5 Ways the Middle East Changed in 2019

Published December 14th, 2019 - 03:49 GMT
/Al Bawaba
/Al Bawaba
From the threat of war mounting in the Persian Gulf to the commodification of highly sensitive nuclear technology, 2019 was a year packed full of cataclysmic events and policy changes that forebode a chaotic 2020 for the Middle East. 

It may have been difficult to keep pace the frequency and magnitude of news developments in the region, but here are five of the biggest changes that happened in 2019.


1. A Gargantuan Security Dilemma Brews in the Persian Gulf

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a briefing on a strike against a oil tankers (AFP/FILE)

The U.S.’ policy approach to Iran changed dramatically under Trump. Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy to stem war with Iran was erased and replaced by Trump’s so-called ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. Though Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018 and immediately reimposed crippling sanctions, the consequences of the rising tension became clear in 2019. 

In April 2019, Trump designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terror group, effectively isolating Iran’s economy even further, as IRGC-linked firms and businesses dominate much of the market. The summer saw tensions rise nearly to the point of an open confrontation between the U.S., Saudi and Iran. Suspected Iranian forces targeted multiple oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, temporarily destabilizing the international oil and gas market.


There are signs this mounting tension may subside in early 2020

And after Iran shot down a U.S. drone over its territory, Trump reportedly ordered a strike on strategic targets inside Iran only to back out at the last minute, claiming the attack was not proportionate to the loss of a drone. 

Since then, the U.S. has ordered an additional 1,400 soldiers to Saudi Arabia, Iran-linked Houthi forces have struck an oil facility on Saudi land and Iran has begun to violate parts of the nuclear agreement. There are signs this mounting tension may subside in early 2020 however: the once-militant standoff between Saudi and Qatar appears to be cooling down, which would open up a crucial diplomatic channel between the U.S., Saudi and Iran. 


2. Turkey's Entanglement in Syria Deepens

Erdogan (AFP/Filed edited by Al Bawaba) 

Turkey, led by the neo-Ottoman foreign policy agenda of Recep Erdogan, invaded the northeast portion of Syria in Oct 2019 with a controversial initial approval by the U.S. following a brief call between Trump and Erdogan. Now, Turkey has direct or partial control over much of Syria’s northern regions, including Idlib and Efrin. 

But while Turkey’s military operation has stalled, Erdogan says he plans to repatriate up to two million Syrian refugees in the sparsely populated areas Turkey now occupies. “Through making east of Euphrates a safe place, and depending on the depth of this safe zone, we can resettle 2-3 million displaced Syrians currently living in our country and Europe,” Erdogan said at a press conference in Sep 2019.

Turkey’s military moves have not only complicated the war in Syria further, they’ve also forced an already depleted Syrian Army to stretch itself even farther to defend northern border areas in addition to providing yet more openings for Russia grow its role as a regional mediator.

As of now, Turkey has established itself as a critical player in the ever-evolving Syrian conflict, but there are signs it can’t maintain its position for long. A Sep opinion poll reported that nearly three-fourths of Turks disapprove of their government’s action inside Syria. At the same time, Turkey’s domestic economy has weathered a short-lived recession and a currency crisis in 2018, though it recovered slightly in the last quarter of 2019.


3. A New Wave of Grassroots Rebellions

Protesters in Lebanon (AFP/FILE)

Ongoing protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have rocked each country to the point of upheaval. Well-organized protesters in Sudan forced Omar al-Bashir and much of his repressive military apparatus out of power after nearly 30 years of unchecked rule. Meanwhile, Algerians also forced the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and have been locked in a power struggle with elements of his regime ever since. 

In Iran, thousands of demonstrators have braved live fire and reported massacres to protest austerity measures imposed by the government, including a massive hike in fuel prices.

The regime’s violent repression of the demonstrations have now altered the demands of the protests: many now demand the downfall of the government. 

Each protest have individually altered the political landscape of their countries dramatically, but taken together, they point to a sea-change in the region, where sectarianism and austerity are doubly rejected.

