [10] Natasha Turak, 70% of Dubai companies expect to go out of business within six months due to coronavirus pandemic, survey says, 21 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/coronavirus-dubai-70percent-of-companies-expect-to-close-in-six-months.html

[xi] [11] Al Jazeera, Egypt and Saudi business conditions improve, while UAE’s worsen, 3 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/3/bbegypt-and-saudi-business-conditions-improves-while-uaes-wors

[xii] [12] Vivian Nereim and Sylvia Westall, Crisis Austerity in Oil-Rich Gulf May Test Political Balance, 2020.

[xiii] [13] Khalid Al-Sulaiman, Will the Finance Minister Do It?  (هل يفعلها وزير المالية ؟!), Okaz, 1 September 2020, https://www.okaz.com.sa/articles/authors/2026288, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/austerity-experiment-in-oil-rich-gulf-may-falter-post-crisis?sref=3XwG50X1

[xiv] [14] ASDA’A BCW, 7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Masteller Arab Youth Survey, 2015, http://arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/whitepaper/en/2015-AYS-White-Paper.pdf

[xv] [15] Michael Milstein, Ten Years Since the ‘Arab Spring’: Despair Has Not Become More Comfortable, 27 October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/arab-spring-despair-comfortable

[xvi] [16] James M. Dorsey, The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019, 2020, New Books Network, 5 September 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-tumultuous-decade-arab-public.html

[xvii] [17] James M. Dorsey, 2019 was a decade of defiance and dissent. The 2020s are likely to be no different, 1 January 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/01/2019-was-decade-of-defiance-and-dissent.html

[xviii] [18] Al Jazeera, Algerians back constitutional reforms amid low voter turnout, 2 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/2/low-voter-turnout-hits-algeria-referendum-amid-boycott-calls.

[xix] [19] Zine Labidine Ghebouli, Requiem for a Revolution, , Newlines Magazine, 1 November 2020, https://newlinesmag.com/essays/requiem-for-a-revolution/

[xx] [20] James M. Dorsey, Countering civilisationalism: Lebanese and Iraqi protesters transcend sectarianism, 1 November 2019, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2019/11/countering-civilisationalism-lebanese.html

[xxi] [21] Al Jazeera, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square cleared, Jamhuriya Bridge reopened, 31 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/31/iraq-clears-tahrir-square-a-year-after-mass-protests-began

[xxii] [22] Jared Malsin, Middle East Protesters Try to Avoid Mistakes of Arab Spring, 2020.

[xxiii] [23] CBS News, Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing, 6 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing/

[xxiv] [24] Wilson Center, Ten Years of Pan-Arab Protests: Understanding the new Dynamics of Change, The Wall Street Journal. 20 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/middle-east-protesters-try-to-avoid-mistakes-of-arab-spring-11579530280

[xxv] [25] Marwan Muasher, Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?, 30 October 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220

[xxvi] [26] Paul Goble, Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 5 January 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/year-2020-in-review-pandemic-exacerbated-problems-across-north-caucasus-and-set-stage-for-more-conflict/

[xxvii] [27] Tamara Cofman Wittes, Iran’s revolution and the problem of autocratic allies, Brookings, 24 January 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-and-the-problem-of-autocratic-allies/

[xxviii] [28] Joss Harrison, There are signs that as president, Joe Biden could adopt a proactive human rights approach similar to Jimmy Carter’s, LSE US Centre, 3 July 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/07/03/there-are-signs-that-as-president-joe-biden-could-adopt-a-proactive-human-rights-approach-similar-to-jimmy-carters/

[xxix] [29] JoeBiden.com,  Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder – Statement by Vice President Joe Biden, 2 October 2020, https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/#

[xxx] [30] JoeBiden.com, The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, Undated, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/

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Middle East

Reigniting Chaos in Syria

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Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.

Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 kmof land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.

However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.

This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.

Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.

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Middle East

Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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