THE death of two men starkly opposite in character, and America’s abject surrender once again to Zionist power marked the end of the second decade of the 21st century as a subdued level of violence continued in the heart of the Middle East.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in October removed from the scene an evil genius considered responsible for the death of nearly half-a-million people in Syria alone, besides hundreds of thousands killed, crippled or rendered homeless in Iraq. But for him, Syria’s Arab Spring would not have degenerated into a civil war that drew in half-a-dozen non-Syrian elements to turn the country into a charnel house. To avoid capture by American commandos, the self-proclaimed caliph of a militant group named variously – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or just Islamic State – blew himself up in a tunnel in Syria’s Idlib province as a dog chased him.
The other man to die was Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, whose Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by the military headed by Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. Morsi died in a cage in court while on trial.
With an election due next year, Trump made two astonishing decisions to be on the right side of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Preceded by a tweet, Trump announced on March 25 that he was recognising Israel’s control (actually annexation) of Golan Heights. These heights have nothing to do with the Palestinian issue and belong to Syria.
The apparent thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was perhaps the only positive development in the region.
The president followed this surrender to the Israel lobby by another shocking decision in November when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the president didn’t consider Jewish settlements on the West Bank as illegal – a decision that violates two key UN resolutions (242 and 338).
In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli behaviour conformed to its track record, with murderous air strikes on the Mediterranean strip, leading to heavy civilian casualties. In a gruesome incident in November, 30 civilians, including a family of eight with five children, were killed when Israel claimed it had retaliated against an Islamic Jihad (IJ) rocket attack. Actually, it was the Palestinian group which had responded to an Israeli air raid that had killed an IJ fighter and his wife.
At home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, charged with corruption, including bribery and fraud, failed to find coalition partners to become prime minister a fifth time in the 120-member parliament in September’s general election, second in less than six months. To end the deadlock, the year’s third election was due in late December.
Another move that delighted Israel was America’s decision to label Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps a “terrorist organisation”. This was indeed for the first time America had named another state’s armed wing a “terrorist group”. Tehran promptly hit back, declaring American armed forces “terrorist groups” and said the US government was a sponsor of terrorism.
Throughout the year there was sabre rattling in the Gulf, and tension rose when missiles hit Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, reducing Aramco’s production by 5.7 million barrels.
In another surprise move, Trump ordered American troops out of the harm’s way after Turkey launched its third offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Militia (YPG), which is the real fighting force in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by America. Trump criticised the Turkish offensive but denied he had abandoned the Kurds. Ankara’s aim was to create a 30-km-deep ‘safe zone’ for one million Syrian refuges. By November, Turkey was able to create a 130-mile strip of land along the southern Turkish border. Criticised by America and Europe, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said if he opened the “flood gates”, Turkey’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees could swamp Europe.
Meanwhile, Yemen continued to suffer, with the casualty toll estimated at 100,000, including 20,000 civilians, since the war in the Arab world’s poorest country began in 2015. Embarrassing for Riyadh was the capture of Aden, Yemen’s second biggest city, by Security Belt, a southern militia which believes in reviving the former South Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE back the internationally recognised Mansoor Hadi government, but Aden’s fall to a militia backed by the Emirates showed cracks within the pro-government alliance.
One positive development, however, was a perceptible fall in Saudi Arabia’s tense relations with Qatar. Even though the Qatar Emir didn’t attend the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Saudi capital in mid-December, Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman warmly received the Qatar delegation, led by Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser, with both exchanging pleasantries with the guests.
The Saudi state TV welcomed the Doha delegation and said Saudi Arabia was the Qatar people’s second home. The relations between Qatar and the Saudi kingdom stood frozen when in June 2017 four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – cut off diplomatic relations and all transport ties, thus virtually enforcing a blockade of the gas-rich country. The blockade was designed to show the Saudi-led group’s anger over Doha’s close ties with Iran, its purported support to Islamist extremists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and its refusal to close Al-Jazeera TV and wind up the Turkish base in Doha.
In Iraq, all hopes of political stability and economic consolidation faded as anti-government riots rocked the country, with politicians unable to find a consensus prime minister after Adel Abdel Mahdi, the incumbent, resigned. Blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the protests against corruption and Iranian influence began in Baghdad on Oct 1 and spread to Shia-majority south, with rioters burning the Iranian consulate in Najaf. The government suppressed the riots with force, the death toll reaching nearly 500. By the time these lines were being written, there was no consensus on a prime minister, and the protesters said they would not accept a cabinet head from the corrupt lot.
The end of the year also saw a Saudi court sentencing five people to death for journalist Adnan Khashoggi‘s murder in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October, 2018. The court said it was not a premeditated murder – a verdict that ran counter to UN investigators. —The writer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor and author.