In Iraq, many demonstrations have centered around Iran’s creeping influence in the country, although endemic corruption and governmental mismanagement have become nationwide crises. They too have braved a violent government crackdown to demand a regime change, and have had some success. Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi stepped down in Nov 2019, but that appears to have only galvanized the protesters further. 

The ongoing protests in Lebanon were initially sparked by the government’s announcement that it would begin taxing the use of the popular messaging app, WhatsApp. Anti-austerity protests then cascaded into a nationwide movement, with millions of disaffected, young Lebanese demanding an end to sectarianism, corruption and dysfunctional governance.

In Oct, PM Saad Hariri resigned, but as of Dec, Hariri has re-emerged as the government’s top pick for the position. Predictably, protesters have used this as an example of the kind of governmental mismanagement they are mobilizing against. 

Each protest have individually altered the political landscape of their countries dramatically, but taken together, they point to a sea-change in the region, where sectarianism and austerity are doubly rejected.


4. Israel and the U.S. Double-down on Settlements

Hebron city center (AFP/FILE)

2019 saw a dramatic acceleration of Israeli expansionism under Netanyahu, thanks in part to the U.S.’ pro-zionist foreign policy approach. In Nov, Trump broke with decades of American foreign policy orthodoxy by formally declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be legal, therefore recognizing a form of Israeli sovereignty over the Palestinian territory. Earlier in March, the U.S. also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967 and since expanded its control during the Syrian civil war. 

In Dec, Israel announced it would approve a new Israeli settlement in the middle of Hebron’s once-busy market. The settlement, if built, would raze the historic market to the ground, though the approval alon signals Israel’s increased willingness to approve controversial settlements.

In response to the Hebron settlement’s approval, Saeb Erekat, one of the Palestinian Authoritiy’s top officials, said “Israel’s decision to build a new illegal settlement in occupied Hebron is the first tangible result of the US decision to legitimize colonization;this cannot be taken out of the context annexation:Concrete measures,including sanctions against settlements are an Int.responsibility.” 

Although Netanyahu’s place in Israeli politics is no longer secure, thanks to successive corruption scandals and an indictment, there are no major Israeli politicians who openly criticize Israel’s illegal settlements.


5. The U.S.' Large-Scale Deregulation of Weapons and War 

Beneath the breaking news of the region, a series of policy changes from the U.S. has experts concerned that regulations surrounding sensitive technology, weapons and war conduct are being relaxed significantly.

In Feb 2019, a whistleblower revealed a U.S. plan to sell secret nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, and the details of the plan were described as “bonker balls,” by one nuclear policy expert. In short, a small group of energy companies led by a close friend of Trump, Tom Barrack, successfully petitioned to provide Saudi nuclear technology and subsequent technical support, without going through the official legal channels to do so. 

Throughout most of 2019, the Whitehouse has also sought to eliminate critical oversight mechanisms of the export of small arms by transferring the monitoring duties from the Department of State to the Department of Commerce. "The types of weapons the administration wants to remove from State Department review and Congressional notification actually merit the tightest export control because of their real and potential role in fueling violence, including violence against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel,” Jeff Abramson, a Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association said in a House hearing on the matter.

“As a result, more states are now able to acquire drones with less scrutiny.

Around the same time, the U.S. has been steadily removing restrictions regarding the export of lethal drones, prompting arms experts to warn that other countries with abysmal human rights records may now acquire coveted U.S. tech.

"The new policy allows arms manufacturers to negotiate sales directly with foreign governments, and lowers some of the after-sale ‘end-use monitoring’ requirements associated with export of unarmed drones equipped with lasers designators,” Ella Knight, a researcher on drones with Amnesty International told Al Bawaba.

“As a result, more states are now able to acquire drones with less scrutiny.

Collectively, these moves make it easier to acquire dangerous weapons while making it more difficult to monitor their use. 

Each protest have individually altered the political landscape of their countries dramatically, but taken together, they point to a sea-change in the region, where sectarianism and austerity are doubly rejected.

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