For some, 2015 will be seen as a year of magical thinking. No one could of fully expected that an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 would be signed nor would there be a Vienna process on Syria. Few would have expected that new leadership would transform arguably a number of countries’ economic and strategic outlooks.
Regional states importantly deepened their own cooperation against common challenges, as evidenced by Yemen. The new global military coalition (albeit off to a wobbly start) is an important step in regional states taking leadership to confront common challenges at a time when Washington’s commitment to its allies is adjusting and other global powers notably Russia are re-engaging the region.
A sea of turbulence
At the same time, a number of turbulent events have shaken the region including dropping oil prices, cuts in public expenditures, ISIS’s continued onslaught, Iran’s nuclear agreement with the P5 + 1, a deepening civil war in Yemen, and Iran and Russia’s intervention in Syria. Despite some progress in Libya, peace remains far off in Yemen. While there is greater will and resolve to confront ISIS, a solution remains elusive and its impact can be felt from the Sinai to Mosul. From Cairo to Algiers, deep economic challenges remain with few clear solutions. Despite Tunisia being heralded as a model in North Africa, Tunis’ post-Ali governments have struggled to address the state’s socio-economic disparities.
2015 may better be seen as a year of wishful thinking. Despite some transformative moments, this year was arguably one of the most challenging and disappointing in many respects.
Iran and Russia’s regional push
Even though Iran has faced setbacks on the battlefield, Tehran’s influence in the Arab world is at its highest point in decades. Iran, its allies, and its proxies reach from Sanaa to Aleppo. Despite this magical thinking in some circles in Washington that Iran would change, once clenching the agreement, Ayatollah Khamenei has gone on the offensive to further shore up Iran’s interests at the expense of its neighbors. The JCPOA agreement has only further empowered Iran economically and militarily as it further asserts itself in the region. Tehran within a decade could even have a nuclear weapon. Despite clamoring about the proposed U.S. visa changes as a violation of the nuclear agreement, Iran had no problem violating U.N. Security Council resolutions when it conducted a ballistic missile test.
Despite some transformative moments, this year was arguably one of the most challenging and disappointingAndrew Bowen
The Vienna Syria talks are progressing, but the critical question of Assad’s future remains a deep point of disagreement. While Riyadh’s efforts in organizing the opposition are making important gains, the timeline set out in the recent U.N. resolution is largely unrealistic. At the same time, Moscow and Tehran are continuing to surge forward in trying to buttress Assad’s crumbling regime. Washington naively thought that Russia and Iran would be incentivized to reach an agreement due to the costs of their military campaigns. In reality, even without Assad, Iran has effectively built an entrenched deep state in Syria. Humanitarian access continues to be limited and President Assad’s barrel bombing of Syrian civilians continues.
Syria’s debilitating civil war also continues to reach far beyond its borders, even as far as Europe which faces one of the largest refugee crises since the end of the Second World War. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq continue to bear the costs of the civil war. No real path exists yet for their large refugee communities to return home. It’s a positive step that Lebanon may soon close to reaching an agreement on a president, but these states continue to face deep political, economic, and security challenges which will likely be exacerbated further as the civil war further grinds on.
Absence of American leadership
In the face of these challenges, President Obama remained cautiously disinterested as his “strategy” for protecting America’s global interests and the security of the homeland crumbled around him. Obama repeatedly ignored warnings that Syria’s collapse would endanger the region’s stability and the U.S.’s interests. Despite the President’s surprise about ISIS’s rise and its threat to the U.S. homeland, he has yet to recalibrate his strategy. Tilting to Asia has always been more appealing than having to exercise global leadership on complex challenges, which he liberally threw on his predecessor.
In the one area where he chose to exercise U.S. leadership, Obama became consumed in the belief that engagement can change regions and quickly solve global challenges. Obama’s wholehearted embrace of a nuclear deal hasn’t produced the change in Iran’s engagement with the U.S. that he expected. Obama also made the wrong bet that Iran could be a partner against ISIS.
At the same time, Obama failed to effectively engage America’s long-standing allies in the region about the nuclear negotiations until mid-way through the negotiations. Despite making commitments at Camp David that his administration would support these states to counter-Iranian aggression, Obama has left regional leaders questioning when he will ever follow through with those commitments.
2016: a year of transition?
With Obama’s presidency in its final year and a new U.S. President elected in November 2016, Washington’s role in the region will be increasingly a transitory one. Obama will unlikely make any major shifts in his engagement with the region. He will continue his engagement with Iran despite Tehran’s proclivity already to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and its aggressive behavior. His administration will continue to pursue a low-resourced anti-ISIS strategy, barring a major attack on the U.S. homeland. Obama will hope that the Vienna talks will continue to the end of his presidency. By supporting the new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, he effectively accepted that President Assad will stay in power in some form until the end of his presidency and that Syria will be his successor’s challenge. He will hope that Libya will reach a settlement. It’s unlikely that his commitments to his allies will change that substantially despite his rhetorical promises.
2016 has the potential to be a year of transitions if the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya can be put on a more sustainable diplomatic path (already, there is a modicum of progress on Libya and Syria, despite the need for careful skepticism). Next year will be one to watch to see how Iran engages and acts in the region as it experiences the benefits of economic investment. Next year is also a moment of transition as the region’s new leaders further build on their important economic reforms in the face of lower oil prices.
Pessimistically, 2016 could be quite similar to 2015 if the few positive gains of this past year aren’t built on.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.